C John Wade has been a rock in the middle of a revamped and young offensive line
Before this year's season opener in Minnesota two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting left tackle, left guard and right guard had a total of eight NFL starts between them.
All eight of those starts belonged to right guard Sean Mahan, who filled in at center for the second half of 2004 after starter John Wade was lost to a massive knee injury. Left tackle Anthony Davis had played a few snaps in the 2004 season finale; left guard Dan Buenning is a rookie.
Well, Davis and Buenning are now up to two starts apiece and Mahan has hit double digits for his career. The way things are going, those numbers could continue to pile up for quite some time. The Bucs have been looking for a new and youthful combination up front, and if 168.5 rushing yards per game and only three sacks allowed overall are any indication, they might be onto something.
Still, with all of the good things that young players bring to the lineup – energy, aggressiveness, exuberance, desire and hopefully raw talent – there are often tradeoffs. Inexperience leads to mistakes. New players in new positions take time to jell into a cohesive unit. And, of course, that raw talent isn't always found to be sufficient.
Thus, it is also comforting to the Bucs to have two experienced veterans among the front five. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker has been a starter since he first came into the league in 2001 and has been the team's primary man on the right side for three-plus seasons. And, perhaps more importantly because he is responsible for making the line calls and sight adjustments, Wade is back from his knee injury and quietly serving as the offensive line's anchor in the middle.
Quarterback Brian Griese didn't take over as the team's starter until the sixth game of 2004; thus, he had only three games to take snaps from Wade before the veteran center injured his knee against Kansas City on November 7. Griese meshed well with Mahan in that spot, and he's still seeing the benefits of Mahan's hard-nosed protection in front of him, but he also knows the value of having a center with a thorough NFL education.
"It helps – I can't tell you how much it helps," said Griese. "He's the one that makes all the calls and a lot of our protections and a lot of our blocking schemes. We have two, three, maybe four plays called in the huddle. So John is really having to react to what I'm doing as far as changing plays and then he's changing protections. He's changing running plays and assignments."
The Bucs have had few obvious breakdowns in protection through the first two games. Griese went down just once against Buffalo when the right edge was unable to pick up a big blitz and safety Lawyer Milloy came in untouched. Otherwise, he's had time to complete exactly two-thirds of his passes and generally execute what has been called in the huddle.
"It's really a trickle-down," said Griese of the protection changes being made seamlessly. "John's been able to work with those young guys really well and bring them along in the process and they've really benefited from him."
Wade is not the type to get overly excited by two good games, though. This is the same man who has consistently downplayed his quick return from that knee issue of 2004, even while his coaches marvel at how serious the injury was. In addition to the usual ligament damage that ends a player's season, Wade also dislocated the joint. It was a victory for him to be back in the starting lineup on opening day.
To him, though, it's just the beginning.
"We're starting in the right direction," said Wade. "We just need it to continue, that's all. We need to work hard. Wednesdays and Thursdays are really important here, from the physical and mental aspects, and we just need to continue working hard. It is two weeks, and I'm very happy with where we are so far, but it is just Week Two."
Let us enjoy some of the numbers anyway. After finishing 2004 ranked 29th in the league in rushing and 22nd in overall offense, the Bucs are second only to Pittsburgh in running the ball so far this year and have the 13th-ranked attack overall. The addition of rookie running back Cadillac Williams has obviously played an enormous part in that improvement, but Williams can't do it alone. The play of the Bucs' offensive line might be the most encouraging aspect of the young season.
"It's huge," said linebacker Shelton Quarles. "Everyone keeps talking about our run defense last year, but our offense is playing well and getting some leads, so they are forcing teams to pass. And as long as they are doing well, we will be doing well as a defense."
To Wade, there's only one thing that's different from last year that really matters. Heading into Week Three in 2004, the Bucs were 0-2. Wade says the offensive line is proudest of one things so far.
"Winning," he said. "Bottom line. We won. If we played bad and won, great. I'd rather play well every week and win, but I just want to win. Whatever happens, however we get it done, pretty or ugly…wins, period."
Wade's strong play was only one topic the Buccaneers were discussing leading up to Sunday's home opener against Buffalo. Below are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week.
WR Michael Clayton on his first trip to Lambeau Field: "From what I have heard, there is a lot of history in that stadium. We're excited to go play a good Green Bay team, in their home stadium. We basically established a mental mindset of domination, so once you get on the field it doesn't matter where you are, or what the crowd is like, our main focus is to dominate the game, and that's what were looking to do."
DT Anthony McFarland on if he feels the mystique of Lambeau Field: "The mystique is when they play well and other teams don't. It's a tough place to play, obviously, because most of the time you have to travel a long way to get up there and play. But it's kind of like that thing I said about home-field advantage. When you're out there playing well, your home field can be an advantage. If you're playing bad, I don't care where you play, it doesn't matter. It's the same way when you get up there. If they play well and you don't, then the mystique is mystified, I guess."
RB Carnell Williams on playing at Lambeau Field: "I'm very excited. They've got great tradition and great fans, and the most important thing is that we haven't won there since 1989. Therefore, we're definitely looking to change that."
Clayton on if it is intimidating to play on the road: "I never was intimidated as a football player. That never was an issue. You want to have success, and I have been able to learn that early in my career. Intimidation just doesn't play a factor. Basically, when you have good chemistry and confidence, even more than last year, intimidation does not play a factor.
McFarland on if losing in Green Bay is the last "trend" the franchise has to break: "Trends are for the media; they come up with these things. We like to look at the facts, and the facts are we haven't won up there in a while, and that's the challenge this week. Obviously, the Packers are 0-2 but it doesn't matter. When you go to Lambeau Field to play Brett Favre and that running game they have, it's going to be a big challenge."
McFarland on if Green Bay is a team that the Bucs get up for: "It's our next game. Obviously, we haven't gone up there in awhile, so that's going to be our focus, to get in there and try to get a win. That's the biggest thing we've got going this week, trying to get up there and get a win."
QB Brian Griese on the Packers' run defense: "I think they've done a good job. That's probably the strength of their defense right now. It's going to be a challenge for us, especially going up there, but I think that our offensive line has been playing really well. Obviously, Carnell Williams has been running the ball pretty well. We're going to continue to run the ball and it's going to be a good challenge for us."
McFarland on the Packers offensive line: "You get past them you get to him. So that's the whole key. They are obviously, regardless of their record, a power football team. We have got to stop the run first."
McFarland on Packers QB Brett Favre: "Brett is a Hall of Famer. Every time you get a Hall of Fame quarterback, everyone is going to say the same thing. Everything I say will be repeating what everyone else has said for years. Just look at his resume, it speaks for itself."
McFarland on the Packers being 0-2: "It still doesn't matter. We've seen teams start off 0-1, 0-2 and go on to make the playoffs and go deep. So it doesn't matter. It's early, it's only just after the second week of the season. You've got to get ready. They probably feel like they're in a must-win situation, so we're going to get their best effort."
LB Shelton Quarles on how it feels to have this defense back on top: "It feels pretty good, but we can't rest on what we have done. It's in the past and we have to keep moving forward, and getting better. Regardless of the things we have been doing good, there are still some bad plays here and there. We've been lucky they haven't been exploited and we just need to keep doing what were doing, and pound the rock."
Williams on if being a focal point for the opposing defenses now changes things for him: "I'm sure it will. Guys might start putting eight or nine in the box, but that's why we have a passing attack, and that's why we've got Coach [Jon] Gruden calling plays to get us into better situations. As Derrick Brooks was telling me earlier in the year, most teams haven't seen me so they really don't know what I can do. Now they've seen a little bit, so I'm sure their focus now coming in is going to be to stop the run. That might change things up, but the way our offensive line is playing and the way [Brian] Griese is handling things, I don't think it will change much."
Griese on what he's most surprised about regarding Carnell Williams: "I feel like every week I answer this question. I don't know that I'm really that surprised. Obviously, being a number five pick in the draft, you expect the guy to have great talent, which he does. I guess if I was surprised about anything, I would say that he's been able to pick up on offense very quick, as far as the mental aspects of it. Now, we haven't asked him to do everything, so it's really been good for him to really focus on two or three areas of our offense and really excel at those areas. I'm looking forward to him continuing to expand his knowledge of both the running game and the passing game. I think he can help us there."
Griese on if he's had a chance to look at tape and see Williams' performance on Sunday: "Really it confirmed what I knew. I have a chance to see some of those running plays when I don't really carry out my fakes very well and I turn around and watch. The thing that I was surprised about was that there were a lot of big holes on Sunday and so I think a lot of credit goes to our offensive line, too. I think obviously Cadillac, once he gets into the holes and has space, he can make guys miss and make big plays, but if he doesn't get an opportunity to get to the line of scrimmage and get a crack, then nobody can run in that situation. It's been a combination of good offensive line play and obviously, him making plays."
Williams on if he feels like he has something to prove about running between the tackles: "I don't feel like I have something to prove or whatever, but that was a big question mark about me coming into the draft. Can I run between the tackles and things like that? I always felt like I could run between the tackles – actually, I feel like I run better between the tackles anyway."
McFarland on being back from last year's injury: "It's good to get out there. It's good to play. Obviously right now we're focused on Green Bay. We haven't won up there since '89, so that's the challenge for us right now."
Griese on his success on third down and in the passing game: "We practiced a lot in the third down situations. Last week we were expecting a lot of things from the Buffalo Bills as far as fronts and coverages and blitzes. So we spent a majority of our time during the week on third down situations. So, I think we were really into what we were going to expect on Sunday. A couple of those third downs, we got looks that we were anticipating and guys were on the same page and we just took advantage of it. It's a great thing for an offense to be able to stay on the field. You hear a lot about running the football and the next thing you hear about is turnovers and the next thing is how you do on third down. For us offensively, it's a big deal for us to be able to convert third downs. If we're going to be able to run the ball, we're going to have more third-and-five, four-and-three, which is a better situation for us offensively. So, you have to take advantage of that."
Griese on the Bucs' offensive line against Buffalo: "I think they did a great job. Our first game at home in front of our fans, they were really fired up. They were going against a great defense. There's no doubt about that. They did a good job with establishing the line of scrimmage. But we expect that from them. I wouldn't say we were surprised. I really expected those guys to come out and be physical and be nasty. That's what I saw all throughout training camp. These guys didn't miss a day of practice, some of them. They were taking every single rep. Anthony Davis and those guys. So, they set the bar high and I continue to have high expectations for them."
LB Shelton Quarles on if he is playing his best football: "I think so. There are some things I can get better at, that just comes with the job."
Quarles on how much the rotation of the defensive line helped him in his job: "It has helped a lot, especially with [Chris] Hovan in front of me. Making the plays he's been making has allowed me to be a little more free. They have been keying a lot on him and trying to keep him contained, that has allowed me to roam around the field a lot more."