DT Warren Sapp says the Bucs can't let Pittsburgh QB Kordell Stewart hurt them with his legs
Stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has repeated this motto every week and every chance they've had since the opening of training camp. It has been an understandable reaction to the team's drop in the NFL rankings from fifth against the run in 1999 (87.3 ypg allowed) to ninth last year (103 ypg allowed).
Now, one quarter into the season, it may be time to amend that motto. Given the specific challenges the Bucs have faced through four games and appear set to face for several more weeks to come, perhaps this would be more fitting:
'Stop the running quarterback.'
The Bucs survived the out-of-pocket handiwork of Brett Favre and Quincy Carter, and were just barely unable to overcome the fantastic freelancing of Steve McNair and Daunte Culpepper.
Enter Kordell Stewart. Without a break, the Bucs' defense will move from chasing the big, strong-armed McNair to trying to contain the ultra-quick and shifty Stewart when the Pittsburgh Steelers hit town this weekend.
They're everywhere, it seems.
"Certainly, whenever you're facing a quarterback that can move around, it presents other challenges," said Pro Bowl safety John Lynch. "I think that's becoming more of a reality in our day, and I'm sure defenses will have to adjust to that as we move on. With us, that's what we're seeing every week. We're accounting for it in our schemes and we'll get it taken care of."
What Lynch wants to take care of is the big plays these quarterbacks have been able to gash the Bucs with when the initial pocket has broken down. Culpepper, for instance, escaped sack after sack on September 30 and turned each near disaster into a 10 or 12-yard check down. McNair broke outside on the Bucs' pass rush then passed back over the middle for 20 and 30-yard gains.
"You have to account for them," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "They definitely add another facet to the game. It makes you a little more conscious of your blitzes and your pass rush gaps. It adds a little to the preparation. You talk about different things and different ways to adapt to it but you're seeing more and more guys like that so it's not something out of the ordinary."
On the contrary. It's the norm when it comes to Buc opponents this year. After Stewart, waiting on deck are return engagements with Favre and Culpepper. That Monday night game in St. Louis in late November might actually be looking like a bit of a respite, what with the Rams' featuring stay-at-home pocket passer Kurt Warner.
Okay, that may be a stretch, but there's no doubt the Bucs are gearing up for yet another day of chase-the-QB this Sunday.
"He falls into the same list that we have been playing all year long with the Quincy Carters and the Daunte Culpeppers and the Air McNairs. He can run; he is mobile and he's good with his arm. We have to be prepared and not let this guy out of the pocket and hurt us with his legs."
And Stewart has done that well this year, augmenting a powerful rushing attack (192 yards per game) that has led the Steelers to a 3-1 record. Stewart has 137 rushing yards and one touchdown (5.5 yards per carry) on 25 totes, and not just because he's had happy feet in the pocket. The Steelers are actively looking for ways to put their passer on the run.
"It's like you're playing the wish bone back in college - these quarterbacks can really run," said Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. "For Kordell Stewart, they have plays in where he just runs. They run a lead draw, Kordell runs the play, steps back, reverse pivots and runs an outside stretch play and the blocking scheme is exactly like it is when they run with (RB Jerome) Bettis.
"The Steelers haven't been to the playoffs for awhile and their quarterback maybe hasn't been what they expected, so they're letting him do what he can do, and that's run."
Added Lynch: "Kordell, I don't think he's quite as big as McNair, but probably a little faster and he uses his running skills. They use it as part of the offense. They design running plays in there for him. We'll be ready for those. As far as keeping him in the pocket, we've just got to do it. We've got to be aware of where he is, have our pass rush lanes intact, and the coverage has got to hold up if he does get out."
So the Bucs prepare.
"We're working hard on it," said Kiffin. "Let me tell you, we've got Joe Hamilton and he's going to be worn out by the end of the week because he's going to be scrambling all over the field today."
And they look for reasons to the break down in containment in the past four games. One popular theory, particularly after the Titans game, is that the Bucs' aggressive pass rushers are getting out of their 'rush lanes' and offering the quarterback an open door to run.
Kiffin doesn't discount this idea but also hasn't gone overboard in trying to correct it.
"You've got to be careful with that," he said. "You start telling guys, 'Make sure you stay in this lane, make sure you stay in that lane,' and pretty soon they'll be so darn cautious they won't do anything. You can't do that either."
DE Marcus Jones is one of the defensive ends who have to try to keep opposing quarterbacks from stepping into an open area to the right or left of the pocket and looking for receivers downfield. He says the Bucs simply need to run their defenses as they are designed.
"I wouldn't say it's a lack of containment, but there were times when we rushed the passer and he found the hole and took off running," said Jones. "You have to have the hatches battened down when you're dealing with a quarterback like that. We've had some holes here and there and they were able to run for it."
No one on the defense is looking for quick answers or radical changes. Despite failing to keep Culpepper or McNair under wraps, the Bucs are not devising a whole new game plan for Stewart.
"Nothing really different," said linebacker Jamie Duncan. "We knew going into the last couple of games that we were facing mobile quarterbacks. That was one of our goals. The first thing we had on the board was to stop the run. The second thing was to stop Steve McNair from scrambling.
"We just have to be aware and make the play when we have the chance. If your job is to contain, then your job is to contain and keep him in and let everybody else get to him. We're not going to do anything as far as changing."
If Jones and opposite end Simeon Rice have the job of outside containment, the duties of the linebackers are a little less clear, particularly when the quarterback has succeeded in breaking the pocket and has an open lane to the line of scrimmage and beyond.
"When you've got a quarterback rolling out to you who you know has good speed and can take it around the corner and get 40 or 50 yards, and also you've got a man behind you that you're responsible for, it puts you in a bad position," said Duncan. "You just have to be aware."
Duncan says his responsibilities vary depending on the defense that has been called.
"When you're in zone coverage, you have a tendency to come up," he said. "You think he's going to try to gain 15 or 20 yards with his feet, then all of the sudden he stops and dinks it over your head. It's a little bit more difficult in a zone. In man, you stay with your man and let the front four or whoever the plugger in the hole is pursue him. The biggest think you can do is mix it up, keep them off balance a little bit."
The last line of defense is the secondary, which can find itself in very long coverage situations when the quarterback buys time by scrambling away from the pressure.
"It's tough, but that's part of the job," said Lynch. "I think the answer is that everyone has got to get a little bit better. Our rushers, whether they be the defensive line or our blitzers, need to contain him in the pocket, and we need to hold up a little better in coverage. When we do that, things will be back to how we're used to it: just getting after people."
The Bucs will have to find a way to return to their days of defensive dominance in a new world of mobile quarterbacks, because they aren't going away. For the Bucs, it doesn't even seem like they take a vacation for a week.
"That's kind of the way the league has gone, with these mobile quarterbacks who can make plays and make defenses get out of position and do things they normally wouldn't do. It's difficult, because you have to be aware of it, but you don't change your whole scheme of what you do on defense because they have a scrambling quarterback."