Warrick Dunn knows the best attribute for a running back is his vision, the ability to find cracks of daylight in a pile of collapsing bodies. But whenever he played the Bucs as a member of the Falcons, Dunn would particularly be on the lookout for heat-seeking safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson. In addition to shrinking the arms and the will of receivers who venture over the middle of the field, Phillips and Jackson — the Tampa Two — love to take a running start from the depths of the secondary and slam into unsuspecting ball carriers. "I knew Phillips was going to come down like a cannon and take his shots," Dunn said. "You always wanted to be aware of where he was and be prepared. Playing against Tanard, it wasn't like he was gunning for you every play. But when he had a chance to unload, he did it. "You knew they were around. If you get past the first level (of defense), we would tell our guys, 'Whatever you do, look out for those safeties. Sometimes, you never see them coming.' " Safety. The very name of the position elicits a feeling of caution and security. But that's not the way the position is played in Tampa Bay. Phillips, a seventh-year pro from Georgia, is the leader of a three-headed rotation that includes second-year pros Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli.
Phillips, 29, leads the team in tackles with 19. Jackson, 23, an All-Rookie performer last season, is second with 15 tackles and has a team-leading four passes defensed. Piscitelli, 25, spent his rookie year on injured reserve with a broken foot but is making up for lost time. A ball magnet during his career at Oregon State, Piscitelli recorded his first career interception last week against the Falcons and recovered a fumble (a play that was negated by a penalty).
Nowhere in the NFL will anyone likely bump into two — let alone three — more physical and versatile safeties.
"I think that sets the tone for the game when you can come down and lay somebody out," Phillips said. "I think it ignites the defense, for one, and it lets the offense know they're going to be in for a long day. As a secondary, we feel like we drive the bus from the back. We feel like if we can get this thing going and get everybody fired up and going into the right direction, we can have a great day.
"It's just a mentality: Somebody's going to get knocked out. If it's not me, it's him. Somebody's going to feel it, if not both of us. You can't be scared. It's definitely not a position for somebody who's scared or has a little bit of that baby in them. I think what you see in me, Tanard and Sabby is we don't have that. We just go out there and sacrifice our bodies any way possible."
Any discussion about Bucs safeties has to include their rich history at the position, particularly players such as John Lynch and Dexter Jackson. When Phillips was a rookie on the Bucs' 2003 Super Bowl team, he spent part of the offseason at Lynch's home in San Diego, working out and becoming an apprentice.
Phillips will become a free agent at the end of the season and knows his replacement arrived last year in Piscitelli, just like Will Allen was forced to step aside for Jackson.
"I'm just trying to pass the buck like Lynch and Dexter and all those guys did me," Phillips said. "I want to prepare them so when my time is up here, they can carry on and the mission continues. Like I told them, that's going to be the face of our franchise for years to come.
"I think it's just selflessness. You're going to help your teammate be the best that he can be. If he ends up replacing you, then you know you've done your job and you can move on someplace else, like Lynch helped me with my hitting and my defense and Dexter with different things. Those guys didn't care that I was behind them. … We're trying to win, we're trying to keep the tradition alive, trying to keep it going. That's what is more important."
Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris knows something about tradition. Morris, 32, joined the Bucs in 2002 as an assistant to Mike Tomlin, who has moved on to become coach of the Steelers. Like Tomlin and Herm Edwards before him, Morris should be on the fast track to becoming a head coach in the NFL after directing the league's No. 1 pass defense in 2007.
Morris has a unique perspective on his safety triplets.
On the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Phillips: "He's still a barnyard bully. Flip goes out every day and he's the enforcer. He enforces the push-ups in the room, he enforces the discipline, he enforces everybody studying and being on the details. He's still the barnyard bully.
"If people see his work ethic and the extra stuff he does before practice, during practice and after practice and in the meeting room — doing sit-ups while listening to me — you can't help but like the guy and follow the things he does. He's great for those young safeties."
On the 6-foot, 200-pound Jackson: "T-Jax is kind of the quiet assassin. He doesn't say much. Sneaky smart, real aware. Believes he can make every break on the planet until somebody proves him wrong. On game day, he's the fastest person on the field, and that's kind of his role. He loves doing it."
On the 6-foot-3, 224-pound Piscitelli: "Sabby is the young up-and-comer. He's kind of the tweener guy. He's kind of a big stud like Flip; he's got similar movement to T-Jax. He's got real good ball skills like Ronde (Barber). And now, he's starting to put it all together. Starting to calm down, play fast, play physical. … When you get those three guys playing in combination, it is kind of sweet to see."
Unless, that is, you're the ball carrier with your head on a swivel.
"How we play determines a lot of times whether we win or lose," Jackson said. "And that's for real."
Sunday, September 21, 2008, Section X