RB Michael Pittman had his first 100-yard game of the season against Chicago
Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' game against Chicago two weeks ago, Head Coach Jon Gruden identified what was missing in his team's ground attack: Long runs.
The Bucs had been getting their share of four-yard runs out of Michael Pittman and before him, Charlie Garner, but they weren't breaking off any big-gainers to balance the inevitable one-yard runs that result from a breakdown or a great defensive play. The evidence was right there on the other side of the stat sheet; the Bucs felt as if they had been playing reasonably good run defense on a snap-to-snap basis, but long runs by Clinton Portis and Tyrone Wheatley had skewed the overall numbers.
Well, nobody broke off any 60-yarders in the Bucs' 19-7 win over the Bears, but there were quite a few moments when Pittman burst into the second level of Chicago's defense. The Bucs had seven runs of 10 or more yards by running backs through their first six games; they had seven such carries against Chicago, six by Pittman and one by fullback Mike Alstott.
As Gruden had suggested, the addition of a few breakaways made the Bucs' rushing numbers a lot more palatable. Tampa Bay gained 138 yards against the Bears, and nobody cared that it came on 37 carries. When the Bucs gained 92 yards on 22 carries at Oakland, they averaged 4.2 yards per tote, better than their average against the Bears. But the bottom line is the bottom line. And the Bucs felt as if they had the capability to put up good rushing numbers all year.
"We had a mind set," said tackle Derrick Deese. "We want to do it and we knew all along that we could do it. It's just something that we need to keep open on our offense. It's one of those things where if we get to run it enough times you can see what our guys can do."
The Bucs hope that their rushing resurgence is for real, because it would be an very helpful weapon against the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday. Obviously, it is in Tampa Bay's best interest to keep Kansas City's offense off the field as much as possible, though the Bucs' defense is better equipped than many to slow down the Chiefs' attack. Gruden knows that the Chiefs often commit eight men to stopping the run (Kansas City ranks 15th against the run, 22nd against the pass), but he still wants balance in his offense this weekend.
"The first thing we are going to try to do is run the ball," said wide receiver Charles Lee. "When you are able to run the ball, it opens up the passing game. We are going to try to get in there, establish the run, get a little play-action off of it and see what happens."
The Bucs ran on nearly 61% of their plays against Chicago, their highest ratio of running plays in almost four years. The last time the team depended more on the run in a single game was against Dallas on December 3, 2000, when the Bucs ran on 36 of 53 plays (67.9%) in a 27-7 victory.
Believe it or not, receivers like when that happens. It may reduce the number of passes thrown, but it increases the efficacy of those throws.
"It's very encouraging," said wide receiver Tim Brown of the Bucs' running success. "Chicago had the big defensive front and a pretty good linebacker in [Brian] Urlacher and being able to run the ball as effectively as we did gives you a lot of hope that this offense can be really well balanced. Get the ball to Pittman or whoever else wants to run it back there and spread the ball around throwing it. I think if you can do that it really keeps defenses off balance and makes it hard for them to know what is going on."
The importance of the Bucs' running game was just one topic being discussed in the locker room this week. Below are some additional thoughts from Tampa Bay players on a variety of subjects.
WR Tim Brown on whether the Chiefs' offense puts pressure on the Bucs' offense: "Not with the defense that we have. When your defense is struggling maybe you think about it a little bit more. You have to put up 40 points to win the game. We don't think that's going to be the situation this week, but at the same time we have to maximize every chance we have to score. Every time we get the ball we should be able to move up and down the field."
QB Brian Griese on whether he feels more pressure this week to score points: "I wouldn't call it pressure. I think we faced the same situation when we went to St. Louis and played the Rams, who have a great offense. I was excited and I know our offense was excited about the challenge of trying to meet a great offense on the other side of the field. I don't think it is any different. I am excited about the opportunity to go against not only the Kansas City defense but also the offense."
S Dwight Smith on whether facing the Chiefs' offense motivates the Buccaneers: "I don't think we need any motivation being 2-5."
T Derrick Deese on the Chiefs' hot streak: "I'm looking at this team and saying they are coming off some good wins lately. The last couple of games they have won some big games. They're coming here and they want to win. They need a win. We need a win badly too"
DT Chartric Darby on the Chiefs' offense: "On the offensive side of the ball, they're playing real well. Priest is doing it and the offensive line is playing good, so we've just got to take it one snap at a time. We've got to come off the ball and do what we do."
S Jermaine Phillips on similarities between the Chiefs' offense and the Rams' offense: 'They are the same pretty much, but they run the ball a lot more. Their strength lies in their offensive line with Priest Holmes and [Tony] Gonzalez. They are going to try to exploit us by using them, so we just have to be ready. We are up for the challenge."
DE Simeon Rice on the challenge for Kansas City of facing the Bucs' defense: "I think that it's going to go down for us just for the simple fact that we need this one. We need it in a big way. We started something well two weeks ago. It's going to be a hard-fought game. It's going to be one of those games of the ages."
Phillips on a comparison between the Chiefs' offense and the Buccaneers' defense: "The system works for them. They don't do much, but what they do they do it well. That's how we are. We don't do much, but what we do, we do it well."
LB Derrick Brooks on Kansas City's receivers: "They have not had to use them, the way they run the ball. When they had to throw the ball, they have thrown pretty well too. This is a well-balanced offense. To be honest with you, looking at it on tape, you respect the things they have put forward and the things they have done. Again, you just have to feel good about what you put on the field, what we line up and do. I think that's how we have had success."
Darby on the Bucs' rush defense ranking: "A lot of people talk, but we've just got to play together. The most important thing is for us to play like brothers. Despite what everybody says, we've still just got to play football."
Brooks on the importance of good tackling against the Chiefs: "We tackle well in open space. I think that is something. They are getting a lot of yards from people not tackling well. The teams that have beaten them have tackled well in the open field. Again, I think that is one of our strengths. We can't get focused in on Kansas City. We have to stay focused on what we do. We have always said that the issue is about us and what we bring to the table. I think that mindset is going to help us have some small success."
Rice on Priest Holmes and the Chiefs' offensive line: "I think that the offensive line is definitely the spark and what he does is run with reckless abandon, making big plays all over the field. You can't discount Tony Gonzalez and the guys at the receiver spots. Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison are coming on very strong for them. They have the pieces in place. Their offense has kind of been intact this whole year and they're really surging right now."
Smith on the Chiefs' offensive line: "They have big, athletic guys on the front that get out and block and their receivers block. They have guys who love to do what they do and that's why they do that."
Rice on his matchup with Willie Roaf: "I've faced him in the past. I'm going to face him this week. Nobody in this league can block me. I don't forecast that as a problem for myself. My thing is: what are the schemes like, what's the team going to be like, what's the tempo of the game; the things that I can take advantage of. He's a great player. I've faced a lot of them. It's inconsequential to me. What's important for me is how we play as a team. My energy level is going to be high. I just want to see how this game is going to play itself out."
Brooks on the impact of the Chiefs' play-action game: "You really can't say that until we play them. Obviously, a lot happens that dictates the game. If you get a lead, play-action means anything, but if it is a see-saw battle, it can become a weapon. So, at this point, right now, you really can't say how it is going to affect you."
QB Brian Griese on the Kansas City defense: "I think they are a much improved defense. I think they are very opportunistic. It is going to be a challenge for us. They have a great front four. I think they rush the passer very well. They have two corners that have been there for awhile. I have had some experience with them. We are going to be in for a great matchup."
RB Michael Pittman on taking on more of the running game responsibilities: "I know what I have to do. Mike [Alstott] is down. Charlie [Garner] is down. I just have to step up and carry more of the load. Earnest Graham is coming in and he is going to play a big role. Hopefully, I can just go out there and do my job. I don't feel any added pressure, just go out there, have fun and have a good time."
Deese on Mike Alstott being hurt and unavailable: "Every year someone gets hurt on some team and you have to have guys that can fill in and make this thing good. They have to go in and we can't miss a beat. I think we've got the guys that can do it. I'm not really worried about it. I want Mike back as soon as possible."
RB Earnest Graham on taking on Alstott's role: "Mike Alstott is Mike Alstott. I've done pretty well as far as showing the goal line situations. I'm just going to go out there and do me. I hope that I can make some plays and be part of the team."
Graham on the experience of being promoted from the practice squad to the active roster: "It's been awesome. Here you practice every week as if you were playing. Like I said, I've been preparing every week like I'm going to play. You never know what's going to happen and you have to be ready for when the opportunity comes. I definitely prepare like I do every week and I think I'm definitely ready for the opportunity. "
Graham on what he's learned during his long fight to make the active roster: "I've learned a lot about life and what it takes to succeed anything. You learn that nothing is given. You get out here in the world and it's tough. Nothing is given to you and you almost have to take it. When you get an opportunity you have to produce and if not they are going to move on."
Deese on taking inspiration from the Red Sox: "I take inspiration in that; I take inspiration from a lot of things. I've been in the league long enough to see a lot of teams do a lot of things that they said could not be done. Like I said, we started off real slow but it's not where you start but where you finish. Our goal right now to finish off the season really strong. I truly believe that we own our own fate."
Griese on whether he feels like the Bucs are an underdog against Kansas City: "We are going out there to try to put together 60 minutes. I think that we have gotten better as a team, which has been important the past three weeks. I think we are trying still to get that game where we have 60 minutes of offense playing well, defense playing well and getting a big play on special teams."
Phillips on the attitude in the Bucs' locker room: "The attitude is great. Everybody is still in high spirits. Looking around the locker room, if you didn't know our record, you would think we have a winning record. We know that we have our work cut out for us and we are going to keep fighting."