John Lynch and the Bucs' defense stymied Dallas on third downs but has since had uncharacteristic troubles in that category
Since the week of preparations for the Tennessee game began, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have pointed to Friday after practice as the key evaluation point for injured running back Warrick Dunn.
Though Dunn entered the week as 'questionable' on the injury report, a faster-than-expected upgrade, and though the Bucs' Pro Bowl tailback got some limited work during Thursday's practice, the decision as to his availability for Sunday has consistently been delayed until after the team saw him in full action on Friday.
Apparently, however, Dunn has again progressed quicker than expected, because he was updated to 'probable' on the injury report Friday morning, before the team even took the field at 11:30 a.m. This report just came out of the Buccaneers' training room minutes ago.
The entire report, in fact, represented good news for the Bucs, as it shrunk from 10 players to six in one day. Removed from the list were safety John Lynch (hip), tight end Dave Moore (ankle), guard Cosey Coleman (knee) and wide receiver Reidel Anthony (shoulder).
Defensive tackle James Cannida, doubtful with a knee sprain, will almost surely miss the contest, with next week's Pittsburgh game his target for return. The other four names on the report – linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive end Marcus Jones, wide receiver Jacquez Green and linebacker Jeff Gooch – are all followed by 'probable' designations, though Brooks remains somewhat of a question mark.
Buccaneers.com will provide a Friday post-practice update on Brooks and Dunn.
Easily the most surprising Buccaneer statistic this season is the team's opponent third down percentage. Tampa Bay ranks dead last in the league in that category, having allowed its foes to succeed on exactly half (18 of 36) of their third down tries. After holding Dallas to a 1-10 mark in that column in the season opener, the Bucs saw Minnesota convert nine of 12 third downs and Green Bay succeed on eight of 14.
It's no stretch to say that the Bucs' problems in this area directly affected the outcome of the loss in Minnesota and nearly cost the team last Sunday's win over Green Bay.
"That's such a crucial statistic," said Lynch. "There are a few of those statistics that are really telling, and that's one of them because it allows teams to continue drives and allows them more opportunities to make plays. On the flip side, that's how you get off the field, and that's what we're all about."
Indeed, the Bucs' defense has long been one of the league's stingiest on third down, which makes this year's struggles all the more surprising. Tampa Bay has ranked no worse than eighth in opponent third down percentage in each of the last four years, including 1998, in which the Bucs' 31.7% mark led the league and set a new franchise record.
|Season||Opp. 3rd Down %||NFL Rank|
Since neither the Bucs' scheme nor personnel has changed drastically over that span, Tampa Bay players obviously believe they will return to form on third downs.
"We just need to be a little sharper," said Lynch. "I think that's something that, by the end of the year, we'll be right back at the top of that category, like we always are. But you can't just say that. You've got to start doing it. That's something we're extremely focused on."
The Bucs say it before every game, with conviction: priority number one is stopping the run. That becomes more of a focus, however, when the team is facing a steamroller of a runner like Eddie George. The former Heisman Trophy winner has played in the last four Pro Bowls and has never rushed for less than 1,294 yards in a season. At 6-3, 240 pounds, he is a sizeable challenge unlike any the Bucs have seen yet this season.
Tampa Bay's defense ranks eighth in the league against the run, having held its three opponents to 86 yards per game so far, but Buc players don't feel as if they've fully regained their form against the ground game yet.
"Our main focus right now is still stopping the run," said linebacker Jamie Duncan. "We've stopped it, but we should be a little more dominant in that regard. That's our main focus, especially going against one of the best backs in the league. They're down a little bit right now but we're expecting their best effort, so that has to be our number one focus right now."
What's particularly concerning for the Bucs is that George has yet to break out. Through three games, the Ohio State product has carried the ball 51 times for 154 yards (3.0 avg.) and has single-game totals of 49, 79 and 26 yards.
Last year, George had a somewhat similar start, rushing for 37, 80 and 74 yards in the first three games and averaging just 2.9 yards per carry after that span. And what came next? Consecutive bust out games of 125, 181 and 167 rushing yards and, by the end of the season, a career-best 1,509. The Bucs wouldn't be surprised to see the same rebound by George and the Titans' running attack this season, but would like to delay it by one extra week this time.
"I think the way you have to approach it is, that's still the team that was out there the last two years and you've got to be on top of your game," said Lynch. "Sooner or later, they're going to come out of it. We just have to make sure it's not against us."