The Bucs' offensive line has been a strength in the team's seven wins this season, but it faces a tough task Sunday against the Saints
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played three straight games down to the wire, beating Washington and Atlanta with last-minute rallies before succumbing to Chicago when a third rally fell short. Perhaps the biggest difference, at least statistically, between those first two games and the third one was this: The Bucs allowed no sacks to either the Redskins or the Falcons, then gave up four to the Bears.
Of course, Chicago's pass rush has been getting to a lot of quarterbacks lately. The Bears' front four was responsible for eight sacks in a victory over Carolina the weekend before. What's notable is that all four of Chicago's sacks of Chris Simms on Sunday came from the two starting defensive ends, Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye.
One rough game against a supreme opponent does not necessarily constitute an ongoing problem, and indeed the Bucs' offensive line has been one of the team's great strengths in its seven wins this season. However, it's an issue worth noting because Tampa Bay is about to face another defense that is loaded on the edges.
The New Orleans Saints might be more talented at defensive end than at any other position on their roster. Starters Charles Grant and Darren Howard each reached double digits in sacks last season, with Howard's 11.0 barely edging Grant's 10.5. And the Saints' first-round draft pick in 2004 was another end, Ohio State's Will Allen, who currently leads the team with 6.5 sacks despite not being a starter.
Stopping that threesome is high on the Bucs' to-do list for Sunday in Baton Rouge.
"We struggled in some areas [against Chicago], pass-protecting against a great opponent," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Looking at New Orleans, they've got a fierce front four as well. We're going to try to do everything we can to get as many people out [into patterns] as often as we can, but at the same time we're going to try to pass-protect first."
Gruden refers to the basic decision regarding eligibles that must be made in the design of each offensive play. After the five offensive linemen and one quarterback, there are five spots to fill with players who are eligible to run the ball or catch a pass. Those five spots can be filled with any combination of receivers, backs and tight ends, and, on a pass play, any of those five can be used to run a pattern or provide extra blocking. When a team is particularly concerned with the opposing pass rush getting to its quarterback, it tends to keep one or more of those eligibles in for extra blocking.
Obviously, the more players who run patterns the more the defense has to worry about in coverage. However, it doesn't matter how many targets the quarterback has if he has no time to find them and deliver the ball. The task, then, is to determine just how much blocking the team needs in order to function on offense, and that can be a tricky balancing act.
"It's a challenge, yeah." said Gruden of hitting on the right protection balance. "It's been a weekly challenge to try to get the best matchups that we can get where we can function, whether it be picking up the blitz, helping where we need to help or getting the looks that we want to get."
The Bucs have used a lot of formations that provide extra blocking this season, such as two-tight end or two-back sets. They have still managed to thrive at times in the passing game, thanks in part to the outstanding play of wide receiver Joey Galloway. When the offense comes out in a formation that looks most suited to running the ball, the defense often responds by stacking the box, and that can provide good matchups for the outside receivers. Galloway has done a good job in exploiting those matchups, as he did for a 39-yard gain early in Sunday's game when Simms noticed that his top receiver was one-on-one with cornerback Charles Tillman.
The Bucs will continue to search for that balance Sunday in Baton Rouge. Hopefully the results will look more like what came to pass against Washington and Atlanta than what happened last Sunday versus the Bears.
A League of His Own
In his 10th NFL season, defensive end Simeon Rice has been getting to opposing quarterbacks with the consistency of a metronome. Rice has at least one sack (and at least one forced fumble) in each of the Bucs' last three games, and he has notched a QB takedown in eight of the 10 games in which he has played this season.
Rice's sack and forced fumble on Sunday against Chicago gave him nine on the season, just one off the NFC lead, held by New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. It also put Rice on the cusp of some very elite company.
Just one more sack will put Rice into double digits on the season, a plateau he also reached in each of his first four seasons as a Buccaneer. In fact, he has gotten to the 10-sack mark seven times in his first nine NFL seasons. If he gets one more sack and makes it eight such seasons, Rice will be just the eighth player in league history to achieve that feat. Chances are you've heard of the other seven.
NFL Players with At Least Eight Seasons of 10 or More Sacks
|**Last 10-Sack Season**
|PHI, GB, CAR
|STL, PIT, CAR, SF
|CHI, SF, IND, PHI
|MIN, ATL, SF
|SD, STL, KC
In that last column, you can see that most of the league's NFL sack greats retired in succession in the late '90s and early '00s. Rice is part of the new wave, along with such players as Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor and Jevon Kearse, and more recently Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers.
Rice, in fact, can be considered the head of that wave. Among active players, his seven – and soon to be eight – double-digit sack seasons is easily the best. Here are the top five among active players.