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Bucs ran out of linebackers but still had a few secret weapons

John Romano | With four of its five inside linebackers unavailable early in Sunday’s win against Carolina, Tampa Bay had to get creative.
 
Bucs linebacker J.J. Russell (51) celebrates his first NFL sack while Panthers linemen help quarterback Bryce Young to his feet late in the third quarter of Sunday's 21-18 Bucs victory.
Bucs linebacker J.J. Russell (51) celebrates his first NFL sack while Panthers linemen help quarterback Bryce Young to his feet late in the third quarter of Sunday's 21-18 Bucs victory. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2023|Updated Dec. 4, 2023

TAMPA — Sometimes, the plot is more important than the stars on the marquee.

You just need an unexpected story with unlikely heroes facing uncomfortable odds.

You need an undrafted free agent who has more trips to the waiver wire than solo tackles in his career. You need an embattled veteran who recently lost his place in the starting lineup after some high-profile lapses at safety. And you need a defense so depleted and doubted that even a 1-10 opponent was cause for concern.

In the end, you just needed faith in J.J. Russell and Ryan Neal.

Neal got a game ball after an emergency appearance at inside linebacker following a lifetime of football at strong safety. And Russell had an afternoon he had been dreaming about and waiting for as long as he could remember. Meanwhile, the Bucs got a 21-18 victory against the Panthers on Sunday that kept their dwindling playoff hopes alive.

“The game is over, and my adrenaline is still rushing,” Russell said. “I’m still pumped because this was madness. I just started in the NFL. That’s a big moment for me, something I’ve been working for forever.”

This is a story without a genre. Part thriller, part fantasy, part Hallmark Movie corniness.

It began at midweek when it became apparent that Lavonte David’s groin injury would keep him out of the lineup for the second game in a row. Soon, it was obvious that Devin White’s foot injury would knock him out, too. When rookie linebacker SirVocea Dennis was held out of practice with an illness, the first stage of panic was in order.

K.J. Britt and Russell were the only insider linebackers left on the roster, and neither had ever started an NFL game. Pass game coordinator Larry Foote began meeting with Neal in the mornings before practice to get him up to speed on the intricacies of playing insider linebacker.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to think about,” Foote said, “but you better be prepared for it.”

Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt (52) gets helped off the field in the first quarte.
Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt (52) gets helped off the field in the first quarte. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Bucs had no choice but to contemplate it when Britt was carted away with a back injury nine minutes into the game.

“Your heart breaks for K.J. because he was so ready and worked so hard for this opportunity,” Foote said. “When he went down, my heart started beating a little faster.”

Russell inherited Britt’s responsibility as the defensive play-caller with a headset in his helmet, and Neal lined up next to him as the other inside linebacker in Tampa Bay’s 3-4 formation. Three plays later, Neal got his first tackle of the game. Five plays after that, with the Panthers facing third down on the 2-yard line, Neal raced around the right edge and tackled running back Chuba Hubbard for a 3-yard loss that forced Carolina to kick a field goal.

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“Ryan is a smart dude, so it was easy working with him,” Foote said. “He picked everything up pretty easy.”

Even if he was playing an unfamiliar position, Neal had 57 games and a half-dozen seasons to lean on. Russell, on the other hand, went undrafted out of Memphis in 2022, signed with the Bucs, was cut at the end of training camp, signed on with the practice squad, was activated briefly, and then waived and re-signed three more times in the next eight months.

“I just really kept my head down and kept working. Each rep every day with the practice squad is just another opportunity,” Russell said. “Being blessed to be in the room with Devin and Lavonte and learning from those guys, and even K.J. It’s a great linebacker room to learn from and to watch their game tapes and how they orchestrate everything out there.”

Russell, 25, finished with seven combined tackles and one tackle for a loss. And, like Neal, made a big third-down play to stop a Carolina drive. With the Bucs clinging to a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter, Russell blitzed straight up the middle and brought Panthers quarterback Bryce Young down for his first NFL sack.

“J.J. did a heck of a job,” coach Todd Bowles said later. “He gets very little reps and to come in and play like he played today.”

There’s no telling where the story goes from here. The Bucs travel to Atlanta this week with first place in the NFC South up for grabs, so there’s an expectation that White, David and Dennis will do whatever possible to return.

Russell, meanwhile, is already thinking about his next long-awaited debut.

His wife, Amber, is four days past her due date for their first child.

Some stories you just can’t make up.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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