Last weekend I had the chance to see two great young quarterbacks in Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman, the latter of whom captured another comeback win. But I also got to see two very good quarterbacks of the defense in the game, unheralded middle linebackers James Laurinaitis and Barrett Ruud.
Both linebackers carry the full trust and confidence of their defensive coordinators and head coaches. Raheem Morris serves both roles for the Bucs, and he will often signal multiple defenses to Ruud, who has the freedom to pick the right defense to fit the situation. Ruud also has the freedom to make checks if the offense presents something different or he doesn’t like what he sees.
Although he’s a second-year player, Laurinaitis has the same ability and freedom to eye offenses and make the adjustments and get the Rams into the proper alignment.
I witnessed both Laurinaitis and Ruud doing exactly this in the matchup between the Bucs and Rams, matching wits with the young quarterbacks across the line of scrimmage and making the necessary changes.
What’s intriguing about these linebackers is that they’re very good football players who don’t get recognized a lot. Ruud had a career-high 205 tackles last season and has led the Bucs for three straight seasons. Laurinaitis wasn’t the first linebacker drafted in his class, but he led all rookie linebackers with 160 tackles his first season.
So what’s missing from the equation?
For these players to gain the recognition that they are elite players, what’s missing are what I call “splash” plays: the plays that turn games around. The plays that make you think of Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher or Jon Beason. It’s these plays — interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for a loss — that are missing from their repertoires.
Laurinaitis and Ruud are very effective players. They control their defenses, put teammates in the right spots and make winning plays that don’t always get attention. But until they make more splash plays, these very good players won’t be thought of as elite players by the average fan.
Even so, keep your eyes on these two. They’re invaluable to their teams, and — trust me — their coaches don’t want anyone else.
– Charles Davis