RB Michael Pittman found enough holes to run for 131 of the team's 169 yards on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a season-high 169 yards rushing against New Orleans on Sunday, averaged 5.0 yards per handoff and got four different backs involved in the action.
Yet somehow they finished the game feeling not completely satisfied with their rushing attack.
That stems, of course, from the devastation of a last-second loss and the failure to convert in the 'four-minute drill.' That is, needing to move the ball on the ground to run off the last few minutes of the game with the lead, the Bucs failed to move the chains, or even worse, hold onto the ball.
It should be noted that the four-minute drill is precisely the most difficult time to run the ball, because the opposing team is well aware of what's coming. Still, teams practice the strategy repeatedly in training camp, expecting to be able to overpower the defense in the closing minutes just enough times to finish the game.
"You're going to see some eight-man fronts, you're going to see a defense that's basically set up to stop the run, and it's going to be hard," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "You're going to have to break a tackle; you're going to have to use all the force that you have to knock them off the ball. We had some chances; we were just unable to get it done."
The first time the Bucs and Saints met this season, in New Orleans on Oct. 10, the Bucs got the ball back in the fourth quarter at their own 45 with a three-point lead and 3:22 to play on the clock; in other words, almost the exact situation, give or take five seconds and five yards, as Sunday's game in Tampa.
In the Superdome, in front of a hostile and noisy crowd, ran the ball with Michael Pittman five times and never had to give up the ball. A holding call on Pittman's first-down run (which would have gained six yards), forced the Bucs to pass twice to move the chains, but once they got that initial first down, it was three handoffs to Pittman for 15 yards, followed by two kneel-downs in the final minute.
Obviously, then, it can be done.
And perhaps it would have worked again had defensive end Will Smith not been able to rip the ball out of Pittman's hands on the first carry of the four-minute drill, which started at the Bucs' 40 with 3:27 to play.
"On the fumble play, we got a gain of three-and-a-half to four yards," said Gruden. "We're looking at second-and-six from the 44-yard line. It was a good play. We just don't hang onto the ball."
Pittman was miserable after the game, and he tried to shoulder the entire blame for the loss. Gruden wouldn't let him, of course, insisting that the Bucs lose as a team and win as a team. Gruden acknowledged that fumbling has been a problem for Pittman this year – a dropped ball that was returned for a touchdown at St. Louis was a critical play in that loss – but doesn't feel as if that issue has defined the back's season.
"I think a lot more of Michael Pittman than just as a fumbler," said Gruden. "I think he is a very good back. I think he has great talent. I think what he has done this year, missing the first three games; coming in here with 1,200-yards of all-purpose yardage is a tremendous accomplishment."
Indeed, Pittman has averaged 76 rushing yards per game since returning after a three-game suspension and needs to just better that average a bit over the final two weeks to break the 1,000-yard mark. A very talented pass-catcher, he is 10th in the NFC in yards from scrimmage despite the missed time, ahead of such players as Thomas Jones, Warrick Dunn, Kevin Jones, Deuce McAllister and Marshall Faulk. He has averaged 107 total yards from scrimmage per game this season.
And yet, again, the Buccaneers are not completely satisfied with their running attack, which is understandable given their ranking of 26th in the league's rush standings. Tampa Bay hasn't ranked higher than 24th in that department since the 2000 season and has only been in the top 10 three times in 29 seasons.
So, this may not be a new development, but expect the team to work hard to improve that aspect of its game during the 2005 offseason.
"It's an area that we've got to make great strides at, running the football," said Gruden. "In the last 10, 20, 30 years, I don't know when the Bucs have had a top-five running team. It's an area that needs to be addressed. But there were some good things [against the Saints]. When you have 160 yards rushing, there are some very positive things that happened."
Despite losing three defensive tackles to injured reserve by midseason and another one, Warren Sapp, before the season, the Buccaneers' defensive line is putting as much pressure on the quarterback as ever.
In fact, the Bucs could eclipse the all-time franchise record for sacks in a season with two more prolific games.
The 2004 Buccaneers have 44 sacks through four games, already tied for the second-highest season total in team history, established in 1997. The Bucs of 2000 set the overall record at 55, which means the Bucs would need 12 sacks, or six per game, to break the top mark. That's unlikely but not impossible; Tampa Bay had seven sacks on Sunday against the Saints and its next opponent, the Carolina Panthers, rank 24th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play.
Even if they don't get that record, the Bucs pass rush has been impressive, particularly considering they only had six sack through the first five games, including three games when they were shut out. Beginning with Game Six at St. Louis, Buccaneer QB hunters have produced at least two sacks in every game and at least four sacks on all but two occasions.
The Bucs have averaged 4.2 sacks over the past nine games.
Contributions to the sack surge have come from all over, beginning of course with defensive end Simeon Rice and his fourth double-digit season in as many years with the team. With Greg Spires at 7.0 and Dewayne White at 5.5 on the sack chart, this could be the first season since 1998 that three different Bucs get to seven sacks.
Spires has already set his personal career high with those seven sacks, as has White, though he is only in his second season. Linebackers Shelton Quarles (3.5) and Derrick Brooks (3.0) also have more sacks this year than any season before. Cornerback Ronde Barber, one of the best blitzing defensive backs in all of football, probably won't reach his career high of 5.5 in 2000, but he has reached the three-sack level for the fourth time in eight seasons.
When the Buccaneers played the Panthers a month ago, quarterback Jake Delhomme was dropped five times in a losing effort. The Bucs hope the game's final outcome isn't repeated, but they would certainly enjoy a replay of their pass rush on that afternoon.
There were quite a few encouraging moments on Sunday, moments that Buc fans might be recalling fondly this week if the Saints' four-minute comeback hadn't rendered them moot.
Joey Galloway proving again to be the big-play threat the Bucs were sure he would be. Michael Clayton, the rookie, passing the 1,000-yard mark. Simeon Rice and Greg Spires pinching Brooks mercilessly, with five sacks between them. Derrick Brooks running all over the field. Ronde Barber making several plays in the backfield.
Those plays are on film, but they aren't on very many minds right now.
Buc fans, of course, are thinking dark thoughts this week and there aren't any players in the locker room thinking about personal highlights. The coaching staff is preparing for the Carolina Panthers, looking ahead, not back.
However, when asked about the state of his team and its outlook for the future, Gruden couldn't help but include those bright spots, just as he couldn't overlook the areas that need to be fixed.
Here is Gruden on how Sunday's loss affects the team's morale:
"We're not the same team we were in San Diego two years ago. With that being said, it is hard to compare the two. I like the direction we are headed with some of these players, I really do. I like our rookie flanker [Michael Clayton]. I like what Joey Galloway is, healthy. I think if he is healthy, he lays out and catches that ball last night, there is a chance he has six, seven touchdowns in three games. I think Brian Griese with a great offseason has a chance to be an outstanding player here. I am excited about Chris Simms, where he has gone in a year.
"There are some areas I am truly encouraged by, yet at the same time, we have to address some issues. There is no question about that. I hope these guys get ticked off as I am and learn from some of these defeats and never take one small thing for granted. Just because you have a 10-point lead, just because you live in a nice house, you still have to pay the rent. You have to pay the bills and they have to be paid on time. You have to protect the ball. You have to cover the kick. Don't underestimate the enemy, ever. I am responsible for not conveying that and not getting that execution to where it needs to be."