Even after recording six sacks of Donovan McNabb in a 1999 contest, John Lynch and the Bucs' defense realized how difficult McNabb is to bring down
On Sunday, Donovan McNabb might have a thing or two to say to the fellows that gave him such a rude welcome to the NFL.
Two games into his 1999 rookie campaign, McNabb was summoned off the bench in the second half with his team, the Philadelphia Eagles trailing, 13-5, and his offensive line having serious difficulty containing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass rush.
After taking starter Doug Pederson down three times in the first half, Warren Sapp and his QB-hungry friends didn't let up on McNabb. Despite an amazing elusiveness that was evident even then, McNabb was sacked six times while completing four of 11 passes for 26 yards.
Of course, the difference between that very green McNabb and the player that finished second in the 2000 NFL MVP voting is like the gulf between 5-11 and 11-5, which just happens to represent the Eagles' improvement this season. Much of the credit for that turnaround has been placed on McNabb.
And McNabb even looks back on that ragged first game as a positive, viewing it as the starting point of what has proven to be an impressively steep learning curve.
"I realize that that was the very first game of my NFL career," said McNabb. "The blitzes I was seeing, I wasn't really prepared for. You go throw a little training camp and you go through the preseason, and you're still trying to learn the offense and learn the defenses that you might be faced with, the right sets, the right reads, things of that nature. To be thrown out there against probably the best defense at that particular time definitely was a challenge. I took a lot from that game, and I think it definitely made me a lot stronger mentally on how to prepare going into these games."
Even as dominant as the Bucs' pass rush was in that contest, the total of nine sacks could have easily been 12 or 13 if not for McNabb's profound ability to improvise and escape. While those talents didn't come to much fruition in early 1999, they certainly have this season, as McNabb scrambled for 629 yards and six touchdowns to go with his 3,365 passing yards and 21 touchdowns during the regular season.
So the Bucs, whose sack attack was even more impressive in 2000 (a team record 55 QB takedowns), realize that containing McNabb is the key to stopping Philadelphia this weekend. That is going to take a concerted effort.
"I don't know that we're going to be able to keep him in the pocket, but I think we've got to stay up on our feet, use our speed and try to chase him down when he does move around," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy. "He's a difficult guy to tackle and we're going to have use everybody, our defensive line and linebackers, to try to keep him under control."
The Buccaneers front seven understands that a controlled rush, with each player mindful of his specific duties, is the best defense against a quarterback of McNabb's talents. Dungy has also not ruled out using a specific player as a 'spy' on McNabb from time to time.
"When you play a running quarterback, it takes 11 guys for that responsibility," said LB Jamie Duncan. "A good thing we have going for us is our team speed. We have to do a good job, when he breaks out of the pocket, of trying to contain him and corral him with 11 guys and not just relying on the linebackers or the secondary."
Adds S John Lynch: "I think our guys have to rush smart. You look on film and he's making some great plays, but guys aren't really having smart rushes. If he sees a lane, he's going to take it. When you play a lot of man-to-man and run people off, that's when he likes to make plays. So we have to be aware and always have somebody there in the event that he does run. When he does, you've got to tackle him. He's not going to slide – he's a tough, tough runner."
Defensive end Steve White doesn't really view the McNabb Watch as a new experience for the Buccaneers' defense.
"You have to rush him a little smarter, not with as much reckless abandon as you would a guy who can't really scramble as well," echoed White. "But we've had experience with mobile quarterbacks – Brett Favre, Daunte Culpepper, Cade McNown – and we've pretty much done a good job with those guys. Hopefully we can do it again on Sunday."
Free safety Damien Robinson, who sometimes ends up playing centerfield at the back of the Bucs' defense, guarding against the big play, has a different responsibility altogether. For Robinson, the concern isn't McNabb's scrambling for yardage, it's what he can do with his arm while on the run.
"He's been a big-play type of guy," said Robinson. "He can make a big play at any moment, and he's got some good feet on him. Basically, we have to stay with our man, because he's got a strong arm and he can throw the ball downfield. If he's going to scramble, we have to stay with our receivers not to give up a big play."
The Buccaneers may have an advantage over other Eagles opponents in that they are often able to generate a strong pass rush just from their front four, negating the need for blitzes and leaving more players in coverage. Still, circumstances could cause the Buccaneers to hedge on that theory.
"I think a lot, too, will depend on the conditions," said Dungy. "If the footing's not good and it's going to be tough for us to rush, we may have to blitz more."
That decision would test McNabb's ability to pick up formations and blitzes, something he says he has developed considerably since the Bucs' last trip to Philly.
"Like Shaun (King) has said, just having the experience of being out there (has improved my game)," said McNabb. "I've just continued to learn about these zone blitzes and how to get my team in great position to be protected. Adjusting to the speed of the game and while I'm doing that having fun and just playing football. That's the most important thing. Whatever you have on your mind…when you're just out there playing football it takes care of itself."
White would like to seriously curtail McNabb's fun on Sunday. "If we can contain that guy and slow him down," said White, "I think we'll have a very good chance to win the game on Sunday."
That follows the 'Stop McNabb, stop the Eagles' credo that many seem to adhere to. Despite the fact that his passing and running account for 79.8% of Philly's offense this season, McNabb finds that line of thinking amusing.
"That's definitely interesting to hear," he said. "If they say that, that's sort of a credit to the things we've been able to do, because we have 11 wins. For them to say that, I guess not a lot of people have stopped Donovan McNabb and the Eagles. So when people say that, it excites us, because that really opens the way for other guys to step up. Now receivers are getting more catches, running backs are picking up more yards and Donovan McNabb really isn't doing too much."