Matching up against a seasoned Pro Bowl WR in his first game, cornerback earns praise, even love.
NEW ORLEANS - Ronyell Whitaker was face down on the Superdome turf, visions of a New Orleans touchdown celebration - not to mention his fleeting NFL career - dancing in his head.
The celebration never happened.
Whitaker's career just might.
Whitaker, a rookie making his pro debut, was the Bucs' fifth defensive back in the nickel package Sunday, repeatedly called on to cover Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn. As it just so happened, Whitaker was involved in the play the changed the game.
The Bucs trailed 7-0 late in the first half when Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks zeroed in on Horn in the end zone. Whitaker dove and got a finger on the ball.
Horn dropped it.
"I didn't know he dropped it; I thought he caught it," Whitaker said. "I looked up and he wasn't celebrating, so I figured he dropped it. I just got my hand on it. I didn't know it was going to be enough for him to drop it, you know what I'm saying? But, fortunately, I just had a chance to get my hand on it."
Whitaker is all about chances.
A week ago, he was on the Bucs practice squad. Two months ago, he was home in Norfolk, Va., hoping his NFL career would not consist of one six-week training camp.
This is what it's like to be a rookie, scraping to make a roster. This also is what it's like to be a member of the Bucs secondary, where anonymity is a solid first step toward the lineup.
"I don't even know some of the safeties that are in our rotation right now," coach Jon Gruden said.
Whitaker, undrafted out of Virginia Tech,was released after training camp on Aug. 29. On Oct. 9, the Bucs called him back. Last week, Whitaker was promoted to the 53-man roster for the first time after cornerback Tim Wansley tore a hamstring.
"He's a great kid, a detail kid," defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "He has a naturally high motor. He has fun at work and he's one of those guys who uplifts people throughout the week."
Though Horn had nine catches for 118 yards, most came in the first half.
Trailing by a touchdown, the Saints tried to pick on Whitaker on first and goal from the 6, but Whitaker broke up a pass intended for Horn in the end zone. On the next play, Brooks was sacked and the Bucs recovered his fumble.
"How about Whitaker?" defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "That play in the end zone was a big-time play. That's a Darrell Green play. They were picking on him. Don't you think they know the guy who'd been on the practice squad all year? They were all pointing at him in the huddle. Did he step up, or what? I love that kid."
More important to Whitaker, veteran cornerback Ronde Barber loves him. The running joke among members of the secondary each week is for players to earn the love of Barber, a seventh-year pro who, after a victory earlier this season, said he loved his fellow defensive backs - some of them, not all of them.
"Mike Tomlin ran with that: "Our goal this week is to make 20 love you,"' Barber said. "Guys who play hard, guys who put it on the line, guys who perform, those are the kind of guys I can love."
Whitaker admitted to being concerned the past week, but credited his teammates for helping him prepare.
"I'm a rookie going up against a Pro Bowler," Whitaker said. "I was expecting them to go at me a lot. My teammates have been telling me all week and especially today, "You've got to step up to it. You can't look at it as you're a rookie, he's a Pro Bowl veteran. You've got to look at it as you against him."'
Next week, it will be more of the same.
"My whole objective was to make Ronde Barber love me," Whitaker said. "At the end of the game he told me he loved me. Next week, I've got to get him to marry me."