With DE Simeon Rice often the catalyst, the Bucs' defense has done an excellent job of putting pressure on QB Michael Vick
In a game that will feature two of the NFL's most dynamic running backs in Cadillac Williams and Warrick Dunn, it might be easy to assume that Sunday's contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons will hinge on the running game. Let's not, however, underestimate the importance of the pass rush.
For the last four years, it's been the main ingredient in a recipe for success cooked up by Head Coach Jon Gruden and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, and Sunday the Buccaneers will be seeking to continue a trend of excellent play against the Falcons and, in particular, quarterback Michael Vick.
In their last eight games against the Falcons, seven of which Vick has played in, the Buccaneers are 6-2, including a season sweep last year. During that stretch, Vick has played decently, posting a 77.8 quarterback rating and rushing for 275 yards. The difference, however, has been the intense pressure under which he's been forced to operate, courtesy of the Buccaneers defense.
While Vick has the ability to confound defenses with his combination of a cannon arm and dangerous legs, the speed of the Buccaneers' defense has frequently posed problems for Vick. Bucs defenders have often been successful hemming in the explosive quarterback, and when Vick has managed to leave the pocket, he's been quickly and forcefully brought down.
In seven games against the Buccaneers, Vick has been sacked 20-plus times, losing more than 100 yards, but more importantly leading to eight turnovers – five fumbles (four lost) and four interceptions. In his first game ever against the Buccaneers, a 20-6 Bucs victory, Vick was hurried and harassed constantly until finally being knocked out of the game in the third quarter by a Simeon Rice hit. And when he and the Falcons were shut out 27-0 two years ago, Vick was sacked five times, picked off twice and forced to fumble twice. That kind of pressure has limited Vick to only two victories against the Buccaneers in his career. Against the rest of the league, he has posted a 30-14-1 record.
When given time, Vick can often find Alge Crumpler, a big-bodied tight end who has become the Falcons' main receiving threat. At 6-2, 262 pounds, the only things soft about the physical Crumpler are his hands. He's developed a chemistry with Vick that often allows him to bail out the scrambling quarterback by getting open as Vick buys time with his legs. Considering the Buccaneers surrendered eight catches for 98 yards and a touchdown to Ravens' tight ends, Crumpler figures to be a big part of the Falcons' game plan against the Bucs. That's why a relentless pass rush against Vick, and an ability to keep him in the pocket, will likely be critical.
But what's good for the goose is good for the gander, or in this case the falcon. After studying game film of the Buccaneers' loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, Atlanta will certainly be looking to create a fair amount of its own pressure on Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms. Against the Ravens, Simms was hurried numerous times, resulting in two sacks, three batted passes and three interceptions, not to mention several missed chances on offense for big gains.
What's more, the Falcons have the tools to create that pressure. After acquiring Pro Bowl defensive end John Abraham from the New York Jets this offseason and adding him to a defensive line featuring fellow end Patrick Kerney and standout defensive tackle Rod Coleman, the Falcons' defensive line now boasts three of the top 10 sack leaders in the NFL over the past five years. Add run-stuffing defensive tackle Grady Jackson to that line, and the Falcons front four could be as dangerous as any in the league.
"Yeah, it's pretty well-documented that Atlanta is a very physical defense," Gruden said. "They're talented, especially in the [Georgia] Dome. Everybody struggles protecting a passer in that dome with that noise. And that was before the addition of John Abraham. Abraham's a great player. Kerney's given us problems; he's an outstanding rusher. They've added Grady Jackson, who's a big presence inside. And Roderick Coleman's one of the premier inside pass-rushers in the game. You put that all together with Keith Brooking and DeAngelo Hall, they've got the makings of a very good defensive football team."
That was evident on Sunday when they sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme four times for a loss of 36 yards. Two of those sacks were by Abraham, who despite changing conferences hasn't missed a beat. Not only did he register the sixth two-sack game of his career, he forced two fumbles from Delhomme and tipped another pass that cornerback DeAngelo Hall intercepted but had called back due to penalty.
In all, the revamped Falcons defense held the Panthers offense to a mere 89 yards in the first half and only 215 total yards by game's end. Perhaps even more impressive, the Panthers converted only two of 12 third down opportunities – and their first conversion didn't come until the fourth quarter.
Still, the Buccaneers are eager to embrace the challenge and take their first steps on the road to a successful season.
"Atlanta excites me," Gruden said. "That is a great place to play. You are going to see a team that is coming off of a tremendous win. This is a rivalry game; this is enough to get the average enthusiast excited. This is a very exciting opportunity for us. I am confident that our team will come back from a poor outing."