DE Simeon Rice thinks the Bucs' defense has to jump on Michael Vick and the Falcons' offense right out of the gate Saturday
On September 12, 1999, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers surrendered just 107 total yards to the New York Giants over the course of an entire game...and lost.
Three turnovers, two returned for touchdowns by the New York defense, doomed the Bucs to a 17-13 defeat even though they allowed fewer yards on that afternoon than they had in all but one other game in franchise history.
How is that game remembered? Well, not very fondly. The Bucs overcame that opening-day defeat to advance all the way to the NFC Championship Game, but the Giants game remains a vivid example of an opportunity lost to this day.
Similarly, while the Bucs allowed a season-high 443 yards of offense to the Atlanta Falcons on November 20 of this year, they also won the game, 30-27, on a thrilling fourth-quarter rally in the Georgia Dome. That game will always be remembered fondly because of the opportunity the Bucs created in an otherwise adverse situation.
The message, of course, is that it's all about Ws and Ls. The final result gives the statistics their historic slant: The Bucs "overcame" their problems in Atlanta this year, but they "gave one away" to the Giants in 1999.
In other words, the Bucs don't care that they gave up an uncharacteristically high number of yards and points to the Falcons five weeks ago. They got the win. However, they very much care about not allowing 443 yards again this Saturday, when Atlanta comes to Raymond James Stadium for the rematch. No one on the Bucs' defense is assuming the team can overcome another prolific outing by quarterback Michael Vick.
"Yeah, [that] was unfortunate, but we can't allow that to occur this time," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who has 4.5 sacks of Vick in previous Buc-Falcon games. "We've got to go out there and step on this team right out of the gate. If we don't, then it's going to be a doozy for us, it's going to be a really hard one. The easier we can make it, the more we can dominate."
The Bucs have had some very fine days against Vick, who himself has made dozens of defenses look bad with his incredible elusiveness and cannon left arm. When the Falcons last visited Tampa a year and two weeks ago, for instance, Tampa Bay's defense sacked Vick five times and allowed him to complete 13 of 27 passes for 115 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The home team won that contest, 27-0.
Last month, however, Vick was as sharp as he has been all season in shredding the Bucs' second-ranked defense. The Falcon passer threw for 306 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and was mainly responsible for Atlanta's conversion of 11 of 17 third-down attempts. The Bucs simply won by capitalizing on early Falcon mistakes for a 10-0 lead and then making enough big plays in the final minutes to pull it out. It very easily could have gone the other way, and then the Bucs and Falcons would be flipped in the NFC South playoff race.
"We were fortunate to win earlier in the year," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It took some dramatic play-making late in the football game to win it. We've got to concentrate on that. We've got to play great to win. I think we're really looking forward to playing, and we'll see what happens."
On some occasions, said Gruden, the Bucs executed their defensive plan very well only to have Vick somehow make the big play anyway. That seemed unavoidable at times, but the Bucs have had experience shutting him down for an entire game. The key is to play hard for 60 minutes, on every down.
"I think in Atlanta the first time around he escaped us several times and made big plays with his arm," said Gruden. "Even when you have perfect containment, he can hurt you. So what you do know is that you've got to finish the play to the whistle. You've got to keep after him, because if he does break containment he is a real problem. Sometimes the biggest plays I've seen him make is when he's been fenced in and somehow, someway he got out of the yard and made a big play. He's dangerous."
Buccaneer defenders aren't willing to concede that some big plays from Vick and the Falcons' explosive offense are inevitable. They reviewed videotape of the game in Atlanta on Tuesday morning, and they saw specific issues that can be corrected.
"We gave up a lot of big plays to them, passes down the field," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "And there are some he can't do again in this game if we can expect to win. We've got to tackle better. Period. We need to control the run game towards the end. Our offense can help us by getting the lead and prevent them from running. We've got to tackle well early, don't let them get the running game going, and keep the ball in front of us."
Brooks has had individual success against Vick before, too. He made several solo tackles on Vick in the Bucs-Falcons matchup late in 2002 that became signature plays during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run. Brooks has not wilted before Vick because he has been able to counter speed with speed. That's something the Buccaneer defense has always preached in preparing for Atlanta, and that's something that may have been lacking in the last matchup.
"We need to do some of the same things but do them a lot better and do them a lot faster," said defensive tackle Ellis Wyms. "They had some success on offense on us when we played up there, even though we won the game. They moved the ball well, they scored a lot. We know we've go to fix some things, because we can't count on outscoring them. We have to take the things that we did well away from that game, but the mistakes we made, we've got to correct them."