Ruud awakening for Peterson, rest of NFL

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- The idea for this column came straight from Jon Gruden. Then, the echoes started.

"I don't know why people don't talk about our middle linebacker more,'' the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said moments after a 19-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Gruden's right. It is time to start talking about Barrett Ruud.

"Barrett Ruud,'' outside linebacker Cato June yelled as he stood at the locker next to Ruud's. "Barrett Ruud's the best middle linebacker in the league.''

So why, if you don't live in Nebraska or the greater Tampa Bay area, have you never heard of Ruud? Well, until Gruden's public plug, Ruud might have been one of the NFL's best-kept secrets.

If you still think Gruden and June are sensationalizing things, consider these weighty words:

"Yeah, I'll back up Gruden on that,'' said outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, who's headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after he decides to stop playing. "Barrett's just putting it all on tape right now. Nothing can be a better promotion than putting it on tape. That's what I encourage him to do. I want him to be recognized in that way.''

What Ruud put on tape Sunday was the same thing he has all season. He had eight tackles, a sack, one tackle for a loss and two quarterback hurries. But forget those numbers and go with this: Largely because of Ruud, the Bucs made Adrian Peterson look ordinary.

The Minnesota back finished with 85 yards on 19 carries. Take away a 22-yard burst in the first half and Peterson would have been as close to a non-factor as the best running back on the planet can be.

"Any team that can do that has done a good job,'' Ruud said.

Thing is, Ruud and the Bucs have done a great job all season. With an offense that has been inconsistent because of rotating quarterbacks and running backs, the defense has carried the Bucs to a 7-3 record. With Peterson now under their belts, the Bucs have held seven of the NFC's top 10 rushers (coming into this week) under 100 yards.

In nine of their 10 games, they didn't allow an opposing rusher to run for 100 yards and didn't allow a rushing touchdown. The only back the Bucs have given up 100 yards to was Jamaal Charles and the only running back to run for a touchdown was Kolby Smith. They both play for the Kansas City Chiefs, so you can debate if either feat really meant anything.

Tampa Bay's defense has been dominant because, as Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber near the end of their careers, Ruud has stepped up as a bridge between the past and the future.

"He's really good,'' defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He's only going to get better.''

Ruud's gotten very good, very quickly. After the Bucs drafted him out of Nebraska in 2005, Ruud spent his first two seasons backing up Shelton Quarles. He took over as the starter last season and has helped the Bucs make the case that they might have the best linebacker corps in the NFL.

Ruud's an every-down linebacker who makes big plays -- he has three sacks and two interceptions. He started his emergence last season, but the campaign for a Pro Bowl berth is starting to go beyond Gruden.

Brooks and June will tell you he's the best middle linebacker in the league. Coaches and personnel guys from other teams at least will tell you he's among the best.

Perhaps the only one who doesn't realize it is Ruud.

"I know we do get kind of hidden down here in Tampa for whatever reason,'' Ruud said. "At the same time, all we can do is control what we do between the lines out there. That's kind of what you play for ... after the game, the players on the other team tell you they respect how you play.''

The respect is growing and the numbers of Ruud and the Tampa Bay defense against opposing runners this season speak volumes. Still, about the only guy in the locker room who wasn't pointing to Ruud as the league's best middle linebacker was Ruud.

When told of Gruden's comments, he politely gave his vote to Carolina's Jon Beason and then said there are lots of good middle linebackers in the NFL.

"I love watching other middle linebackers throughout the league play,'' Ruud said. "I've got a lot of respect for a lot of middle linebackers throughout the league. If I'm mentioned up there near the top of it, that's an honor for me.''

Ruud has been mentioned and it's not just by Gruden.