Editor's note: Angelo Crowell is one of the linebackers on Len Pasquarelli's team of Under-the-Radar players.
Every player has his "I've arrived" moment that he won't soon forgot. For up-and-coming Bills linebacker Angelo Crowell, he recently realized that he was beginning to make a name for himself when one of the sport's biggest names, Peyton Manning, commended Crowell on his performance, yup, by name.
"He said, 'Hey Crowell, good game, man,'" recalled Crowell, who had 15 tackles, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a pressure in Buffalo's narrow loss to Indianapolis Nov. 12. "I didn't know that he even knew my name."
Not many outside of Buffalo or Charlottesville, Va., or his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., would have known Crowell's name his first two seasons in the NFL when he was a special teamer and reserve linebacker. A third-round pick out of Virginia in 2003, he played just one snap as a rookie. But when then-starting weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes' Achilles snapped in the third game of last season, Crowell's name became etched in the starting lineup.
Crowell went on to start the final 13 games at the "Wil" spot and amassed 125 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions -- earning enough confidence from the Bills that when new head coach Dick Jauron and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell took over in the offseason and installed their version of the Tampa 2 scheme, they kept Crowell on the weak side, moved Spikes to the strong side and released veteran Jeff Posey.
Crowell has given the Bills no reason to regret their trust in him. He's started every game this season at either the Wil or the Sam spot (when Spikes has been injured) and only middle linebacker London Fletcher-Baker has been on the field more for Buffalo's defense. Crowell is second on the team to Fletcher-Baker with, according to the coaching staff, 88 total tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He also has two sacks and seven deflections.
He hasn't reached the level of Fletcher-Baker or Spikes as of yet but Crowell, 25, certainly holds his own in one of the league's best linebacker trios. At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds and the change-of-direction skills of a defensive back, Crowell has the ideal physical attributes to be the playmaking weakside linebacker in a system that traditionally features the position. What Crowell really enjoys, he says, is the simplicity of the Tampa 2. Usually the defense is either in Cover 1, 2 or 3. Playing the Tampa 2 means less "mental gymnastics" and more running to the football for Crowell, which just so happens to be what he does best.
"This is the greatest defense for me being a younger player with less experience," Crowell said. In the offseason he studied film of Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks, circa 2002, to see how the Wil position in the Tampa 2 was meant to be played. "I'm a speed, downhill player," Crowell said. "Once I know what I'm doing out there I'm one way. I don't like a lot of reads, having a lot of keys, a lot of stuff to think about out there. I play the best when the game plan is simple and I can play the game downhill."
Said Fewell: "He's made for a defense like this."
When he was toiling on the bench his first two seasons, however, Crowell wasn't so certain that he could cut it on this level.
"I started questioning myself, 'Am I good enough to really play on this level?'" Crowell said. "I didn't have the confidence. I'd watch Fletch and Spikes and wonder, 'Man, if I get out there can I make those plays?' I knew I had the potential and the talent, but I didn't believe it until I went out there and did it."
Crowell says he started to gain that confidence in a game against the Chiefs last season. He remembers talking trash to Kansas City's Larry Johnson early in the 14-3 win. Crowell finished that game with 15 tackles, a sack, and an interception.
"I went out there and just played, I didn't worry about mental mistakes," he said. "At that point I just let it all go, and if something was going to go wrong, it was just going to go wrong. I wasn't scared to make mistakes."
Earlier last season, after a mistake in coverage against Atlanta in Week 3, Fletcher-Baker followed a coach's scolding with some encouragement, telling Crowell, "Crow, you're a heckuva player. Just go out there and play." That also provided a boost of confidence.
"That let me know I'd earned his respect," Crowell said. "When I first came into the league I looked up to those guys [Fletcher-Baker and Spikes]. Being out there with them makes me raise my level of play. They're models of what I want my game to be. When I line up with those guys I want them to know I'm a player."
Crowell says the game started to slow down for him toward the end of last season, and that he knew he belonged by the time it was over. Fewell says the game is coming to Crowell more now.
Interestingly enough Crowell has gone from "put me in coach, I'm ready to play" to being versatile enough to play several spots. He's moved from the Sam to the Wil to the Mike (middle linebacker) almost seamlessly because he worked most of the offseason on the strong side while Spikes continued his rehabilitation. He also trained as the team's backup middle linebacker.
Fewell hasn't been able to give Crowell as many playmaking opportunities on the quarterback (six to eight blitzes a game would be ideal) as he'd like because, with such a young defense, the Bills tend to be more conservative. When the Bills go to nickel personnel, Crowell covers backs, tight ends and even wide receivers. Fewell said Crowell also has remained stout against the run.
Crowell has little problem identifying his signature play this season -- it's easily his interception of Daunte Culpepper against Miami in Week 2. Crowell caught the ball along the sideline and came down with both feet just in bounds. His brother, former Lions receiver Germaine Crowell, could not have done it better. As a matter of fact, Germaine called his little brother to tell him so.
"I always fooled around like I was a wide receiver," Angelo Crowell said, "but that was like a dream to do something like that."
Said Fewell: "I've seen him grow from happy to be on field starting, to 'I'm supposed to be here, to I'm supposed to make plays.'"
And, in the process, make a name for himself.
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.