No-name No More Unheralded Keith Bulluck and the Tennessee defense stopped Baltimore in its tracks

January 12, 2004

TITANS 20 RAVENS 17

Following his team's 29-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Dec.
7, Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck sat with friends at
a Nashville grill, bemoaning the brutal loss that essentially
doomed his team to a wild card's nomadic January. Without regard
for the player's obvious dejection, a twentysomething
autograph-seeker approached the table and thrust her pen at
Bulluck. "I'll sign," he said finally, "but do you even know who
I am?"

"Well, no," the woman stammered, "but you sort of look like a
player." Watching her walk off with his signature on a Titans
pennant, Bulluck shook his head. "Happens all the time," he said.
"Probably always will--until we make some noise in the playoffs."

That roar was finally heard last Saturday in Baltimore, where the
Titans and the Ravens renewed their blood feud in an AFC
wild-card playoff. As Bulluck stormed off the field following the
Titans' 20-17 win, he bellowed, "We're for real! Buh-leeeve
that!" His outburst was understandable, given what he and his
defensive mates had just accomplished. The Tennessee defense
smothered Baltimore halfback Jamal Lewis (35 yards on 14 carries
after rushing for 2,066 yards in the regular season, second most
in league history), harassed quarterback Anthony Wright (two
costly interceptions) and allowed the Ravens' offense to cross
midfield only twice.

With 4:30 left, Wright found a hole in the Titans' defense,
hitting tight end Todd Heap with a 35-yard TD pass that tied the
score at 17. But with 29 seconds left, Gary Anderson booted a
46-yard field goal that ended Baltimore's five-game winning
streak in the series and sent the Titans to New England to face
the Patriots this Saturday.

Having entered the playoffs with the league's top-ranked rush
defense, some Titans scoffed at midweek suggestions that they
couldn't stop Lewis. "What will they have to do to stop us from
running it down their throats?" Baltimore coach Brian Billick
asked. "Put eight guys in the box, which won't be anything new
for us."

"Well, we loaded the box, but Coach Billick left out the part
where we make plays," said Bulluck, who had a team-high eight
tackles.

Though he's among the NFL's fastest and most athletic
linebackers, Bulluck toils in a scheme that rarely asks him to
rush the passer. "Keith has always been able to do whatever he
wants to on the field, but he's become more patient, less
emotional," says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. "We ask him
to run from sideline to sideline and drop into coverage. He does
it all. Every game he makes a play and I think, How did he do
that?"

Chosen with the 30th pick in the 2000 draft out of Syracuse, the
6'3", 235-pound Bulluck became a starter last season, and he
surprised even his coaches when he led the team with 125 tackles.
This season he was the Titans' top tackler again, with 135, and
was voted to his first Pro Bowl. But he dismisses any talk of
individual honors. "All I care about is the playoffs. And for us,
starting on the road was a blessing in disguise," he said. "The
organization got to exorcise our Baltimore demons, in the Ravens'
house."

The only way to do that was to stop Lewis. Tennessee's defensive
coaches had to tweak their regular scheme, which is based on
aggressive edge-rushing and upfield pursuit, because Lewis could
exploit it with his cut-back ability. Instead of roaming behind
the front four before the snap, Bulluck hovered close to the line
over Baltimore left tackle Jonathan Ogden. And the defensive
front concentrated on filling the running lanes.

"How many players can say they went against a 2,000-yard rusher
and shut him down?" Bulluck said afterward, in a nearly empty
locker room. No response was necessary. --Josh Elliott

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS REMEMBER THIS TITAN When Bulluck wasn't helping to stop Lewis, hecontained backs like Chester Taylor (below).

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)