The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' comeback in Minnesota last Sunday started with one very well-blocked gap between right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
Running back LeGarrette Blount took a handoff from quarterback Josh Freeman at the Minnesota 27 and dashed directly into the gap, emerging on the other side without having been touched. From there, Blount bounced out to the sideline and outran one defender before diving over the goal line. He ran 27 yards essentially untouched, scoring the first six of the 24 points the Bucs would frantically put up in the second half of a 24-20 win.
As accomplished as Joseph and Trueblood are as blockers, they're not always going to create such a wide running lane, or such an enticing target for a back who is just getting the football in his hands. The Buccaneers' coaches want Blount to make the most of every gap in the line he sees, even if some of them look a bit more crowded or narrow than that memorable one opened by Joseph and Trueblood in Minnesota. Blount is a gifted open-field runner, and a frightening figure for a smaller defender in a one-on-one situation, but the team wants him to find that open field by sticking with the play design.
"We have to eliminate the negative yardage plays on normal down and distance, first and second downs," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "We can't have negative-yard plays and part of that is hitting the hole when it's there and taking the four-yard garbage. It's not always going to be a super clean hole. You're great once you get through that hole but let's hit that hole and then work your magic once you get to the second level. But we've got to get you through that first level. That's his style of running; we know what you can do once you get out in the open field. You're difficult to tackle for those corners and safeties but you have to get to that second level. Its more about that than anything."
To his credit, Blount did just that against the Vikings, picking up 71 yards on just 13 carries, or 5.5 yards per tote. This is no fluke; last season he set a new Buccaneers individual single-season record with 5.0 yards per carry. He had a 3.0-yard average in the season-opening loss to Detroit, but in that case he got only five tries, and in many cases it takes a back more carries to get into the groove.
Blount was understandably frustrated by his relatively small role in the offense in that game, but it certainly didn't represent a team desire to minimize his role. The Lions' early lead and the Bucs' reliance on the two-minute offense – with both positive and negative results – were the main causes. Against Minnesota, the Bucs still fed Blount the ball despite once again being in a deep hole.
"Just getting the ball in his hands, sticking with the game plan," said Joseph, describing the different approach in Game Two. "We were able to do that, even being down by 17 going into the half. We just stuck with the game plan. He's a home run hitter and he definitely gave us that big home run we needed to spark the whole team."
Blount certainly gets the message, and he's not interested in spending time dancing around behind the line of scrimmage.
"I'm a downhill physical running back," he said. "There's nothing special about my running game, I just try to be a downhill running back, a big power guy. I try to be elusive in the open field so I don't get tackled by safeties and DBs."
Blount had a big game the last time the Buccaneers played the Atlanta Falcons, this week's opponent at Raymond James Stadium. He ran 20 times for 103 yards (5.2 per carry) and scored a touchdown. The Buccaneers probably need him to do something similar this weekend in order to counter Atlanta's own excellently balanced attack. The Falcons got 114 yards and a touchdown of RB Michael Turner in their own comeback win over Philadelphia this past Sunday.
Atlanta's running attack appears to be in midseason form. After last weekend's explosive second half, Blount thinks the Bucs are closing in on that level of efficiency as well.
"I feel like we're getting there," he said. "There's definitely still room for improvement, but we're definitely getting there. We're just trying to go out and be our very best selves."
Between a defensive line populated with high-profile draft choices, a linebacking crew rotating around a rookie starter in the middle and a secondary that boasts an all-time NFL great at one cornerback and a rising star at the other, unassuming eighth-year safety Sean Jones doesn't draw a lot of attention. But few Buc defenders have filled up a stat line like Jones so far this season.
It started in the season opener, when Jones racked up eight tackles and also forced a fumble. That's a good day for a safety, and he certainly appeared to be in the right place at the right time more often than not, but the outing actually left his coaches unsatisfied. They focused on two potential big plays that didn't quite come to fruition.
"The first week we got on him pretty good now," admitted his position coach, Jimmy Lake. "He might have looked like he played really good, and he did, but we were actually upset that he dropped two interceptions. He was in position, but we don't celebrate pass break-ups. Between me and Raheem we were riding him pretty good for dropping those two interceptions."
Jones didn't pick off a pass in the Bucs' Week Two win at Minnesota either, but he did just about everything else. He and fellow safety Cody Grimm repeatedly kept some very good runs by Adrian Peterson from turning into real game-breakers, and in the third quarter Jones timed a blitz perfectly and killed a Minnesota drive at midfield with a 10-yard sack of Donovan McNabb.
"He comes out this game and has eight tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, two quarterback pressures," said Lake appreciatively. "It was probably his most productive game since he's been a Buccaneer and we're just hoping he continues that as we move forward."
So far, Jones ranks third on the team with 16 tackles and second with 15 solo stops. He is the only Buccaneer defender at the moment who already has at least one tackle, sack, quarterback pressure, pass defensed, forced fumble and fumble recovery. At this rate, he's likely to shoot past his very productive first year as a Buccaneer in 2010, when he combined 89 tackles with one sack, one interception, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery.
Thorn in Their Side
Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his four-year career in 2010. You can bet his candidacy got plenty of support down South during the player-voting portion of the selection process.
Grimes obviously had an outstanding season overall last fall, finishing with 82 tackles, an impressive 23 passes defensed and five interceptions to lead the Atlanta defense. Still, he saved his most significant plays for crunch time against the Buccaneers.
Atlanta finished with an NFC-best 13-3 record last year, helped by two narrow wins over the Buccaneers, who finished 10-6 and just out of the conference playoff picture. Both of those games down to critical moments in the fourth quarter, and both might have turned out differently if not for big plays by Grimes.
On November 7 in Atlanta, the Bucs were trialing 27-14 until WR Micheal Spurlock returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in the last minute of the third quarter. The Bucs tried an onside kick but it didn't work, setting Atlanta up at Tampa Bay's 39. The defense came up with an impressive three-and-out stop but future Buccaneer Michael Koenen managed to punt it down to the Tampa Bay four-yard line. Fortunately, Spurlock came up big again on the ensuing drive, catching a 43-yard pass to get the ball back near midfield.
That's when Grimes stepped in, intercepting a sideline pass intended for Mike Williams and killing a promising drive with just 12 minutes left in the game. The Bucs did get the ball back one more time, but when that drive stalled deep in Atlanta territory they had run out of chances.
When the two teams met again at Raymond James Stadium in December, Grimes waited even longer into the fourth quarter to plunge the dagger. On this day, the Falcons rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to take a 28-24 lead with 4:36 left. Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman did what he does best, launching an impressive late-game comeback drive, and Tampa Bay had the ball in Atlanta territory with two minutes still to play. Freeman impressively converted a fourth-and-12 with a 19-yard pass to Sammie Stroughter at the Falcons' 27, but an attempted out to the right sideline gave Grimes a chance to save his team again. This time, Grimes broke on the play and made a diving interception, sealing the Atlanta victory.
"Great playmaker," said Olson. "He's a great playmaker, he really is. He's one of the more underrated players in the league in our opinion."
Olson said that Grimes' big plays are not the result of a gambling player who trades interceptions for big plays allowed by guessing too often. Rather, Grimes is adept at reading offenses and knowing when to make his move.
"He's got great instincts," said the Buccaneers' coach. "It's not just us – this guy went to the Pro Bowl last year. But he's been a thorn in our side. He's just a really good football player. Our wide receivers have a lot of respect for him, our quarterback has a lot of respect for him. He's a good football player."
It's noteworthy that Grimes snared both of his interceptions on passes intended for Williams. Just as the Bucs' Aqib Talib often shadows the opponent's most dangerous receiver, Grimes is likely to spend a lot of time in Williams' vicinity this Sunday. Given that it is a goal of the Tampa Bay's offense to get the ball more frequently than it did last week in Minnesota, his battle with Grimes could be one of the key elements in Sunday's outcome.