TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -Jeremiah Trotter sounded like a rookie relishing a rare opportunity to get onto the field rather than a four-time Pro Bowl selection who was once one of the top linebackers in the NFL.
The 10th-year pro figures to get plenty of playing time Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rest some of their regulars in their season finale against the Carolina Panthers.
A starter most of his nine seasons in Philadelphia and Washington, Trotter not only has accepted a backup job since signing with the NFC South champion Bucs (9-6), he's been an asset despite being inactive for 13 of the team's first 15 games.
``It's been tough,'' Trotter said. ``I was telling somebody the other day, it's the first time I haven't dressed since my rookie season.''
With coach Jon Gruden intent on ensuring the Bucs are healthy heading into next week's playoff opener against the New York Giants, Trotter expects a bigger workload for the second straight week.
After making one special teams tackles in the first 14 games, he had seven stops in his first action on defense during last Sunday's 21-19 defeat at San Francisco, a loss that locked the Bucs into the No. 4 seed.
Trotter, the third-string middle linebacker behind Barrett Ruud and Ryan Nece, said it will mean ``everything'' to get significant playing time against the Panthers (6-9), who were eliminated from postseason contention last week.
``Any time I can get on the field, for me it's about my reputation on the line,'' he said. ``I've set a standard, I believe, for myself in the NFL. And any time I get an opportunity to go out there and make some plays I want to try to do it.
``It's been 15 weeks of pent-up anger. I know one time I flew over the pile on a kickoff and Ryan was like: `Trot! What are you doing?' I said, `Listen, man. You sit on the sideline for 15 weeks and see what you do.' I was trying to take out anybody.''
While Tampa Bay is getting ready for the playoffs, the injury-riddled Panthers are closing a disappointing season that has raised speculation about whether coach John Fox will return in 2008.
Fox shrugged off questions about his future, saying he and his players were focused on finishing strong against the Bucs. Tampa Bay has a chance to go 6-0 in the NFC South after being 0-6 against division rivals in 2006.
``I'm in this to win and compete. I don't do it for the security of it,'' Fox said of rumors about his job. ``Unfortunately when you sign up for that, sometimes your family doesn't. That's always hard. But my group has seen (trying times) before, so they're handling it just fine.''
Rookie Matt Moore will make his third straight start at quarterback for Carolina, which beat Seattle two weeks ago and lost 20-13 to Dallas last Sunday.
He expects another stern test from Tampa Bay, even if he doesn't face some of its regulars on defense.
``I don't think that changes anything for me,'' said Moore, who has thrown for 390 yards and one touchdown in his two starts. ``I'm sure whoever is playing is going to be pretty good.''
A year ago, Trotter was one of the key players that Philadelphia rested a week before the start of the playoffs.
When the Eagles released him during training camp, the Bucs were elated to add experience and depth at middle linebacker, where Ruud has emerged as the team's leading tackler in his first season as a full-time starter.
The transition from star to the inactive list most Sundays wasn't easy. Still, the 30-year-old Trotter embraced it without complaint.
``I try to lead by example, working hard and being there whenever one of the young guys has a question,'' Trotter said.
``Sometimes I feel like a coach. Sometimes they'll come on the sideline after a play and ask: `Trot. Did you see me?' I say: `Listen, I've only got two eyes. I can't see everybody.'''
Teammates laud the contribution Trotter has made on the practice field and in the locker room.
Brooks said players understand what kind of sacrifice the linebacker has made and were happy when Trotter finally got some playing time against the 49ers.
``He surprised a lot of people, including myself, with the humility he's shown this whole season,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. ``From accepting the role and seeing it change throughout the year from what everyone thought it would be to evolving into something else with Barrett playing as well as he's played. It's been a tough pill to swallow. But at the same time, he's done it. And at the same time, it's helped Barrett get better.''
Gruden agreed.
``He was a leader on Philadelphia's defense, but I think he understands that the guy he's backing up right now is a heck of a football player,'' the coach said.
``But I can't say enough about Trot. He is a consummate pro. He cares about the success of the guy next to him as much as he cares about success for himself. And ultimately, he wants to win.
``Guys like that, you just can't have enough of them around you.''

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