Dexter Jackson and Damien Robinson fill new roles as the Bucs' two-time Pro-Bowler sits out.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 2000
TAMPA -- He has been hurt before, but the injuries have never seemed so serious. He has missed games before, but the outcome has never seemed so critical to the Bucs' playoff chances.
John Lynch walked off the practice field Wednesday wearing gray sweats and the look of a player determined to run onto the field against the Bills on Sunday unless the Bucs do something smart, like hide his uniform.
"It's particularly hard when we're in the situation we're in," said Lynch, who is expected to miss the game with a dislocated left shoulder. "We're hanging on the edge of a cliff by our fingernails and trying to fight back, and it's a helpless feeling not being able to be in there."
To understand how valuable Lynch is to the defense, consider he has missed all or part of just two games in the past three seasons and the Bucs lost both -- against Tennessee in 1998 and Sunday at Chicago.
It's hard to know which seems more disjointed, Lynch's shoulder or the defense without its two-time Pro Bowl safety.
"Sure, we're going to miss his leadership and of course his aggressive tackling," said Damien Robinson, who will switch from free safety and take over Lynch's spot. "Basically, I mean, we can't let the wheels fall off. We've got to keep it going."
At 6 feet 2, 214 pounds, Robinson is a physical player who doesn't mind playing the run, but he lacks the anvil hitting style of Lynch.
"Going down in the paint, playing against the guys a little closer, taking on fullbacks, pulling linemen. That's the biggest difference; it's more physical," Robinson said.
"Like I told him the last time, a couple of those times I got in there with the offensive linemen and I'm wrestling, and I came to the sideline and told John, "Dang, man, I don't know how you do it.' I told him I'm going to have to pump a little more iron this week, a couple push-ups, and go on out here and take on these offensive linemen. So I have to get ready."
He is not alone. With Robinson switching to strong safety, the Bucs will give Dexter Jackson his first NFL start at free safety.
"If you have a flat tire on your car, you put your spare tire on and you keep going," Jackson said. "Right now I'm the spare tire, and we're trying to get to the destination we're trying to go to.
"I'm a real-size spare tire. I'm a new tire ... not a Firestone."
Robinson, 26, will be a free agent at the end of the season. With Lynch signing a contract extension, Jackson returning and the Bucs having drafted Southern Cal safety David Gibson this season, it's unlikely Robinson will return.
Robinson said it has been hard not to focus on his future.
"I mean it's hard, very hard," he said. "You know, because you've been around these guys for four years and sweating, enjoying each other's company, family and friends. But with things like that, at any given time the situation can change. I've got to try to stay focused on the job at hand.
"Like I said, I love Tampa Bay. I'd love to stay here. But you've just got to look at it realistically."
Fortunately for Robinson, he is having his best season as a pro. After missing training camp and nearly losing his job to Jackson before the former Florida State star injured an ankle, Robinson was out of shape and did not play well early in the season.
Now he not only is third on the team in tackles behind linebacker Derrick Brooks and Lynch, he is second in interceptions with a career-high four.
"I think I'm starting to (play well). It hurt me coming in late," Robinson said. "I really think early in the season it kind of hurt me missing the whole camp. And those early games when I had those ups and downs, I felt off. I was there, but I didn't feel like myself. I think in the middle of the season I started to get into shape and get into the football mentality. Right now I'm feeling good. I'm playing my type of game. I'm just going to try to finish strong these last five games."
Secondary coach Herman Edwards said Robinson is beginning to have an impact.
"He's starting to play to his expectations and ours. He's starting to really hit people," Edwards said. "His angles are better now; he's playing the ball a little bit better. Quietly, he's got four interceptions. You see him involved in the run game. You see him blowing guys up. He made a couple big plays in Chicago.
"But he's right. If you miss training camp, it doesn't matter who you are, a 10-year veteran or first-year guy, it puts you behind."
Much of what the Bucs do on defense is based on Lynch, and offenses are influenced by where he lines up on the field.
"It's tough because of what he brings, not so much in his play, but his presence," Edwards said. "Being on the football field, he's a leader out there for us. Obviously, when teams play us, they get concerned where he's at. And he's going to be a factor in our run game and as a physical presence on the field for us."
Though nobody can replace Lynch, Robinson believes he can do a pretty good imitation Sunday.
"I love the challenge," Robinson said. "It's about time I get a challenge. I've been here for two years. I've been a starter for two years. And it's finally come time where people are starting to recognize me as a being a key part of the defense. I feel I've contributed just as much as anyone else."