DE Marcus Jones and the Bucs' unstoppable pass rush could sway the balance in Atlanta
Last year, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the Atlanta Falcons in November, Buc pass rushers sacked Falcon quarterback Chris Chandler just twice, though Tampa Bay did pull out a comeback, 19-10 win.
This year, Tampa Bay leads the universe in sacks, with 37 through eight games, and Atlanta has allowed more sacks than all but two other NFL teams. The frightening conclusion of that equation is obvious. However, if you think the Bucs' pass rushers are licking their chops in anticipation of a feeding frenzy, you have the wrong mental image of the team's midweek locker room.
The Bucs aren't expecting an easy path to the quarterback on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. In fact, they're not even considering that job one.
"They're a really good team," said DE Marcus Jones, who has 10 of those 37 sacks. "They're really well-coached up front. I remember last year playing them, their offensive line was really, really good. They throw a lot of things at you, as far as screens and things like that, and they do them very well and they get the ball moving. This year, they're really good because they've got their back back. That's one of the most important things, to be able to stop the run, and (Jamal Anderson)'s a great back. So we've got to stop him first before we can even think about rushing."
That, of course, is a familiar refrain in the Bucs' locker room, and there's a reason they keep singing that song. Opponents in Tampa Bay's four wins have averaged 80 rushing yards per game; in the team's four losses, that average rises steeply to 132 yards per game. Stop the run first, goes the theory, so that teams are forced into obvious passing situations.
"I think we have a chance to rush the passer well if we can get off to a good start and if we can slow down Jamal Anderson," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "That's going to be the key. He's a good back, he's strong and he makes their offense go. If we are able to take him out of it, make them one-dimensional, I think we will have a chance to rush."
If so, watch out. Film study tells the Bucs that the numbers are no fluke. Jones and Sapp (10.5) should get a very real chance to make a run at Lee Roy Selmon's team record of 13 sacks in a season if things go according to plan in Atlanta.
"We've watched a couple of teams that are similar to us, rushing-wise," said Jones. "We watched the Saints, and we saw how they rushed against (the Falcons), and we understand that the opportunity's going to be there. We just have to step up and make the plays."
In fact, the ability of Jones' unit to make those plays could be the determining factor in the game. Chandler has the ability to pick a defense apart, but the Bucs want to limit his time to do so by keeping his feet moving.
"Chandler is a very accurate guy," said Dungy. "He's very, very good when they have their running game going and he's throwing play-action passes. Throwing with protection, he's as good as any quarterback in the league. We've got to put pressure on him and try not to let him get his feet set, not to let him have time for the deep routes to open up."
Chandler, who has had some injury problems in the past, has stayed in the lineup this season. The Bucs, however, are not aiming at knocking Chandler out of the game, just out of his rhythm.
"We're not concerned about his durability, no," said LB Jamie Duncan. "Our biggest thing is getting him off-balance and uncomfortable. That's what we do – try not to let quarterbacks get comfortable in the pocket. Even when the sacks aren't there, if we have it where the rush is getting there, it kind of affects him even when we're not blitzing. We try to make the quarterback feel the rush even when it's not getting there. It plays a big part in a quarterback's psyche if you get to him early."
And, of course, that's what the Buccaneers have been doing all season. They dropped Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper only twice last Sunday but made him get rid of the ball quickly and sometimes errantly. Much of that was due to a higher percentage of blitzes than Tampa Bay usually calls on defense, but that's not necessary to supply pressure, the Bucs believe.
"The great thing that we have is that we can rush four people and still get pressure on the quarterback," said Duncan. "As long as we can do that, I think we'll be fine and we won't have to worry about blitzing as much in critical situations.
"We just pretty much stick to our game plan. What we've been doing has been working. We don't necessarily always have to bring the blitz to get pressure on the quarterback. That's just a credit to our defensive line."
Nevertheless, the Falcons' passing game has the potential to send this game in a direction the Bucs would not appreciate.
"It can, if you don't disrupt their timing a little bit, and you let him get back there and get comfortable and get his feet set," said Duncan. "He's a very accurate deep-ball thrower. That's one thing about Chris Chandler – that's the best thing about him – he throws the deep ball very, very well. Like I said, we're just going to try to disrupt their timing and get him off balance a little bit, not let him get comfortable back there in the pocket to where he sets his feet and looks downfield. It's hard to stop him when he's comfortable and he's throwing well."
But, as most opposing quarterbacks have found out when playing the Buccaneers this season, lying flat on your back isn't all that comfortable.