DT Anthony McFarland got to QB Michael Vick early in Sunday's game, starting a chain of events that led to a defensive touchdown
Michael Vick was ridiculously elusive for much of the day. Cadillac Williams was back in sharp-cutting, tackle-breaking form. Alge Crumpler was a beast on third downs. Derrick Brooks changed the game with one determined dive.
But, with apologies to Williams and his 30-yard run to start the game, the first force to impose its will on Tampa Bay's 30-27 win in Atlanta on Sunday was the Buccaneers' defensive line.
The Bucs ran their way to a game-opening field goal and the Falcons try to answer in kind, giving it to tailback Warrick Dunn for runs off left tackle on first and second down. That didn't work because both times left end Greg Spires, lined up over right tackle, came barreling down the line to get Dunn from the side. Spires fought his way through traffic impressively, particularly if one considers that he wasn't expected to play when the day began.
Spires suffered a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder a week ago against Washington. He was questionable all week on the injury report and wasn't getting any better. The injury robbed him of strength and mobility in his left arm.
But it didn't affect his heart. On Sunday morning, he talked the team into letting him play.
"Well, he didn't look very promising Saturday, the day we left for the trip," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It didn't look like he was going to play. He showed up in the locker room wanting to go out and try it one more time. It's a credit to him, really. There are not a lot of guys who would have played or could have played, given his physical circumstances, but he's a tough guy. He's a tough guy and we certainly needed him yesterday."
The Bucs' front four kept the pressure on the next time Atlanta got the ball. Backed up to his own eight by a string of penalties, Vick dropped back to the one to pass. Before he could even set up, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland simply drove right guard Kynan Forney into Vick's lap. The quarterback went down, forcing Atlanta into a third-and-22 from its one and costing Vick one play, as he had the wind knocked out of him.
McFarland's domination of Forney paid off on the very next play, when he scored his first career touchdown thanks to the efforts of one of his linemates. The Falcons sent in reserve quarterback Matt Schaub and had him drop to the back of the end zone on a passing play. Schaub stood there a bit too long, defensive end Simeon Rice made a lightning-quick move on left tackle Kevin Shaffer and the result was yet another Rice tomahawk chop sack-fumble. The ball fell onto the end zone paint about eight yards deep and McFarland got to it first for the Buccaneer score.
McFarland finished the game with seven tackles for the second straight week and added that sack and fumble recovery, plus a tackle-for-loss of Vick late in the first half. On that play, McFarland kept Vick from getting around the corner on what Atlanta officials called a designed running play. The seventh-year veteran was a huge part of the reason the Bucs' defense started the season off so well against the run, and he's starting to make his presence felt in the pass rush as well.
"He's played well," said Gruden. "He's really been disruptive on first down, second down, third down, playing with a good motor. And that's exciting. That really is. [Chris] Hovan has played hard inside. Obviously Simeon is making some splash plays in helping us win these last two games. But McFarland as the under tackle here really is the engine that makes it go. You know he's a guy that we need to be disruptive for us to once again be a great defensive team."
The Bucs are ranked third in the league in overall defense and have occupied the top spot for much of the season. However, they are just 10th in points allowed per game, having surrendered 96 points over the past three weeks, and they are just 17th in sacks recorded per pass play. McFarland's touchdown was "just" the second one scored by the defense this season, an area that Gruden has been hoping would improve as the season goes along.
For that to happen, the Bucs almost certainly need to get more pressure up front. This Buccaneer defense is a very good bet to join the last eight as a top-10 unit in the final rankings – an amazing streak under Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin – but it is also on pace to record just 34 sacks. That would be its lowest full-season total in that nine-year span, it's lowest since 1995, in fact. The 2002 Super Bowl team that had a plus-17 turnover ratio and five defensive touchdowns came up with 43 sacks, as did the 1999 team that carried a low-wattage offense to the very edge of the Super Bowl.
Both of the Bucs' turnovers were the products of sacks, though the second one came courtesy of a linebacker on Brooks' fourth-down leap at Vick. Truth be told, the Falcons' dizzying quarterback was under a lot of pressure during the game; he simply eluded it, threw on the run and turned potential losses into big gains.
"There were three occasions yesterday where he broke containment," said Gruden. "And we had containment, to be honest with you. He just physically broke to the outside and made some of the most explosive, incredible, acrobatic plays I've ever seen, really. Michael Vick puts incredible pressure on you. So it was a combination of how well they played yesterday and just some things that we've got to clean up."
No, it wasn't a perfect day for the Buccaneers' defensive line, and it hasn't been a perfect season. McFarland and Hovan led a run-stuffing crew that gave up just 62 yards per game over the first six games of the season, but that same unit has been touched for 142.5 rushing yards per game over the last four weekends. The team's single-game sack high this season is four, reached only once, and the Bucs had just one sack combined in back-to-back losses to San Francisco and Carolina.
But there was pressure from the defensive line on Sunday, not to mention grit, determination and a penchant for the big play. It's fair to be concerned about the 443 yards and 11 third-down conversions the Bucs allowed to the Falcons, but it's also wise to take a closer look at the good signs displayed by the men up front. Oh, and the scoreboard, which tilted to the Bucs' favor by three points, thanks to a strong beginning and strong end by the defense.
"I think so many of us get enamored with stats," said Gruden. "It really drives me crazy to be honest with you. I remember the 17-0 Dolphins and I don't even know if Paul Warfield caught 40 passes. They didn't care about QB ratings. But I try not to get totally freaked out by giving up 26 first downs. I'll tell you this, they play hard, they were dominant early and dominant late when they had to be and that's pretty damn good."