FB Mike Alstott has had running success in Chicago before; he and the Bucs need to recapture that this Sunday in Soldier Field
Following five years of a ball-control, run-oriented offense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have, suddenly and unexpectedly, turned into the most pass-happy team in the league.
No game this season illustrates this better than the first meeting between the Bucs and the Chicago Bears, a month ago in Raymond James Stadium. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw 56 passes and completed a team-record 40 of them, perhaps making him long for those quiet days with the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, the Bucs' rushing attack had its worst outing in the Tony Dungy era, accounting for just 19 yards on 15 tries.
Yes, the Bucs passed for 399 yards and, yes, they moved the chains and put up 24 points, tied for their third-best total of the season. However – and this is important – Tampa Bay lost.
On many weekends this season, the Bucs have found a way to succeed without a strong rushing game, whether through a surrogate short-yardage of Warrick Dunn receptions or unusually strong contributions from the defense or special teams. In Cincinnati, for instance, Tampa Bay managed only 65 rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry, but they scored on a blocked punt and held the Bengals to 201 yards of offense in a 16-13 overtime win.
However, that is most definitely not a formula the Buccaneers are comfortable using in Chicago this weekend.
"It's something that we've got to emphasize and try to get done," said Dungy, noting that the Bucs averaged 128.5 rushing yards in their two winter wins in Chicago in 1998 and '99. "They're playing better run defense at this point than they were two years ago, but it's something that we've definitely got to get going or we're going to have a tough time."
Buc fans, who used to collectively clamor for a more effective passing game, probably don't need any convincing of this fact, but the numbers are compelling enough to share.
The Green Bay Packers, who have given the Bears two of their three losses, have averaged 133.5 rushing yards per game in that pair of victories. Chicago's other 10 opponents have averaged 82.9 rushing yards per game. The Bears' own offense has shown the importance of running the ball in Soldier Field – Chicago is 7-0 when it runs for over 75 yards, 2-3 when it doesn't.
Of course, the problem isn't dedication to the running game, but the execution of it. The Bucs may not have ran well in Cincinnati, but they stuck with it for 30 carries, as an early lead allowed them to play ball-control. A third-quarter defensive collapse in the first Bucs-Bears game didn't allow Tampa Bay to stay with the ground game, but they weren't having much success in that regard, anyway.
On a team whose rankings don't reflect its record, Chicago's one obvious area of strength is run defense. The Bears rank third in that category, which is serious vindication of the team's offseason strategy to sign massive defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor as free agents. Those two have plugged the middle and allowed instant star linebacker Brian Urlacher to roam relatively free.
"They're playing good run defense," said Dungy. "They've got two big guys inside that make it tough to run inside. They've got active linebackers, guys that can run and get to the ball and hit. And their secondary's playing well. They've done a good job. They've given up some yards in the passing game, but they're tough to run on and tough to score on. We're going to have to improve our running game over the first time around and see if we can take advantage of some of those chances in the red zone."
If there's hope to gained from the statistics, its that Chicago has allowed three of its last five opponents to crack the 100-yard rushing mark, though of course one of those two that didn't was the Buccaneers. There were also signs of life in the Bucs' rushing attack last Sunday (81 yards on 22 carries against Detroit), particularly when fullback Mike Alstott was toting the rock.
Alstott, a Chicago-area native and former Purdue star who claims to enjoy playing in wintry conditions, believes the Bucs can rediscover their rushing success down the stretch, beginning this weekend.
"We just need to go out there and execute, get our blocks and stick with the running game," he said. "If we do that and keep on sticking with the running game, you'll see the one or two-yard gains start turning into four, five, six-yarders, and maybe popping some long ones."