A solid push up the middle from DT Chris Hovan helped the Bucs force Minnesota out of the running game and into the pass
On the Minnesota Vikings' first play from scrimmage on Sunday, quarterback Daunte Culpepper handed off to RB Moe Williams, who intended to run off left tackle. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks had other ideas, shooting through the line to meet Williams a yard into the backfield.
Williams, however, made a nice move to escape Brooks and barreled forward for a gain of nine yards.
It was, in some ways, a nice play on both sides, though only Minnesota was pleased with the final result. Had they known that run would account for more than one third of all the yardage they gained on the ground on Sunday, the Vikings might have been a little less thrilled.
The Bucs won the game, the season opener for both sides, and did so in impressive fashion, controlling the clock and the Vikings' explosive offense better than most observers anticipated they could. Not surprisingly, everything looked close to perfect in the afterglow of that 24-13 decision.
It's doubtful, of course, that everything is perfect. The Bucs had a long list of goals heading into 2005, from fixing the kicking game to causing more turnovers, and it's likely some of those goals will take longer to achieve than others. But Sunday's debut was very promising in most of those targeted areas, and none more so than the rush defense.
Minnesota gained only 26 yards on the ground in the entire game on Sunday. Nine of those came on Williams' first run; another 12 were courtesy of four scrambles by QB Daunte Culpepper. On almost every other rushing play by the Vikings, the Bucs' front wall was impenetrable.
It started in the middle, where the Bucs have often been accused of being soft. It's hard to imagine that label sticking in 2005, given the opening-day performance of starting defensive tackles Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan. While their combined stats for the game won't bowl you over – three tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery – McFarland and Hovan consistently blew the middle of the Vikings' defensive line backwards.
"I just liked the way we played defensively," said Hovan. "Like coach says, it's not what they do, it's what we do, so we just keep going out there and playing away."
Minnesota backs often had to veer to the outside before they even got to the line of scrimmage, and that's rarely a successful approach against the Bucs, whose defensive speed has long made sweeps to the outside foolhardy.
Williams carried five more times in the game, getting these yardage results: -1, -1, 1, 3, 4 (fumble). Tailback Michael Bennett, known for his high-end speed, carried six times with these yardage results: 3, -2, 2, 1, 1, -6. It got to the point that the Metrodome crowd was openly booing every time the Vikings handed off in the second half. Had Culpepper not made several impressive, drive-sustaining plays, and had the Bucs' offense continued its second-quarter surge, the game might never have come down to a last-minute turnover.
"Our defense was dominant in the first half of this game for sure," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "If we could have given them a little more help in the final thirty minutes, it could have been even better in the second half."
The Bucs thought they had made improvements in their rush defense in the preseason, as reliable as one wants to consider those numbers. After allowing 123.3 yards per game on the ground in 2004, good for 19th in the league, Tampa Bay allowed only 89.5 yards per game over their four preseason contests. With the first-team defense on the field for 60 minutes in Minnesota, the results were even better.
With the middle of the defense stout – and reserve tackles Ellis Wyms and Anthony Bryant contributed to that, as well – the rest of the pieces are in place. The linebackers are active, good at shooting the gaps and fast enough to get to the corner before the runner can make it around. The cornerbacks are among the best in the league in making one-on-one tackles on the edge. And the safeties are always eager to come up into the box and dole out hard hits.
Again, nothing can be declared perfect after one game. The Vikings might not be the perfect barometer, as they seemed all too eager to abandon the run. After Williams' game-opening nine-yard run, the Vikings dropped back to pass on seven straight plays, the last of which ended in an interception by cornerback Brian Kelly. The Vikings did show some commitment to keeping the run involved in the second half – thus the boos from the crowd – but it might have been too late at that point.
The Bucs had effectively taken away the running game, which only serves to make the pass defense that much better. That's exactly how you draw it up.
Chances are, it won't work that well every week. The Bucs might have a much tougher test this coming weekend against the Buffalo Bills, who bring Willis McGahee to town. McGahee gained 117 yards on 22 carries in his season opener on Sunday and the Bills gained 152 rushing yards against Houston. The Bucs know the work has only just begun.
"If that is a evaluation of what we are capable of doing that is a good sign," said Gruden. "But I live a very short-term life. We have a long way to go. We made numerous mistakes. We have to address those things as the Buffalo Bills are for real next week."