Following his team's 29-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 7, Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck sat with friends at a Nashville grill, bemoaning the brutal loss that essentially doomed his team to a wild card's nomadic January. Without regard for the player's obvious dejection, a twentysomething autograph-seeker approached the table and thrust her pen at Bulluck. "I'll sign," he said finally, "but do you even know who I am?"
"Well, no," the woman stammered, "but you sort of look like a player." Watching her walk off with his signature on a Titans pennant, Bulluck shook his head. "Happens all the time," he said. "Probably always will—until we make some noise in the playoffs."
That roar was finally heard last Saturday in Baltimore, where the Titans and the Ravens renewed their blood feud in an AFC wild-card playoff. As Bulluck stormed off the field following the Titans' 20-17 win, he bellowed, "We're for real! Buh-leeeve that!" His outburst was understandable, given what he and his defensive mates had just accomplished. The Tennessee defense smothered Baltimore halfback Jamal Lewis (35 yards on 14 carries after rushing for 2,066 yards in the regular season, second most in league history), harassed quarterback Anthony Wright (two costly interceptions) and allowed the Ravens' offense to cross midfield only twice.
With 4:30 left, Wright found a hole in the Titans' defense, hitting tight end Todd Heap with a 35-yard TD pass that tied the score at 17 But with 29 seconds left, Gary Anderson booted a 46-yard field goal that ended Baltimore's five-game winning streak in the series and sent the Titans to New England to face the Patriots this Saturday.
Having entered the playoffs with the league's top-ranked rush defense, some Titans scoffed at midweek suggestions that they couldn't stop Lewis. "What will they have to do to stop us from running it down their throats?" Baltimore coach Brian Billick asked. "Put eight guys in the box, which won't be anything new for us."
"Well, we loaded the box, but Coach Billick left out the part where we make plays," said Bulluck, who had a team-high eight tackles.
Though he's among the NFL's fastest and most athletic linebackers, Bulluck toils in a scheme that rarely asks him to rush the passer. "Keith has always been able to do whatever he wants to on the field, but he's become more patient, less emotional," says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. "We ask him to run from sideline to sideline and drop into coverage. He does it all. Every game he makes a play and I think, How did he do that?"
Chosen with the 30th pick in the 2000 draft out of Syracuse, the 6'3", 235-pound Bulluck became a starter last season, and he surprised even his coaches when he led the team with 125 tackles. This season he was the Titans' top tackier again, with 135, and was voted to his first Pro Bowl. But he dismisses any talk of individual honors. "All I care about is the playoffs. And for us, starting on the road was a blessing in disguise," he said. "The organization got to exorcise our Baltimore demons, in the Ravens' house."
The only way to do that was to stop Lewis. Tennessee's defensive coaches had to tweak their regular scheme, which is based on aggressive edge-rushing and upfield pursuit, because Lewis could exploit it with his cut-back ability. Instead of roaming behind the front four before the snap, Bulluck hovered close to the line over Baltimore left tackle Jonathan Ogden. And the defensive front concentrated on filling the running lanes.
"How many players can say they went against a 2,000-yard rusher and shut him down?" Bulluck said afterward, in a nearly empty locker room. No response was necessary.