DT Chartric Darby (91) will face one of the league's top offensive lines Sunday against Kansas City
You know it. I know it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense knows it.
The Tampa Sports Authority, which runs Raymond James Stadium, knows it. They're considering painting dotted lines on the field to direct all the traffic you're going to see between the tackles on Sunday.
This is what we all know: The Kansas City Chiefs are going to run the ball up the middle on Sunday.
The Chiefs have Priest Holmes, outstanding interior offensive linemen and the number-one rushing game in the NFL. The Buccaneers have the league's 21st-ranked rush defense and a defensive tackle rotation slimmed by the losses of Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory to injured reserve.
The Bucs' run defense has shown definite signs of improvement in recent weeks, and even during its earlier struggles was mostly gashed by a small handful of very big plays. But the Chiefs run the ball against everybody, and they're certainly aware of the injuries to Wyms and Gregory.
(Hmm. Unless… Unless the Chiefs, knowing this is obvious, come out throwing the ball on 25 consecutive plays, like New England did to Oakland two years ago, and use Holmes primarily as a decoy. Could happen. And terrycloth shirts could come back in style.)
In truth, the Bucs go into every game expecting the opponent to run the ball up the gut, and making that number-one on their checklist of things to stop. Tampa Bay has the league's top-ranked pass defense and some very opportunistic players patrolling the secondary; its goal each week is to force the other team to pass as much as possible.
So the focus remains the same this weekend, and the Buccaneers' men in the middle believe their chances of success are as good as ever, even with Holmes coming to town.
"We lost some key players," said Chartric Darby, one of two starting defensive tackles alongside Anthony McFarland. "Every week, every team is going to come in the middle. That's just more opportunity for us. We as players welcome that. If they come in the middle, me and Mac and the linebackers are going to pick it up."
Holmes has rushed for 125 or more yards in five of the Chiefs' seven games, and he seems to ring up the big numbers regardless of how the game is going for Kansas City. In a 34-24 loss at Denver, he got 26 carries and ran for 151 yards and three touchdowns. In Kansas City's back-to-back wins over Atlanta and Indianapolis – in which the Chiefs scored a frightening 101 points – Holmes's rushing lines were 22-139-4 and 32-143-3.
It's almost as if he is Shaquille O'Neal and the opposing coaches are taking the 'let-Shaq-get-his-and-stop-everybody-else' approach. More likely, no one has figured out how to completely stop Holmes (or Shaq, for that matter). Plus, Holmes has the league's best offensive line paving the way.
"They're playing together, man," said Darby of the Chiefs' blockers. "They're playing together, with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of love. They're playing like they're family. When a team comes together and plays like family, good things will happen because they believe in each other. If everybody believes in everybody else, all they've got to do is run the ball and good things will happen."
Darby was speaking in generalities as he praised the Chiefs' running game. As for this weekend, specifically, he thinks the Bucs' defense can put a stop to the good times that have been rolling in Kansas City. The Chiefs are no two-week wonder – they won 13 games in 2003 largely on the strength of a similarly potent offense – but neither is the Bucs' defense a newcomer to high rankings or big-time showdowns.
The Bucs have enough history against explosive offenses and star performers to feel confident about taking on Holmes. Think Super Bowl XXXVII, or Michael Vick in 2002, or Marshall Faulk on more than one occasion.
"Oh, yeah, we most definitely believe in our defense," said Darby. "That's our brotherhood. I believe in each player on our side. We're going to play one snap at a time, and good things will happen. But you've got to tip your hats to Kansas City for playing great ball the last two weeks. We've got to go out there and put everything together, play as one."
The Bucs have allowed 117.6 yards per game on the ground through seven contests, while the Chiefs are averaging 167.6 per game behind Holmes's weekly exploits. While Tampa Bay's defensive speed often makes it hard for opponents to run wide on them, the Bucs have been hurt from time to time by big runs that started off guard.
Through five games, the Bucs gave up 11 runs of more than 10 yards, including two of 60 or more yards. Over their last two games, however, the Bucs have not allowed a single run longer than 10 yards. Gap-control problems that contributed to the early-season mishaps have apparently been cleaned up to some extent, and the Bucs refused to lose confidence in its interior run defense despite those big plays.
"Play it one snap at a time, and play Buc ball," said Darby, recounting the key to stopping Holmes or any other dangerous runner. "You've got to play on all cylinders. You can't miss a gap. You've got to take it one snap at a time.
"Priest Holmes is a great back – there's nothing you can say about that. You've got to give him that respect. But we've got a good team, too."
With Wyms and Gregory out, the Bucs have begun to use defensive ends Dewayne White and Josh Savage in the middle. Those two come in primarily in passing downs to give McFarland and Darby a rest. The bulk of the run defense, however, will still fall on the two starters and the linebacker help behind them.
"It's affecting the rotation a little bit," said Darby of the injuries. "Wyms and Gregory, we miss them tremendously. They're great players and they help the team out a whole lot. But right now, we've got to move on with life. We've got to move on, take it one step at a time and put it all together."