DE Steve White and the Bucs' defense have stopped many running plays near the line of scrimmage but have been susceptible to the big play
Last Sunday, as Green Bay's Ahman Green went into the second half, he needed 23 rushing yards to record his third 100-yard rushing day of the season.
In a way, those 23 yards were more important to the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers than to Green, who had put together a solid first half of 77 yards on 15 carries. Since Head Coach Tony Dungy took over the Buccaneers in 1996, his team had gone 1-15 in games in which the opposing team had a 100-yard rusher; even if the players didn't know that on the sideline, the correlation between a back having a big day and the Bucs struggling was probably easy to see.
So, needing those 23 yards, Green runs behind right guard on the second play of the first half and picks up just one before linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive end Marcus Jones stop him. That helps force a third down and a turnover as linebacker Jamie Duncan intercepts quarterback Brett Favre's third-and-one pass.
The Packers get the ball back five minutes later and, again, on the second play of the drive, Green runs behind right guard and gets just one yard before safety John Lynch shuts him down. Three plays later, the Packers punt.
Five minutes later, the Pack has the ball again, and now time is starting to get a little short for the home team, which is trailing by 10 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter. Green gets the ball on the first snap this time, and heads to that same spot behind right guard. This time, the door is wide open and the speedy former Nebraska Cornhusker shoots through it untouched for a 63-yard touchdown run and a one-play drive. Green has his 100-yard day and the Bucs are now 1-16 in such circumstances.
Three running plays to the same spot and an average of 21.7 yards per carry, but the Bucs' defense was nearly perfect on two of those three snaps.
"You've got dozens and dozens of plays during a game where we've got the guy at the line of scrimmage, maybe a couple of yards," said defensive end Steve White. "Then you've got these breakout plays where a guy gets a 63-yard run, or maybe a 10-yard run. It's just a bad fit by somebody."
Buc defenders commonly use the term 'run fit,' which refers to the team's one-gap defensive approach. On most running plays, each player in the front seven is responsible for filling a 'gap' between two players on the offense's front wall. By contrast, a defensive lineman in a two-gap system might take on an offensive lineman straight up, then slide over into whichever gap the runner tries to come through on either side of his man.
If the Bucs' defense makes a proper run fit on a play, then each gap should be filled – all the pieces fit like a puzzle. If just one player is in the wrong gap, disastrous results can follow.
"If you look at our film, we've got guys busting their tails, going hard and being physical," said White. "We've just got guys out of their gaps in certain situations. At any given time, if you're out of your gap in this system, you can give up a big play."
Such as Green's long run, which sparked the Packers' successful comeback in a 21-20 Buc loss, or the 46-yard touchdown burst by Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis three weeks ago. The Bucs were by no means perfect against Green last Sunday, but they probably would have been sufficiently pleased with the effort if not for that one breakaway. They also very well may have won the game.
"Basically, we shut the guy down most of the day but the long run broke our back," said safety Dexter Jackson. "You could tell when he broke the long run, a lot of guys put there heads down. It was like, 'What are we going to do now? Here comes Green Bay again.' I sensed that and I saw that, and that's something we need to stop doing. We need to keep our heads up all the time, not only when we're playing good but when we're playing bad also."
Through seven games, Tampa Bay's defense has allowed 27 runs of 10 or more yards; by contrast, the Bucs' offense, which probably relies on the breakaway run more than most teams, has 17 such long carries.
At the current rate, which the Bucs do not plan on maintaining, opponents would finish with 62 runs of 10 or more yards by the end of the season. Last year, when the Bucs were a bit dissatisfied with their ninth-ranked run defense, they allowed 39 carries of 10 or more yards. A more indicative number would the total from 1999, when the Bucs finished the season ranked third against the run and third overall. That year, only 31 long runs were allowed, the same total as the team surrendered in 1998.
The Bucs believe the problems can be corrected.
"We don't have major breakdowns, just technique breakdowns here and there," said White. "We just have to get it all on the same page for every play of the game. When we do that, we'll get back to playing the way we're used to playing around here."
And that may even include a more successful pass rush. The Bucs' defense has a surprisingly low total of 13 sacks through seven games, though periodically strong pressure has helped the team pick off 13 passes. If opponents are unable to pick up any big gains in the running game, and the Bucs continue to limit many carries to just one or two yards, as they are doing now, more long passing downs will ensue.
"We have to stop the run," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "We have to make a team one-dimensional so that we can aid ourselves in doing the things we do well, and that's putting pressure on the quarterback and getting picks and making big plays."
The sacks and the interceptions may be where the glory is on defense, but this unit spent the entire preseason constantly repeating the importance of stopping the run. That emphasis has made the Tampa Bay defense very difficult to run against on most snaps. So far, that hasn't been enough, but there is time and talent, the Bucs' believe, to get it turned around.
"We pride ourselves on being able to stop the run," said White. "That was one of our big goals this year, to do better against the run, and we just haven't gotten it done at game time. We prepare well during the week and we probably see more run fits during the week than any team in the league. I don't really know what the problem is, but we have to get it fixed to win."