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What the 'Backer Sees

Dec. 01, 2008
Dec. 01, 2008

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Dec. 1, 2008

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What the 'Backer Sees

What makes an NFL All-Pro tick? SI got inside the clockwork mind of Bucs veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks as he faced his biggest challenge of the 2008 season: stopping Adrian Peterson

THE BIGGEST playof an NFL game can happen at any time—in the fourth quarter (David Tyree'sagainst-the-helmet catch in last year's Super Bowl) or in the first (the shotthat blew out Tom Brady's knee in Week 1). Or in the third, which was the caseon Nov. 16 in Tampa, when the Vikings lined up for a fourth-and-one at their49-yard line with 5:58 left and the score tied at 13. Ninety plays had precededthis one, and 47 would come after it. On the 91st, the two main characters inthis NFL minidrama, playing against each other for the first and possibly onlytime, would determine the outcome. ¬∂ On one side: Minnesota's second-yearphenom Adrian Peterson, 6'1" and 217 pounds, lined up in a power-runformation behind quarterback Gus Frerotte and alongside fellow running backChester Taylor, with seven horses poised up front, presumably to clear a pathfor Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher.

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2008 issue

And on the other:the Buccaneers' 14-year veteran outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, 6 feet and235, set up just behind the defensive line in the A gap across from theVikings' center and left guard, eager to make the 2,131st tackle of hisillustrious career. He was sure the electrifying Peterson would get the ball.But where? Up the gut? Pitched wide? Brooks, at once one of the game's mostinstinctive and most studious players, couldn't know that.

After the snapBrooks saw Frerotte fake a handoff to Taylor, who plowed into the line.Peterson sprinted to his right, into the flat, with linebacker Barrett Ruud inpursuit. Over and over in the days before the game, Brooks had recited a mantrato his teammates and to himself: He runs from color. Peterson, he meant,prefers to run from—rather than through—players in opposite-colored jerseys. Hehates crowds, and no back since Barry Sanders has been better at avoiding them.Once Peterson does get into space, he's gone.

But Brookscouldn't leave his gap just yet, because he had to be sure Frerotte wouldn'troll out or dump a screen to Taylor. On the fourth step of Frerotte's drop,Brooks saw Peterson make his burst upfield, with Ruud facing him. Brooks knewthat spelled trouble. Peterson covers the 40 in 4.36 seconds, Ruud in 4.7, andRuud still hadn't turned to run with him.

"I had theangle," Peterson said later. "I cut under [Ruud] real quick, and Iexploded upfield. There was nobody in front of me."

In a flashPeterson had opened a two-yard lead on Ruud, and there was no corner or safetyover the top. With an accurate pass this was a touchdown. A lock touchdown fora seven-point lead.

On Frerotte'sfifth step back he set up to throw and was nearly sacked by cornerback RondeBarber, who blitzed from Frerotte's right. Brooks had taken off by then, infull angled sprint toward a spot 15 yards downfield in hopes of catchingPeterson.

The runningback's lead on Ruud was three yards. Then four.

Go! Go! Go!Brooks told himself. Peterson's getting the ball!

Brooks never sawthe pass from Frerotte. He didn't have to. Four yards shy of intersecting withPeterson, he looked at the running back's eyes. Brooks's former linebackerscoach Lovie Smith (now running the Bears) taught him never to turn to find theball; that wasted energy and precious movement. Seeing the receiver's eyes wassufficient, and Peterson's were getting big. Very big, as they followed the arcof this potentially game-turning pass.

Brooks picked upanother telltale sign: Peterson's hands. Now, within a long stride of histarget, Brooks saw him reach back for the slightly underthrown pass, cuppinghis hands to his left side. The linebacker's only chance was to use another ofSmith's techniques. Right now, more than anything, he needed to channel all ofLovie's know-how.

Now! Brooksthought. Go for it now!

BROOKS'SPREPARATION for Minnesota did not begin five days before the game, with hisweekly Tuesday-night phone call from linebackers coach Gus Bradley, who toldhim, "Peterson's mind-set is not to turn a four-yard play into a 10-yardplay. It's to turn four yards into 95." No, the preparation began 49 monthsearlier, in the den of his north Tampa house, when for the first time hewatched Peterson run. For years Brooks has mentally catalogued the moves andtendencies of college players he might have to tackle one day. On that Octoberafternoon in 2004, Peterson, then a 19-year-old Oklahoma freshman, burned Texasfor 225 yards. On his third carry of the game he broke off a 44-yardmisdirection play.

He runs fromcolor.

It may besurprising that a 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker would study players who are stillthree or four years from making it to the NFL. But even now, the day before hefaced the Vikings, the 35-year-old Brooks settled into his den again to watchFlorida quarterback Tim Tebow and running back Percy Harvin in the Gators' routof South Carolina. "Some people relax or get recharged by going to Europeor going to the beach," Brooks said. "For me it's studying young kids.The one edge I feel no one will ever have over me is the mental edge of knowingplayers."

Brooks allowed SIto view how he prepared for the matchup with Minnesota and how he analyzed thegame afterward. The process revealed what it takes to succeed as an NFLlinebacker: Discipline is vital, particularly against an opponent as gifted andunpredictable as Peterson. But instinct is just as important. No matter howmuch video Brooks watches each week—12 to 15 hours on average—come game dayhe's going to see some plays he hadn't prepared for.

Brooks's routineis to look at an opponent's passing game on Tuesday. On Wednesday he'll studyhis own defense's practice tape to look for plays the unit has to improve on,study big gainers by the opposing offense and watch halves from two of theopponent's games, preferably against defenses similar to Tampa Bay's. The restof the week he picks and chooses film he thinks will be helpful. This week, forinstance, he viewed some Eagles plays from 2005, when Vikings coach BradChildress was Philadelphia's offensive coordinator.

At theBuccaneers' plush offices and training facility, a few long spirals fromRaymond James Stadium, the quietest postpractice study nook on most Wednesdaysis the special teams room. Four days before the kickoff against Minnesota,Brooks, still in practice clothes, sat at the coach's desk, the better tocontrol the remote clicker and watch plays over and over. He wanted to seePeterson through the course of a game—not just in cutups showing run afterrun—and to observe the tendencies of the Vikings' offense, which came to lifeon the 10-foot-wide drop-down screen.

"See," hesaid, after watching first quarter footage of Minnesota's Sept. 21 game againstthe Panthers. "I want to get the flow of their offense, and this is whatyou wouldn't expect: They come out throwing. Look—it's like eight of the first10 plays are passes."

Quietly, Brooksasked, "Why? Why? I don't know why they do this, but they do it. We knowthey'll get it to 28 [Peterson]. It's a matter of when."

Three moretendencies: Frerotte's only downfield throws went to wide receiver BernardBerrian. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe—who would be Brooks's assignment onoccasion—ran patterns almost exclusively up the seam, and Minnesota didn't runbehind him. And when fullback Jim Kleinsasser was on the field, Peterson alwaysran to his side. No decoying there.

Brooks foundhimself fascinated not only by the way Peterson ran but also by when he ran."Now they're down 10--0. What'll they do?" he said during thesecond-quarter footage. Here came Peterson: around left end for seven, behindleft tackle Bryant McKinnie for two, up the gut for two and a first down,jiggling around left end and avoiding three tacklers before lunging ahead forsix. Minnesota was rolling. "You see most teams mix it up. But this onecomes out throwing, and when they get in trouble, they run. How many teams dothat?"

Ditto versus theLions on Oct. 12: The Vikings called eight passes in the first 12 plays."It shows me they've got confidence in Frerotte, and Childress wants tomake an explosive play early."

On one 13-yardrun by Peterson against Detroit, Brooks saw clearly why the 23-year-old backmakes yards: He probes for a hole, and if he doesn't find an opening, he'squick enough to pull back and hit other holes until he gets one he likes. Andunlike Sanders, who annually led the NFL in rushes for a loss, Peterson knowswhen to plunge for two instead of gambling that he'll discover a better routeby looking longer. Over and over Brooks watches a play in which Peterson teststwo holes and then bursts through a five-yard-wide gulf to gain 13. "See,Ernie [Sims, the Lions' linebacker] lost the ball here—you can't do thatagainst Peterson. And man, look at this cut upfield by this kid. Just look. Butno color. The kid runs from color. He'll find the hole. That's why we've got totackle his outside leg. Don't let him get that push upfield."

There's aprinciple in the NFL that doesn't come up much on the TV studio shows, butBrooks knows its importance against Minnesota: gap discipline. It means thatthe players on the defensive front—most often, Tampa would have seven or eightmen near the line against the Vikings—must fight to keep from getting pushedout of their assigned lanes. If in his video study Brooks saw Peterson probinguntil he found an open gap once he saw it 30 times. The Bucs' goal would be toerect a wall against Peterson. Let him juke all he wants, but don't create anopening by being a hero and lunging to make a one-on-one tackle. Stand firm andlet the system work.

The Vikings hadwon four of their last five. Tampa Bay was 6--3 but inconsistent on offense.Brooks knew this would be a tight game, and one play could win or lose it. TheBucs couldn't afford to make a big mistake against Peterson.

GAME DAY. Brooks,the defensive captain, stressed two themes to his troops: They'll come outthrowing. And Peterson runs from color.

The first fiveVikings plays were passes. On the fifth Brooks, running with Shiancoe justoutside the right seam, got a hand on the tight end's torso as a Frerotte passsettled in. Brooks couldn't wrestle the ball free. Good throw, good catch, butthe Tampa Bay linebacker knew his defense was counting on him to make thatplay. Gain of 23.

Two plays laterthe system worked. On second-and-six, with eight men in the box, Peterson trieda simple dive through the gap between center and right guard. It was just aprobe, not a commitment, and the presence of linemen Kevin Carter and ChrisHovan and linebacker Cato June in the space of two gaps made Peterson pivothard on his right foot and sprint straight left. He thought he saw the makingsof a hole between left guard and tackle, the B gap. Brooks, spying Peterson,tried not to get caught up in the traffic. As the back lunged through the hole,right end Gaines Adams came off McKinnie to hit him low, and Brooks smashed himhigh from the side. Gain of six. Could have been worse.

Later in thefirst quarter Peterson showed why he's peerless. The Bucs had eight men in thebox on first down at the Vikings' 35. Ronde Barber's responsibility was the gapoutside right end. Peterson took a handoff and ran straight up the gut. Inrushed Barber. Instead of diving at his outside leg, which would have forcedPeterson back into the jam in the middle, Barber went for his waist. Not manybacks could have done what Peterson did next. Sanders for sure, Gale Sayersmaybe. Peterson spun out of Barber's grasp, did a 360 without so much as astumble and steamed around left end, where he had no one in front of him. Gainof 22.

"Comeon!" Brooks said in the huddle to everyone, not just Barber. "Tacklehis outside leg!"

With four minutesleft in the half and Minnesota driving at the Tampa 37, the Bucs' defensestarted changing the momentum. Chester Taylor went in motion from the right andtook a reverse handoff from Frerotte. As Taylor sprinted around left end, sixBucs on the defensive front and one safety all moved with him. But Brooks,who'd set up in the gap between the center and the left guard, didn't. He'dnever seen this kind of reverse in all his game prep, so immediately he lookedfor clues. Funny how Frerotte isn't just backing away from the line ofscrimmage; he's moving to his right with a purpose. Brooks, against the grain,moved with him.

"I'd like tosay we talked about this play or had it in the tip sheet for the game,"Bradley would later say. "But we knew nothing. I watched it unfold andnever saw it before. I don't understand how Derrick knew."

Brooks: "Isniffed it out. Something just smelled wrong. Frerotte wouldn't be moving rightlike that unless something was up."

Something was. Itwas a double reverse, with the fleet wideout Sidney Rice taking a pitch fromTaylor then coming back around. Brooks broke into an angled sprint to his left.Frerotte flailed at the linebacker, missing the block, and Rice, exposed andunwilling to get splattered for a loss, threw the ball away into the end zone.Minnesota settled for a field goal on the drive, and it was 13--6 at halftime.By the time the Vikings got the ball back midway through the third quarter, theBucs had tied the game at 13.

Which brings usback to fourth-and-one with 5:58 left in the third quarter. The 91st play ofthe game. The play of the game.

I NEVER SAWBrooks till the last second," said Peterson. "I don't know where hecame from."

Peterson eyed thearcing pass and reached for it at precisely the Bucs' 35. Brooks was at the36-and-a-half at that moment, with Frerotte's pass maybe eight feet above theirheads. Field judge Buddy Horton was 12 yards farther back, and he was shieldedby Peterson's body from the four hands that would try to make the play.

Smith had taughtBrooks early in his career that on plays when he can't turn to see the ball, hemust try to divine the split second that the pass will reach the receiver'shands and knock the hands away as the ball drops in.

A millisecondbefore Frerotte's pass was to hit Peterson's hands, Brooks lunged to close thefour-foot gap and raked Peterson's left hand down. "Now all I could do wastry to catch the ball with my right hand," said Peterson. "It happenedso fast, but I was pretty confident I could do that."

The ball struckBrooks's left wrist, Peterson's gut and the crook of Peterson's right arm allsimultaneously. But because Peterson had to slow up ever so slightly for thepass and because Brooks's left hand got tied up with Peterson's left hand,their bodies got closer, and Brooks brought his right arm over the top, as ifhe were dunking a basketball. Brooks knocked the ball to the ground as runningback and linebacker fell together at the Bucs' 27.

Ruud, who'd beenbeaten by Peterson, screamed, "Thank you! Thank you!" as he ran tocongratulate Brooks.

Peterson yelledto the ref, "Flag! Flag! Pass interference!" and was joined in hischorus by the Minnesota bench.

No flag. Howcould Horton have seen it? He was screened. And it happened so fast; was itreally interference, or did the ball and Brooks's hands arrive at the sametime? Brooks remembered another old trick he'd learned early in his career."If you think you might get called for something," he said, "don'tlook at the ref to see, because that tells him you're guilty. I neverlook."

"CreditDerrick," Peterson said. "Veteran move."

Minnesota,deflated, scored zero points and gained 33 yards over the last 20 minutes.Tampa Bay kicked two more field goals and won 19--13. As the teams left thefield, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said to Brooks, "You gotaway with one."

Maybe he did; theslow-motion replays showed Brooks's left hand interfering. But winners rejoice.Losers lament.

THE GAME is neverover on Sunday.

This game, forBrooks, ended on Monday in a defensive meeting room, when he, Ruud and June gottheir report cards from Bradley. Every Bucs linebacker is graded in fourcategories: Plus/Minus (carrying out the right assignment on each play), Effort(running to the ball, even on the other side of the field), Make Play (makingplays when in position to make them) and Tackles (taking down a ballcarrierwhen favorably positioned). Generally, Brooks is happy if the team wins and hegets a grade above 90%.

So he should havebeen elated when Bradley handed out the graded play sheet. Brooks, who was infor 40 of the 52 defensive snaps against Minnesota, scanned his grades:
Plus/Minus: 37 of 40
Effort: 40 of 40
Make Play: 8 of 9
Tackles: 7 of 8
Total: 92 of 97, or 95%
Brooks looked at the individual plays. The negative in Make Play was Shiancoe'scatch. The missed tackle: On a first-quarter swing pass, Peterson broke free ofa clean one-on-one hit around the thighs, and though he gained only two moreyards it was an uncharacteristic whiff for Brooks.

But thePlus/Minus vexed him. "Gus!" he yelled. "You gave me a techniqueminus for tripping over a guy? You gotta be kidding! That's no minus!"

"Standard'sbeen set around here," Bradley said, chuckling. "You know that. Ifyou're on the ground, I don't care how you got there, it's a minus."

The man whohelped set the standard stewed for a while. But there was a game ball to beawarded, salve for that trip-up. "He is something else," coach JonGruden said that afternoon. "He's the heart and soul of our footballteam."

As Gruden spoke,Brooks was moving on. One game week ended, another began. It was on to Detroit,another NFC North team he didn't know well. Another running back he had neverfaced before. "Excellent feet," Brooks thought, watching a few snaps ofrookie Kevin Smith. "We'll have to figure out a way to stop those cutbackruns." For the 230th time in Brooks's pro career, the circle of NFL lifewas beginning again.

Over and over in the days before the Bucs facedPeterson, Brooks recited a mantra to his teammates: HE RUNS FROM COLOR.
"I'd like to say we talked about this play,"Bradley said of the double reverse. "I don't understand how DERRICKKNEW."
"If you think you might get called for something,DON'T LOOK AT THE REF," says Brooks, "because that tells him you'reguilty."

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PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverTHE LONG VIEW Brooks had been studying his potential nemesis since Peterson's freshman year at Oklahoma.PHOTOBOB ROSATO (LEFT)CRASH COURSE Against the Vikings' phenom, Brooks (55) stressed gap discipline and solid tackling technique.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATOEVER HUNGRY The 14-year vet graded at 95% against the Vikes in Tampa's system—and still wasn't fully satisfied with his day.PHOTOBILL FRAKESLIFETIME CHANNELED On the biggest play of the game, Brooks drew on instinct and a few old tricks to break up the pass.TWO PHOTOSBILL FRAKES[See caption above]