TAMPA — It took the novelty of a touchdown pass to Donald Penn last week for the Bucs' left tackle to finally receive national attention.
But the rest of the NFL has known for some time that Penn is a premier offensive lineman.
That's why the Bucs made Penn the exception by signing him to a six-year, $48 million contract the first day of training camp when most of the league's restricted free agents — including LB Barrett Ruud — were left to play for their tender.
Penn has rewarded that decision by protecting the blind side of QB Josh Freeman. The Bucs are tied for 12th in sacks allowed with 20.
"I think this year has been one of my best years ever," Penn said. "Nobody has just lined up and beaten me. Hopefully I can keep it up. I'm getting more mature as a player. It's crazy, but most of the time I see stuff before it happens. If I keep that up, hopefully I'll go down as one of the great tackles in this game."
Why has Penn flown under the radar? Primarily because he entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Utah State and spent his first season on the Vikings' practice squad.
"Generally speaking, if you're not a high draft pick, people tend to overlook you," CB Ronde Barber said. "If you make your name felt across the league and making Pro Bowls and you get those types of accolades, then it's irrelevant. But a guy who is undrafted that changed teams his second year? He's supposed to be under the radar. We appreciate him. Everybody knows what he brings in this building. It was obvious the first day he came here how good his feet were. … Well, three or four years later, we're looking at what we already knew.
"We admire what he brings to the table for us. Our locker room is full of guys like that, especially him. He's proven you can go the hard way and still make out with it. I think he signed a big contract, and I don't think anybody is upset about it."
When you line up against top pass rushers week after week and they don't pad their stats against you, that's the best measure of a left tackle.
Penn has fared well this season against the likes of Falcons DE John Abraham, Cardinals LB Joey Porter and Saints DE Will Smith. Today he faces Ravens LB Terrell Suggs, who has 71/2 sacks.
"He's playing great," coach Raheem Morris said of Penn. "I am looking forward to seeing him in a grass skirt. He is playing Pro Bowl caliber football. He is playing lights out, and he has earned his contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is certainly going out every day and earning it. It's been nice; he is overplaying his contract, so to speak, and it's been great."
All in the family: Football is the ultimate team game, and nothing galvanizes players like sticking up for each other in crisis. That's what happened a week ago when the Bucs' captains — Barber, Ruud, C Jeff Faine and Freeman among them — met with Morris and made it clear that WR Mike Williams deserved to play despite a DUI charge. The primary reason for their position was that blood-alcohol tests showed Williams was under the 0.08 limit for presumed impairment.
"There's no better example of that of everybody rallying behind Mike this past weekend," Barber said. "There was nobody in this locker room that didn't want him to play. Nobody said, 'Nah, we should sit him.' Everybody rallied around him. We feel like you don't get punished for not being completely in the wrong. I think Raheem accepted that, and as a team, we came together a little for him."