TAMPA — They call them splash plays — interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, sacks, tackles for loss — because the ripple effect can win football games.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, the Bucs' two-time tackling leader, has posted his share of impressive numbers on his NFL resume.
But when it comes to making those types of game-changing plays, well, Ruud's impact is more like a pebble being tossed into the ocean.
"Tackles are great. That's being productive. That's being out there. Linebackers are supposed to make tackles," Ruud said. "But you've also got to make hopefully game-changing plays. Sometimes that comes with a little bit of luck, and sometimes you've got to make that happen."
Ruud leads the Bucs again this season with 58 tackles (29 solo, 29 assists). But talk about a buzz kill. He finished the first quarter of the year with no interceptions, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. And for all those ballcarriers he has brought down? Not one has been tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
In fact, Ruud has only three sacks and four interceptions in five NFL seasons, a full-time starter since 2007. But now he has gone 16 weeks — the equivalent of an entire season — without an interception and hasn't forced a fumble since Sept. 30, 2007, at Carolina.
And that might be why the Bucs haven't signed Ruud to a contract extension. Not yet, anyway.
What's more, Ruud knows it.
"I know the last two years I've gotten off to a little bit faster start in terms of making big plays, and so far they haven't come to me yet," Ruud said. "It gets a little frustrating at times. I think a lot of times when people are evaluating, yeah, there's a lot riding on that."
That's not to overlook Ruud's overall value to the Bucs defense. He calls all the defensive formations, switches the various alignments and seemingly has at least a part of nearly every stop.
"Realistically, throughout his career, he's always been kind of that silent killer that really doesn't have the big interception that he runs back for a touchdown," coach Raheem Morris said. "He's just a solid, quarterback leader that makes every tackle and doesn't miss."
It doesn't help Ruud much that the Bucs changed defensive systems and added six new starters on that side of the football. And he's only 26.
"This is only Barrett's third year starting. He's still a very young player," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "As good as he is, as well as he's playing, I think his best football is ahead of him. I think splash plays and players making big plays in big moments, a lot of times those come just as the player becomes seasoned.
"He's got a lot on his plate right now. He's a young player in a brand new system with a lot of young players around him starting for the first time. And I'm not making excuses for the guy. I think those are things that factor into it."
And Ruud is a quiet leader. When Tony Dungy sought to rebuild the Bucs defense, he was fortunate to have a half-crazed headbanger like Hardy Nickerson at middle linebacker. Not only was Nickerson a Pro Bowl linebacker, but he thought nothing of kicking a teammate's backside with his size 14s and got into fights at practice almost daily.
The Bucs were seeking more of that type of fire when they attempted in the offseason to sign Saints free agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who remained in New Orleans.
"I've never really had that (personality), really, and I don't see myself being that," Ruud said. "Obviously, I can say something when needed, but I'm not maybe that persona, I guess. But at the same time, the tape is what never lies. And if you're productive and you're making plays on tape, that's important."
Ruud is in the final year of the contract he signed as a rookie. But unless the NFL Players Association reaches a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement soon, 2010 will be an "uncapped year," meaning players like Ruud will need six years to become an unrestricted free agent.
Ruud is confident the splash plays will come — and hopefully with it, the long-term deal he desires.
"At the same time, all I can do is prepare and do my job on the field and be as productive as I can," Ruud said. "Everybody wants to make big plays, but they don't always come to you. Sometimes, you make a great play by being prepared, studying.
"My thing is, I'm probably never going to be that flashy player. But at the same time, then don't put the restricted free agent tag on me."