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TAMPA -- John Howell did not waste any time.
Subbing for injured Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, the second-year pro and his defense faced a Falcons' third and 1 in the first quarter from their 39. In the Bucs huddle, Howell was taken to task.
"Warren Sapp turned around and gave me those big eyes and that big smile and he pointed at me and I knew it was game time," Howell said. "I knew I was a starter right then and right there, and I'd better step up."
He did just that.
On the ensuing play, Howell sacked scrambling quarterback Michael Vick at the Bucs 45-yard line for a loss of 6.
Howell also finished with five tackles, but no play was more important than the sack, said defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
"His first-half play was huge," Kiffin said. "We needed that sack and if Vick got by him, he was gone. I was just saying, 'Hold on, John, hold on.' "
Playing in place of Lynch was not an easy task, Howell said.
"When a guy like John Lynch goes down, you better play like John Lynch and that's not an easy thing to do," Howell said. "A four-time Pro Bowler, future Hall of Famer, as far as I'm concerned the best safety that ever played the game."
Howell said the Bucs believe, especially in the secondary, the backups could start anywhere in the league. "We've got some great backup players," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, referring to Howell. "Whenever you step onto the field, you're a starter."
"I think John Howell got in there and played fantastic," defensive end Simeon Rice said.
Not every play by Howell would make the highlight reel, as he was flattened in the fourth quarter by running back T.J. Duckett. Coach Jon Gruden said Howell played well in place of Lynch, who is expected back soon.
"He aggravated his neck but the X-rays are negative," Gruden said. "I think he's going to be okay; he should be ready to go next week. ... John Howell really came in and stepped up for John Lynch."
Every time Howell, 24, came off the field, Lynch gave him pointers on what to look for. Howell said Lynch is as great a man off the field as he is on the field.
"He's been there for me since Day 1 since I stepped foot at One Buc, and he's continued to do that," Howell said. "I'm just concerned about his health I want to play, but not at the expense of him being hurt."