WR Joey Galloway led both teams with five catches for 97 yards, surely enjoying this year's opener more than last year's
Each Monday morning after a Sunday game, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach stands at a podium in the team meeting room at One Buccaneer Place and fields questions from the media.
On some Mondays, he is forced to spend 20 minutes talking about a tough loss, painfully rehashing the ways in which the Bucs fell short. Example: Last year's season finale at Arizona. On some Mondays, he gets to discuss a victory, but also has to pass on news of a significant injury to one of the players. Example: Kansas City last fall. On some Monday's, it's both, a loss and a list of injuries. Example: Carolina in Week Two of 2003.
And then there are Mondays like this one, when the Buccaneers have just played marvelously in a big win and the injury list is short. Those are good Mondays.
About 13 hours after his team arrived back from Minnesota on Sunday, after a 24-13 whipping of the Vikings that defied the odds makers, Gruden took to the podium with an injury list no longer than the one he took into the season opener. The Buccaneers did not suffer a single significant injury while beating the Vikings, which already makes this Monday better than the one after last year's opener.
"Matt Stinchcomb is the only guy who was inactive yesterday [due to injury]," said Gruden. "He has a little back strain and his status for [the next] game is also questionable. I don't have any [new] injuries to update."
The Bucs lost wide receiver Joey Galloway for half the 2004 season after Galloway tore a groin muscle in the first half of the first game, at Washington. That was an early blow in a second straight season marred by injuries to key players. But, as Gruden made clear during a forceful response to one question on Monday, it's time to stop thinking about last season. In fact, he seems intent on leaving Sunday's game behind as quickly as possible and focusing on the incoming Buffalo Bills. An opening-week win on the road won't mean as much if the Bucs give it right back with a loss in their home opener.
They found that out in 2003.
"A couple of years ago we beat Philadelphia on the road on a Monday night and had a very physical Carolina team come in and beat us in overtime," said Gruden. "[A win in Week One] guarantees you nothing, but it does give your team a sense of confidence. We are injury-free, for the most part, right now. We really want to play much better football at home in front of our fans."
Gruden conceded that Sunday's win in Minnesota gave Tampa Bay a good dose of momentum for the season's first month. It also gave affirmative answers to many of the questions that confronted the team as it tried to rediscover it's winning ways: Can they run the ball? Can they stop the run? Can they make field goals? Can the defense go back to its turnover-happy ways?
"Obviously, shutting down the run was a primary goal of ours," said Gruden. "We wanted to improve our run defense. We wanted to improve our rushing offense. I thought that was a big plus for us yesterday in the game. I thought all along we played very well against the run. We put Minnesota behind in down-and-distance and we were able to rush the passer, and we do that extremely well."
Still, the Bucs needed Brian Kelly's second interception inside the 10 and Cadillac Williams' 71-yard touchdown run on third-and-one to ice the win. Even in the midst of a dominating defensive performance and an encouraging debut for the new-look offense, there were some issues that held the Bucs back a bit.
On defense, the main problem was getting off the field on third down. Minnesota converted six of 11 third-down tries on the afternoon, and while the Bucs were outstanding on the shorter, tougher third downs, allowing only one conversion of six tries from six yards or closer, they allowed too many escapes on the long ones. In fact, Daunte Culpepper converted four of the Vikings' five third downs from seven yards away or farther, including several of at least 10 yards.
"I was unhappy, as was our defense, with us letting Minnesota get out of some holes," said Gruden. "We had a second-and-long a couple of times, third-and-long a few times, and they were able to convert. But at the end of the day, we were able to get off of the field for the most part."
On offense, the visitors hurt themselves with penalties, particularly in the third quarter. After the strong first half, in which they built a 17-7 lead, the Bucs forced a quick three-and-out on defense and got the ball back with a chance to further build their lead and their momentum. Instead, back-to-back penalties – holding and delay of game – quickly put the Bucs in a second-and-22 at their own 19, and they played it safe from there, punting two plays later. In the fourth quarter, still leading 17-10, the Bucs forced another punt on defense and quarterback Brian Griese started the next drive with a bootleg pass to fullback Jameel Cook that would have taken the ball almost to midfield. An illegal block negated that play and the Bucs had to punt three plays later.
In all, Tampa Bay committed 13 penalties for 99 yards on the day.
"We had penalties in four consecutive series in the third quarter," said Gruden. "If you get behind in a down-and-distance, way behind, like we were in the third quarter, we obviously got a little conservative. We were willing to punt the ball with the lead that we had. We played to our strengths at that time, which was a very good punter, good coverage and a heck of a defense. But the penalties are concerning. You don't like to come out of the locker room after a really good second quarter with penalties."
Still, the Bucs went back to the locker room without giving up their lead on the scoreboard, and that makes them 1-0 heading into the home opener. Zero losses and zero new injuries…that's a good Monday.
A Rare Blanking
The Bucs have now defeated Minnesota three times in a row and in four of the last five meetings, dating back to the end of the team's shared confines in the NFC Central. In the previous three victories over the Vikings, however, Tampa Bay scored 38, 41 and 41 points respectively, winning shootouts against an offense that is rarely held in check for long.
In Sunday's opener, the Buccaneers limited Minnesota's offense to 248 yards and, much more importantly, two field goals. The Vikings' only touchdown came courtesy of the defense, as safety Darren Sharper scored the game's first points on an 88-yard interception return.
After the game, cornerback Ronde Barber called it the return of the "bend-but-don't-break" talents of the Bucs' top-ranked 2002 defense. Specifically, Culpepper and the Vikings' offense never broke the goal line.
And that's quite rare. The last time Minnesota was held without an offensive touchdown for an entire game was on the final week of the 2001 season. The Vikings lost that game, 19-3, to the Baltimore Ravens as part of a late-season slide to a 5-11 record. They scored at least one offensive touchdown in each of the next 48 games, usually more. In fact, only twice over the last three years was Minnesota held to fewer than 13 points overall.
One More Sack
Turns out the Buccaneers' run defense wasn't quite as good as we thought on Sunday afternoon.
Oh, it was still very, very good, and quite encouraging considering the emphasis the organization had put on that very issue during the offseason. But the Bucs thought they had allowed just 26 rushing yards after Sunday's game, and by Monday morning that number had jumped to 33.
How do the Vikings gain seven yards overnight? Through statistical review.
The issue was the unusual play in which Viking quarterback Daunte Culpepper fumbled the ball backward while trying to stop a throw. With four minutes left in the first quarter, Culpepper called an audible on the line, took a short drop and started to fire a shallow pass out to the right. However, seeing the Bucs in tight coverage, he tried to hold up on the pass and it flew backwards out of his hand. Tampa Bay's Dewayne White recovered what was ruled a fumble.
At the time, Culpepper was given a rush for a loss of seven yards, marking the distance between the line of scrimmage and where White recovered the ball. However, review of the play by the NFL's statistic bureau led to the play being ruled a sack, since Culpepper had dropped back with the intention to pass, not run. Since no Buccaneer touched the Viking quarterback, the sack is not credited to any particular player; instead Tampa Bay's defense is given a team sack.
So, with that seven-yard loss off the books in the rushing column, the Bucs officially surrendered 33 rushing yards, including 19 by Culpepper. The total yardage allowed is still the same: 248 yards, including 215 net passing yards.
Obviously, the Bucs are still very pleased with their rush defense, as they allowed their lowest ground yardage total since September 21, 2003, when they held Atlanta to 29 rushing yards. The stat change also draws attention to the team's pass rush, which was strong throughout the game, constantly disrupting Culpepper's intentions. In fact, on the play in question, a strong push by DT Anthony McFarland off the ball, putting right guard Marcus Johnson into the quarterback's line of sight, likely contributed to the Culpepper's decision to hold off on the throw.
"I thought our containment of Culpepper was good," said Gruden. "We mixed our looks, mixed our coverages, we were opportunistic and we made plays, big plays. That was a great start."