RB Carnell Williams knew his success was made possible by the big offensive linemen around him on Sunday
Cadillac Williams has been good, scary good. But remember, he was the fifth player taken in the draft this spring; he came attached with high expectations.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense might finish the weekend as the NFL's top-ranked unit, and it has yet to allow a single touchdown. But remember, this is a crew that has finished in the league's top 10 for eight straight years.
The Buccaneers' 2-0 start has undoubtedly been fueled by those two factors – stifling defense and Williams' running – and all the praise thrown in that direction has been warranted. But Tampa Bay wasn't supposed to be one of the league's undefeated teams at this point, and if you're looking for the unexpected contributors to this unexpected start, look no further than the offensive line.
Left tackle Anthony Davis; left guard Dan Buenning; center John Wade; right guard Sean Mahan; right tackle Kenyatta Walker. That's one undrafted player with no career starts before 2005, one rookie fourth-rounder, one veteran starter coming back from a devastating knee injury, one man whose eight career starts are at a different position and one holdover from the line the team fielded in Super Bowl XXXVIII 32 months ago. Or, that is a group of five talented blockers, finding their niche, working hard and jelling as a unit.
One national publication ranked the Bucs' offensive line 32nd out of 32 teams coming into 2005. After two games – an admittedly small sample size, though it came against two teams with tough interior linemen – it appears as if the front line might actually be a strength for Tampa Bay. When is the last time you've seen that concept in print?
"We are getting better and our confidence is building," said Walker. "We are trying to find the identity of the offense. We have special players around us, and the offensive line just does what we have to do."
Offensive linemen aren't blessed with any individual statistics to hype their accomplishments. Generally, if a team is running the ball well and allowing relatively few sacks, the offensive line is thought to be performing well. Through two games, the Bucs have rushed for 337 yards and allowed just three sacks. Those are enormous numbers. On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills' vaunted defense recorded just one sack and was stung for 191 rushing yards on 40 carries.
"I am very proud of what they did," said Gruden after Sunday's game. "Our goal coming in here was to try to stay out of as many long-yardage situations as possible. The Bills dominate teams in the third-down area. I think running the ball with some success allowed us to do that. [The offensive linemen] are going to have a good night tonight. Hopefully, they get some respect because they did play very, very well today."
Buenning and Davis are the youngest players on that revamped line, and yet the Bucs in their first two games have repeatedly sent Williams left of the center, bashing over left guard or darting around left tackle. Williams has shown an uncanny ability to skate left, pick the right seam and shoot up it before the defense can react, and Buenning and Davis have made sure there is a seam there to exploit. Against the Bills, Davis went over left tackle for eight yards on the Bucs' first play from scrimmage, and the tone was set.
"The offensive line was able to come off the ball and wear Buffalo down, and there is no truer tale than that," said appreciative linebacker Derrick Brooks. "They were able to put some good three and four-yard runs, and before you know it, those runs turn into 10-yard runs. Every now and again, a big one pops out."
The Bucs' offense controlled the ball for almost 39 of the game's 60 minutes, keeping the defense fresh for one dominating three-and-out after another. On a succession of first-half drives, Tampa Bay drove to midfield or just over again and again without scoring. That might sound frustrating, but it really wasn't. The drives chewed up the clock, kept Buffalo's defense on the field and changed field position. Eventually, a punt was downed at the one, the defense came up with the safety and the floodgates were open.
By the second half, the Bucs were in complete control.
"At one point in the third quarter, we had a drive where I didn't throw a pass," said quarterback Brian Griese. "We went down and scored a field goal, and I cannot remember the last time that happened to me. It's a great feeling when you're able to grind out the running game, and get some big-hitting plays. We had some 20 and 25-yard runs mixed in with the five and six-yard runs. At that point, late in the second-half, I think their defense kind of gave in a little bit."
Williams was nothing short of spectacular, turning sure losses into four-yard gains and dragging defenders for extra yardage at the end of 30-yard runs. But the running game didn't falter even when he went to the sideline to rest a sprained foot. Running back Michael Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott combined to rush for 65 yards and a touchdown in relief. Again, that speaks well for the offensive line, which in turn speaks well for the Bucs' hopes for the rest of the season.
"We tried very hard this offseason in training camp to establish the running game and heavy attempts to run," said Alstott. "That means staying in the ball game, not getting down early in the game, which makes us have to pass."
That has been a successful formula so far. The Bucs have trailed only once this year, after Minnesota's first-quarter defensive touchdown last week, and they answered quickly to get back into that game. Since the second quarter of that Viking game, they have barely slowed down, and Williams has looked like a star behind this unheralded line. The best thing is, it's a young group, Williams included, and they're hungry for success.
"Our main thing is, we just have to keep it going," said Williams. "We can't get complacent. We have to get better. All the credit goes to those guys up front. Those guys, they did a heck of a job. They are making my job a lot easier."
That's pretty much the idea. Every coach in the league wants to get a push off the line, get his running back into the secondary, get the running game established, loosen up the defense and start sprinkling in some big plays in the passing attack. The Bucs offense has, so far, accomplished the first half of that scenario. If the offensive line keeps performing as well as they have through the first two games, and the running game remains healthy, it might do much more.
"When you have a running game like this, like the one we have here, there's no limit to what you can do passing and running the ball," said wide receiver Michael Clayton. "Our offensive line came out today with it on their mind. The best team in football, they say, came in here, and we just chose the dominant mind. That's just what they did. They dominated the offensive line."