The Bucs' Rabih Abdullah continues to excel on special teams.
By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2001
TAMPA -- You have seen Rabih Abdullah do it over and over. And you have wondered just how he manages to get down there so fast, through so many bodies, under such violent conditions, and finish with such proficiency.
Covering kickoff and punt returns is an art form, mastering it is a rarity. Abdullah has done just that.
Entering Sunday's game in Green Bay, Abdullah leads the Bucs with eight solo special-teams tackles, the bulk of which were jarring blows on kickoff and punt returners. He accounts for a quarter of the tackles on returns.
"He's doing an exceptional job and it's probably been that way for the last two years," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "It's a mind-set and he's got it. He doesn't want to be blocked. It's important to him and it's showing on the field.
"This is a guy who really didn't play on special teams before, and was the star of his high school and college team. He really had to learn how to do it. He wasn't great at it when he came in (but) he knew his chance to play was depending on that, so it became important to him and it's at a point where he's excellent at it."
A running back by trade, Abdullah, 26, said his success chasing down returners is a product of instinct, hard work and a desire to find a way to contribute.
"It's my opportunity to make plays and I want to take full advantage of it," said Abdullah, in his fourth year out of Lehigh. "I've been in the right place at the right time. I'm going all out and things seem to work out for me."
But to make those tackles, Abdullah said he usually follows his own specific approach, which can be broken down into four stages.
Abdullah said he commonly lines up directly behind kicker Martin Gramatica, about 5 yards back. As Gramatica runs to the ball, Abdullah starts his sprint. The key, he said, is to time Gramatica's strides perfectly.
"I see how Martin is lined up, and I get my proper footing and try to time my steps with his so we're in perfect stride together," Abdullah said. "I've timed his strides pretty well now so that I don't go offsides. That's the important thing, not to go offside."
Once the ball is kicked, the next 20 to 30 yards is an all-out sprint, as well as a time of assessment of the first wave of defenders. Abdullah said at this stage, he pays less attention to the runner and more to the how the return team is setting up.
"Obviously, you have to run down at full speed but you also have to make reads on the run," Abdullah said. "You have to look up and read your keys and see how they are set up, which way they are going. You're pretty much looking at the guy in front of you and looking to see where they are forming, where they are trying to turn the run.
"The key here is to really not stop your feet. You have to keep moving, on the go."
The second wave of defenders is known as "The Wedge." About five players form a bulldozing barrier. The barrier collides with the wave of coverage players trying to open a hole. The returner will take the first opening he can get to.
Busting the wedge is critical.
"You look for that hole," Abdullah said. "Now, there are different routes you can take. Coach Joe (Marciano) usually goes over our specific gaps and where we have to fill in. (It changes from game to game) it's not helter skelter where we just run down there and try to smash people, we all have specific assignments.
"If you fit in the wrong gap, just like in defense, if you're here and you supposed to be over there and he squeezes in that gap, he's gone."
One drawback to dealing with the wedge is that it is comprised of linemen and linebackers.
"They are pretty much always bigger than we are," Abdullah said.
Abdullah admits that all the hard work needed to get there is wasted if he doesn't make a solid tackle. It means remembering fundamentals.
"Well, I used to be linebacker in high school so I know how to tackle," he said. "It's fun. You have to bring the man down, somehow. All the guys on our coverage unit are committed to that. It's not like I'm not out there by myself. We've got really good guys, Dwight (Smith), Al (Singleton), Todd Yoder. Guys who want to get there and get the tackle."
On kickoffs, the Bucs' general strategy is to stop the return team from getting to the 30-yard line. Opponents gain 23.5 yards per kickoff return.
"I'm having lot of fun," Abdullah said. "I enjoy football. No matter where I was playing, wide receiver, linebacker, whatever, I would enjoy it. It's the essence of the game."
Marciano, special-teams coach, said Abdullah's frequent tackles downfield are a testimony to his size (6-1, 230 pounds), speed and tenacity.
"He covers kickoffs and punts like how he runs with the ball, hard and fast," Marciano said. "Guys try to block him in the open field, he powers through them. He's not a papier-mache doll, you can't deviate his course very easily. There is some film study involved. But, it's attitude, it's desire, it's wanting to do it."