DE Dewayne White says the key for the Buccaneers' defense is succeeded on third downs by whatever means necessary
Fresh off the first win of his professional career as a starting quarterback, a victory that doubled as the first of the season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Gradkowski is about to be tested as he never has been before this Sunday.
That's when the 4-2 division-leading Philadelphia Eagles will come to town to play the 1-4 Buccaneers, bringing with them one of the most aggressive pass-rushing defenses in the league. And while Gradkowski has been hurried on occasion and sacked twice in each of his first two starts this season, it's safe to say that he's never seen a pass rush such as the one Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson will throw at him time and again this weekend.
Loaded on defense with playmakers such as safety Brian Dawkins, defensive end Darren Howard and defensive tackle Darwin Walker, the Eagles bring some form of blitz nearly every snap, and it shows. This season, no other defense has amassed more sacks than the Eagles' 23. That constant attacking style has helped the Eagles rank fourth in the league in creating turnovers with 13 (eight interceptions and five fumble recoveries).
"Defensively, this is the gritz blitz this week," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "This guy Jim Johnson does a great job applying pressure. They've gotten to the quarterback a lot. They didn't get there [against the Saints] but, 23 or 24 sacks in their first four games, quite impressive. So, it will be a challenge for us."
For Gradkowski, that means there will be even more importance placed on reading the defense before the snap. Recognizing where extra Eagles defenders will be coming from as early as possible will be vital to a Buccaneers offense that, in addition to Gradkowski, features two more rookies – right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Accurate pre-snap reads of exotic blitzes will enable Gradkowski to call for the correct protection schemes as well as designate the appropriate hot routes for his receivers.
If properly executed, the results could be big plays against the man coverage the Eagles rely on while blitzing. If the correct reads aren't made and executed, Gradkowski could wind up on his back several times, a la Drew Bledsoe, whom the Eagles sacked seven times in a Week Five contest against the Dallas Cowboys.
Proper offensive execution will also enable the Buccaneers offense to stay on the field, thereby keeping a very potent Eagles offense on the sideline. No quarterback in NFL history has ever opened a season with more than 1,500 passing yards and 10 touchdowns, with no more than one interception in his team's first five games until Donovan McNabb did so this season.
"They're good, man they are really good," Gruden said. "They are very explosive, their quarterback is great. The quarterback is, to me, one of the best in football. He's hard to defend. He's such a physical presence behind the center, and they've got a lot of weapons. Andy Reid does a great job using them."
Through six games, McNabb has passed for 1,849 yards and 13 touchdowns, posting a league-best 104.8 passer rating, and no quarterback has more rushing touchdowns than McNabb's three. In short, McNabb can and usually does hurt defenses when he has the chance. If the Buccaneers can limit his opportunities this Sunday, they'll take a page out of the game plan of the New Orleans Saints, who beat the Eagles last Sunday.
In a three-point victory over the Eagles, the Saints held the ball for eight minutes more than the Eagles, and their control of the clock was evident in the final stretch of the game. Tied at 24, the Eagles punted the ball to the Saints with 8:24 remaining in the game. Philly's offense never got another opportunity. After taking over possession, the Saints drove down the field, consuming all of the remaining time and ultimately kicking the game-winning field goal.
When the Eagles offense is on the field, the Buccaneers defense will have to continue its effectiveness on third down. In a win against Cincinnati last weekend, the Buccaneers held the Bengal offense to three-of-14 conversions on third down. In their win against the Eagles, the Saints showed similar effectiveness, limiting McNabb and company to just three-of-10 third down conversions. Again, fewer opportunities often equate to fewer points.
"We've just got to get off [the field] on third downs," said defensive end Dewayne White, explaining the Buccaneers' defensive success last weekend. "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."
They'll also have to limit the big play. No team has been better at gaining large chunks of yards than the Eagles. Led by McNabb, the Eagles' offense already has 34 passing plays of more than 20 yards and nine plays of more than 40 yards. In addition, running back Brian Westbrook has joined the big-play parade, tacking on a 71-yard run this season.
The Saints were able to hold the Eagles offense relatively in check last week but still allowed passing plays of 60, 40 and 29 yards – all beginning in the third quarter when the Eagles made a run and tied the game. Not surrendering the big plays the Eagles look for each game will force Philadelphia's offense into longer drives and increased opportunities for mistakes such as interceptions, fumbles or breakdowns in pass protection.
Together, limiting the big play, accounting for the Eagles' blitzes and winning the time of possession battle – thanks to efficient offense and effective third down defense – may just add up to two consecutive wins for the Buccaneers against two quality opponents.