Barrett Ruud has heard it all. He plays pillow-soft. He avoids blockers like a plague. He's undersized. He's a drag-down tackler who rarely makes plays at the line of scrimmage. "That's the old classic, 'He makes too many tackles downfield,' " Ruud said. "I kind of chuckle at that one.
"Am I not supposed to make a tackle 5 yards downfield? It's not like I had a chance to make it 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage and let 'em go. Usually it means the guy was getting through. Everyone is good, and they're not just going to run right into you. Four or five times a year, I get that one."
Ruud, the Bucs middle linebacker, is on pace to join Derrick Brooks as the only players in team history to lead in tackles for four consecutive seasons (Brooks' run at the top lasted seven years, 1998-2004). Ruud has a team-leading 141 tackles this season.
Yet if you pay attention to his critics on local sports talk radio, in newspapers or on websites, Ruud's play is constantly scrutinized for not being physical enough. In a nutshell, Ruud may need to find more eyes to gouge and limbs to twist.
The detractors believe Ruud doesn't shed blockers and knock ballcarriers backward like Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Tommy Nobis and Jack Lambert. But the big-bang theory when it comes to playing middle linebacker, Ruud says, doesn't necessary apply anymore in the NFL.
"I'm pretty happy the way I've played," he said. "We've done a lot of new things. I've never had this many zone blitzes, and I've never played this much matchup coverage. We got away from that at the end of the year when (coach) Raheem (Morris) took over (as defensive coordinator), and we're doing a lot of different things than what we did the first four years under Monte (Kiffin). A of lot of guys do one thing.
"The game of football, until the mid '90s, maybe near 2000, was more of a physical game. There were a lot of isolations in the box, two backs, two tight ends, that type of game. Now it's kind of basketball on grass. I'm asked to cover a wide receiver on one play and take on a guard the next. I take a lot of pride in the fact I never come off the field."
In an era of shotgun formations — spread offenses with three and four receivers and empty backfields — the middle linebacker has become more of a pass defender.
That's why there aren't many 245-pound-plus players at the position anymore, certainly not in the 4-3, Tampa 2 system. That's why some NFL teams try to project if a college safety can convert to linebacker in the pros.
"I always love it when they ask me about my size," said Ruud, 27, who is listed at 6 feet 2, 241 pounds. "The biggest thing for me is actually trying to keep my weight down. I don't want to be 245 if I can get by at 235 and still take on a guard. I take a lot of pride in never leaving the field, and I can cover the wide receivers when need be. I have to play the run and do a lot of things."
Considering that offensive guards can weigh 330 pounds, Ruud doesn't apologize for trying to slither around them to get to the ballcarrier.
"I'm trying not to touch a lineman and that's my goal," he said. "The one big linebacker that comes to mind is Ray Lewis, and if you watch him, his goal is not to touch a lineman. I have a tape of Ted Johnson, the last classic 3-4 linebacker that KO's guards. He was unbelievable. He's 6-4 and 260. That guy doesn't exist. Yeah, if I do have to take on an offensive guard, I'm looking to get off as quick as possible."
Of course, considering the NFL's brutal essence, Ruud has been one of the league's most durable players. Soft? The only game the second-round pick out of Nebraska missed in six pro seasons is when coach Jon Gruden sat him and other starters out of the final game of 2007 against Carolina, after the Bucs had locked up a playoff position.
Since taking over from Shelton Quarles in '07, Ruud also has been the quarterback of the defense. Under Morris, he has handled a multiplicity of formations, schemes and coverage.
Morris calls him a "silent killer."
"He's open to letting me run things through him, and I think we work well together, and I have a great relationship," Ruud said of Morris. "It's taken a new identity. It's a long ways from where we were when I was drafted. It was a fun challenge, and it makes you become a complete player."
When today's game against Seattle ends, it could be the last time Bucs fans get to see Ruud in red and pewter at Raymond James Stadium. Ruud was tendered a one-year contract worth $3.168 million for this season, and he will be a free agent whenever players and teams reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Ruud says he'd like to be back next season. Then again, maybe he will be more appreciated once he's gone.
"I feel good about this year, to date," he said. "All you can judge is how you grade yourself out each Monday morning and what you're asked to do.
"I just read in one of the newspapers … that I was listed as one of the disappointments on defense. I just got out of my meeting and had 11 tackles, including two for a loss, and graded out perfect.
"I guess I'll just have to do better."