Sacks, the final frontier.
Barrett Ruud's personal star trek transported him to another dimension Sunday against Green Bay as Tampa Bay's 25-year-old middle linebacker registered the first sack of his budding NFL career.
By taking down Aaron Rodgers for a 9-yard loss late in the opening half, Ruud stymied a Packers drive and offered further proof that the 36th player selected in the 2005 draft can do it all.
"Barrett Ruud is quietly becoming the best middle linebacker in the game," veteran defensive end Kevin Carter said. "For him not to receive any Pro Bowl support last year was crazy. Now, he's even better. I take pride in working hard and arriving here early, but Barrett puts me to shame."
Ruud replaced Shelton Quarles as the starter in 2007 and promptly earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September. He finished the season with a team-high 169 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
The former Nebraska standout is off to another fast start this season.
Ruud is the only NFL linebacker with two interceptions, and his 25 solo tackles rank fourth in the league.
His acrobatic end zone interception at Chicago last week made all the highlight films, but Ruud's work usually generates little national fanfare.
That's just the way he likes it.
"The only recognition you care about is the guys you play against and your teammates," Ruud said. "We're not a team like Dallas, that seems to be on TV at night almost every week. All I want is respect from the guys I play with on Sunday."
Not a problem.
"Barrett comes in here every week and works so hard," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "I was glad to see him come up big with a sack and a pick Sunday. I tell him, 'You call the defense and we'll roll with you.'"
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was on Nebraska's staff when Ruud's father, Tom, played for the Cornhuskers from 1972 to 1974.
When Barrett was still on the draft board early in the second round, Kiffin lobbied on his behalf.
"Barrett Ruud's a pro, and that's a big compliment," Kiffin said. "He's had great mentors here in Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, and he respects those guys a lot. He's going to be here a long time and he's going to make a lot of plays."
The middle linebacker in Tampa Bay's Cover 2 often has coverage responsibilities deep downfield.
That's a facet of the job Quarles excelled at during his five years patrolling the middle of the Bucs defense. Ruud is starting to show surprising athleticism for his 6-foot-2, 241-pound frame, and Sunday's sack could further encourage Kiffin to use his skills as a blitzer.
"I hadn't had a sack before, so I needed that," Ruud said. "People had been getting on me a little bit because I've been starting for a year-and-a-half now and I didn't have a sack, so it was good."
Ruud and his teammates know the 2009 Pro Bowl is a long way off. First, there's the task of repeating as division champions and advancing to that Feb. 1 shindig at Raymond James Stadium.
Center Jeff Faine arrived in Tampa only seven months ago as a free agent from New Orleans, but he already has experienced a Ruud awakening.
"The guy's always at the facility," Faine said. "He does everything he possibly can to put himself in the best position to be able to roll on game day. He's already one of the leaders on this football team, and he does it with his play. Anyone who looks at the tape realizes he's one of the best middle linebackers in the game."