DT Warren Sapp and the Bucs defense don't want to be looking back at Greg Hill again
On Wednesday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held the first open locker room period of the week, a heavily-attended hour of media-player interaction. One topic repeatedly took center stage: the Detroit Lions' running game.
Tampa Bay is ranked fourth in the National Football League in stopping the run, allowing an average of just 83.8 ground yards per game. Only once all season has an opposing rusher compiled a 100-yard running game against the staunch Buccaneer defense; in fact, only once all season has an entire team reached the 100-yard plateau against Tampa Bay.
That team was the Detroit Lions, on October 31. Detroit ran for 147 yards in a one-sided 20-3 victory over the Bucs in a nationally-televised Sunday night game, constantly finding lanes to run through the Bucs' usually crowded 'one-gap' defense. Not coincidentally, that is also the last time the Buccaneers lost a game.
Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak has pushed the team into a first-place tie with the Lions, making this Sunday's game perhaps the most critical NFC Central Division tilt so far. Even with an eye on sole possession of first place, the Bucs still have their letdown against the run in the first game at the front of their minds.
"They ran the ball really well against us last time," said S John Lynch, who ranks third on the team with 97 tackles. "We have a big challenge on our hands this Sunday."
"We have to stop the run, bottom-line," added leading tackler Derrick Brooks (132 stops). "We've never had as bad a game against the run as we did in that first Detroit game. We have to stop the run and stay out of big plays, hopefully continue to create some turnovers."
The main culprit in the first game was RB Greg Hill. Hill had a season-high 123 yards on just 16 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per pop and breaking off a 45-yarder that remains the longest run Tampa Bay has allowed this season. Overall in 1999, Hill is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and has not topped 68 yards in any other game this season. While that may lead one to wonder if Hill and the Lions had a special game plan for the Buccaneers, DT Brad Culpepper claims it was a matter of execution.
"(Detroit Head Coach) Bobby Ross is a lot like us," said Culpepper. "They have a certain amount of plays that they run and he runs them a lot. They've been sticking to four or five rushing plays in the last four or five games, and they've been doing them well. They stayed fairly vanilla (against the Buccaneers in the previous game) and we played vanilla, but we just didn't execute. Give Hill credit and give their offensive line credit…they did what they wanted to do."
Whether they'll be able to do so again is perhaps the key question heading into Sunday's game. DT Warren Sapp thinks the Buccaneers will be more difficult to run on this time around. "We've tinkered with our defense a little bit, worked on our seven-man fronts. I think we've got that fixed. We haven't given up many rushing yards since that game. We fought long and hard to turn the corner and get in the good position we're in now. We're not about to give that up."
S Damien Robinson thinks the Bucs can succeed by sticking to what has worked in recent weeks. Tampa Bay has allowed just 11 points per game since that last Lions contest, allowing a single-game high of 17 last Monday to the high-powered Vikings. "The biggest thing we have to do is play our type of football," said Robinson. "We have to come out aggressive like we have the last few weeks and create turnovers."
Buccaneer defenders who forget the lessons of the Halloween game are sure to be reminded by their coaches. Head Coach Tony Dungy even addressed the issue during the media session. "We have to stop their running game," he reiterated. "We need to force them into obvious passing situations so we can bring the rush on them. It was disappointing for us last time to give up the big plays on the ground and not get in position to win the game."
Sounds like it's unanimous. The Bucs' Wednesday media session fell shortly before the team's afternoon practice. It wasn't hard to guess what they would be working on.