QB Brian Griese had time to throw on Sunday in Chicago thanks to stellar blocking by the offensive line and its helpers
Brian Griese threw 67 passes in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' comeback win over Chicago on Sunday, which in itself is a remarkable number. Three more and he would have matched Drew Bledsoe's league-record 70 throws in a 1994 outing for the Patriots against the Vikings.
What makes that number even more incredible, however, is that Griese threw his 67 passes in exactly 67 drop-backs. He was not sacked, even when he dropped into the pocket 23 straight times in the fourth quarter and overtime. Frankly, he was rarely knocked down.
That stands as the third-most pass plays without a sack in a single game in NFL history. Bledsoe was unscathed in the game mentioned above, and George Blanda had a 68-pass day for Houston against Buffalo in 1964 in which he wasn't sacked.
Obviously, then, while Griese deserves an enormous amount of credit (and an ice bag for his arm) for bringing the Bucs back from what looked like sure defeat, Tampa Bay's offensive line is due some kudos as well. Five quarters and 84 plays of blocking is hard enough; keeping your quarterback upright through that entire process is nearly impossible.
Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden agrees, but he adds two clarifications to the congratulations aimed at the offensive line. One, there were more than five men involved in that stellar blocking. And two, despite the statistical appearances, it was not a perfect effort.
"I think [the protection] had a lot to do with our ability to come from behind and win," said Gruden on Monday. "Any time your quarterback has a chance to see and go through his reads, have vision in the pocket, it certainly helps. The pass protection, not just by the offensive line but by the backs and the tight ends, for the most part was outstanding. There are still some areas that we need to clean up."
The Bucs actually opened the game in a three-tight end set, so it was clear that all three of Alex Smith, John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens were going to be heavily involved in the action. Stevens and Smith became frequent targets in the passing game, but they also were involved in what opposing Head Coach Lovie Smith identified as "max protections" on many plays.
Running back Earnest Graham was held to 16 yards on 12 carries – 13 of them on the final drive in overtime – and he didn't have a catch on the day, but he was much more than a bystander to the aerial assault. Gruden has called Graham the best blitz-pickup back he's ever coached, and that skill came in handy on Sunday. The Bears put linebackers in safeties in all the gaps along the line of scrimmage throughout the day, and that had a lot to do with the Bucs' difficulty running the ball. It also put the backs into the position of having to figure out where the extra pass-rushers were coming from and get in their way.
That the protection scheme with all of those players involved held up so well was particularly gratifying to Gruden because it made the game plan work. The Bucs knew that they might have difficulty running the ball against Chicago's aggressive front, so they had every intention of letting Griese throw over and around that front. Okay, the Bucs' staff probably didn't count on throwing the ball 67 times, but they were happy that the offense was able to execute that often when it did indeed become necessary.
"We put [the blockers] in some tough spots yesterday; we realize that," said Gruden. "We felt that was the way we were going to win the football game and guys picked it up and responded to the challenges."
The Bucs should have a strong offensive line. Since 2005, they've invested a first-round draft pick, two second-round picks and a third-round pick on that unit, signed two big-name free agents in tackle Luke Petitgout and center Jeff Faine and even traded to get interior lineman Sean Mahan back.
Petitgout was derailed by injuries and is no longer with the team, but undrafted find Donald Penn has plugged that hole at left tackle and every other move appears to be working out wonderfully. The Bucs have even gotten off to a good start up front this year without the man that may be the most talented of the bunch, guard Davin Joseph, who has been out with a foot injury.
In Week Two, the Bucs rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 5.9 yards per tote against a game Atlanta defense. Then, in Chicago, they switched gears and asked those same blockers to make the passing game work.
"That's encouraging, especially when you're up against a defense like the Bears," said Gruden. "And the Atlanta Falcons have played great defense, played again yesterday a very good defensive game. We're excited about our line; we've said that since the beginning of camp. We're the youngest group in football and we think we have the makings there to be outstanding."
They were certainly outstanding on Sunday in Chicago – with a little help from their friends. At the end, they were perfect, at least statistically. But more than anything, after keeping Brian Griese clean for an astounding 67 plays, they were tired.
The plane ride home was a lot less raucous than one might expect after such a dramatic and gratifying win.
"I thought a lot more guys would be celebrating than there were, but I think everybody was just pretty exhausted," laughed Gruden. "There were a lot of guys just knocked out. Just a lot of football played and guys were really tired. I think they were very proud, not only of themselves, but of their teammates. There was good camaraderie and it was fun for a while but the lights were out pretty early on the plane."