In the end, it wasn't a running back but a quarterback who finally did in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' record streak of run-defense performances.
From Week 12 of the 2019 season through Week Seven of the current campaign – with almost identical defensive personnel in both seasons – the Buccaneers held 13 straight opposing teams below 100 rushing yards. They actually held eight of those 13 opponents below 70 rushing yards while leading the NFL in rush defense in both seasons. Some of the specific backs the Buccaneers took on and largely shut down during that 13-game run included Christian McCaffrey (18-59), Alvin Kamara (12-16), Aaron Jones (10-15), Josh Jacobs (10-17), Leonard Fournette (14-38), Melvin Gordon (8-26), Marlon Mack (13-38), Devonta Freeman (18-58) and David Montgomer (10-29).
Those 13 games represent the longest streak of holding opposing teams below 100 rushing yards in franchise history. It fell just two short of the NFL's post-merger record of 15 set by Philadelphia during the 1991-92 seasons. Unfortunately, it ended on Monday night at MetLife Stadium when the New York Giants ran wild and blasted past the 100-yard mark…all the way to 101.
Buccaneers players and coaches have acknowledged this week that they made some uncharacteristic mistakes in run defense in the first half of that Giants game. Still, New York was still at just 86 yards on the ground with just over two minutes left, and the Giants were in a hurry-up trying to tie the game at the end of regulation. Their only run in the last three minutes was a scramble by quarterback Daniel Jones that converted a second-and-15 near midfield.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 9 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Thanks to Jones, the Buccaneers are left trying to start a new streak in Week Nine. But here's the problem: That man Alvin Kamara is staring them in the face again, and holding him below 20 rushing yards again is going to be a tall order.
"Kamara's a great back," said Ndamukong Suh, one of the main cogs in the Bucs' great run defense. "He's one that's very, very difficult to track because he's [the] dot back, offset back [and] split out wide. It's somebody that you have to always be looking for to see where he's going to be aligning and account for him. Whether it's one guy or two guys, we're fortunate enough that we have great linebackers that we can match up one-on-one with. Obviously, a guy with that, you're probably going to have some double teams and just figuring out what scheme you want to run against him. He's definitely an elite back and a guy that's a game-changer that we want to shut down because they've been running a lot of their offense [through him] – especially with No. 13 (Mike Thomas) being out."
As Suh suggests, Kamara is better known for being a dual-threat back who can hurt a defense just as much if not more in the passing game. He doesn't have an individual 100-yard rushing game this year but he's helped the Saints average nearly 120 yards on the ground per game, with Latavius Murray as his backfield complement. Kamara leads the Saints in both rushing yards (431) and receiving yards (556) and has been the obvious focal point of the offense with Thomas missing the last six contests.
But the Buccaneers defense knows it will have an easier time stopping Kamara, Thomas, Drew Brees and the Saints' passing attack if they can halt the run first and take away that dimension. That's Tampa Bay's outlook against every opponent.
Suh isn't the only defender driving the Bucs' great run defense, obviously. Fellow lineman Will Gholston has been very stout on the strong side of the offensive front and rangy off-ball linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White take advantage of the clean lanes to the ballcarrier that the big guys up front create. Suh also shared some praise for new starting nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches and veteran trade acquisition Steve McLendon. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles knows it's going to take all of those players in a group effort to slow Kamara down.
"He presents a huge challenge and he's playing a lot faster than he was the first time we played them," said Bowles. "He's doing everything for them and he's probably one of the best in the league – probably in the top two or three that you talk about here. It doesn't matter how much speed you have on defense – he's so elusive, yet he's strong, he can use power when need be, speed when need be, he can catch the ball, he can run the ball, he does all the little things right. He has great body control and that's a tough task for anybody. We're just going to have to rally to the ball and get as many hats as we can to try and stop him."
Bowles said the Giants' ability to snap the Bucs' streak was partially a product of a good offensive game plan and partially a few missed fits in the run gaps. There were two big misfits in particular in the first half and some other plays on which the tacklers were coming in from the side instead arriving head-on, which allows the ballcarrier to surge or fall forward for more yards. Bowles gave credit to Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett for his play-calling but said some of the Bucs' problems were self-inflicted, which is something they can't afford against Kamara.
"We need to get our head across, our head up, our shoulder pads across and drive him backwards. I don't think we did that [Monday]. We've got to focus on the things we need to focus on this week to get ready for the ballgame. Did we play a perfect game? By no means. We know that as a defense and the best thing is that we won the ballgame [and] we made enough plays to win the ballgame. But, we know we can't beat New Orleans playing like we played last week."
Obviously, the Giants didn't exactly shatter the Bucs' run-defense streak, and Tampa Bay still ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (70.4) and in yards allowed per carry (3.16). But when a defense has set a specific standard so high, any deviation from it presents as an issue that needs to be resolved before the next big challenge.
"For us, it's going to be about consistency and that's what we lacked a little bit on Monday Night Football, especially in the first half," said Suh. "But we turned that around in the second half, which then opened it up for us to get after the passer and we were able to create turnovers. Consistency is going to be the biggest thing for us. We obviously have the talent and we have the understanding of what we want to do and how we want to execute in this particular defense that Coach Bowles has for us each and every week. But, it's going to be consistency that's going to be our key."