TAMPA — It seems as if not long ago, Bucs linebackers were standard-bearers. They were some of the best in the business, players who set an emotional tone while they put ball carriers on their backs.
Standouts Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson, Shelton Quarles and, to a lesser extent, Barrett Ruud, have moved on. But now, the question remains: Can those who have replaced them distinguish themselves?
The Bucs' current linebackers are struggling with consistency and making the sort of game-changing plays that had come to be expected from the position. So much so that coach Raheem Morris, also the defensive coordinator, benched starting weak-side linebacker Geno Hayes the past two games for uneven performances. Hayes, Morris said Thursday, will return to the starting lineup Sunday at Green Bay.
The task is clear. But can Hayes, Quincy Black and rookie Mason Foster step up to this significant challenge?
"It's in us," Hayes said. "We have the talent level there. We have guys who have all the physical attributes of being a linebacker and having the same characteristics of those linebackers in past days. We can't be Derrick Brooks. We can't be Shelton Quarles. But there's a certain talent level within us that we know we can achieve."
The player under the most scrutiny, perhaps, is Black. He is in his fifth season and was retained as a free agent (whereas Ruud was not) via a $29 million contract extension before the season. He was talked up by management and coaches as a player capable of making the sort of plays that have been missing.
Black battled an ankle injury early in the season but hasn't been the sort of dominating presence the Bucs were hoping for. After beginning the season as the strongside linebacker in the base defense and the middle linebacker on passing downs, Black has been relegated mostly his strongside duties, primarily a first- and second-down role.
Middle linebacker Foster, who leads the Bucs in tackles with 66, has been mostly solid but predictably has had issues with getting off of blocks and still is finding his way in pass coverage. He has had to fill the shoes of Ruud in his first season without the benefit of offseason workouts. But he understands what's expected of linebackers in Tampa Bay.
"You can tell from the way the older guys talk about those guys and from how Raheem holds you to a high standard," he said. "You can definitely feel it."
So, how is he measuring up?
"I feel like I'm playing solid football and making the plays that come my way," Foster said. "You can't force splash plays. You have to take them as they come, and they will."
Hayes, who plays the same position as five-time All-Pro Brooks, his mentor and a fellow Florida State product, knows his role is to make impact plays. "I have to take it up to another level," Hayes said. "Without question."
The way Hayes and others can do that is by making so-called splash plays. Hayes made them with regularity in 2010, finishing with 15 tackles for loss and six passes defensed. He now has five tackles for loss and no passes defensed through nine games.
"(Splash plays) are something we're going to be harping on very heavy from here on out," Hayes said. "When we're not getting splash plays, we're not getting sparks, we're not getting any energy in our defense. We have to be the guys who carry the banner and pick up the defense."
The next Brooks probably isn't roaming the halls of One Buc Place now. But the current group of linebackers seeks to establish itself as a unit that can create a legacy of some kind.
So, what about these guys? The jury is still out.
"The expectation won't change," Morris said. "They have to go form their own identity."
Coach Raheem Morris notes the difficulty of facing teams with good records this season. 3C
Bucs at Packers, 1 p.m. Sunday TV/radio: Ch. 13; 620-AM, 103.5-FM Line: Packers by 14