CB Ronde Barber (20) and the Bucs' defense was often at its swarming best on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers allowed only 50 passing yards Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers…and lost. You think Ronde Barber knows how Roger Clemens feels?
You see, Clemens was the poster boy for lack of run support in the MLB this season, winning just 13 games and losing eight despite an almost preposterous 1.87 ERA.
But Barber and Clemens are professional athletes in team sports, and they both have been around long enough to know one thing, as voiced by Barber on Sunday after the loss in San Fran: "We win as a team and lose as a team."
In other words, no one at One Buccaneer Place is looking to pass out individual blame this week; in fact, the Bucs aren't spending too much time thinking about the 49ers game at all. Any analysis, though, would have to conclude that there were several shortcomings to be fixed in that contest, just like there was more than just Cadillac Williams running the ball during the Bucs' first three wins.
On the evening of the game, when it was still the topic du jour, Barber's complete quote was:
"We win as a team and lose as a team here. If [the quarterback] doesn't play well, yeah, it shows, but we've found ways to win games like that before. We had three turnovers, they had none. That stat right there will tell you most of it. They converted three or four field goals off of all those turnovers. Outside of our one huge play by Joey [Galloway] not a lot went right on that side of the ball."
So, in a nutshell, Barber's feelings about giving up a ridiculously low number of passing yards in what would prove to be a loss are thus: It's still a loss. Nevertheless, that shouldn't stop us from taking a second look at a fine defensive effort. The Buccaneers' defense is playing well – perhaps as well as it did in 2002, though Barber personally doesn't bother with such comparisons – and it appears as if it could once again carry the team on afternoons when the offense struggles. It almost did so in San Francisco and, later, Head Coach Jon Gruden took exception to the characterization that his defense came out flat.
"I don't know how flat we were defensively," he said. "I mean, we gave up 50 yards passing, I think we gave up 200 yards of total offense and we gave up a couple first downs. If that's coming out flat, that's a bit unrealistic."
Perhaps the Buccaneers' defense has only itself to blame for unrealistic expectations. It has been so good for so long – an unheard-of eight straight seasons in the top 10 of the NFL's defensive rankings, with number nine apparently on the way – that any bit of give almost comes as a shock.
Against the 49ers, the Bucs' defense got off the field 12 straight times by allowing a drive of five plays or fewer. In fact, ten of San Francisco's 15 drives overall were three-and-outs. After the last of those 12 drives mentioned above, San Francisco got the ball back with seven minutes to play and a two-point lead. The Bucs needed yet another quick stop, but the 49ers held the ball for 11 plays, five minutes and 47 yards, leading to the game's last field goal. There was little time left for a comeback.
That hurt, indeed, but perhaps it colored the memories of the entire game too much. The Bucs allowed only 208 total yards of offense – on the road - and never let the 49ers close to their end zone. San Francisco's first four field goal drives totaled 15 plays and 46 yards.
This was, in a wider analysis, yet another great game in a series of them by the Buccaneers' defense this season, missing only the turnovers. Had the Bucs been able to take the ball away a couple of times, they probably would have taken the game, too.
The Buccaneers rank first in the NFL in total defense and are trying to finish the season at that spot for the third time in the franchise's 30-year history. The first two were very noteworthy seasons: 1979, when they went to the NFC Championship Game in just their fourth year of existence, and 2002, when they won Super Bowl XXXVII.
At the moment, the Bucs have a healthy lead in that ranking. They have allowed an anemic 229.7 yards per game so far, with only one opponent topping 300 (Miami, 307). Next on the list is another defense of perennial strength, Baltimore at 253.0 yards per game. The Bucs are the only team that rank in the top five in both rushing (first) and passing (third) defense.
Here are the NFL's top five defenses through eight weeks, with their per-game yardage totals overall, against the run and against the pass:
|1. Tampa Bay||229.7||75.7||154.0|
Not coincidentally, four of those five teams are in first place or within a half-game of first in their respective divisions. Even with Baltimore's 2-5 struggles, those five teams have a combined record of 23-13.
But, you say, isn't the number of points you allow more important than the number of yards you allow? Perhaps, but the list changes only slightly under those conditions. The Bucs slide to third, behind the Colts and the Bears, and the Bengals and Steelers slide into the top five. The Bucs have allowed 87 points in seven games, six more than the Bears and 10 more than the Colts.
They've been consistently stingy, too. No Buccaneer opponent has scored more than 16 points this season, and five of the seven have scored one touchdown or fewer. That's quite a streak; nearly a team record, in fact. These Bucs have already tied the single-season franchise record for consecutive games of allowing fewer than 20 points, equaling marks set in 1996 and 2000. The streak is eight games, if one extends back to the 2004 season finale, a 12-7 loss at Arizona, but that opens up a different set of parameters and the 1977-78 teams own that mark with 10 straight (the last six of '77 and the first four of '78).
There are, obviously, any number of ways these statistics can be broken down, but they all seem to suggest the same thing. The Buccaneers are playing very, very good defense this season. That's not all there is to football, just as strikeouts aren't all there is to baseball. Win as a team, lose as a team. But sometimes Roger Clemens wins 1-0. And on some afternoons, the defensive effort the Bucs had in San Francisco, far from being "flat," would have been enough for the victory.