What makes an NFL All-Pro tick? SI got inside the clockwork mind of Bucs veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks as he faced his biggest challenge of the 2008 season: stopping Adrian Peterson By Peter King
The biggest play of an NFL game can happen at any time—in the fourth quarter (David Tyree’s against-the-helmet catch in last year’s Super Bowl) or in the first (the shot that blew out Tom Brady’s knee in Week 1). Or in the third, which was the case on Nov. 16 in Tampa, when the Vikings lined up for a fourth-and-one at their 49-yard line with 5:58 left and the score tied at 13. Ninety plays had preceded this one, and 47 would come after it. On the 91st, the two main characters in this NFL minidrama, playing against each other for the first and possibly only time, would determine the outcome.
On one side: Minnesota’s second-year phenom Adrian Peterson, 6′ 1″ and 217 pounds, lined up in a power-run formation behind quarterback Gus Frerotte and alongside fellow running back Chester Taylor, with seven horses poised up front, presumably to clear a path for Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher.
And on the other: the Buccaneers’ 14?year veteran outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, 6 feet and 235, set up just behind the defensive line in the A gap across from the Vikings’ center and left guard, eager to make the 2,131st tackle of his illustrious career. He was sure the electrifying Peterson would get the ball. But where? Up the gut? Pitched wide? Brooks, at once one of the game’s most instinctive and most studious players, couldn’t know that.
After the snap Brooks saw Frerotte fake a handoff to Taylor, who plowed into the line. Peterson sprinted to his right, into the flat, with linebacker Barrett Ruud in pursuit. Over and over in the days before the game, Brooks had recited a mantra to his teammates and to himself: He runs from color. Peterson, he meant, prefers to run from—rather than through—players in opposite-colored jerseys. He hates crowds, and no back since Barry Sanders has been better at avoiding them. Once Peterson does get into space, he’s gone.
But Brooks couldn’t leave his gap just yet, because he had to be sure Frerotte wouldn’t roll out or dump a screen to Taylor. On the fourth step of Frerotte’s drop, Brooks saw Peterson make his burst upfield, with Ruud facing him. Brooks knew that spelled trouble. Peterson covers the 40 in 4.36 seconds, Ruud in 4.7, and Ruud still hadn’t turned to run with him.
“I had the angle,” Peterson said later. “I cut under [Ruud] real quick, and I exploded upfield. There was nobody in front of me.”
In a flash Peterson had opened a two- yard lead on Ruud, and there was no corner or safety over the top. With an accurate pass this was a touchdown. A lock touchdown for a seven-point lead.
On Frerotte’s fifth step back he set up to throw and was nearly sacked by cornerback Ronde Barber, who blitzed from Frerotte’s right. Brooks had taken off by then, in full angled sprint toward a spot 15 yards downfield in hopes of catching Peterson.
The running back’s lead on Ruud was three yards. Then four.
Go! Go! Go! Brooks told himself. Peterson’s getting the ball!
Brooks never saw the pass from Frerotte. He didn’t have to. Four yards shy of intersecting with Peterson, he looked at the running back’s eyes. Brooks’s former linebackers coach Lovie Smith (now running the Bears) taught him never to turn to find the ball; that wasted energy and precious movement. Seeing the receiver’s eyes was sufficient, and Peterson’s were getting big. Very big, as they followed the arc of this potentially game-turning pass.
Brooks picked up another telltale sign: Peterson’s hands. Now, within a long stride of his target, Brooks saw him reach back for the slightly underthrown pass, cupping his hands to his left side. The linebacker’s only chance was to use another of Smith’s techniques. Right now, more than anything, he needed to channel all of Lovie’s know-how.
Now! Brooks thought. Go for it now!
Brooks’s preparation for Minnesota did not begin five days before the game, with his weekly Tuesday-night phone call from linebackers coach Gus Bradley, who told him, “Peterson’s mind-set is not to turn a four-yard play into a 10-yard play. It’s to turn four yards into 95.” No, the preparation began 49 months earlier, in the den of his north Tampa house, when for the first time he watched Peterson run. For years Brooks has mentally catalogued the moves and tendencies of college players he might have to tackle one day. On that October afternoon in 2004, Peterson, then a 19-year-old Oklahoma freshman, burned Texas for 225 yards. On his third carry of the game he broke off a 44-yard misdirection play.
He runs from color.
It may be surprising that a 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker would study players who are still three or four years from making it to the NFL. But even now, the day before he faced the Vikings, the 35-year-old Brooks settled into his den again to watch Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and running back Percy Harvin in the Gators’ rout of South Carolina. “Some people relax or get recharged by going to Europe or going to the beach,” Brooks said. “For me it’s studying young kids. The one edge I feel no one will ever have over me is the mental edge of knowing players.”
Brooks allowed SI to view how he prepared for the matchup with Minnesota and how he analyzed the game afterward. The process revealed what it takes to succeed as an NFL linebacker: Discipline is vital, particularly against an opponent as gifted and unpredictable as Peterson. But instinct is just as important. No matter how much video Brooks watches each week—12 to 15 hours on average—come game day he’s going to see some plays he hadn’t prepared for.
Brooks’s routine is to look at an opponent’s passing game on Tuesday. On Wednesday he’ll study his own defense’s practice tape to look for plays the unit has to improve on, study big gainers by the opposing offense and watch halves from two of the opponent’s games, preferably against defenses similar to Tampa Bay’s. The rest of the week he picks and chooses film he thinks will be helpful. This week, for instance, he viewed some Eagles plays from 2005, when Vikings coach Brad Childress was Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator.
At the Buccaneers’ plush offices and training facility, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium, the quietest postpractice study nook on most Wednesdays is the special teams room. Four days before the kickoff against Minnesota, Brooks, still in practice clothes, sat at the coach’s desk, the better to control the remote clicker and watch plays over and over. He wanted to see Peterson through the course of a game—not just in cutups showing run after run—and to observe the tendencies of the Vikings’ offense, which came to life on the 10-foot-wide drop-down screen.
“See,” he said, after watching first quarter footage of Minnesota’s Sept. 21 game against the Panthers. “I want to get the flow of their offense, and this is what you wouldn’t expect: They come out throwing. Look—it’s like eight of the first 10 plays are passes.”
Quietly, Brooks asked, “Why? Why? I don’t know why they do this, but they do it. We know they’ll get it to 28 [Peterson]. It’s a matter of when.”
Three more tendencies: Frerotte’s only downfield throws went to wide receiver Bernard Berrian. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe—who would be Brooks’s assignment on occasion—ran patterns almost exclusively up the seam, and Minnesota didn’t run behind him. And when fullback Jim Kleinsasser was on the field, Peterson always ran to his side. No decoying there.
Brooks found himself fascinated not only by the way Peterson ran but also by when he ran. “Now they’re down 10–0. What’ll they do?” he said during the second-quarter footage. Here came Peterson: around left end for seven, behind left tackle Bryant McKinnie for two, up the gut for two and a first down, jiggling around left end and avoiding three tacklers before lunging ahead for six. Minnesota was rolling. “You see most teams mix it up. But this one comes out throwing, and when they get in trouble, they run. How many teams do that?”
Ditto versus the Lions on Oct. 12: The Vikings called eight passes in the first 12 plays. “It shows me they’ve got confidence in Frerotte, and Childress wants to make an explosive play early.”
On one 13?yard run by Peterson against Detroit, Brooks saw clearly why the 23-year-old back makes yards: He probes for a hole, and if he doesn’t find an opening, he’s quick enough to pull back and hit other holes until he gets one he likes. And unlike Sanders, who annually led the NFL in rushes for a loss, Peterson knows when to plunge for two instead of gambling that he’ll discover a better route by looking longer. Over and over Brooks watches a play in which Peterson tests two holes and then bursts through a five-yard-wide gulf to gain 13. “See, Ernie [Sims, the Lions’ linebacker] lost the ball here—you can’t do that against Peterson. And man, look at this cut upfield by this kid. Just look. But no color. The kid runs from color. He’ll find the hole. That’s why we’ve got to tackle his outside leg. Don’t let him get that push upfield.”
There’s a principle in the NFL that doesn’t come up much on the TV studio shows, but Brooks knows its importance against Minnesota: gap discipline. It means that the players on the defensive front—most often, Tampa would have seven or eight men near the line against the Vikings—must fight to keep from getting pushed out of their assigned lanes. If in his video study Brooks saw Peterson probing until he found an open gap once he saw it 30 times. The Bucs’ goal would be to erect a wall against Peterson. Let him juke all he wants, but don’t create an opening by being a hero and lunging to make a one-on-one tackle. Stand firm and let the system work.
The Vikings had won four of their last five. Tampa Bay was 6–3 but inconsistent on offense. Brooks knew this would be a tight game, and one play could win or lose it. The Bucs couldn’t afford to make a big mistake against Peterson.
Game day. Brooks, the defensive captain, stressed two themes to his troops: They’ll come out throwing. And Peterson runs from color.
The first five Vikings plays were passes. On the fifth Brooks, running with Shiancoe just outside the right seam, got a hand on the tight end’s torso as a Frerotte pass settled in. Brooks couldn’t wrestle the ball free. Good throw, good catch, but the Tampa Bay linebacker knew his defense was counting on him to make that play. Gain of 23.
Two plays later the system worked. On second-and-six, with eight men in the box, Peterson tried a simple dive through the gap between center and right guard. It was just a probe, not a commitment, and the presence of linemen Kevin Carter and Chris Hovan and linebacker Cato June in the space of two gaps made Peterson pivot hard on his right foot and sprint straight left. He thought he saw the makings of a hole between left guard and tackle, the B gap. Brooks, spying Peterson, tried not to get caught up in the traffic. As the back lunged through the hole, right end Gaines Adams came off McKinnie to hit him low, and Brooks smashed him high from the side. Gain of six. Could have been worse.
Later in the first quarter Peterson showed why he’s peerless. The Bucs had eight men in the box on first down at the Vikings’ 35. Ronde Barber’s responsibility was the gap outside right end. Peterson took a handoff and ran straight up the gut. In rushed Barber. Instead of diving at his outside leg, which would have forced Peterson back into the jam in the middle, Barber went for his waist. Not many backs could have done what Peterson did next. Sanders for sure, Gale Sayers maybe. Peterson spun out of Barber’s grasp, did a 360 without so much as a stumble and steamed around left end, where he had no one in front of him. Gain of 22.
“Come on!” Brooks said in the huddle to everyone, not just Barber. “Tackle his outside leg!”
With four minutes left in the half and Minnesota driving at the Tampa 37, the Bucs’ defense started changing the momentum. Chester Taylor went in motion from the right and took a reverse handoff from Frerotte. As Taylor sprinted around left end, six Bucs on the defensive front and one safety all moved with him. But Brooks, who’d set up in the gap between the center and the left guard, didn’t. He’d never seen this kind of reverse in all his game prep, so immediately he looked for clues. Funny how Frerotte isn’t just backing away from the line of scrimmage; he’s moving to his right with a purpose. Brooks, against the grain, moved with him.
“I’d like to say we talked about this play or had it in the tip sheet for the game,” Bradley would later say. “But we knew nothing. I watched it unfold and never saw it before. I don’t understand how Derrick knew.”
Brooks: “I sniffed it out. Something just smelled wrong. Frerotte wouldn’t be moving right like that unless something was up.”
Something was. It was a double reverse, with the fleet wideout Sidney Rice taking a pitch from Taylor then coming back around. Brooks broke into an angled sprint to his left. Frerotte flailed at the linebacker, missing the block, and Rice, exposed and unwilling to get splattered for a loss, threw the ball away into the end zone. Minnesota settled for a field goal on the drive, and it was 13–6 at halftime. By the time the Vikings got the ball back midway through the third quarter, the Bucs had tied the game at 13.
Which brings us back to fourth-and-one with 5:58 left in the third quarter. The 91st play of the game. The play of the game.
I never saw Brooks till the last second,” said Peterson. “I don’t know where he came from.”
Peterson eyed the arcing pass and reached for it at precisely the Bucs’ 35. Brooks was at the 36-and-a-half at that moment, with Frerotte’s pass maybe eight feet above their heads. Field judge Buddy Horton was 12 yards farther back, and he was shielded by Peterson’s body from the four hands that would try to make the play.
Smith had taught Brooks early in his career that on plays when he can’t turn to see the ball, he must try to divine the split second that the pass will reach the receiver’s hands and knock the hands away as the ball drops in.
A millisecond before Frerotte’s pass was to hit Peterson’s hands, Brooks lunged to close the four-foot gap and raked Peterson’s left hand down. “Now all I could do was try to catch the ball with my right hand,” said Peterson. “It happened so fast, but I was pretty confident I could do that.”
The ball struck Brooks’s left wrist, Peterson’s gut and the crook of Peterson’s right arm all simultaneously. But because Peterson had to slow up ever so slightly for the pass and because Brooks’s left hand got tied up with Peterson’s left hand, their bodies got closer, and Brooks brought his right arm over the top, as if he were dunking a basketball. Brooks knocked the ball to the ground as running back and linebacker fell together at the Bucs’ 27.
Ruud, who’d been beaten by Peterson, screamed, “Thank you! Thank you!” as he ran to congratulate Brooks.
Peterson yelled to the ref, “Flag! Flag! Pass interference!” and was joined in his chorus by the Minnesota bench.
No flag. How could Horton have seen it? He was screened. And it happened so fast; was it really interference, or did the ball and Brooks’s hands arrive at the same time? Brooks remembered another old trick he’d learned early in his career. “If you think you might get called for something,” he said, “don’t look at the ref to see, because that tells him you’re guilty. I never look.”
“Credit Derrick,” Peterson said. “Veteran move.”
Minnesota, deflated, scored zero points and gained 33 yards over the last 20 minutes. Tampa Bay kicked two more field goals and won 19–13. As the teams left the field, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said to Brooks, “You got away with one.”
Maybe he did; the slow-motion replays showed Brooks’s left hand interfering. But winners rejoice. Losers lament.
The game is never over on Sunday.
This game, for Brooks, ended on Monday in a defensive meeting room, when he, Ruud and June got their report cards from Bradley. Every Bucs linebacker is graded in four categories: Plus/Minus (carrying out the right assignment on each play), Effort (running to the ball, even on the other side of the field), Make Play (making plays when in position to make them) and Tackles (taking down a ballcarrier when favorably positioned). Generally, Brooks is happy if the team wins and he gets a grade above 90%.
So he should have been elated when Bradley handed out the graded play sheet. Brooks, who was in for 40 of the 52 defensive snaps against Minnesota, scanned his grades:
Plus/Minus: 37 of 40
Effort: 40 of 40
Make Play: 8 of 9
Tackles: 7 of 8
Total: 92 of 97, or 95%
Brooks looked at the individual plays. The negative in Make Play was Shiancoe’s catch. The missed tackle: On a first-quarter swing pass, Peterson broke free of a clean one-on-one hit around the thighs, and though he gained only two more yards it was an uncharacteristic whiff for Brooks.
But the Plus/Minus vexed him. “Gus!” he yelled. “You gave me a technique minus for tripping over a guy? You gotta be kidding! That’s no minus!”
“Standard’s been set around here,” Bradley said, chuckling. “You know that. If you’re on the ground, I don’t care how you got there, it’s a minus.”
The man who helped set the standard stewed for a while. But there was a game ball to be awarded, salve for that trip-up. “He is something else,” coach Jon Gruden said that afternoon. “He’s the heart and soul of our football team.”
As Gruden spoke, Brooks was moving on. One game week ended, another began. It was on to Detroit, another NFC North team he didn’t know well. Another running back he had never faced before. “Excellent feet,” Brooks thought, watching a few snaps of rookie Kevin Smith. “We’ll have to figure out a way to stop those cutback runs.” For the 230th time in Brooks’s pro career, the circle of NFL life was beginning again.