S John Lynch and the Bucs' defense had some tough days against Charlie Batch, including Batch's second start ever
Thanks to a separated shoulder, Charlie Batch will be on Detroit's sideline Sunday when the Lions visit Raymond James Stadium to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs, however, will carry onto the field the lesson Batch delivered a little more than three years ago.
Playing for the injured Batch this weekend will be rookie quarterback Mike McMahon, making his first NFL start for a team that sports an 0-11 record. A defense comprised mostly of seasoned veterans like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Donnie Abraham is licking its collective chops at the prospect, right?
Don't be so sure.
Those four and several other current Buc defenders were on the field in Detroit a little over three years ago when Batch, then a rookie in 1998, made just his second professional start. In a game that just happened to be Tampa Bay's first Monday Night Football game in 15 years, Batch turned in a gritty, veteran-like performance, repeatedly escaping a serious Bucs pass rush to convert big plays. Detroit won going away, 27-6.
It's safe to say that Lions' squad of 1998 was a bit stronger, if for no other reason than the presence of RB Barry Sanders, who had a typically big day against Tampa Bay. Still, Batch proved that inexperience isn't necessarily an obstacle to winning.
"We've had some young quarterbacks who've done well against us," said Dungy. "Our big thing is, we have to play our game and improve and get better. We can't worry about what Detroit's going to do or how they're going to play. We have to assume they're going to play great and we've got to be ready to play well."
Of course, the Bucs' often-frightening defense has treated some green quarterbacks as rudely as you would expect – Donovan McNabb, Cade McNown and Brian Griese come to mind. Still, you never know when a young hurler is going to open your eyes with a performance seemingly beyond his years.
Injuries forced former Buc practice-squadder Kelly Holcombe into action in a 1997 Bucs' game in Indianapolis, and the completely inexperienced Holcombe nearly pulled off the upset before Tampa Bay rallied for a 31-28 victory. Last year, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper was still in the early stages of his remarkable debut season when he led the Vikings to a 30-23 win over the Bucs on another Monday night.
Postgame coverage after that '98 Monday night game in Detroit predicted that Batch had established himself as the Lions' quarterback of the future. The Bucs don't want to let history repeat itself Sunday with McMahon, so they are respecting his strengths and remembering what Batch was able to accomplish.
"We haven't seen a lot of McMahon, but they're doing more stuff with him outside of the pocket," said Dungy. "They've got designed running plays for him, designed roll-outs, designed boot-legs. He seems to have a strong arm. He's thrown the ball moving to his left and his right. Charlie was a very accurate guy, and Charlie hurt us a lot. We had a lot of trouble against him."
Which is not to say the Bucs expect McMahon to come out in his debut looking like Brett Favre (who, by the way, made his Packers' debut against the Bucs in a 31-3 Tampa Bay win in 1992). Buc players are simply refusing to bank on the opposite, that McMahon will fail simply because he's a rookie.
"You really don't worry about who's back there," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. "You just go out and do your deal. We do realize that he's a more mobile guy that's going to run around a little bit, so that presents a different challenge in itself. We've seen our share of quarterbacks that can move around. We just have to adjust our rush a little bit to keep him in the pocket, plaster our coverage downfield and get the guy on the ground."
The Bucs were able to do that a month ago in a brief preview of McMahon's moves. The rookie played one series in Tampa Bay's 20-17 win in the Silverdome on November 11 and made a nice scramble up the middle on third down. However, McMahon needed eight yards and the Bucs' defense closed in after about four, with linebacker Derrick Brooks forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Chartric Darby recovered.
The Bucs' video crew has been able to compile a reel of about 65 McMahon plays overall, just about a full game's worth.
"He's played a lot more since then," said Brooks. "It helps us (to have seen him). We know that he breaks a lot of tackles, scrambles around and makes plays for them. We've been able to see that this previous week. That can prepare us a little bit, but until you actually go out there and face him it really doesn't matter what he's done prior to our game."
Indeed, simply the fact that McMahon is starting the game and, ostensibly, finishing it may very well change his approach. The Lions' earlier approach of working him in slowly left McMahon with less of an opportunity to make an impression.
"He's looking to make plays all the time," said Dungy. "I think part of that is because he knew he was only going to be in for a series at a time, where you always try to make something happen. The more you play, the more you realize that sometimes you've just got to take the play and go on. I think he'll get better with that, but I think all young guys are really aggressive when they first start playing."
McMahon and the Lions also didn't have the services of main runner James Stewart in that November affair, and they do now. The point of inexperience has flip-flopped from running back to quarterback, which would lead one to believe the Lions would lean on Stewart to take the pressure off McMahon. Film review leads Dungy to believe otherwise.
"I don't know, I think they'll play their game," he said. "I really do. I think that's the way those guys call the game, those West Coast Offensive people. They have a style of play and they have plays they want to run. Their receivers are strong points for them, so I don't think they'll pull it in and play conservatively."
Likewise, the Bucs' defense will stick to its gun. A few more blitzes wouldn't be shocking, and some extra effort by a veteran secondary to confuse McMahon with misdirection would be a good bet. But, overall, a defense that was able to hold Brett Favre to one touchdown at home and Kurt Warner to one on the road should be well-suited to face the Lions' rookie.
"We're a team, especially on defense that generally sticks to what we do," said safety John Lynch. "Within that, I think you do try to disguise your coverages a little more and throw some different looks at them. We have philosophy, which is about us and what we do. I don't think we're going to tailor our game plan and come up with something completely different to confuse them. But within our schemes we will do some subtle different things that he hasn't seen."