T Jerry Wunsch and the Bucs' offensive line were at the top of their game on Sunday
Eyewitness evidence tells us this was the best game of the season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' beleaguered offensive line.
And sometimes, even in the midst of charts and statistics, eyewitness evidence is the most compelling testimony available. On Sunday, against the New Orleans Saints, more than 65,000 pairs of eyes got a glimpse of the way it was supposed to be.
The overwhelming image of the Bucs' 2001 running game, particularly in recent weeks, has been that of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn getting dragged down before they can even get started. There have been breakdowns in every facet of the running attack but, whether fair or not, the Bucs' offensive line has taken the brunt of the blame for a five-game stretch of the following rushing yard totals: 19, 91, 65, 81, 61. Fifteen sacks allowed in that same span didn't help.
But, against the Saints, when the Bucs absolutely had to come out with a good effort, no unit stepped up its play more than the offensive line.
What the fans at Raymond James Stadium saw was Alstott and Dunn getting two yards past the line of scrimmage before they hit, as opposed to feeling contact two yards behind the line. The difference was enormous, particularly for Alstott, who could build up a head of steam before the point of impact. That situation usually falls in his favor, and it did Sunday when he gained 101 yards on 24 carries and added to his personal pinball highlight reel.
"The guys up front did a heck of a job against a very, very good defensive line and they did not give up a sack," said Alstott after the game. "It was just an all-around great day. When your defense can get some turnovers early and give you good field position, then you get early points and you can get into that mode. We were ahead all day, so we dictated what we wanted to do."
But the Bucs have had early leads before and not managed to turn them into foregone conclusions by halftime, as they did against the Saints. This time, the front five of RT Jerry Wunsch, RG Cosey Coleman, C Jeff Christy, LG Randall McDaniel and LT Kenyatta Walker were able to turn an early advantage into complete domination.
"I think the offensive line deserves every bit of credit," said quarterback Brad Johnson, who enjoyed a sack-less day for the first time all season. "They really stepped up today."
Indeed, and eyewitness testimony or not, there is actually statistical evidence to back that up.
The Bucs rushed for 157 yards against the Saints' defense, which came into the game ranked ninth in rush defense. That was exactly twice Tampa Bay's per-game average before Sunday, an anemic 78.5-yard mark that would qualify as the worst in team history. It was only the third 100-yard game of the season for Tampa Bay and their second-best after a 177-yard explosion in a similar blowout over Minnesota on October 28.
Tampa Bay also averaged 4.0 yards per carry on 39 totes against the Saints, just the fifth time it has reached that generally accepted level of competence this season, and the first time since early November.
And then there was the protection. Keep in mind that the Saints' defense brings the pressure like no other team in the NFL, and has for years now. New Orleans was riding a three-game streak of 21 sacks and had a league-high 49 coming into Sunday's game. No club in the NFL got to the passer more on a per-pass play basis than the Saints, either.
And they barely sniffed Johnson on this day.
A few second-quarter blitzes forced the Buc QB to throw the ball before he wished, but in general Johnson enjoyed a leisurely day in the pocket, rarely having to scramble. Tampa Bay didn't just live on the run, either, throwing 31 times on the day.
"I think we are proud of how we came out in the first half by adjusting and making plays," said T Jerry Wunsch, who also threw a key block on Dunn's 17-yard TD reception. "We are going to keep on fighting. We are just going to give it our all and see where this thing takes us."
Nobody has ever doubted that the Buccaneers have loads of talent and plenty of fight. If the offensive line can perform at the high level witnessed clearly by an appreciative home crowd on Sunday, there's no telling how far the Bucs will take this season.