FB Mike Alstott had a career-high 131 rushing yards against Denver in 1999
It was almost exactly five years ago, but Mike Alstott surely remembers the game well.
The defending NFL champion Broncos were in town for the third game of the season, facing a 1-1 Bucs team that had failed to qualify for the playoffs the year before. A grind-it-out defensive struggle developed, a game for which the home team was well equipped, mostly because it had Alstott and what would be the NFL's third-ranked defense.
Alstott broke free early, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 28-yard breakaway. He would finish with 131 yards on 25 carries, still a career yardage high for the perennial Pro Bowler, and the Bucs would hold reigning league MVP Terrell Davis to just 53 rushing yards. The result was a 13-10 victory and a 2-1 record for Tampa Bay.
That's the last time Tampa Bay and Denver have met, before this Sunday's game, and much has changed in the interim. The Bucs are playing for Jon Gruden, an old Bronco foe in the AFC West, and Brian Griese, the Denver QB starter that day, is now on Tampa Bay's payroll. The Buccaneers have joined the Broncos in the ranks of Super Bowl Champions, taking number XXXVII. And S John Lynch, who had six tackles and a key fourth-quarter sack of Griese in that 1999 matchup, now patrols Denver's secondary.
But Alstott is still a Buccaneer, and he could play a key role in the rematch five years later. With RB Charlie Garner lost for the season with a knee injury from Sunday night's game, Alstott is staring at a possible increase in his workload in the offense. In Sunday's loss at Oakland, Alstott had 95 combined rushing and receiving yards, his highest total since late in the 2002 campaign.
The hard-nosed fullback is ready for the challenge. Three games into his comeback from a frightening neck injury that derailed his 2003 season, Alstott is shaking off any lingering tentativeness and again running with authority.
Alstott isn't alone, however, in the quest to fill Garner's void. The Bucs get running back Michael Pittman back, as well, as his three-game suspension ends in time for him to step right into the starting tailback spot. And Jamel White, who looked sharp as both a runner and a receiver in more extensive action in the preseason, could find himself in the backfield more often. As Gruden said as he announced Garner's diagnosis on Monday, the team will use every healthy skill-position player it has in search of an offensive spark.
But it would be fitting if Alstott played a key role, since he'll be facing his long-time hard-hitting counterpart on defense, Lynch. The possibility of a collision between the two has to warm the heart of any fan fond of smashmouth football.
Of course, the Denver defense might not be the best cure for what has been ailing the Bucs on offense. The Broncos bring the league's top-ranked defensive squad to town, having allowed an average of just 237.0 yards per game to opponents Kansas City, Jacksonville and San Diego.
Even with top defensive lineman Trevor Pryce out for several weeks with a back injury, Denver somehow held San Diego's yardage machine, LaDainian Tomlinson, to just 60 yards on the ground on Sunday in a 23-13 victory. The Broncos have survived Pryce's absence with strong D-line depth thanks to the offseason imports of Luther Elliss, Marco Coleman and Raylee Johnson. And while Ian Gold is now a Buccaneer and John Mobley has retired, the Broncos are still strong at linebacker thanks to the inspired play of rookie first-rounder D.J. Williams.
Denver's secondary has a new look, too, and not just because of the arrival of Lynch, the team's leading tackler after two games. The Broncos biggest – and certainly most expensive – acquisition of the offseason is Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, the former Redskin. Bailey's cost was steep – Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis in a swap with Washington that also netted Denver a second-round draft pick – but he has made an instant impact, with 14 tackles and the Broncos' only interception so far. Bailey has also played on offense as a receiver, mostly on third downs.
Obviously, the new acquisitions are working out well on Denver's defense.
The Broncos' offense has been none too shabby, either. Even without Portis, Denver ranks ninth in the offensive rankings, 15th on the ground and ninth through the air. QB Jake Plummer, who took heat in the season opener when his ill-advised left-handed throw out of the end zone was intercepted against the Chiefs, has been hot ever since. He's fourth in the AFC with a 90.8 passer rating, having completed 63.5% of his throws and tossed four touchdowns against two interceptions.
Plummer's favorite target has been longtime Bronco producer Rod Smith, but the passing game is also seeing the benefits of young Ashley Lelie's emergence. Lelie caught four passes for 67 yards against San Diego, including the 33-yard touchdown that turned a 13-10 game into a comfortable second-half lead for the Broncos.
Lelie could be Brian Kelly's next assignment. The Bucs' outstanding cover corner had a busy day in Oakland on Sunday night, shadowing WR Jerry Porter and knocking away no less than five passes and securing his first interception of the season. Kelly is a key player in a Buccaneer secondary that had two outstanding games against Washington and Seattle before struggling a bit Sunday night in Oakland.
Gruden chalked that outing up to a hot offensive night for the Raiders, and remains supremely confident in his defense, which dropped from its number-two perch but still ranks 10th, and fourth against the pass. Tampa Bay gave up an uncharacteristic number of 15 to 25-yard passes to the Raiders but also made a handful of outstanding plays, including Kelly's breakups and a couple of hard hits by Jermaine Phillips.
"I think we are a very good defensive team," said Gruden. "They ran up against a hot offensive squad that made some big plays in the passing game and were able to get their running game going. There are just some nights where you are going to struggle in this business and that was the case [in Oakland]."
The Bucs, in fact, might be as good on defense as they were back in 1999, when they beat the Broncos early in a season that led to the NFC Championship Game. The offense, however, has yet to find its way after ranking 10th in the NFL last year. Perhaps Mike Alstott can rekindle the fire he had against Denver five years ago and be a part of an offensive resurgence in Tampa this week.