T Jerry Wunsch believes the Bucs' preseason meetings with Miami set the tone for this Sunday's contest
The question that has always followed RB Warrick Dunn around the NFL is: Can he handle the pounding he would take as an every-down back for a full season?
Dunn has always maintained that he can, and his last month of work in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense certainly lends credence to that belief.
But, in a lighthearted moment on Wednesday, Dunn himself wondered if he could survive the punishment of this Sunday's game at Miami.
"It's going to be physical," said Dunn, practically spitting out the last word. "The games (against Miami) are usually physical; they were physical in the preseason. I just hope I don't come out sore for the first time!"
Dunn was joking about the concern for his own well-being, but the Bucs are taking Miami's proverbial gauntlet seriously. Toiling under old-school Head Coach Dave Wannstedt and armed with an ultra-confident and aggressive defense, the Dolphins employ a style that is affectionately known in the NFL as 'smashmouth.' The Bucs like to believe that they do the same.
"We know those guys a little bit; they know us," said Dunn. "They know what to expect; we know what to expect. Now it's just going out there for a dogfight. It's going to be a backyard brawl, in a sense."
In the team locker room on Wednesday, there were attempts to goad the Buccaneer players into the belief that the Dolphins' didn't respect Tampa Bay's own physical style of play. LB Derrick Brooks wasn't buying it.
"Oh, no," said Brooks. "They're going to watch tape. They're going to see that we bring it. We're a little small, a little undersized, but when that ball's snapped, physical isn't going to be one of our problems."
If that is indeed the belief in the Dolphins' camp, it isn't shared in West Central Florida.
"I'm going to have to disagree, because I don't think anybody's more physical than we are," said DE Marcus Jones. "We will prove it. We go out and prove it every week. A lot of people think that because we're an undersized defense that we don't bring it. Take one glance at John Lynch and you wouldn't think he can hit as hard as he does, but he puts on the pads and goes out there and kills people. It's one of those things where we're just going to have to go out there and show them what we're capable of."
When the Bucs and Dolphins met in the preseason on August 10, the result was a knockdown, drag-out, 15-13 Miami victory in which the two teams combined for just 498 yards of total offense. Each team averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and the Dolphins sacked Tampa Bay quarterbacks four times.
These 2000 crews had become acquainted just a few weeks earlier in a two-day session of joint practices in Orlando during training camp. While there were obviously no statistics available from that affair, it was clear to all in attendance that the defenses dominated and that neither team was willing to back down.
There was probably very little of true scouting value in either of those meetings, but there was obviously some message sent.
"You've got to pay some attention to it," said T Jerry Wunsch. "You can learn a lot from it. But we really didn't show anything and, of course, they weren't showing anything. It's something that we can't forget – there's no doubt.
"They're a very physical football team, and sometimes we try to be very physical, too. It is going to be a physical football game. You're going to have to set the tempo that way. We know that and they know that – it's not a secret."
Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy has long contended that one advantage of playing in Tampa is the fine midweek weather late in the season. Mild afternoons in Florida afford the Buccaneers a chance to continue practicing outdoors in exactly the same fashion they had through the first half of the season.
The numbers would seem to back up Dungy's contention. Since 1998, Tampa Bay has the best regular-season record in the NFC in December and January (the 1999 regular season went three days into January). After beating Dallas to kick off December 2000 last Sunday, the Bucs are now 8-2 after November since '98. Only the New York Jets, who are 9-1 in the same interim, has a better mark.
Jacksonville, the Bucs' Florida neighbors to the north, are 7-3 over that same period. Only the Dolphins don't hold up their end of the Sunshine State record, going 4-6 in December and January of the last three seasons.
The Buccaneers have thrown for just 177 net passing yards over the past three weeks, a total that some quarterbacks would turn their noses up at after a single afternoon.
However, Tampa Bay is 2-1 over that span, outscoring its three opponents by a nearly 2-1 margin (68-37). That stretch followed a six-game period during which the Buccaneers averaged 197 net passing yards per game but won just half of those games.
That is not to say that the Buccaneers have chosen to abandon the pass, here in the regular season's final hours. Rather, Tampa Bay has simply done what is necessary to win games, without any real hand-wringing over the anemic passing numbers.
"I'm not concerned with it," said QB Shaun King, who has averaged just 17 pass attempts per game over the last three Sundays. "We're winning, and that's all that matters. You play this game to win, not to accomplish individual goals. Right now, the team's winning, so we're fine."
King spoke to the media after practice on Wednesday, when he shook off recent back and groin injuries to lead the first-team throughout the workout. There wasn't a hint of frustration in King's demeanor as he discussed his declining numbers.
"I actually think we're having fun," said King. "We're winning and it's a lot better than when we were losing four in a row. We understand that this is a tough league we play in and sometimes you're going to win ugly. The funny thing is, we're excited, we're happy. I was much more disappointed after the Monday night Minnesota game, when we threw for 295 yards and we scored all those points and we lost. Sunday, we won, even though we didn't put up (big numbers). The bottom line comes down to winning and losing."
No one doubts King's closing argument, just whether the Bucs can continue to win with that type of run-heavy imbalance.
"Like I've always said in the past, when you need it, it's going to be there," said Dunn of the Bucs' passing attack. "Shaun's been sore, he was sore last week a little bit. He's throwing the ball when we need to throw it and he's completing them when we need to complete the passes. We've been fortunate, but I think this week the passing game's going to step up and be big for us."
King, who has lost none of the unnatural calm he has displayed since his first NFL snap, agrees. "I think it says a lot about our team that we can do it that way and still win," he said. There will come a game where we'll have to make the plays (in the passing game), and we'll make them."