"We work on that [lateral]," Del Rio said. "We want to score after we get an interception, so we work on blocking."
He smiled. "But this time when I heard so many guys calling for the ball, I knew they weren't blocking."
Memo to Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay: Sign middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson to a new contract. Immediately. Nickerson, who is eligible to become a free agent after the season, wants to get negotiations out of the way so he can concentrate on football. It would be wise to give him what he wants. In his ninth year out of California, Nickerson appears to be on his way to his second Pro Bowl. "He's the best linebacker in the league," says Maxie Baughan, Tampa Bay's veteran linebacker coach.
Nickerson is averaging 12.5 tackles a game. He slammed the Redskins for 13 in Tampa Bay's 14-6 victory on Sunday, and in the previous two games, he had 12 tackle efforts against the Browns and the Bears. In 34 games as a Buc, Nickerson has led or tied for the team lead in tackles 28 times. Oh, yeah: He also has reached double digits in tackles on 24 occasions.
"He finds the ball and makes the play and has a bad attitude when he gets there," Baughan says. "I played with Chuck Bednarik when I was with Philadelphia, and Hardy has his kind of toughness."
Nickerson, 30, is something of a throwback to the ironman Bednarik era of the 1950s and early '60s. He plays even in obvious passing situations when he might be required to cover a receiver. And then there's his leadership. "I get after him about practicing too hard," Baughan says. "He starts fights, and I'm afraid he's going to hurt his teammates."
The Bucs don't want to repeat Pittsburgh's mistake. Although he never made the Pro Bowl with the Steelers, Nickerson, whose style inspired his teammates to tag him with the nickname Fool Hardy, led the team in tackles in 1991 and '92. But because the Steelers declined to offer a contract extension during '91, Nickerson signed a one-year deal. After the '92 season he became a free agent and shocked a lot of NFL insiders by signing with the Bucs, who had lost at least 10 games for 10 straight seasons.
"A lot of people called me insane," Nickerson said in a 1994 interview. "But I wanted to take up a challenge."
After Tampa Bay finished 6-10 last season, Nickerson was so disenchanted that he began thinking about moving on when his contract expires after this season. But the additions of such players as Alvin Harper, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks convinced him that the franchise's new owner, Malcolm Glazer, was committed to winning.