The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have allowed the second fewest sacks in the NFL through the first half of the 2011 season. The Houston Texans are second in the NFL at rushing at the midway point.
The Buccaneers and Texans, who square off on Sunday for just the third time ever in the regular season, are best known for Josh Freeman and Matt Schaub, LeGarrette Blount and Arian Foster, Mike Williams and Calvin Johnson. However, if either team can hang its hat on one thing this season, in terms of consistently strong play from week to week, it's the men up front on offense. And it's a good bet that the winner in Sunday's game will be the team whose offensive line has the best day.
The Texans' O-Line, anchored by former first-round pick Eric Winston at right tackle, has paved the way for Arian Foster and Ben Tate to emerge as the NFL's most effective tandem of running backs. Both are over 600 yards rushing already, and Houston is the only team with two players in the NFL's top 10 in that category. The Buccaneers' defense, which has struggled in recent weeks to stop the run, will have its hands full trying to slow down Foster and Tate so they can get a crack at rushing the passer.
"Their toughness definitely stands out," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They're a zone-scheme running team that wants to run the football down your throat and they've had the ability to do that all year. They have the two-headed monster at running back in Ben Tate and Arian Foster, and those guys have the ability to get going. You've got to limit their amount of touches and what they can do. They combat that with their play-action pass, and they do a great job at that, getting the ball downfield to their receivers."
Tampa Bay's run defense was better in the first quarter of the defense than the second, and a major factor in that difference was the presence or absence of DT Gerald McCoy. McCoy has missed most of the last four games with ankle and arm injuries and is now on injured reserve for the rest of the season. However, the Bucs made a bold move this week to try to fill that void, claiming Albert Haynesworth off waivers after he was released by the New England Patriots. Haynesworth will play today against the Texans, and perhaps play a significant role.
"Losing our penetrator in Gerald McCoy, we were fortunate for there to be somebody out there like Albert Haynesworth to come in here and try to help us with some penetration," said Morris. "He's done a nice job of filling his role, picking up what we want to do. Hopefully we can get him out there and get him going in order to acclimate him to the system as best we can."
Morris was pleased with how quickly Haynesworth picked up the particulars of the Bucs' defense in practice this week, and he believes Tampa Bay's scheme is well-suited for the former Tennessee Titans' talents. How many snaps Haynesworth ultimately gets could be affected by a number of factors, including the Tampa heat.
"That's to be determined," said Morris. "We kind of live in a different climate and I'm not sure if he's played in a place like Tampa before. He'll be here. It will be 80 degrees. We'll figure it out. I've got two catches in Keith Millard and Grady Stretz that will keep an eye on that and keep it monitored. He'll be truthful and honest with us, we'll be truthful and honest with him and we'll try to make him as effective as we can."
Haynesworth will, in fact, start today alongside nose tackle Brian Price. He obviously won't play every snap, however, so the Bucs have lined up a variety of options to try to get the contributions in the middle they were getting from McCoy before his move to injured reserve. That includes playing some of their more versatile ends inside in passing downs, and sliding Price over into McCoy's usual spot.
"We have some options there," said Morris. "We can slide some guys inside like a Michael Bennett, like a George Johnson. Those guys have the ability to go in there. We can also put Brian Price at the three-technique and put in Roy Miller. We've got some valuable options, some guys to move around, some guys that can give us some space and some time well-needed up front."
Behind their Donald Penn-anchored offensive line, the Buccaneers can definitely counter the Texans' attack with a strong running game of their own. RB LeGarrette Blount returned from a knee injury that cost him two games last weekend in New Orleans and looked strong, averaging 5.5 yards per tote. He's running at a 4.4-yards-per-carry clip over the course of the season, but early-game errors have frequently put the Bucs in a hole and reduced his role. One of the major categories of mistake that has plagued Tampa Bay is penalties, but Morris said his team finally had a good week of practice in that regard.
"It's gone really well," said the coach. "We've done a great job. Our officials were in this week and we had two penalty-free days in practice. We actually did a nice job of limiting the running we had to do because of it and the guys are really buying in to what we want to do here. These guys want to win and they don't want to be selfish. We don't to have selfish acts today. We'll go out today and try to do our best in order not to hurt our football team, and to play our very best football."
Of course, the Bucs need to take that emphasis into game day this time, having drawn at least seven flags in five straight games. Morris thinks they will, at least in the areas they can control, such as post-play personal fouls.
"These guys are all team guys," he said. "They've made some selfish mistakes in the past that come with the emotions of the game and you can't ride the emotional roller coaster. You've got to stay even-keeled and that's a part of growing up, playing fast, playing smart and playing consistent."
The Bucs are definitely in need of a victory after losses to Chicago and New Orleans dropped them to 4-4, 1.5 games behind the Saints in the NFC South. With a tough trip to potentially-undefeated Green Bay looming next week, the Bucs want to stop their losing streak now and gain some momentum. Morris thinks his team is properly motivated after failing to get the season sweep over the Saints last Sunday in the Superdome.
"It was a very tough game," said Morris of last weekend's defeat. "We lost to a very good football team and those guys got the better of it that day. But my team, they love to bounce back, and this is a great opportunity to bounce back and play another tremendous team coming here into our stadium today, and be able to take it to them if we can."
Indeed, the Bucs are back at home for the first time in a month, since their rousing victory over New Orleans in Week Six. That could provide just the boost they need.
"It will be fun to get back home," said Morris. "We haven't been here in awhile. It will be fun to see our fans again. It will be fun to get back into our stadium. We've got to go out and get a win for them."
The Bucs have a few other changes to their starting lineup, all on defense. As Morris indicated earlier in the week, LB Adam Hayward will get a second straight start, replacing Geno Hayes in the starting three. Hayward will actually play on the strong side, with Quincy Black moving over to the weak side, where Hayes usually plays. Hayes will get some playing time this week, but the linebacking corps will be missing Dekoda Watson, who is out with a groin injury.
The Buccaneers' seven game day inactives are Watson, CB Anthony Gaitor, T Derek Hardman, T James Lee, WR Micheal Spurlock, DE Tim Crowder and DT Frank Okam. Watson and Okam are out due to injuries. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter will suit up for the first time since he suffered a foot injury on a season-opening 78-yard kickoff return in Week One.
The Texans will be without star WR Andre Johnson for the fifth straight game due to his hamstring injury. Jacoby Jones will once again replace Johnson in the starting lineup. Houston is also without starting free safety Danieal Manning, which pushes third-year man Troy Nolan into the starting lineup.
Houston's seven inactive players are Johnson, Manning, QB T.J. Yates, CB Sherrick McManis, G Thomas Austin, T Andrew Gardner and TE Garrett Graham.
The Bucs and Texans kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.