Days like a 10-sack game against the Steelers have proved QB Brad Johnson's tougness, which could be tested again versus the Saints
A week ago, in the midst of preparations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' game at Chicago, Tony Dungy was asked about the toughness of his starting quarterback.
Noting that the Bucs had surrendered a surprising 43 sacks through the first 12 games, and that Brad Johnson had yet to take a down off due to injury, Dungy stated the obvious: Johnson is very tough. This flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of some circles - not including the circle wherein lies One Buccaneer Place – that the Bucs' big free-agent acquisition of the offseason was 'injury prone.'
Then the Bucs went up to Chicago and did something they had done to only three other teams all season – they held the Bears to just one sack. Johnson's toughness wasn't even an issue.
Chances are, it will be this weekend.
The New Orleans Saints, like the Bucs, have not had as successful a season as most predicted they would, sharing a 7-6 mark with Tampa Bay. The Saints are down a few notches on defense, from 8th in 2000 to 13th this year, and have had a little difficulty of their own protecting the passer, but one thing hasn't changed in New Orleans. This team can get after the quarterback.
Last year, the Saints' defense ranked first in the league in both sacks and sacks per pass play, taking down opposing quarterbacks 66 times in 554 pass plays. This year, they're right back at the top in both categories, having recorded 49 sacks in 432 pass plays. Those rates are nearly identical – one sack every 11.9 pass plays last season, one every 11.3 this fall.
The pass-rushing talent of this group has not been lost on Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy.
"They are a very active group," he said. "They have some exceptional pass rushers. They put a lot of pressure on you. That is going to be a paramount for us, to take care of those guys."
Last year, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover led the charge, racking up 17 sacks to just edge the Bucs' Warren Sapp (16.5) for the NFL lead. It was the second-highest sack total ever recorded by a defensive tackle, trailing only former Viking Keith Millard's 18-sack campaign in 1989.
Glover also led the Saints in that category in 1998 and '99, but he may abdicate his thrown this season to an unlikely successor, middle linebacker Charlie Clemons. Clemons, who shifts to a down lineman in some pass-rushing situations, is third in the NFC and fifth in the NFL with a team-high 11.5 sacks. DE Joe Johnson, who missed the entire 1999 season only to bounce back with a 12-sack, Pro Bowl effort last year, is chasing double digits again, with nine through 13 games.
On Monday night, the Saints lost, 34-21, to the St. Louis Rams, but those pass rushers still teed off, recording four more sacks. That may have been partly because the Rams, while moving the ball effectively most of the night, were forced to gain most of their yards through the air. The Saints' four sacks in 36 pass plays (one of every nine), was only slightly better than their usual pace. The Bucs don't want to give Glover and company as many opportunities to get at Brad Johnson, which means, once again, it comes down to the running game.
"We've got to be able to run the ball to keep them off balance, where they can't just tee off," said Dungy. "We are going to have to do some things to negate that rush."
The two times this season that the Bucs have rushed for over 100 yards, at home against Green Bay and Minnesota, the team allowed only one sack. When they put up 99 yards at Detroit and 91 at St. Louis, they allowed only two sacks in each game. Those four games, by the way, were all Buc victories.
Sacks allowed and rushing yards gained are the two team statistics that best reflect the play of the offensive line, and they are obviously intertwined. However, Dungy doesn't believe the Bucs' problems in those two areas rest solely on the O-line.
"I think it's a little bit of every thing," he said. "Part of it is that, and part of is the scores in the game. I wouldn't just say, 'we'd run better if the offensive line did this or that.' We have to block better and we have to open up holes. We have to block the right guys. We have to make the right calls. The backs have to read thing better. It goes through all of us, coaches included."
That is certainly true, but after it goes through everyone, it usually ends up in Johnson's lap. He has indeed been one of the league's most durable quarterbacks this year, particularly considering the pounding he has taken, but the Bucs would prefer not to test that toughness any more than is necessary.