When right tackle Kenyatta Walker was shelved following Week 3 with knee surgery, he gave incoming rookie Jeremy Trueblood his cellphone number and told him to feel free to call if he needed help with anything.
Depending on how you see it, this may or may not be the best week to take him up on that offer if you are Trueblood.
Walker’s trails with Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers are well documented.
In one notorious four-game span, Walker allowed his nemesis to goat him into eight penalties, many of which were false starts. Peppers had three sacks in a single game against Walker in the team’s first meeting of 2005, and accounted for seven tackles and a sack in a 26-24 Panthers win earlier this season.
But it’s not like Walker has been the only tackle in the league to be tormented by the Carolina bully. You don’t record double-digit sacks in three of your first four seasons in the league by beating one man, although it might seem that way to Bucs fans.
“Ask any tackle in the league that’s going to play number 90 from Carolina and that’s probably going to be the high water mark for his season,” said Bucs offensive line coach Bill Muir. “You’d just assume not play him. That’s an understatement. Jeremy will have his hands full. There’s no question about that.”
Monday night’s game will no doubt be a testing ground for the Bucs’ young tackle. But it won’t be the first time Trueblood has faced somebody of Peppers’ caliber. Two weeks ago, Trueblood did an admirable job defending his quarterback against the league’s active career sack leader, Michael Strahan.
“You know, no disrespect to Strahan, but I think [Peppers] may be a little more athletic,” Trueblood said. “Both are great players and active with their hands but Peppers is definitely more athletic as far as I can tell.”
If size helps, the 6-foot-8, 320-pound Trueblood may have better luck protecting the passer than his predecessor did. He has three inches and 20 pounds on Walker, not to mention incredibly long arms that are often considered a tackle’s best weapon.
Peppers is 6-foot-7, 283 pounds, but moves with the quickness of a man half that size, and there lies the issue. Trueblood will need to get out of his stance quickly and move his feet well if he is to have any type of success.
“I hope [my body] plays to my advantage,” Trueblood said. “ Just because he is a long person himself and he seems to get on people really fast.”
Peppers is currently tied for third in the NFL with eight sacks, but he was held in check in the Panthers’ last two contests against Cincinnati and Dallas. So you would think lining up across from a rookie will have him licking his chops and looking to get into double digits again.
Carolina head coach John Fox addressed that notion during a conference call with the media on Thursday.
“Well, a lot is made of rookie this, rookie that,” Fox said. “You know, we have some rookies starting, too. [Trueblood] is capable. He’s starting in this league.”
Against the Giants, Trueblood received help from time to time with tight ends and running backs chipping on Strahan. As a competitor, he says he doesn’t want to feel like he needs help, but if it’s there, he’ll take it.
“I’m sure they will have some designed things to help him,” Fox said. “But you know, with that said, it doesn’t mean that Julius Peppers is going to be free all day. Those guys get paid, too.”
Peppers has been a thorn in Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s side for some time now, but he certainly has earned his respect.
“I’ve said it before, I do not like Julius Peppers,” Gruden said. “He is a great player and what they ask him to do in their scheme is amazing. And what he is able to do is a credit to him. Not to discount [Mike] Rucker or certainly Kris Jenkins, I don’t want to make them mad either, but Peppers is a hell of a player. He really is.”
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL? The questions being thrown at quarterback Bruce Gradkowski the last week or so haven’t been as much about his arm or his mobility as they have been about his nerves.
Ever since Bucs head coach Jon Gruden alluded to his quarterback’s jitters being the cause for some of the team’s slow starts, the rookie has been under fire about how he plans to control those emotions. Facing the likes of defensive end Julius Peppers and a ferocious Panthers front four certainly can’t help.
“At the beginning of games I think everyone is just a little anxious, a little excited to get out there,” Gradkowski said. “The ball might come out of my hand a little quicker. I think that’s natural for the beginning of the game. If I come out poised and get a couple of first downs, I think I can correct that.”
A rookie. Monday night facing of the league’s most dominating pass rushers — it’s hard to find a bigger stage for a quarterback. But you don’t have to go back very far to see that it’s not impossible for a newcomer to succeed in that environment.
Four weeks ago, the Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart became the first rookie signal caller to start on Monday Night Football since the Tampa Bay’s own Shaun King got the nod against the Minnesota Vikings in 1999. The former Trojan completed 24 of his 42 attempts for 232 yards and two touchdowns in a heartbreaking loss to the Bears.
Unlike Leinart, King emerged victorious in his Monday Night debut, completing 11-of-19 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory over the Vikings
“It was real cool at the time,” King said Thursday of the emotions he felt that night. “Minnesota was such a big rivalry. It was Monday night. It was huge for me.”
A week earlier, King was thrust into action when Trent Dilfer went down with a clavicle injury at Seattle. A year later, also on Monday night, King would drive the Bucs 80 yards in a game-winning drive against the St. Louis Rams. Warrick Dunn’s 1-yard touchdown was the difference maker as the Bucs ran up 446-yards of offense in the 38-35 win.
However, there was one key factor in both of King’s spectacular Monday Night Football victories, the Bucs defense forced turnovers. Against Minnesota, cornerback Donnie Abraham picked off a Jeff George pass on the third play of the game and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. Against St. Louis, the defense picked off Kurt Warner three times.
DÉJÀ VU There are several parallels between King’s first Monday Night Football start and Gradkowski’s upcoming debut. Both are games between bitter conference rivals (remember the Bucs were in the NFC Central at the time and in a playoff race with Minnesota). Both involve rookie quarterbacks from mid-level conferences, MAC (Gradkowski – Toldeo) and Conference USA (King – Marshall). King had to worry about facing one of the league’s most feared pass rushers in the Vikings defensive end John Randle while Gradkowski has to contend with Peppers.
But unlike Gradkowski, King said he never really got nervous before big games, even Monday Night Football. He was known for his composure.
“Seriously, I was always calm,” he said. “In fact, my nickname was Smoothie King.”
When asked if he had any advice for a young rookie about to make his Monday Night Football debut, King said, “Don’t feel like you have to win the game or prove yourself on your first two or three passes.
“As a young player, you’re so excited to show you belong and that you deserve to be there, that it’s easy to make mistakes.
“You know everyone around the league is watching but you just have to calm down and play the first 10 plays like you’re in practice.”
As for a pass rusher like Randle, King said every time he approached the line he made sure he was accounted for.
Technically, this is not the first time Gradkowski is facing the Panthers in live action. He did come in for one play when Chris Simms went down earlier this year, throwing a 16-yard screen pass to Michael Pittman.
INJURY REPORT Bucs running back Michael Pittman (shoulder), along with linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee), defensive ends Simeon Rice (shoulder), defensive tackle Ellis Wyms (ankle) and cornerback Juran Bolden (hips) are all listed as questionable for Monday’s game. None of the aforementioned players practiced Thursday.