FB Mike Alstott and his backfield mate, Warrick Dunn, have split the carries evenly so far
To say that the Bucs have found a rare balance in their rushing attack is an understatement.
Sunday against the Chicago Bears, FB Mike Alstott bashed and battered his way for 71 rushing yards; RB Warrick Dunn wasn't far behind, darting and weaving for 53 yards of his own. This comes one week after Dunn's 56 yards at New England barely edged Alstott's 54.
While its true that neither Alstott or Dunn reached that running back Holy Grail, the 100-yard game, together they have pulled off an even more difficult feat, at least in terms of Buccaneer history. Both backs rushed for over 50 yards in two consecutive games.
Jimmy Carter was in the White House the last time two Buccaneer running backs pulled off that feat.
It was early 1979. Jerry Eckwood dashed around Lambeau Field for 99 yards on September 16 of that season and Ricky Bell added 97 more. The next week, Bell totaled 69 rushing yards and Eckwood 59 at home against the L.A. Rams. That this record harkens back to that 1979 squad is no surprise. It seems like many of the Bucs' current achievements are reminiscent of that team, which was also built around a stunning defense, a strong and determined running game and a heady young quarterback.
And it featured not one but two viable rushers who often swapped the primary role from game to game. That's rarer in today's NFL.
"You don't find that very often in the league," said Dungy. "I guess the Giants have it now with (Ron) Dayne and Tiki Barber, the same situation as us. But it's rare. Nowadays, everyone is going to the one back and trying to get carries for one guy. But we feel like we've got two that can do it.
"Some weeks it will be different. One guy will be hot and we'll go that way. But the first two weeks, they've both run well, so hopefully we can keep it that way."
The Bucs took a 34-0 lead into the fourth quarter against Chicago and, somehow, managed to hold on for the victory.
Okay, that one might have been a 'gimme', but it nonetheless pumped up another obscure but very telling statistic for Tony Dungy's Buccaneers. Since Dungy arrived on the scene in 1996, Tampa Bay is an astounding 26-2 when it has the lead going into the final period.
Think it's easy to protect such leads? Dallas, Jacksonville, San Diego and Washington all blew fourth quarter leads and lost on Sunday. When playoff spots are doled out in September, don't think teams on the outer edge of the bubble won't be looking back at leads that got away.
The last time the Bucs felt that sting was on December 16, 1998, when a disappointing 8-8 season hit a lost-opportunity crescendo in Washington. The Bucs took a 16-3 lead into the fourth quarter in that contest, but allowed the Redskins to rally for two touchdowns and a 20-16 win. The only other fourth quarter loss under Dungy was a 17-13 home defeat at the hands of Seattle on September 22, 1996.
"We feel very good about that," said Dungy. "We know we can run the football and we generally down with our style of play. When we're ahead, we can keep the ball in the fourth quarter, and our defense plays well with a lead. With those things in combination, we should be good when we have the lead, and it's something our team takes pride in."
As Dungy indicates, that kind of lead-protecting prowess may not be surprising when you combine the Bucs' powerful rushing game (above), with…
…a defense that treats its own end zone like a valuable piece of art. Look but don't touch.
The Buccaneers have allowed only one offensive touchdown through its first two games and, even more amazingly, only two offensive touchdowns in its last five games. That includes two playoff games at the end of last season against St. Louis and Washington, who were ranked first and second in the NFL in offense in 1999.
Those two touchdowns allowed by the Bucs' defense since last December were a 30-yard reception by the Rams' Ricky Proehl and a 39-yard catch by the Patriots' Terry Glenn. While the Tampa Bay D agonized over those two brief lapses, they were just that – lapses. No team in that span has been able to sustain a touchdown drive deep into Bucs' territory.
In fact, the last time a team entered the Bucs' red zone and came away with a touchdown was in Oakland, during that, um, memorable 45-0 loss last December 19. Since then, Green Bay, Chicago, Washington, St. Louis, New England and Chicago again have taken just six drives into the Bucs' red zone and have turned those possessions into just four field goals.
If you're not impressed yet, check out this statistic:
Of the last 65 drives, including the postseason, that Buccaneer opponents have begun at least 60 yards away from the Tampa Bay end zone, only one has resulted in a touchdown. Suddenly, Tony Dungy's insistence on the importance of winning the field position battle is starting to look pretty canny. When you've got a defense that basically eliminates scoring chances from half of the field, you want to make your opponent start out in that half.
"It is good defense, and it's good special teams play, too, when we can keep them backed up in their end," said Dungy. "And I think we all understand that. Our offense knows that if we don't turn it over it's going to be tough for people to score against us. If we can do a good job kicking and we can make people start at their end of the field, our defense won't give up many big plays and we won't get scored on much. So it's a combination of everybody doing it, but it is good defense."