DT Ellis Wyms pounces on RB Kenny Watson after a shovel pass late in Sunday's game
With a quarter of their season finished, the Cincinnati Bengals were averaging nearly 25 points per game during a 3-1 start. In a loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that explosive unit would be held to just 13 points. Chief among the reasons for that decrease in production was the Buccaneers' resurgent defensive line.
Six days after Head Coach Jon Gruden pointedly said he expected better things from his front four that unit responded, leading an overall defensive effort that had the likes of quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Rudi Johnson and receiver Chad Johnson frustrated much of the day.
Maybe it was individual pride or the pressure of being in a situation one defender called "do-or-die." Whatever the case, the Buccaneers' defensive line set the tone early in the game, stopping Rudi Johnson at nearly every turn. On four Johnson runs, Buc defenders swarmed him for a loss of yards. Those stops came as result of defensive penetration by the front four. The turn-around was monumental for a defense that was surrendering 163.2 rushing yards per game prior to Sunday's contest but allowed just 53 against the Bengals.
After one half of play, Johnson and the Bengals had a total of three rushing yards. And though he would gain 49 more in the second half, Johnson's production was a far cry from his typical numbers. To put the effort into perspective, keep in mind that only one other AFC running back, Edgerrin James (now with Arizona), has gained more total yards than Johnson over the past two seasons.
"When you hold them to three yards rushing in the first half, and you hold them to 50 yards in the second half against a guy who ran for 1,500 yards last year – that's Bucs defense," said a fired up Chris Hovan after the game. "That's Bucs defense. That's it."
Added Hovan, commenting on the criticism the line has received this season: "Guys get called out and of course they are going to show up. It's just the pride of this defense. We've got a bunch of guys who strive to be number one every day in practice, in the classroom and especially on the field on Sunday. This is what counts – on the field on Sunday. We've got to go out there and produce. We have to do it every week now. This is not a one-time performance. We have to go back to playing Buc ball every week and give ourselves a chance to win."
But limiting Johnson was only half the battle. Against an All-Pro quarterback such as Palmer a defense has to generate pressure or else be at the mercy of one of the NFL's most potent passing attacks. Again, the Buccaneers' defensive line rose to the challenge, especially defensive end Ellis Wyms who finished the game with two sacks.
Wyms' first sack of Palmer came on a first-and-10 from the Buccaneers' 47-yard line. With 1:17 left in the half, the Bengals were operating in their two-minute offense and having success moving the ball. Though Wyms' sack was only officially recorded as a one-yard loss, it was bigger than that. By shifting the momentum to the Buccaneers' defense, the sack threw a major wrench in Cincinnati's hurry-up offense and three plays later the Bengals were forced to punt. The punt meant Cincinnati would not be adding any points to their lead before the half, and the Buccaneers would still be within one score of tying the game.
"It was just getting off the ball and staying alive and rushing hard," said Wyms of his two-sack effort Sunday. "They came in and threw some quick passes today, but we knew they were more of a conventional offense – being that Palmer was going to drop back and hold the ball and wait for his receivers to come open. We got coverage behind us, and we were rushing up front. That's the way this defense works."
Wyms' second sack was even bigger and potentially game-saving.
Near midfield with 18 seconds left in the game and clinging to a one-point lead, the Buccaneers got a huge boost when Wyms managed to come free and sack Palmer for a loss of eight yards, not to mention a loss of five important seconds. The result was a third-and-18 for the Bengals from their own 39-yard line. A 17-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh on third down was one yard short, and the Bengals were forced to attempt a 62-yard field goal, which fell harmlessly short as time expired.
"We just knew we had to play better – that's it," Wyms said. "This defense had to have a dominating performance for us to be able to win, and we came out today and just wanted to put a dominant performance on the field.
"As a unit, we just knew we had to come together and put together some of the performances of old – some of the performances of last year – and everybody as an individual had to take it upon himself to play better. Every unit had to play better – d-line, linebackers and DBs. And we had to come together because this defense doesn't work if everybody is not doing their job. And everybody did their job today."
They certainly did. The high-flying Bengals, with offensive weapons galore, were limited to 2.7 yards per run, 6.5 yards per pass and most importantly to three of 14 third down conversions.
"It was our pass rush on third down," said defensive end Greg Spires. "We lost a couple of third downs, but the majority of the time we got off the field."
That fact wasn't lost on fellow defensive end Dewayne White, who credited the team's third-down defense for the unit's return to form.
"We've just got to get off [the field] on third downs," said White who hurried Palmer all day, batting down two passes. "That's the key. If we stop them on third down, they can't get scoring drives. That's the main thing, and it's whatever it takes – sacks, batted balls, whatever. We just have to get off on third down."
Defensive end Simeon Rice, who had his fair share of quarterback hurries, summarized the line's effort by simply saying, "This is protocol. This is the way we play. This is the way we have to win."