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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't used to this. Not only is the team 1-7 (its worst start since 1996), but the Bucs defense currently ranks 29th overall in the NFL. That's a far cry from the Monte Kiffin era, where the Bucs ranked in the top 10 in total defense in 11 of his 13 seasons in Tampa Bay.
New Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates and his players have fallen under heavy criticism as a result of inconsistent and poor play through the first half of the 2009 regular season. No one has discriminated either, evidenced by the fact that the criticism has worked its way from the defensive line to the linebackers all the way back to the team's secondary.
One of the players fans have taken issue with is Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is having a productive season, but isn't living up to the expectations some had for him this year.
How has Ruud fared through eight games in Bates' defensive scheme? That's the question we attempt to answer in this Pewter Insider column.
RUUD'S RESPONSIBILITIES HAVE CHANGED IN NEW SCHEME In order to fairly gauge how Ruud has performed through the first half of the season, it's important to have a thorough understanding of his responsibilities in Bates' scheme, which have changed quite a bit from his playing days in the Kiffin's Cover 2 system.
Ruud, 26, led the Bucs in tackles two straight seasons heading in to 2009. That was quite a feat considering he unseated 11-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Brooks as the team's leading tackler.
The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Ruud was quite active in the trenches and even against the pass because Kiffin's system allowed him to do that. Last year, Kiffin's defensive scheme oftentimes called for the defensive linemen to get up field and penetrate the offensive backfield, allowing Ruud to read off that and make tackles.
One of Ruud's primary responsibilities was to read the running back and mirror him. If the back made a cut Ruud made a cut with him. But in Bates' defense, the responsibilities for Ruud and the team's defensive tackles have changed.
"It's a little bit different responsibilities for them," Ruud said of the defensive tackles. "In Monte's defense the defensive tackles were more up field penetrators and my job was more to mirror the back and fall back off them and make tackles. In this defense, the linebackers are the ones that are shooting the gaps and the D-linemen are the ones falling back and making the tackles. We've almost kind of flipped roles in the two defenses. I think all of us are getting better adjusted to playing it that way."
Old habits are tough to break, and although he leads the team in tackles, Ruud admits he initially resisted some of the things Bates requires him to do in the defense.
"In this defense Coach Bates wants me running more to my gap. I was a little stubborn about it at the beginning because I like to make tackles," said Ruud. "I'd try to get in there on more plays. In the eight-man fronts especially, it's better for the defense if everybody is hitting their gaps. Coach Bates wants to kind of form a wall. Especially in the eight-man fronts, I've been working on getting more downhill. Sometimes you honestly have to turn your brain off. You see a back cut and you want to go back there, but you know your job is to hit this gap and seal it off. I was stubborn about that early on, but I'm definitely getting a better feel for what he wants to get done, especially in the eight-man fronts."
Ruud's teammates acknowledge the fact that his transition hasn't been an easy one, but maintain he's playing better than some believe.
"Barrett is having a great year," said Bucs LB Adam Hayward. "The reason he stood out more last year was because we were in the Cover 2, so everything was pushed to him. That's not necessarily the case in this defense. He has a gap he has to stay in, so sometimes he has to turn things back to Geno [Hayes], Quincy [Black] or myself. The change in the defense kind of changed his responsibilities. He's still leading the team in tackles and he's doing his job.
"Coming from our old defense we were a lot more lateral and we had multiple gaps instead of just one gap. We could play the A gap all the way to the C gap, and sometimes Barrett was responsible for all those gaps, so he'd have to play sideways to play the ball. In this defense a lot of it is just one gap. When they hike the ball you run like your hair is on fire to that gap. That's what Coach Bates wants us to do. Barrett is getting more comfortable at it. He's just got to get more comfortable with it."
Perhaps Ruud's resistance to his new responsibilities helps explain why Tampa Bay's run defense has played so poorly through eight games, allowing over 150 yards per contest and ranking 30th in the NFL, or maybe not.
Sources suggested to Pewter Report that many of Tampa Bay's run defense problems stem from play along the defensive line, particularly at the defensive tackle position.
If the defensive tackles are supposed to be notching the tackles, they're not doing a good job of it. Consider the fact that Ruud has notched 105 tackles through eight games. Bucs defensive tackles Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims and rookie Roy Miller have combined for less tackles (92) than Ruud alone, and have just two tackles for a loss. And Miller, a situational player, leads both Hovan and Sims in tackles this season.
"This defensive line is huge in this defense because if the D-line isn't on their game and they're not keeping the linemen off us it's tough for us to get to our gap because the O-line has free release and they're sealing us off, which is where the huge gashes come from," said Hayward. "When they're on top of it and dominating it makes our job easy because we know where the gap is, so we can fly in there untouched."
When asked about Ruud, Sims went out of his way to defend him while acknowledging that the defensive tackle play needs to improve.
"I don't know what type of numbers people were looking for," Sims said of Ruud. "Earlier in the year we were feeling out a lot. Barrett has had a great year. He's been productive. From what I'm seeing Barrett still is being the leader he's always been. He's grinding everyday. It's a learning process learning a new defense, and I think it's starting to come together. Coach Bates came in here with his style of play, but once he got here he saw what type of players he had. He has been trying to integrate what we did before and what he wants us to do now. We want to attack, but be gap-sound. Sometimes it takes time to make that type of adjustment.
"What [the defensive tackles] need to do is get up the field quicker and force those running backs to make quicker decisions. We didn't do that earlier in the year, but we're starting to do that more and have more of an attacking mentality. We just need to make more plays up front. If we do that it allows the people behind us to make plays, and that includes the linebackers."
SPLASH PLAYS MISSING FROM RUUD'S GAME Ruud led the team in tackles two straight seasons, so it's no surprise he's Tampa Bay's tackle leader again midway through the 2009 season. It's interesting to note that not only is he Tampa Bay's leading tackler, Ruud's tackle total is nearly double of the team's second-leading tackler, Geno Hayes, who has 63 takedowns.
However, one aspect of Ruud's game that has dropped off significantly is the amount of splash plays he's made this year compared to previous seasons.
From 2007-08, Ruud notched four interceptions, three sacks, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in addition to his impressive tackle totals.
But through eight games in 2009, Ruud has just one quarterback pressure, one interception and four passes defensed. There are also 10 different players on Tampa Bay's roster who have recorded at least one tackle for a loss. Ruud isn't one of them.
"I feel like I've done my job pretty well, but I haven't made as many big plays as I'd like to," said Ruud. "I think those will come. You have to be patient with that because usually when you're searching for things or trying to do too much that's when you start making mistakes. This defense doesn't really lend itself to making as many big plays, especially in the passing game since I'm matching up more with people and not seeing the ball thrown. But at the same time you're taking a lot of things away and opening things up for the defensive line, especially if you can get the quarterback to hold the ball. The point of the defense is to get the quarterback to hold the ball and give the D-line the time to get there."
While the splash plays are missing from his game, Ruud is on pace to record a career-best 210 tackles this year. The Bucs are hoping Ruud can continue to wrack up the tackles while finding a way to contribute more big plays as the second half of the season unfolds.
"In eight games Barrett has over 100 tackles. You'd be hard pressed to find more than about three or four guys that have done that in the league this year midway through the season," said Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry. "In regards to the splash plays, those are plays that come when a player has a comfort level in a system. I don't care if you're a rookie or an eight-year vet, it takes a while.
"He's still being productive, but we need, and he and we expect, Barrett to be a splash-play guy. With the more he plays and the more reps he gets under his belt those will come, no doubt about it."
MIA IN OTAS This time last year Ruud was considered a Pro Bowl-caliber player. He wasn't voted to the league's all-star game, but Ruud entered the 2009 offseason with the goal of becoming one of the league's highest-paid linebackers.
Ruud, who is in the final year of his rookie contract with the Bucs, wanted to convey that message to Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, whose team had more salary cap room than any other club in the NFL at the start of free agency.
After participating in Tampa Bay's bonus, three-day mini-camp in April, Ruud opted to skip most of the Bucs' organized team activities, which were voluntary, but perhaps necessary for players attempting to learn a new defensive scheme under Bates.
"I'm not trying to make an excuse, but the reality is Barrett came into training camp four months behind because he wasn't here," said Barry. "We have a belief that the offseason is important. We accomplish a lot of things. When you miss that, and then complicate matters because you've missed a new system, he basically went to training camp as a rookie. I'm not trying to make excuses for him, and I know he wouldn't want me to, but I do think that's affected him."
When asked if he regretted skipping out on the OTAs or if he felt his absence from those workouts negatively impacted his play this season, Ruud suggested that was not the case.
"I don't think it made a difference for me. I actually felt pretty comfortable in training camp," said Ruud. "It's one of those things where you get into games you start seeing the different ways teams attack you, so that's when you get better. In offseason workouts and training camp you're going up against the same offense each day, and I felt really comfortable against our offense. But it's different when you're seeing new offenses each week, and that's when you start to really learn the defense inside and out."
A SLICE OF HUMBLE PIE IN LONDON One of the reasons why Tampa Bay's defense has struggled against the run this year is because of missed tackles.
Those gaffes have contributed to the Bucs surrendering 163 yards per contest via the ground game, including the 200-plus rushing yard performances by Buffalo, the New York Giants and Carolina.
The Bucs missed 24 tackles as a team in Buffalo, but that contest was actually one of Ruud's best games on the year. Ruud has missed just eight tackles (average of one per game) this season, which is not a lot, but isn't something that sits well with the 2005 second-round draft pick.
"I give him [expletive] about it because Barrett had 18 tackles in that game and three missed tackles," Barry said of Ruud's performance in Buffalo. "I said, ‘There aren't many guys that go through an NFL game that can say that had over 20 tackles.' Barrett did play well in that game, but the only thing he was thinking about on that Monday after was the three tackles he missed. That's just Barrett. Is he playing well? Yeah, he is, but before I can even get on him about anything he can do better he's already telling me about it. When a player is harder on himself than the coaches are, you've got something there. That might be his best attribute."
The game Ruud regrets most is Tampa Bay's 35-7 loss to New England in London. The former Nebraska standout didn't have a good outing, according to his standards, and was very hard on himself in the days that followed that loss, which was the Bucs' seventh of the year.
However, Ruud said he could benefit from that poor performance in the long run.
"I think a lot of the missed tackles earlier in the season could be attributed to guys not being sure of what they were doing in the new defense," said Ruud. "This last game against Green Bay, we didn't miss nearly as many tackles as [Buffalo], but the ones we missed we were in great position to make those tackles and we need to do that. Buffalo was a nightmare game, but I actually played okay in that game. My nightmare game came against New England. I hadn't had one of those in a few years, but it was good for me, too. It humbles you a little bit. The game always finds a way to humble you a little bit when you think you're doing better than you are."
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT Over the second half of the season, Bates wants to see Ruud attack his gaps in a quicker and more aggressive manner, which could help Tampa Bay's defense perform better than it did over the first half of the year.
"I think the system, he's made a lot of production, made a lot of plays," Bates said of Ruud. "He's tremendous as far as getting us in the right defenses, getting us in the right checks. He does a great job of it. I think he's getting more comfortable, I think the week [bye] off and just getting the chance to reevaluate and everything, I think he's going to get better and better this second half. Not that he's not had a good first half.
"But I think learning the system and getting more downhill, you know he's been a lateral linebacker instead of a downhill linebacker, which he has to be at times, with what we do."
Ruud's comfort level in Bates' defense hasn't been the only issue. He's also attempting to get comfortable playing with the people around him.
Tampa Bay's defense featured eight new starters when the 2009 regular season began. That included outside linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, who hadn't started a game in the NFL before this season began.
Ruud wouldn't use that as an excuse, but it was – and might still be – a legitimate circumstance when attempting to explain why Ruud has had a productive, but quiet season in 2009.
"I'm a lot more comfortable from when I started in it," said Ruud. "I'm starting to get the hang of [the defense] a lot better, but time is going to prove a lot with this defense. Just like with Monte's scheme, you start seeing what teams want to do against it and see how they attack it. That's what I'm figuring out now. The more games you play the more comfortable you get. That goes for any defense you play in."
Ruud doesn't take issue with his critics. The Bucs coaches will tell you he's his own worst critic. Ruud knows he has room for improvement, and has a few aspects of his game he wants to build on over the second half of Tampa Bay's season.
"I have a lot to improve on," said Ruud. "I want to improve in match coverage, being tighter on your man, whether they're backs or tight ends. In the running game, I have to deal with linemen a lot more, so I'm running more downhill and I have to be better with my hands. Last year I was kind of slapping guys' hands down and staying away from trash. Now when I attack the line of scrimmage I have to use my hands more. Those are the two things I'm working on most."
While Ruud plans to progress in those two particular areas, Barry has challenged Ruud to improve another aspect of his game, which is good, but not quite where Ruud and the Bucs want – and need it to be.
"Barrett sees everything and is such an aware guy," said Barry. "It could be a 10-play drive when he comes off the field he can tell you everything that just happened. That's a good thing. I don't mind that. But sometimes when you have a player like that they can spend too much time thinking things through instead of just cutting loose. ‘Just let go.' I've been on Barrett and the whole group about that. ‘Let's get rid of the waiting and indecisiveness. Shoot your gun.' I'm challenging Barrett and all of those guys to do on a consistent basis over the last half of the season.
"Does he have to play better? No doubt about it. But I don't think our woes can be placed on Barrett Ruud's shoulders."