C Jeff Christy has helped QB Shaun King enjoy outstanding protection this season
Through 10 games, the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have scored 252 points, a whopping 94 more than they had through the first 10 contests of '99. They've recorded nearly twice as many touchdowns as last season and are on pace to break the team record in points scored.
All of this, and the team's running game has actually lost a few yards from last year's average (123-117). The passing attack is up by a few notches (184-164), but the team's third-down conversion rate is down and its first downs per game are nearly identical. As phenomenal as K Martin Gramatica has been, his totals of 18 field goals in 22 attempts are exactly the same numbers he had at this point last year.
So where's the difference? While four return touchdowns have obviously helped, they do not come close to answering the question.
The most obvious answer, then, at least statistically, is that QB Shaun King is enjoying ample time in the pocket to accomplish what he sets out to do. King has been sacked just 13 times this season, and the team as a whole has suffered just 14 sacks. It would appear that the acquisition of Pro Bowl linemen Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel, and their deployment by new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, has been just the tonic the Bucs' offense was hoping for.
Christy at center and McDaniel at left guard join right guard Frank Middleton and tackles Jerry Wunsch and Pete Pierson to form a line that is protecting its quarterback almost twice as effectively as last year. While the 1999 Buccaneers allowed sacks on 8.59% of their pass plays (pass attempts plus sacks), the 2000 squad has brought that number down to 4.67%.
Head Coach Tony Dungy has certainly appreciated the difference.
"It's good," said Dungy of the solid protection. "That's going to help you win a lot of games. It's something we put an emphasis on. I think Shaun has done a good job in terms of seeing the blitzes and getting the ball, and when we've had to protect one-on-one, we've done it pretty well. You definitely want to not put your quarterback under stress, and for the most part, we've done a good job of that this year."
It ranks even better than 'good' when compared against Buccaneer teams down the line. Should Tampa Bay maintain their current sacks-per-pass play average, or any number below 5.73%, it would mark their best performance in that category since 1982.
Longtime Buc fans will note that demarcation line as the end of the Doug Williams era. While those Tampa Bay offensive lines of the late 70s and early 80s should be lauded for consistently putting up low sacks-allowed numbers, Williams was such an unselfish player that he often threw passes away to avoid sacks, helping the team while hurting his own stats.
For instance, in 1979, Williams was sacked just seven times in 404 pass attempts, but he also completed only 41.8% of his passes for a team that won the NFC Central and advanced to the conference championship game. (As a whole, Buccaneer QBs were sacked 12 times that season, the team record for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season). The Bucs' sacks-per-pass-play numbers from 1979 through 1982 never rose above 4.33%, but they ballooned to 8.49% in 1983 and haven't been below five percent since.
Just as Williams helped his cause by throwing the ball away, King has made his offensive line's numbers look even better by showing a knack for escaping the rush. The Bucs' young signal-caller has been particularly adept at shuffling back a step as he's about to be sacked, then rolling right or left to gain extra time. Tampa Bay has purposely moved King out of the pocket on occasion, as well, but in either scenario, his underrated mobility has helped the Bucs' offense keep drives alive.
"We have some plays in for him and some plays to get him out of the pocket," said Dungy. "The thing that it does, as it did (against Green Bay), when things break down, you can still make first downs and stay on the field. That's the most important thing."
Christy and McDaniel, who own a combined 13 Pro Bowl bids, have certainly helped with their versatile talents, but their position coach, Chris Foerster, believes there is plenty of credit to spread around.
"It's always everybody," said Foerster. "Obviously, we've added some players to our line, and we've put more of an emphasis on the passing game. You're going to get better at something the more you focus on it. And Coach Steckel is very protection conscious."
That means helping out the tackles on the edges with tight ends and chip blocks, though that part of the philosophy was in place last year, too. The Bucs have purposely shored up the corners against certain teams, but Foerster believes that Wunsch and Pierson have developed into very consistent performers at the ends of the line.
But, while the Bucs' low sack numbers look good on Foerster's resume, the O-line coach seemed to lean towards putting a lot of the credit on King. "If you look at the successful quarterbacks, the ones that have always had low sack numbers – the Dan Marinos, Brett Favres, Peyton Mannings – they all know how to avoid the sack, how to get rid of the ball, how to use a quick release. So you have to attribute a lot of it to Shaun…plus the backs, the tight ends, the line. Everybody's doing their part."