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Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Sabby Piscitelli replaces injured Jermaine Phillips in starting lineup

Sabby Piscitelli, returning a blocked punt against Atlanta on Sunday, replaces hurt Jermaine Phillips in the starting lineup.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Sabby Piscitelli, returning a blocked punt against Atlanta on Sunday, replaces hurt Jermaine Phillips in the starting lineup.

TAMPA — Sabby Piscitelli couldn't care less what people think about him. However harsh the evaluation, the Bucs strong safety says his introspection is far more critical.

"I'm my worst critic," said Piscitelli, who takes center stage as a starter in the most pivotal game of the season, Sunday at home against the Chargers. "It doesn't matter what I hear from other people because I'm never happy. I've been just trying to take my experience and learn from it."

Until recently, he didn't have much experience to draw upon. Having played three games as a rookie in 2007 before being sidelined with a season-ending foot injury, his career didn't start in essence until this fall. And coaches made sure not to spoon feed him in his NFL infancy, inserting him on every third defensive series for most of the season, alternating between free and strong safety.

Though that experience will serve him well now that Jermaine Phillips has been placed on injured reserve with a broken right arm, the playing time also shed light on areas Piscitelli needs to address. It's not a matter of ability for the talented Oregon State product and Boca Raton native. Rather, it's a matter of being sharp. There have been isolated but critical missed tackles and a few instances in which he either was out of position or reacted late to downfield passes.

But the Bucs organization believes that Piscitelli can handle this new and important role, even if coaches readily admit he has significant room for improvement.

"He's a rookie," coach Jon Gruden said. "I don't care who you're talking about. It's the first time he's experienced a lot of these things. He's had a lot of good days, good snaps, good series. He's got a couple of plays he's got to correct. I know experience is a great teacher, so hopefully this will help him. He's playing good, he's a good prospect, and he's a great kid. But I think he's dead on. There's some areas he's got to get better at to truly be a top-flight NFL safety."

One area in which Piscitelli will be leaned on heavily is run support, especially given the Bucs' recent struggles and with Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson coming to town. Defending the run is a strength of Phillips'.

"Jermaine is probably one of the hardest-hitting guys I've seen," Piscitelli, 25, said. "He'll put his face in there. He's probably the hardest hitter we have on this defense. You can't really compare. But at that position, you definitely have to be physical. When you hit the running back, you definitely have to make your presence felt.

"I've been studying (Phillips), and I probably will keep studying him in the years to come and take what he did to take my game to that level. I'll put that together with my ability and create my own name."

Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has benefited as much as anyone from having Phillips, a seventh-year player out of Georgia, playing in the box on running downs, effectively serving as a fourth linebacker. At times during Phillips' final game, at Atlanta on Sunday, he was lined up closer to the line of scrimmage than any of the team's three linebackers.

"I don't know if Sabby will have quite the same role as Jermaine had," Ruud said. "He was kind of like John Lynch was here. When we know it's going to be a run, we have rules that make sure he's the support guy."

It's possible Piscitelli will grow into the role. With Phillips' contract expiring after the season, that could make the job Piscitelli's to lose.

"It's tough to be as ferocious as a guy like Jermaine Phillips," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. "But (Piscitelli) has some of those same tendencies. He'll bring his own flavor to the run (defense)."

The first taste comes Sunday.

Fast Facts

Bucs vs. Chargers

1 p.m. Sunday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV/radio: Ch. 10; 620-AM, 103.5 FM. Line: Bucs by 31/2

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Sabby Piscitelli replaces injured Jermaine Phillips in starting lineup 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 12:44pm]

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