At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, Aaron Rouse has the body of a linebacker, which makes it almost impossible not to notice him when he's playing safety. He's four to five inches taller than the other safeties on the roster, so without trying to, he simply stands out.
But Rouse spent most of his rookie year with the Green Bay Packers in 2007 trying to do just the opposite. He didn't want to be noticed, at least not in the way rookie safeties generally are by veteran defensive players, which is for barking out the wrong alignment or making a poor pre-snap adjustment.
In short, Rouse just wanted to blend in with the rest of the secondary, and the defense as a whole, a tough task as the only defensive back in the 2007 draft class.
"Coming in and playing with guys like Charles Woodson and Al Harris and A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett, and being the only rookie in the secondary and having to make calls and stuff, it was kind of tough," Rouse said, reflecting upon last year.
"You didn't want to stand out too much. You wanted to do everything right, make the right calls. You try to gain their trust, try to gain the trust of the veterans, so they don't look at me as just another rookie, they look at me as another player who's going to contribute to the team."
In took a while, but Rouse feels he gained that trust of his defensive teammates last year, particularly during a three-game starting stint in November. That stretch of games, during which the defense posted a shutout and Rouse picked off two passes while starting in place of the injured Nick Collins, is the foundation upon which Rouse hopes to build his push for a starting job in 2008.
How strong a push Rouse can make is difficult to say right now. With 2005 second-round draft pick Collins and third-year pro Atari Bigby the current starting safeties, it's not as though Rouse is trying to supplant an aging veteran whose best years are behind him.
Collins, with 45 career starts, and Bigby, who started all 16 games in his first full season in 2007, are both considered young, ascending players by the organization and aren't about to be content stepping aside to take a backup role this early in their careers.
Additional backups Charlie Peprah and Tyrone Culver, who's returning from a shoulder injury that cost him all of the 2007 season, are in their third years as well, so no one's play is expected to decline.
"Nick and Atari have the most experience and the potential to make plays, and the bottom line comes down to who's going to and who's not," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "All those guys I would think will continue to get better, and it will be interesting to see how they do."
That leaves Rouse with his work cut out for him, but considering the strides he made as a rookie, there's no reason for him not to set his goals high. He has to prove he can perform like he did last November all the time, though, not just for a few games, because that will only increase others' faith in him.
"It's not about going out there and trying to improve so much that you outshine these guys, because these guys can play too, but it's more about being consistent," Rouse said. "You have to be consistent, and you have to make plays."
Rouse felt he began to earn his teammates' trust shortly after Collins injured his knee in the third quarter last season at Kansas City (Nov. 4).
Rouse went from playing as an extra linebacker in the goal-line defense to the quarterback of the coverage scheme in a matter of moments, and his goal was simply not to be the "weakest link," as he put it, on the defense.
He accomplished that during the second half of the 33-22 win over the Chiefs, and the following week in his first start, a 34-0 shutout of the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 11. After that game, he said Woodson and Harris talked with him about how he did, and their feedback provided a mental boost.
"My teammates looked around and said, 'This kid can play,'" Rouse said. "We were in the right coverages and we did everything right and we had fun playing.
"Coming in and gaining the respect and trust from my teammates, it does a lot for your confidence."
With that confidence, Rouse altered his mindset on the field in his second and third starts, against Carolina on Nov. 18 and at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
"I wasn't out there just trying to make sure not to mess up," he said. "I was out there to compete and make plays."
And he made one right away, stepping in front of Panthers tight end Jeff King and intercepting Vinny Testaverde's pass on the third snap of the game. The Packers couldn't convert that turnover into points (Julius Peppers blocked a field-goal try), but they did when Rouse got his second pick four days later against the Lions.
On the first play of the second quarter in Detroit, Rouse anticipated Jon Kitna was going deep over the middle to Calvin Johnson, and jumped the route. He easily snagged Kitna's throw and returned it 34 yards to the Detroit 11-yard line, setting up a TD pass to Greg Jennings on the very next play and erasing an early 6-0 deficit.
The turnover was the turning point in another key NFC North victory, and according to Sanders, film study showed that wasn't the only instance Rouse was poised to have that kind of impact on a game during those three starts.
"There were a number of times that he was in position and the quarterback wanted to throw, and if the ball would have come out, he would have intercepted," Sanders said. "But the ball didn't come out because the quarterback saw him or a lineman tipped it. There were some other times he was in excellent shape."
That's not to say Rouse's game couldn't use some polish, however. Sanders noted that while Rouse's anticipation after the snap was impressive last year, like any young safety his overall game will be that much stronger when his anticipation before the snap reaches the same level, allowing the defensive adjustments to be made that much quicker.
Also, Rouse took poor tackling angles at times against running backs Adrian Peterson (Vikings) and Kevin Jones (Lions) in those starts last year, so his open-field tackling will be watched closely.
"I think it's just the discipline you have to have," Sanders said, describing how Rouse can shore up some skills. "He's the quarterback-type guy back there, he has to make the call, so it's the diligence to study, the diligence to understand what's going on and know where everybody's supposed to be, to know where (he's) supposed to be, and be in position to make the plays.
"He did a great job of getting in positions we tried to get him in, and he ended up making plays. That's a feather in his cap. And certainly the more you play, the longer you're in the system, the more you see, the game gets slower and slower, and hopefully he'll be better."
Rouse is as serious about his game as any player, and he'll do the work and film study necessary to continue to improve. He's not shy about saying he wants to start, but he won't let that drive and determination get in the way of being a good teammate, particularly around Collins and Bigby.
"It's a fine line," Rouse said. "Obviously me, Nick and Atari, we're all good friends. In our off time we hang out together. But when we get out on that field, it's about your career. You're out there trying to have fun but at the same time you want to compete to be No. 1.
"Everybody here wants to be No. 1 at their position, but the ultimate goal is to have a No. 1 team. So I think it's about going out there and making strides the way you want to be in your career, and at the same time making strides in the same direction the team is going."
Should he not beat out Collins or Bigby for a starting job, Rouse still would have a valuable place on special teams. Rouse became an impact player on the coverage units in the postseason last year, reaching a comfort level with the task he didn't have earlier.
He made three tackles on kickoff coverage in the two playoff games, including two on back-to-back kickoffs in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants. Rouse only had two special teams tackles during the regular season.
"Special teams-wise I feel I can be so much better," he said. "Last year, I kind of was doing a lot of looking around. This year I'm expecting to go out there and be a force to be reckoned with.
"You could see last year, toward the end of the season, I got my rhythm down. I knew what to expect, and I knew what the team wanted from me, and I was able to fulfill those roles."
He obviously wants a much larger role this year, but he won't get that by blending in. That was his rookie goal. Now it's about finally standing out, and for more than a 6-4 frame at a 5-11 position.
"This year, I ain't holding back," Rouse said. "I'm just going out there playing full-gear, and this year I feel like it's going to be my year."