TAMPA — Philly Phans won’t want to hear this. It’s bad enough the Bucs are giving a certain Eagles tormentor his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at halftime Monday night.
But there’s another nickel cornerback in Tampa Bay who is filling up that stat sheet and taking the football away at a record pace.
Christian Izien, a rookie free agent from Rutgers, is only the fourth undrafted player in league history with an interception in each of his first two career games.
“It’s refreshing to see,” Bucs safety Ryan Neal said. “You love to see it from any rookie but especially an undrafted rookie, man, because as a player who was undrafted, I know how hard it is to make a roster. He’s just been on since Day 1. He’s a very smart young man, he’s always asked questions. He has all the tools to be a great player.
“For him to come out and start the season like that, that’s always great. The only thing you want to do now is continue to be consistent. Continue to be that guy. It’s a long season. He’s being a threat out there for our defense and that’s what we need on all levels of the ball.”
To be clear, it’s unfair to compare any nickel corner to Ronde Barber, who revolutionized the position with 47 career interceptions and 28 sacks. That’s why he has a bust on Canton, Ohio.
However, while Barber started only one regular-season game as a rookie and was mostly inactive, Izien burst onto the scene in Week 1 when he picked off Kirk Cousins on the goal line to record his first career interception in his first game, becoming only the fourth player to do so in franchise history (excluding 1987 replacement players).
In last Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Bears, Izien closed out the game with a pick with 1:07 remaining. In fact, he could have had two turnovers but his fumble recovery was overturned by instant replay review.
The Bucs ask a lot of their nickel corners and somehow the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Izien is able to hold up against the run, weaving through 300-pound linemen but still covering the slot receiver or running back.
“He’s part corner, part safety, part inside (linebacker), part outside (linebacker), so he’s got to be a very heady football player,” coach Todd Bowles said of Izien. “It takes a different kind of guy to play that position, and you can be a great corner and never go inside or vice versa, so you have to have a different mentality to understand the front, the middle, and the back end.
“He can do it, he’s done it in college. He’s adapted to it very well. Usually, it takes new guys a long time to adjust to that position. We put a lot on his plate, and he does a great job with it.”
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Izien wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived at training camp but he quickly emerged as a candidate to start. His confidence skyrocketed when Bowles quickly gave him first-team reps in camp.
“I would probably say the first practice we had in the bubble, in the indoor facility. I was taking my first-team reps with the ones and I think I had a pass breakup in man coverage with Chris Godwin and it was just, like, I’m playing against guys I watched my whole life and competing against them,” Izien said.
“Coach Bowles is doing a really great job of putting me in different positions and schemes to confuse the quarterback and him knowing my athletic ability and what I can do and am capable of has put me in a great position to make plays.”
Neal says you don’t have to worry about whether Izien can hold up to the physical punishment he will absorb by playing down near the line of scrimmage. “If you look at him, he’s built like a damn tree stump,” Neal said. “He’s going to be all right.”
But Barber wonders if Izien has enough short space speed to cover some of the league’s best receivers.
“He’s basically a clone like Antoine (Winfield),” Barber said. “He is more a clone of Antoine than he is a nickel corner in the league. But Todd likes guys that are physical to play nickel because they can play the run. If you’re facing some stud in the slot and he’s got cover, that’s what worries me about him because he’s just like Antoine in that regard.”
Izien and the Bucs defense will be tested Monday night by quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ assortment of weapons, including receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
“You always want to play against the best teams from last year or the guys with the big names, so these are the games that matter the most and I can’t wait to play in a big one,” Izien said. “(Hurts is) a dynamic player with the ball in his hand in and outside the pocket. We have plans and ways to try to confuse him and things to do, so it’s going to be a good challenge.”
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