The Bucs know it is imperative to stop RB Warrick Dunn, the league's leading rusher after one week
Though he is one of the NFL's smallest feature backs, at 5-9 and 180 pounds, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers eagerly snapped up Warrick Dunn with the 12th overall pick in the 1997 draft. The reason was obvious: This guy had some serious wiggle to him.
Now at the beginning of his 10th season, Dunn is an Atlanta Falcon, having left Tampa as a free agent following the 2001 season. He is 31 years old, approaching that age where some workhorse backs begin to decline, but he remains as productive as ever, coming off a career-best 1,416-yard campaign and an NFL-best 132 rushing yards in Week One of this season.
Dunn still has his speed, he's still one of the more deceptively tough runners in the league and, yes, he's still got wiggle.
Which means the little back is going to be the biggest blip on the Bucs' radar this Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Hanging in more than a few defenders' lockers at the Buccaneers' new facility this week have been simple white signs with five little words in the middle: "If it wiggles – hit it."
The sign isn't specifically directed at Dunn. Rather, it's a reminder to Buccaneer defensive players that they are supposed to get 11 men to the ball on every play. Tampa Bay has built a decade of excellence on the defensive side of the ball by playing an aggressive, hustling, hard-hitting brand of football. The Bucs' opener, a 27-0 loss to Baltimore, didn't live up to that standard, apparently.
"We caught flak for that a few times in the game we just played," said linebacker Shelton Quarles, who was inactive in the opener with a groin injury but hopes to play against Atlanta. "We didn't necessarily get to the ball the way we usually do. Hopefully this week we will. That's our motto for this week: 'If it wiggles, hit it.' So hopefully there will be a bunch of wiggling going on so there will be a bunch of hitting."
Defensive tackle Chris Hovan called Dunn the true engine that runs the Falcons' offense, while taking nothing away from dangerous quarterback Michael Vick. Vick's contributions to the rushing attack have helped Atlanta rank first in the NFL in that department for two years running, and again so far this season, but the Falcons are good at running the ball in the traditional sense, too. The team employs a smaller, quicker offensive line and a zone-blocking scheme that makes the most out of Dunn's quick cut-back skills.
"He's a great player, so many dimensions out of the backfield – heart, so many dimensions," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "You can't advertise enough about Warrick because he gets it done. He's a player who you can lean on. He's bigger than what he looks, especially from an on-the-field perspective. He can make the long runs, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's suited for a high-performance game. He's suited for this type of atmosphere that he's going in to, and I'm sure he's going to be one of their performers who tries to perform at another level this weekend."
Linebacker Derrick Brooks was Dunn's teammate for five seasons and the two Florida State alums went to their first Pro Bowls together in 1997. Brooks is still going strong in his 12th season, having been to every other Pro Bowl since that first one, and he knows his former teammate is still in his prime, too.
"He's gotten off to a fast start," said Brooks. "He ran hard last week, watching tape against Carolina. We feel around here that he has no signs of slowing down whatsoever. He got them going last week with some big runs early and really took the pressure off of them and made their play-action game that much more deadly against Carolina. Warrick is always a strong runner and a tough competitor. We look forward to playing them."
Dealing with Dunn wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for the team's first road game of the '06 season. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
CB Ronde Barber on the match-up is between the Buccaneers and the Falcons: "Well, like I said. They know us. We know them. It's a division opponent and we just have to go to work."
DE Dewayne White on playing Atlanta: "It's a rivalry. It's a divisional game. We've got a lot at stake in this game. We've really been focusing on all the little things this week, and we're coming out ready to play, as if this is the first game of the year all over again."
LB Derrick Brooks on the Bucs' past success against Atlanta: "It has nothing to do with Sunday. New year, new week, new challenges – that's how we're looking at it. Obviously, we're trying to get even with Atlanta by getting our first win. What we've done in the past really has no bearing on what's going to happen Sunday."
WR Michael Clayton on the rivalry with the Falcons: "As far as players go, you've got a couple of Bucs on that team that they've acquired from us, and the head office has a couple guys up there – that's on their side. As far as players go, it's always a tough game, I think essentially because they're in our division. They have a heck of a team and they always come to play. We've got the best of them the last three times we've played them, so we know going into their house they're going to be up for it. It's always close when we go up there or they come to us. We're definitely preparing ourselves to be in a dogfight and play it to the end, until the clock reads zero, and see how it comes out."
RB Michael Pittman on the rivalry with Atlanta: "Oh, it's a big rivalry. They've got a great team out there. All these divisional games are going to be very tough. These are the ones that really count. Every game counts, but the divisional games really, really count. If you want to win your division and try to get a first-round bye, these divisional games are big."
White on knocking the Falcons out of the playoff race last year: "Oh, that's alright. That's just life. Somebody had to win, somebody had to lose, so I'm glad we won."
DE Simeon Rice on his past success against Atlanta: "It's going to be hard-fought. If we know that this is going to take every bit of our effort, and this game is going to be a character-building game for the rest of the season, if we have that understanding, we'll be okay because we'll be willing to go to any depths to get it. But if we don't – and we think it's going to be a casual walk and we forget those games we won were very close – then it's going to smack us in the face because we're not going to realize how we fought for these games. We've got to have it always in mind that we fight for everything that we get. If we remember that and we know that going into the game, I think we'll be well-suited for the performance. If we're not, then we're going to come up short."
White on the big plays in the Buccaneers-Falcons series: "I remember going up there last year and [Derrick] Brooks, the fumble – a big play right there that helped us win the game, and then we came here and I blocked a field goal and that helped us. There's always one of those key plays where someone has to step up and make and then they lead to us getting a victory. Hopefully, we can keep that up."
Brooks on playing Atlanta early: "That's the whole league. If you look at around the first four weeks, most teams are playing within their division. And then we don't play again until later on. I guess the NFL is trying to set up big matchups down the stretch. So, we just take them one at a time and just know that division games always count double. It's time to get our first win of the season."
QB Chris Simms on if playing Atlanta early in the season is good: "I don't know if it's any better time than it usually is. It's always fun to go to Atlanta and play there. They've got a great stadium; it's got a great atmosphere. You just know you are going to be playing a well-coached team that's got a lot of talent on the field. It'll be a good test for us. We're going to see how we bounce back from a pretty pitiful performance last week. We'll see what we're made of."
Clayton on playing division games early: "I think it's good. The sooner the better. I think that we have a heck of a schedule to prepare for in December, towards the end of our season. Taking on this challenge is going to be something that we're going to have to step up to the plate. It's going to make us a better team earlier in the year, give us a little more strength down the backstretch of the season. I think it's going to help us out a whole lot."
Barber on this year's schedule compared to last year: "Yeah, this is a little bit better I think. I think I would rather have it this way than the way we had it last year. We didn't know where we stood until the very end of the season. But, you know, it's the schedule and we have to play it."
White on going against Atlanta's offensive line: "I think we match up well. They're a smaller offensive line, we're a smaller defensive line. One thing they always do is cut [block], and that gives us some problems, but other than that, I think we match up well."
Brooks on Atlanta's offense: "They looked good on tape. Playing well together, not turning the ball over. Whenever you do that, you give yourself a chance to win. And that's what they did, got a big win in Carolina."
DT Chris Hovan on the Falcons' offensive line: "They're a very, very well-taught offensive line, very well-coached. Reminiscent of the Denver Broncos back when they won the Super Bowl championship. They have the same offensive line coach [as the Broncos did] teaching the same scheme up there. We have to get ready to penetrate, disrupt and not give Warrick a chance to cut the ball back."
LB Barrett Ruud on the main challenge this week: "Stop the run. They're the best running team in football. Even without Michael Vick they're probably the best running team in football, and with him they're easily the best. So stopping the run is the biggest key."
Rice on if constantly taking on multiple blockers annoys him: "Yes. Last week it annoyed me. You've got a beast up front, you've got a tight end chipping off. It's what it is. You have to get used to it. You have to get to a level where you're accustomed to seeing two and negotiating your way off of them. You have to have your mindset like 'Ok, this is how I'm going to be played. This is what I'm going to have to do.' There are no free reigns when you're good. They're not just going to let you run around the field. You might catch a couple of teams that let you get singled up, but you're going to shine – and once you shine, they're going to address it. For me, I've got a whole lot of work [to do]. Of course, it's frustrating this week in practice, looking at these looks. When you're going to a straight, one-on-one drill, and they say, 'Ok, we're going to bring a running back over to chip you.' It's really an offensive tackle versus a defensive end in a one-on-one drill, but they make it a little more complicated. But it's the game and what can you do about it. It's what it is."
Brooks on if Atlanta is better than last year: "They won their first game. That's all we can judge them on right now. They are leading the division at 1-0 and we are trying to pull even with them."
Simms on the challenges of Atlanta's improved defense: "They were a great defense last year. To add [John] Abraham, [Lawyer] Milloy, the big man, Grady Jackson, in the middle. These are big improvements for the team. We fully expect it to be a really tough game this week, they are great players. They've got great players on both sides of the ball. So, we're going to have to play well if we want to come out of there with a win."
Pittman on if it was frustrating to be shut down offensively in the opener: "Yeah, it is kind of frustrating because of all the weapons we've got on offense. A lot of people can do a lot of different things with the ball, and it just seemed like all the weapons weren't there. It seemed like we had a lack of communication on the offensive side of the ball, which we did, and the Ravens just took advantage of that. They've got a great defense and a great team overall, so I'm going to give them a lot of credit. At the same time, we're a lot better team than what we showed this past weekend. Coach [Gruden] put a great game plan together on the offensive side of the ball, and on the defensive side of the ball, of course. But at the same time, being a player, you've got to execute that game plan that coach puts together and we didn't do that this past weekend."
Simms on the game against Baltimore: "I just didn't play good. Plain and simple. I feel like my mistakes hurt the team in a lot of ways. It probably would have been a different game if I don't throw the ball to [Chris] McAlister, who returns it 60 yards for a touchdown. We didn't play well as a team. But speaking for myself, I definitely didn't play well."
Brooks on how to deal with emotions carrying over from a loss: "Just go out there and play better. The only thing you can do is take it one day at a time. That's what we did today. Take today's practice, and hopefully it was better than last Wednesday. And we'll move on from today."
Pittman on how a team turns the corner after a tough loss: "It's hard because it's not like baseball, where they play one game and then the next day they play again. We've got to wait a whole seven days to play and get that taste out of your mouth, man. The thing is, we know we're a better team than that, and that's what so hard, because of the way we played. We played very bad on both sides of the ball, especially on offense – I can talk about the offense because I'm an offensive player. Rarely any first downs and I think like 130 yards of total offense. We've got so many weapons on offense that we could make plays, but we just didn't."
LB Shelton Quarles on how he tries to be a leader in this situation: "By example. All you can do is come in and work hard and show that you're still enthusiastic about playing the game of football. That's the only way you're going to be able to move on to the next game."
TE Alex Smith on watching the tapes of last week's loss: "It's still a bad feeling, no doubt. At the same time, you're saying 'why are you making those mistakes?' You know what can be done, why it was done. All you have to do now is correct it, but I don't want to say it makes me feel any happier."
Rice on what one week means to him: "It all depends on how you view it – you know, half-full or half-empty. Nobody played really well last week, all our big-time players didn't play well, including myself. We didn't dominate this past week – if you start there and you know what we have here, you can lean on that from an understanding perspective."
Simms on handling the problems of starting his first season opener: "I put more pressure on myself than what any of you guys or anybody else can put on me. I am just disappointed. I am disappointed with the way I played, disappointed that we lost. And you know, we'll bounce back, I know I'll bounce back. We'll be ready to go this week. We lost to New England 27-0 that one time last year. And we bounced back the next week. So, I think the character of our team will show off this week."
Smith on the problems during the last game: "The fact that it was us making the mistakes, not picking up a blitz when we know we're supposed to have a certain gap, those little mistakes can be corrected. It's the getting beat one-on-one or being flat-out dominated that you can't really deal with. These are easy things to correct, and we look forward to doing it the next game."
RB Carnell Williams on if he was surprised with how the offense played against Baltimore: "To me it was surprising, but that's how it goes sometimes. I still believe in this offense, the confidence is still in there. We went out there [today] and had a great practice. I really do feel like things are going to change this time."
Clayton on if he thinks it's imperative to get weapons like him and Joey Galloway involved in order to win: "Definitely. That's why they brought us here, to make plays. It's tough as an athlete, especially one wanting to be out there making plays, when you're not seeing the ball. But it's going to happen sometimes. Sometimes you've got to just got to fit in, and get in where you fit in and make the plays that you're handed, make a block or whatever. But it's definitely hard, it definitely lowers our chances to win when we do not see the ball. Everybody on this offense understands that, the coaches understand that. It's just about getting the proper way to go about getting us the ball and being successful doing that."
WR Joey Galloway on how imperative it is for the offense to get him and Carnell Williams the ball: "I really just think it's imperative that we execute our game plan. If that game plan is to get us the ball, then that's what we have to do. I don't look at that game plan and say 'well, if they would have got it to me or if they would have got it to 'Cadillac,' we would have been successful.' We just simply did not execute."
Williams on if he anticipates being more involved in the offense: "Of course. This week I'm pretty sure I'll be more involved in the offense. As a whole, I think we will run the ball more this week."
Clayton on if he expects the receivers to be more involved this weekend: "Definitely, definitely. I was expecting to be involved this past week. You never know what's going to happen. It's very important to make the proper adjustments when a team comes out prepared to stop you. That's where we're much better this week. We'll be prepared and waiting for another great game on Sunday."
Galloway on whether or not he and QB Chris Simms talked about getting him the ball: "In games like that, when I know for a fact that he does not have a lot of time, and what we're trying to do is not going right, there's no point in me saying 'Come to me' I know I have a job to do and he has a job to do. I know for a fact he is going to do his job to the best of his ability, and when that happens, when that works out, he can come to me, he will. In situations he doesn't, I'll assume something went wrong."
Smith on communicating in the Georgia Dome: "I feel like we went down there before, last year, and took one from them. It's the same thing. I don't feel like we have to change anything – just try and stick with the same game plan we had last year."
Clayton on everybody doing their part to prevent batted-down passes: "Definitely. It's a group effort. He'll get better at that. There are ways to prevent that as a quarterback. You go back to the drawing board and you see what's the appropriate way to go about doing that. You learn from it and you put it on film the next week. That's how we'll do that."
Quarles on how he's feeling: "I'm feeling a little bit better. Last week I thought I was going to definitely play and it didn't work out for me, so this week we'll just say hopefully I'm able to play."
Rice on playing on the right side where the left-handed Vick is likely to roll out: "It's just how the game is played. It's the balance of the game. It's kind of just a coincidence. It doesn't factor in at all, other than me having to go out and play with a dominating effort to really help this team get a W, and it's going to take that and I know that. I know that. I know I've got my work cut out for me. I know this defense has, this offense has. We have to get out and set a tone. This is a game where we could possibly do that, but it's going to be hard for us."
Ruud on the speed of the game: "It was about what I expected, playing what I played before, playing in the preseason. It was about the same, but they just got real basic once they got a lead. They were making sure their offense wasn't going to screw the game up, basically. They were going to keep conservative, if anything."
Ruud on if he got encouragement from teammates before his first start: "They kind of just left me alone. I've been around long enough that I think they trust me, that I know what I'm doing. A couple guys talked to me a little before the game, joking around with me, but once we got out there it was just normal football."
Williams on what caused his back spasms: "I don't know, maybe tightness. I went in at halftime. It was just me sitting around. I got very stiff. I came out in the second half, it got tight and it was kind of tough for me to go."