Warren Sapp (99) and Marcus Jones (78) each had big pass-rush days against the Lions last season
After starting out each of the past three seasons with a 3-4 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers never expected to be back in that spot in 2001. And without a single, obvious problem rearing its head each week, how the Bucs got back to this point is a bit of a mystery.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of the season, however, is this: Where are the sacks?
Given the premier pass rushers on the Bucs' starting unit – Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Marcus Jones all have had 13-sack or better seasons – much was expected of a rush that broke the team record in 2000 with 55 quarterback takedowns. Yet the Bucs have only 13 sacks through seven games, 22 less than they had at this point last season.
This is even more of a surprise when one considers that the Tampa Bay coaching staff has been pleased with the defensive pressure on the quarterback in at least four of the seven games so far. Rice, Sapp and company are playing well, but the sacks just aren't coming.
Mobile quarterbacks and offenses employing quick drops to neutralize the Bucs' rush have contributed to this, and also to the team's high rate of interceptions made. But there is still the sense that, one of these weeks, the sack attack is going to explode on some poor, unsuspecting quarterback.
Could this be the week?
Well, consider that in just two games last year, the Bucs pounded Detroit QB Charlie Batch for 14 sacks, one more than Tampa Bay has through seven games this year. Over the last four games, in 1999 and 2000, Buccaneer pass rushers have recorded 21 sacks, and no fewer than three in any game. By contrast, the Bucs have faced the other three NFC Central times four times each in that same span and tallied 12 sacks against Minnesota, 10 against Chicago and eight against Green Bay.
Sapp alone had five sacks of Batch last season, so you might think he'd be licking his chops this week. He certainly has vivid memories of the Bucs' last trip to the Silverdome but, repeating his motto of the week – 'the past doesn't equal the future' – Sapp says that trip has no bearing on the one this weekend.
"We went up there and all of us had a great day," he said of the Bucs' first seven-sack performance in a 31-10 Tampa Bay victory. "I think Mac had a sack and a half, I had three, Jones had two or something like that. Then Jones came down here and had four that night (in the rematch with Detroit). It's just one of those things. You can never gauge it like that. You just come out and play, and if it happens, it happens."
Tampa Bay had a 14-3 lead on the Lions in the first quarter last year and would have led 21-3 at the half if not for a last-second, 50-yard heave at the end of the second quarter. That meant the home team was playing catch up from the early going and falling right into the hands of a Buc defense that was just looking for an excuse to rush the passer.
"If you look at it a year ago, what was the score of that game?" asked Sapp. "There was a chance to go after the quarterback. Then here (in Tampa) we were up 11-0 and had them in a situation where we felt like we could rush them well, then we let them come back in that ball game."
What gives the Lion quarterback hope of avoiding another large batch of rug burns, and what may be one of the key factors in the Bucs' depressed sack totals, is that Tampa Bay's defense has been surprisingly vulnerable to the run at times.
"Right now, people are running the ball on them," said Batch. "That's probably the biggest surprise and it changes their defensive plan. If you get one-dimensional and you're not able to run the ball on them, you're doomed. That's something that has been happening. If you watch the majority of the games that they've struggled in, it was because teams were rushing the ball. That's something that we have to be able to do, we have to be able to run the ball. That's the way we've had success against Tampa, being able to run the ball. You can see the games we didn't, we had no rushing yards and they just totally dominated us."
Quite true. Detroit ran for just 17 yards on 10 carries in that 2000 game in the Silverdome, and that was with a healthy James Stewart. Stewart is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season, but his persistent ankle injury is a big reason why the Lions rank dead last in the NFL in running the ball.
"We have to be able to get the running game going and get the three or four yards that we need," said Batch. "You have to stay away from obvious passing situations. When you're down 14 or 21 points and they know you're passing the ball, you have to stay away from those seven-step drops and get the ball away quickly."
Of course, one need but whisper two words (Barry Sanders) as a reminder that the Bucs have not always shut down the Lions running game that effectively. In fact, Stewart had 116 yards on his own in the 2000 rematch in Raymond James Stadium, as Detroit won, 28-14. Before him, Greg Hill and Sanders, of course, have had 100-yard games against Tampa Bay in Detroit victories. In those games, there were no seven-sack outings by the Bucs' front four.
"The times these guys have beaten us, no matter who the back is they've run the ball well," said Dungy. "When they haven't run the ball, we've generally won the game. James Stewart had a big game against us, Greg Hill, Barry Sanders. Controlling the line of scrimmage, not letting the backs into the secondary and then being able to pressure the passer will go a long way (towards victory)."
One might also expect that the Lions' switch to the West Coast offense, with a greater emphasis on quick, precision throws, might lead to fewer sacks for Lion quarterbacks, but Batch and backups Ty Detmer and Mike McMahon have been dropped 32 times already this year. The Lions rank 29th in sacks allowed per pass play and may still be looking for cohesion on the offensive line. A rookie, Jeff Backus, starts at left tackle and the former starter at right tackle, Aaron Gibson, was released a week ago. Also, starting left guard Stockar McDougle has struggled with injuries.
Can the Bucs take advantage of that turmoil and have that breakout game everyone expects? Dungy hopes so.
"They've got a little bit of a different offensive style now, so we'll see what happens," he said. It would nice to get back to that. We haven't had that in awhile."