Tampa Bay's defense held Carolina to 77 and 82 rushing yards in their two meetings last year
Statistically, this Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium is a meeting of the two most porous rush defenses in the NFL.
Call that Exhibit A in support of one of Jon Gruden's favorite irritants: Statistics and how easily they can mislead.
Do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers really have the worst run defenses in the NFL? Well, the Bucs ranked sixth out of 32 teams in stopping the run in 2005 and have returned virtually their entire starting defense intact. The Panthers, meanwhile, ranked two spots above the Bucs in that category in '05 and have added massive run-stopping tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis.
Or, perhaps, consider the words of the participants on both sides of Sunday's games, the ones who presumably should be in for an easy day of running the ball. It is telling that neither side actually expects it to be even remotely easy.
"It's still the same defense to me," said Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. "They play, they play hard, they fly around, they still have some of the smartest players in the league, in my opinion, when you have [Derrick] Brooks and Ronde [Barber]. It's going to be a tough challenge, as it always is against them."
Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden, in turn, is impressed with what Carolina has done with its front four, which wasn't exactly deficient to begin with.
"They added Damione Lewis, former first-rounder out of Miami ," said Gruden. "They had a big free agent acquisition from the Ravens [Kemoeatu]. They have three huge defensive linemen that play inside, and we all know what [Julius] Peppers and [Mike] Rucker bring to the stadium. They have a formidable front and it's got to be dealt with. We've got to match their intensity with some of that of our own."
So why the bottom two rankings against the run? Quite simply: Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons.
At the moment, the Falcons are averaging 279 rushing yards a game, helped immeasurably by the 175 yards pitched in by Vick, the quarterback. The Bucs and Panthers can commiserate about what Vick can do to a defense's numbers – they are the two teams Atlanta has faced so far. The Bucs and Panthers have nowhere to go but up, statistically, after taking the brunt of a suddenly unstoppable Atlanta rushing attack.
Both teams will certainly work overtime to correct the problems they had against Vick in order to avoid letting that happen again…that being 252 rushing yards against Carolina and 306 against Tampa Bay. But neither team has to do anything to convince the other one that they are more than ready to stop a conventional rushing attack.
"I think 250 something of the rushing yards were done off of this read-option type play," said Delhomme of the Falcons' efforts against the Bucs. "It's kind of hard to watch that film and think we are going to be able to go and run the option like Atlanta did. They have a very good player at quarterback over there, who, can just kind of run and make things happen. That's something that 31 other teams in the NFL do not do.
"I still think its an extremely solid defense [in Tampa]. They're not missing anybody that made them the number-one defense in the league last year."
Meanwhile, the Bucs are watching videotape of the Panthers' opener against Atlanta and seeing much of the same thing. A truer indication of Carolina's defensive strength may be last Sunday's game, a loss to Minnesota in which the Vikings' offense never really got untracked.
"There's no question [ Carolina has a good defense]," said Gruden. "It's undisputed. [Kris] Jenkins is one of the game's best defensive interior players. He's missed the last two seasons. Minnesota didn't score an offensive touchdown, they got a fake field goal. That's a credit to them. But they do a great job. They were victimized early [against Atlanta ] by the stretch play and the running of Vick."
There's no doubt that the Bucs and Panthers are capable of stopping each other's rushing attacks. Last year, Tampa Bay gained only 44 yards on the ground, with Cadillac Williams stalled by a foot injury, and lost the November matchup with Carolina in Tampa. In the rematch in Charlotte, the Bucs ran for 114 yards, Williams scored two touchdowns on the ground and the Tampa Bay victory essentially decided the division race. The Bucs, meanwhile, held Carolina's rushing attack to 77 and 82 yards in those two contests.
That's why Carolina Head Coach John Fox isn't putting too much stock in the Atlanta-Tampa Bay film he's been watching this week, at least in terms of the Bucs' run defense.
What Atlanta did to Tampa Bay – and to Carolina – is difficult to duplicate.
"No, it's unique," said Fox. "They're really the only team in the league that has that offense. Their actual running game is kind of typical of what some teams are doing, but the rest of the league doesn't have anybody coming out there on the boot like number seven."
Of course, as little as statistics sometimes mean, words mean less. The Bucs know they can stop the Panthers' rushing attack – and Carolina surely feels the same way about Cadillac – but they have to prove it in order to get into the win column this Sunday.
"We've got to do a better job stopping the run and we've got to get more out of our running game ourselves," said Gruden. "That is an area that if we don't show improvement it's going to be hard on us."