TAMPA — Nothing about Cody Grimm suggests he would be responsible for setting the Bucs' tone of physicality by flattening one of the NFL's best running backs.
His teammates tease the safety because his baby face belies that he's 23. And he's obviously shy of the 5 feet, 11 inches, and 210 pounds at which he's listed. Maybe that's why Grimm's violent hit on the 49ers' Frank Gore early in Sunday's road win elicited the reaction it did.
But Grimm is making that kind of hit a bit of a habit, and his sure-handed tackling, at the point of attack and in the open field, has been as much of a surprise for the Tampa Bay secondary as his ability to step in and play as a rookie.
Practically no one saw this coming, and that includes Grimm's coach.
"No," Raheem Morris said. "He is really playing lights-out football."
Morris helped put Grimm in position to do so, playing him in the box Sunday against a team with an unproven quarterback but a potent running game. So, with a game plan to force San Francisco to throw by stopping the run, Morris and his assistants ordered Grimm to creep toward the line of scrimmage to help tackle Gore.
But they got much more. On the 49ers' first play, quarterback Troy Smith turned and handed off to Gore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. Grimm knifed through traffic and blasted Gore at the line of scrimmage for no gain. It sent the sideline into an uproar.
"Everyone was fired up, man," Grimm said. "It felt pretty good. I think it kind of set the tone and let (the 49ers) know that we were going to bring it."
Morris was impressed, thinking, "Let's call that again," the coach said later.
The Bucs might never have learned what kind of player they possess in Grimm had they not lost Tanard Jackson to a yearlong league-imposed substance-abuse suspension. Jackson is one of the team's best defenders, and his loss was seen as a blow not only to the pass defense but a setback to the run support.
Considering the Bucs' struggles in stopping running backs (Tampa Bay ranks 29th against the run), the run defense figured to suffer with a seventh-round draft pick stepping in at safety.
But Grimm has become an asset against the run, embracing the role. His teammates credit him for what are known as "big-boy tackles" around One Buc Place.
'I like being known for being a good tackler and a big hitter," Grimm said. "I had a couple of nice opportunities."
He stressed the role he must play in stopping the run and has taken it to heart.
"Half the time, one of the safeties is going to be in the run (support) unless (the offense) is in three-wide," Grimm said. "Once a team is in base personnel, most teams will bring that safety into the box. It's not much different than a linebacker, to tell you the truth.
"So you definitely have to be a sure tackler. And if you can bring some physical presence, hopefully the running backs won't want to stay up long and the receivers will want to go down and not come across the middle."
Grimm is improving weekly because his comfort in the defense continues to grow.
He led the Bucs in tackles Sunday with seven. He ranks fifth in tackles for the season with 57 despite Jackson playing free safety in the first two games. And Grimm hasn't abandoned his role on special teams, ranking fourth in special-teams tackles with 10.
Knowing the defense and growing accustomed to the tricks of NFL offenses have reduced Grimm's reaction time in plays. That has allowed his instincts — one of his strengths — to take over.
"I feel comfortable," he said. "Once you start learning — and now that I've seen pretty much every (formation) — you start feeling comfortable, and you can play faster."
And that means Grimm could have a few more big-boy tackles in store.