T Jerry Wunsch and the Bucs' linemen appreciate the chance to run block and return some of the punishment they take on passing downs
Admit it. You thought you'd see David Lee Roth get back together with Van Halen before you witnessed a Tony Dungy-coached team throw the ball 50 times in one game.
Well, it finally happened last Sunday, so you might as well jump to the conclusion that times have changed in Tampa. After all, no Buccaneer team had thrown the ball halfway to a hundred times in one game since the days of Vinny Testaverde and Ray Perkins (1989, to be exact). Will the airways over Raymond James Stadium be filled with footballs this next weekend as Johnson and Johnson (Brad and Keyshawn) become the next Marino and Clayton?
Yeah, and the Van Halen reunion tour will hit RJS next month.
In other words, the Bucs still want to run the ball, and you can't blame them. While the notion of cause and effect can be argued in the following stats, it's still noteworthy that the Buccaneers under Dungy are 0-8 all-time when they pass the ball more than 40 times in a game. On the flip side, they are 11-0 when they run the ball more than 40 times.
Of course, it's true that the Bucs are going to run more with a lead and pass more when they're behind, as they were against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Of Johnson's 50 throws in Adelphia Coliseum, 27 came in the fourth quarter and overtime, as the Bucs rallied from a 14-point deficit in the last seven minutes of regulation.
But running success certainly seems to breed victories, particularly for the Buccaneers. Under Dungy, Tampa Bay is 39-12 when it puts up 100 rushing yards or more in a game, 8-25 when it doesn't. The Bucs are 19-9 in that same span when they average four yards per carry or better.
Tampa Bay has clearly opened up its offense to some degree, showing a variety of calls it often hasn't, but the team still believes in running to win. The arrival of the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend only serves to emphasize that philosophy, as the Steelers have jumped out to a 3-1 record by running the ball better than anyone else (192 yards per game) and playing better defense than the rest (239 total yards allowed per game).
"A lot of teams have played that way," said Dungy, wryly. "Baltimore played that way last year, Pittsburgh has gone to a few Super Bowls playing that way. It's not a bad philosophy."
So rest assured, the Bucs want to rebound from a 24-yard rushing performance last Sunday against the Titans, their lowest ground total ever under Dungy. There were other factors that led to that low total – the Bucs' second-half deficit, the Titans decision to keep eight men in the box, Warrick Dunn's foot injury – but Tampa Bay has forced the run action before against tougher odds.
"It comes down to us executing a little better and taking advantage of what they give to us," said tackle Jerry Wunsch. "Before, we would really work at running the ball, we were determined that we were going to run the ball. Now, we're just working with what is given to us."
Dunn will presumably be somewhat healthier this Sunday, which may allow the Bucs to return to their preferred pattern, with Dunn getting most of the carries. After fullback Mike Alstott rushed for an impressive 77 yards in the October 7 win over Green Bay, with Dunn out, Dungy started Alstott and rookie fullback Jameel Cook again last weekend. Dunn later saw extensive action, but was used more in the passing game than on the ground. With either Alstott or Dunn, Tampa Bay's running game never seemed to get untracked in Tennessee.
Nobody wants to see the Bucs get back on track more than the team's offensive linemen, who relish a day of heavy run-blocking. In the two games prior to the trip to Tennessee, the men up front had opened holes wide enough to allow the team to average 6.8 yards per carry in Minnesota (September 30) and 5.2 yards per tote against the Packers.
"I think any offensive lineman wants to run the ball, because that's the only way you can take something out of the defensive guys who are pass-rushing you," said guard Cosey Coleman. "It's a chance to pound them and beat them up a little bit on the run. Any offensive lineman in his right mind wants to run the ball."
Wunsch agrees, though he's more of a bottom-line man when it comes to moving the ball.
"I like running the ball as much as possible," he said. "If we can keep on running the ball, I'd be happy. Or, in the other case, if we can keep on passing the ball in 30-yard chunks, 40-yard chunks, I'm all for that. Really, whatever's working and whatever they're giving you, you want to take advantage of. That's what we've been good at, but we aren't capitalizing enough on the things they give us.
"We have to have an opportunity. It's that simple. Once we get that opportunity, I'm sure we'll take advantage of it, especially with the backs we have. We just have to stick with it, keep pounding it, keep working at it. We've got two terrific backs."
That opportunity may have to be made against an eight-man front, perhaps when it has been softened up a bit by the Bucs' newly potent passing attack. Against Pittsburgh, it will also have to come against a 3-4 defensive alignment that has become increasingly rare in the NFL. The Bucs got a brief look at it during the preseason against New England, but the Steelers are obviously employing it to better effect at the present time.
"They're a little bit different in some of their schemes," said Brad Johnson. "You've got guys running around sometimes and you don't know what position that they're in. They're doing a great job in what they've been doing. They're the number one defense as far as giving up yardage and they're doing a great job."
Specifically, the Steelers are ranked first overall but 11th against the run and first against the pass. They have surrendered 95.8 rushing yards per game and opponents have managed a respectable 4.0 yards per carry. Still, Wunsch knows the Steeler front seven, particularly the four productive linebackers that back up the defensive line – Earl Holmes, Kendrick Bell, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon – can be a handful.
"They're playing good defense up front – and we haven't seen a team not play good defense up front this year," said Wunsch. "Really, what it does is give you something different than what everyone else is running, so you really have to be alert to what's going on. It's not the regular, every-day defense.
"There are a lot of different blitzes and they can come from different areas. You could be sliding one way, and with the way this defense works they could loop a 'backer all the way around to the other side and all of the sudden you're in it. You're picking up this opposite-side 'backer. There are all kinds of different things we're going to have to learn about."
But, hey, we're seeing something new every day, right Jerry? Fifty passes in a single game…maybe the run and shoot is next. Times have changed, huh?
"Compared to when I first got here, definitely," said Wunsch. "I never thought we would be in a situation where we'd pass 50 times. Now, things have changed and it's possible – 60, who knows? That could possibly happen. You've just got to be ready for it, because that might come up. We're working at it just as hard as we're working on our run game.
"It would nice to be considered, somewhere down the road, a multi-dimensional team."