DE Simeon Rice and the Buccaneers need to reestablish a dominant run defense
Question: When is it good to give up 4.3 yards per carry for an entire game?
One answer: When you surrender a 64-yard touchdown on the first run then allow just 2.7 yards per carry on the next 38 runs.
Another answer: Never.
The Bucs can take something from both answers. They know they must not allow 166 rushing yards in a game again if they hope to win, no matter how those 166 yards are reached. And they know from the last 56 minutes of Sunday's game in Washington that they can prevent that from recurring. That's their belief as Seattle brings its stud tailback, Shaun Alexander to Tampa on Sunday.
It was Washington back Clinton Portis who broke off the 64-yarder early in the first quarter of last Sunday's season opener. Portis finished with 148, but they were extremely hard-fought yards after that first run.
"We showed some resilience by coming back and not hanging our heads when we did give up a big play," said Brooks. "We did not panic. That's something to build on; it builds our character. Not just the defense, but the whole team. Now we have to just start faster on all aspects of the game and find a way to come away with the win."
It's hard not to think of the 2002 season opener when reviewing Sunday's game. Two years ago, Aaron Brooks and the New Orleans Saints blitzed the Bucs in the first half and lent some credence to the argument that Tampa Bay's vaunted defense was moving past its prime. Then that defense buckled down considerably in the second half and the Bucs mounted a spirited comeback, only to lose in overtime. The Buc defense then proved all doubters wrong the rest of the way, finishing with the league's top ranking and leading the team to its first Super Bowl Championship.
Now, it would be the height of hubris to suggest that a similar opening-game pattern means Tampa Bay is destined for the league's top ranking again. On the other hand, given the Bucs' defensive resilience for seven straight years, and counting, it would seem equally foolish to write them off.
Brooks says nothing has changed.
"Believe me: It's the same," he insisted. "Now we just have to put the whole game together. Come back out and start faster, get three and out, get some more turnovers. Get the offensive ball; let them take their shots. We just have to do our part."
And it comes down mostly to the run defense. Even with very little pass rush, the Bucs' secondary batted down six passes, allowed only 13 completions and held Washington to 125 passing yards on Sunday, the second-lowest mark in the NFL's opening weekend. With playmakers galore in the back seven, the Bucs want the opposing team passing as often as possible.
"We've got to stop the run," said defensive end Greg Spires, who had eight tackles against Washington, an impressively high number for a defensive end. "If we don't stop the run it's going to be a long game. Stop the run, put them in passing situations and we should be alright."
But, again, that's no simple task with Alexander coming to town. The fifth-year back is coming off a career-best 1,435 rushing yards in 2003, has scored at least 14 touchdowns three years running and has never finished a season with a per-carry average of less than 4.0 yards. Alexander is also coming off an action-packed opener in which he rushed for 135 yards and scored three touchdowns but also hurt his knee near the end of the game.
Alexander is listed as questionable on Seattle's first injury report, but the Bucs are practicing as if number 37 will be in uniform on Sunday.
"He's a great back," said Brian Kelly, one of the league's better cornerbacks in run support.. "He's off to a good start; he played well against New Orleans. Elusive guy, he's a big guy too, but he plays well within that offense and he's good at catching the ball, too, so we'll have our hands full."
Added defensive end Simeon Rice in his always colorful phrase-ology: "He's got all the trimmings and all the works."
So are the Bucs fired up by the challenge? You could say that.
"It wasn't hard to get up for Clinton Portis in the first game of the season," said Spires. "Now this is our first game home and if you can't get up for that, then you shouldn't be in this locker room."
Safety Dwight Smith, who is fighting through bruised ribs but expects to play and help with the effort to stop Alexander, says the defense was a little down as the week began, believing it had missed out on an opportunity in Washington.
"You want to learn lessons early," said Smith. "So hopefully we learned some lessons from this game."
Such as, stop the run. From the very first play on.