TAMPA — Donald Penn loves to play basketball, and he loves to catch his opponents off guard.
At 6 feet 5, 340 pounds, he knows the expectation is for him to be more potential energy than kinetic, more mountain than rushing river. That is why, the Bucs offensive tackle said, "I love going to the hole."
"My best move is to go around somebody," he added. "My first step is really fast."
And, as it turns out, a huge advantage on a football field.
"I don't think I'd be as good of an athlete if it wasn't for basketball," Penn said. "I don't think I'd be as good of a left tackle."
And Penn has been good this season, re-establishing himself as a reliable presence on a line devastated by injuries to Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph while erasing memories of 2011, when, coming off a Pro Bowl season, he battled inconsistency and constant concerns about his weight.
Good thing because as a left tackle, Penn defends quarterback Josh Freeman's blind side and faces the best pass rushers the opposition has to offer.
That includes Sunday, when Penn, 29, in his seventh season out of Utah State, lines up against Rams defensive ends Robert Quinn, who has 9½ sacks and 23 quarterback pressures, and Chris Long, who has 7½ sacks and 40 pressures.
"Donald has been great this year," Freeman said. "You can see that he had renewed focus. He came in and not only was he mentally locked in, physically, the way he stepped up this year has been huge. When you can drop back and not be worried about your blind side, it's a load off your shoulders."
"It was real tough last year," Penn said Friday at One Buc Place. "It seemed like everybody was having their moments, and I had more moments than I was used to. I tried to make sure I fixed that this year, and I think I've done a good job of it."
Given his position, Penn is a major reason the Bucs have allowed just 21 sacks, tied with the Broncos for third-fewest in the league. And Penn has had his best games against some of the best competition.
Atlanta's John Abraham, with 10 sacks this season, had zero and just one tackle against the Bucs. In two games against Tampa Bay, Carolina's Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, with 21½ sacks between them, had a combined half -sack.
Minnesota's Jared Allen got one, but that might have been because Penn lost a bit of focus after the two scrapped on the previous play.
"I do put in a little extra film work when I know I have one of those top guys coming in," Penn said. "But I'll tell you one thing, when somebody gets a sack on me I don't forget about it. I can't wait to play them again and shut them out next time."
Penn has been durable, too, and against the Rams will make his 91st consecutive start, something he admitted has "a tremendous amount to do with luck."
Even so, "I'm proud of that," he said. "It's something I'm blessed with."
Like his quick feet, which served him well as an all-state basketball player at St. Bernard High in Playa Del Rey, Calif.
"I think basketball made it easier for me to convert to football," Penn said. "Being an O-lineman, your feet are not supposed to come together. Playing basketball, when you play defense, your feet are not supposed to come together, so there was carryover."
Penn said he still plays at least three times a week in the offseason with two friends back home.
Can he dunk?
"I was able to," he said. "I don't know if I can anymore."
Not that it matters against the Rams.
"For us, it's find a way to win this weekend," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "Donald Penn is going to be a huge part of that."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]