DT Anthony McFarland has helped the Bucs' pass rush rack up a league-best 22 sacks
Here are two statistics that seem implausible but may define the key battle in Tampa Bay's upcoming Monday night game at Minnesota.
- Four of the top eight sack leaders in the NFC are Buccaneers.
- Minnesota quarterback Duante Culpepper has run the ball 40 times in four games and is on pace for nearly 800 rushing yards.
Nobody in the NFL has been better at getting at the quarterback in 2000 than the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay ranks second overall in sacks per pass play but has an NFL-high 22 QB takedowns.
That's almost twice the NFL sack average per team, 11.5. Tampa Bay is the only team in the league to have already reached the 20-sack barrier, and the Bucs are on pace to get 70 by season's end. A rate that seemed laughable after one or two games now appears solid roughly one-third of the way through the season.
Further, Tampa Bay has managed to corral a variety of quarterbacks, from classic pocket passer Drew Bledsoe to run-first scrambler Cade McNown.
But have they faced a quarterback like Culpepper? Has anyone?
At 250 pounds, Culpepper is the biggest passer in the league (according to NFL.com rosters). That makes him difficult to take down by just one rusher, as does the fact that he's unusually mobile for his size. The Buccaneers have collapsed many pockets this season and hit the quarterback with several rushers at once; that type of rush may be necessary to put Culpepper on the ground.
The Viking quarterback has been sacked just 10 times so far this year, but that's misleading in two ways. Minnesota ranks just 20th in sacks allowed per pass play; its bye week means less stats in every category. Ten sacks in 127 pass drops is not terrible, but the Vikings have obviously dropped back for many more passes than that. Each successful Culpepper scramble shows up as a rushing play.
According to Head Coach Tony Dungy, it does not appear as if many of Culpepper's jaunts across the line of scrimmage were originally meant to be runs. That means opponents have found a way to get good pressure on the Minnesota quarterback, but he has turned those plays into positive gains anyway. That's part of the reason the Vikings are averaging 399 yards of offense per game.
Since the Vikings' pass attack is so potent, and since the Buccaneers are such a sure tackling squad, Dungy isn't necessarily making any special plans to stop Culpepper's rambling.
"I think we'll play our normal game," said Dungy. "I haven't watched all the tape yet, but it looks like, for the most part, there haven't been a lot of designed runs (for Culpepper). I've seen a couple of quarterback draws, but most of it has been running when the protection has broken down or the route has been covered."
What Dungy will do is count on a continued surge from his front men. Defensive tackles Warren Sapp (6.5 sacks) and Anthony McFarland (3.5) rank tied for second and tied for seventh, respectively, in the conference. One of the men McFarland is tied with is Tampa Bay CB Ronde Barber. In between is Buc DE Marcus Jones, tied for fourth with four sacks.
Whether it's through Barber blitzes, a dual push up the middle or speed-rushing ends, the Buccaneer defense has made it tough for opposing quarterbacks to sit back and pass. Whether that same pressure will work against a good passer who also runs like a fullback remains to be seen. Dungy, for one, has a lot of respect for the Vikings' young signal-caller.
"We liked him coming out of school," said Dungy. "I know talking to (Minnesota Head Coach) Denny (Green) over the last two years, he liked him a lot. I think he's poised and I think he's been in situations where he's had to a make a lot of decisions in college with throws and check-offs. It doesn't appear that a lot rattles him."
If the Buccaneer pass rush doesn't rattle Culpepper just a little, then he is truly a special talent. How that talent is utilized on Monday could spell the difference in the game.