Friday, March 5, 2010

On Barrett Ruud

Over the past season there has been a fair share of Barrett Ruud bashing. I will be honest and say that Ruud isn't exactly what I consider a prototypical middle linebacker but I think most of the main criticisms of him are bogus and borne of a fundamental lack of understanding about the role he plays in our defense. For that reason I wanted to debunk one of the most wide spread talking points against him, the one about him not making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

First off every Bucs fan should try to burn all the images of Barrett Ruud from the first 10 games out of your memory. The scheme simply sucked and it put him at a disadvantage in that he was called upon to take on centers and guards as if he was in a 3-4 defense and that is not really his strong point. And because it isn't likely that we are going to go back to that scheme or a 3-4 defense at least in the next season, that's not really a fair way to judge the value he brings to the team.

Now here in Tampa we have been blessed and somewhat spoiled to have some really good middle linebackers over the past 15 years or so. Hardy Nickerson or "Hardware" as we called him was a very physical and very intimidating presence in the middle our defense and he was also athletic enough to cover the deep middle in our Tampa 2 coverage. After Hardy we had Shelton Quarles who was a little more athletic if a little less intimidating in leading our defense in the middle. Now we have Ruud who just plays the game some what differently from both of those guys but is none the less still effective. He matches up well with tight ends, he is able to cover that deep middle, and he doesn't miss very many tackles. Still some folks around Tampa would have you to believe that Ruud isn't a playmaker or I guess they want to infer that he is afraid to come down hill and hit somebody. Well I for one watch all the games and I have seen nothing of the sort. And since players can't very well combat these criticisms themselves, I feel its important that people know the truth.

Lets talk about the role of the middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 defense. First and foremost, yes they have to play the run and fill their gap, but they also have to cover the deep middle/seam routes on the pass. It sounds like an easy concept, but in practice its pretty damn hard. Especially when you factor in having to react to a play action pass. In Tampa 2 our Safeties split the deep section of the passing zone into two halves. The most vulnerable part of this section is always the middle because in Tampa 2 the safeties split and pay more of their attention to what the wideouts are doing, making sure to cover the corners' backs on any deep balls. Nowadays their job is even harder because of the 5 yard chuck rule because the corners generally aren't able to get the good reroute like they use to and force the wide receivers further inside where its easier for the safeties to help cover them. That means more wide receivers are able to get off the line with an outside move and get up the sideline on go routes. In turn the safeties have to be ready to get over the top of any sideline deep route thus leaving a relatively big piece of real estate open right down the middle of the field.

If your middle linebacker gets sucked into the line on playaction pass in this situation, then a tight end or slot receiver will basically have free reign to burn you for 20 or more yards a pop right down the seam. THAT is why there are times when you see Barrett Ruud hesitate before he comes down hill. He is trying to discern whether its really a run or if he needs to get back in pass coverage. And if you noticed the seam route wasn't really a pass that hurt us a lot this year.

I know some folks pine for the days when we had Shelton Quarles manning the middle, and one thing is for sure and that is I am a HUGE fan of Quarles from all the way back when we played together. But some of those same people probably don't realize that Quarles only had 5 tackles for a loss his final year as a starter. And when I say only, that's not a knock against Quarles, its more an illustration about the position both he and Ruud play. Tackles for loss aren't really put at a premium for a middle linebacker in our version of a Tampa 2. That is more the job of the Will linebacker which is why you saw Derrick Brooks make so many plays behind the line in his career and why Geno Hayes had more than his fair share last year in his first full season as a starter.

Now I would say that all things being equal Quarles was probably a better overall athlete than Ruud but one thing is almost undeniable and that is that Ruud is exceptional in coverage. Just compare his 16 passes defensed and his 5 interceptions in his past 3 years as a starter with Quarles' 8 passes defensed and 0 interceptions in his last 3 years as a starter. Again, that's not to say that Ruud is better than Quarles, its just to say that the guy has put in work. And some folks should at least acknowledge that.

As far as I can tell this talking point is a reaction to people who point out Ruuds impressive tackle totals as a starter. For instance one year Ruud reportedly had over 200 tackles from the middle linebacker position. So instead of giving him credit for being a productive player in that regard, some folks have decided they can just dismiss all those tackles by saying they happened too far down the field. Of course there are no statisticians that track that kind of thing so its a hard talking point to refute. But all I need are my two eyes so allow me to call bullshit on that.

To be honest with you when it comes to being physical, I have seen Ruud really rock some fullbacks on iso plays. An iso is what some people refer to as a fullback lead where the fullback goes through the hole first to try to create space and the tailback follows behind him and tries to cut off his block to get yardage inside. We used to call it an attitude play because you can watch the fullback and the linebacker he is taking on to see which one of them is going to be the hammer and which is going to be the nail. As a matter of fact if a team runs enough of those plays you might well either see the fullback slow down a bit, or tipping as we call it, because they are tired of being pounded into oblivion, or you might see the linebacker all of a sudden try to go around the block instead of through it because their shoulders are probably on fire. Ruud takes on that block the same way from the first play of the game through the last. I won't say he wins every single collision but he for damn sure wins his fair share.

So as you can tell now this talking point about tackles for losses is a helluva lot more complex than many area sports pundits would have you believe. But there is at least one legitimate criticism of Ruud that I have and I don't mind sharing it with you.

I am a guy who believes you have to play defense with a lot of emotion, that emotion usually being pissed off. When I watch a middle linebacker I don't want to see him just make a tackle, I want to see him try to tear a guy's head off. Whether its behind the line or a tackle after a five yard gain I want to see that middle linebacker get a guy down on the ground as if he just said something foul about his mama. Now that just isn't the kind of linebacker Ruud is, and likely isn't the kind he ever will be. I think week after week Offensive Coordinators fear him a lot more than the running backs on the other teams do. That's because the offensive coordinators know that he will make the tackle if he gets the chance while the running backs know he won't necessarily try to take them out on that tackle. The yardage will still be the same but at times you want to see a running back get up and go back to the huddle in such a way that you can tell that tackle is going to stay on their mind all game. And in truth, as much as I get on Jeremy Trueblood for getting dumb penalties, I for one wouldn't mind Ruud getting a personal foul or two a season, just to send a message.

But here is where I tend differ from other people who it seems spend every other day bashing Barrett Ruud. While I see the area in his game where I feel like he could improve, I ALSO see the areas in his game where he happens to play at a high level. I won't say that Ruud is a Pro Bowler right now or that he is every going to best to ever play the game at that position, but what I WILL say is that for what we ask him to do he is definitely doing a better than average job. And remember, I'm just talking about what he is doing in a physical sense on the field, I didn't even touch on how well he does getting us lined up play after play or his apparently high football IQ

There is an old saying that you never appreciate what you have until its gone. Well if Ruud ends up leaving I have a feeling more than a few Bucs fans will come to understand what that saying means. There might be a few middle linebackers that could play the position better than Ruud here, but certainly no more than a handful. And if you think the teams that those few guys play are are just going to let them walk away you're crazy. And if you think the Glazers are going to break the bank for them then you haven't been paying attention. Bucs fans who are clamoring for a new middle linebacker would do well to remember another old saying.

"Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it."


  1. I've been a big Ruud fan for a while and the only criticism I've had against him was his hesitance in coming to the line on running plays - but I also knew he probably had to read and react and not go in blindly. I don't get the people saying we have to draft a replacement, and I really don't understand people who say McClain needs to go to the Bucs with the 3rd pick.

    Basically, from what I can see Ruud is an above average MLB who is a leader on the defense, and he is far from the weak link in the system.

  2. I think the "green dot" helmet has a lot to do with the perceived lack of attitude. Ruud is the only MLB the Bucs have had that has that form of communications aspect to deal with. That leaves him very little time to do the "Hulk".

    BTW, I doubt anyone who calls him "soft" has ever been hit by Ruud. I wonder if Duece McAlister remembers what hit him...

  3. Thanks Steve,I have been big Ruud fan also without him Hayes and Black would struggle greatly