T Kenyatta Walker and the Bucs' offensive line successfully picked up Washington's complicated blitzes on Sunday
In a game that featured dozens of big plays, one of the first exciting downfield moments on Sunday was Joey Galloway's 34-yard sideline catch at the Washington Redskins three-yard line, a play that set up Mike Alstott's first touchdown.
In terms of excitement, the play had something for everybody. Galloway was surely excited by Chris Simms' perfectly placed throw, which gave him a chance to catch it and safety Pierson Prioleau no room to break it up. The crowd of 65,000 was excited by Galloway's grab and foot shuffle at the sideline. Redskins Head Coach Joe Gibbs was certainly excited – if not necessarily thrilled – by the official's ruling that Prioleau had forced Galloway out of bounds, a decision that couldn't be challenged.
But you would have had to turn your eyes 30 yards back upfield to see what really excited Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden about that play.
Galloway's route to the three-yard line was fairly long, taking him all the way across the field and almost to the goal line. As he came off the line, both Washington cornerbacks blitzed, shooting in towards Simms at shallow angles. Often, that would call for a "hot" read, a quick dump-off to a close receiver who might pick up a few yards. However, when the extra rushers are stymied on a blitz, then you suddenly have a golden opportunity for the offense, a mismatch in numbers in the secondary.
And the Bucs picked up that blitz. Simms had time not only to find Galloway but to step into his throw, which is the only reason he could place it so accurately. Fans rightfully gave Simms and Galloway an earful of appreciation after that completion; Gruden directed his love at the offensive line, tight ends and backs who made it possible.
"It's a credit to our football team for picking up some of those blitzes," said the coach. "We picked up [that] double corner blitz last night on the opening touchdown drive. We picked up two or three full blitzes where they're bringing everybody, and we got big plays. So, it's a credit to Chris certainly. But it's a credit to our backs, our tight ends, and certainly the offensive line."
Another example: On the 46-yard completion to Edell Shepherd in the third quarter, the key play in a 70-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 28-28, the Redskins blitzed linebacker LaVar Arrington straight up the middle. Arrington timed his rush well and found a seam in the offensive line, but running back Michael Pittman took the linebacker's legs out and gave Simms times to complete his pass.
Those kinds of pickups are not easy, but they were routine for the Bucs on Sunday against the Redskins, as they held an opponent sackless for the first time all season. That was no mean feat against an aggressive and highly-ranked Washington defense that likes to bring pressure at the quarterback from all angles.
That was a welcome change from the past two weeks, when the Bucs allowed 11 sacks combined to San Francisco and Carolina in a pair of losses. However, those numbers are apparently a bit misleading. The Bucs obviously did have some protection problems in the 49ers and Panthers games, but it wasn't necessarily against the blitz. In fact, Gruden is actually quite pleased with how well the Bucs have responded to opponents' blitzes this season, and he certainly loads up each practice with that type of play.
"We gave up [six] sacks against North Carolina, none of which came against the blitz," he said. "There's a perception out there that we didn't pick up the blitz. We picked up the blitz against Carolina. We didn't handle the four-man rushes, and we got over-powered in some situations. But pressure comes in different ways. It comes from a four-man rush, with games and stunts. And it comes with the blitz. We've handled the blitz pretty well all season, through nine games. There are some areas obviously that we need to clean up. But last night was, I think, a good film to put out there, that you do have some idea of what the heck you are doing against the blitz."
By that final point, Gruden is referring to potential matchups down the road, and the scouting videotape such opponents as Atlanta, Chicago and New England are going to be watching. If the Bucs had looked particularly vulnerable against Washington's complicated blitz packages, they might expect to see more of the same next weekend in Atlanta and for the rest of the season.
Actually, they might expect that anyway. This is the year of the defensive aggressiveness around the line of scrimmage in the NFL, and it seems like each new opponent has a new and difficult blitz scheme for which to prepare.
"I am sure we will be full-blitzed this week by the Falcons," said Gruden. "They like to do that, especially in that dome. So we've got to continue to prove that we can handle that pressure with pressure of our own."
Simeon Rice didn't go anywhere.
The Bucs' sack-happy defensive end was forced to sit out the San Francisco game due to a matter of team discipline in Week Eight and he wasn't an enormous factor in last weekend's showdown with Carolina. But even with that lull, Rice finished the first half with a sack in five of the seven games in which he played.
Still, it was reasonable to wonder when Rice was going to have one of his dominant games, the kind where he's always around the quarterback, creating havoc and engendering big plays. That game was Sunday night.
Rice was the Bucs' top defensive performer against Washington, racking up four tackles, both of the team's sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a pass defensed. He had a hand in two of the Bucs' three takeaways and forced quarterback Mark Brunell to make a lot of his plays on the run (which he managed to do too often in the second half, to the Bucs' chagrin).
Rice now has seven sacks and four forced fumbles on the season. His current pace would take him to 12 sacks, which would tie his total from 2004 and put him in double digits for the fifth time in as many seasons as a Buccaneer. It would fall short of the 15.5 he had in 2002 and the 15.0 he had in 2003, but Rice has certainly been known to go on some multiple-game sack binges. Now that he has his first two-sack game of 2005, he might be starting one of those binges.
"He played big," said Gruden. "The sack-fumble set up a score early in the game. He was a factor throughout the game, pass-rushing and through his pursuit plays. He had an interception, for crying out loud. Again, what happened [in San Francisco] has happened in the past. It was nothing personal. It was a team matter. I consider him an inspiring leader on this team in ways. He's a different guy. He likes to be perceived as the villain, but he's really a hell of a guy and he's a lot more of a leader in our locker room, I think, than people in the public eye think. But we're going to need him down the stretch and he clearly is a force. When he starts to feel it, he brings two or three other guys' levels up with him. That's what happened last night."
The Bucs finished Sunday's victory without two of the 11 players who started the game on defense. Free safety Will Allen (knee) and left defensive end Greg Spires (shoulder) missed much of the second half of play and were replaced by Kalvin Pearson and Dewayne White, respectively.
Gruden had preliminary updates on Allen and Spires on Monday morning, but nothing too conclusive. It will likely be Wednesday before the Bucs have a good feel for how significantly the two are injured.
"Will Allen sprained his left knee," Gruden reported. "We won't know the severity of it until later. Greg Spires has a left AC sprain in his shoulder."
The Bucs have, in effect, used three starting safeties this season, as Allen, Jermaine Phillips and Dexter Jackson have rotated in the two spots due to injuries. Allen started Game Four at free safety when Jackson was out with a hamstring pull, then moved over to strong safety for the next two games while Phillips recovered from a thumb injury. Just as Phillips returned, Jackson went down again with his hamstring problem and Allen shifted back to free safety for the last three games. Now Allen could miss some time, but Jackson is fortunately on the verge of returning. If both Allen and Jackson prove unavailable, the Bucs will have to look farther down the depth chart.
"Dexter Jackson, I believe, has a chance to play against the Falcons, his hamstring has made an improvement," said Gruden. "Donte Nicholson is a big guy we can look toward and we'll try some other guys on contingency service if need be."
One player who was not on the injury report last week or out of the lineup at any point against Washington but might nevertheless be a bit limited is linebacker Derrick Brooks. Brooks was on the injury report two weeks ago with a hamstring strain, and he even sat out a practice to give it some rest. Brooks has never missed a game in his 11-year NFL career and remains one of the league's most productive linebackers. Still, Gruden conceded that his eight-time Pro Bowler might not have been at 100 percent the past few weeks.
"He isn't at his best physically but he's a little bit like Carnell Williams," said Gruden. "He's working himself back into that state, he really is. He's such an inspiring leader and you just know it's a matter of time before he finds his full rhythm again physically. When he does, it will be really exciting again."