LB Derrick Brooks and the Bucs need to slow down the Rams' pass-catchers
It's Sunday afternoon and the Buccaneers now know they are playing the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. So why does Head Coach Tony Dungy seem more concerned about a YAC?
No, this no zoological mix-up. Several times during Dungy's day-after-the-game press conference on Sunday, the Buccaneer coach referred to St. Louis' outstanding ability to gain 'yards after the catch.' That's known as YAC in NFL parlance, not a yak, and it's a skill that every NFL wide receiver and running back covets. It's a reference to a skill position player's ability to turn short passes into long-gainers, and it's something that was prominently on display in St. Louis' Divisional Playoff victory over Minnesota on Sunday.
"Even though they're explosive and high-scoring, this is not just a passing team," said Dungy after watching the Rams in action on Sunday. "They run the ball very well and Marshall Faulk is a big part of it. They have a lot of weapons - (Ricky) Proehl, Az Hakim, Torry Holt, who we liked this year coming out of the draft, of course (Isaac) Bruce. They just have weapon after weapon. The thing that's really unique about these guys is that they can all run after the catch. We're going to have to stress being a good tackling team, and when they do catch the ball underneath and they catch the screens, we're going to have to come up and tackle well."
St. Louis used their remarkably balanced attack to score 526 points during the regular season, the third-highest total in league history. QB Kurt Warner, who entered the season as a little-known former Arena Football League player, won league MVP honors after tossing 41 touchdown passes and recording a spectacular 109.2 passer rating. While Warner displayed outstanding touch, accuracy and arm strength, he also saw the benefit of his array of speedy skill players.
He's very, very hot, very confident," said Dungy of Warner, who lit Minnesota up on Sunday for 391 yards, five touchdowns and an 82% completion rate. "They have a lot of ways to get the ball very quickly to guys who can run with it. He throws deep balls well, but the thing to me, just from what I've seen today, is that he's very accurate. He throws the ball that they can catch on the run and keep moving. They've got a lot of guys that can run after the catch."
Excuse Dungy for repeatedly returning to that point. Sunday's game provided ample illustration of the explosiveness of the Rams ballcarriers. Of course, the Buccaneers also saw the same type of offense just one day earlier and were very successful in shutting down the Redskins. Washington ranked second in the NFL in yards and points scored in 1999, trailing only St. Louis in both categories, but managed just 157 yards and two offensive field goals against the Bucs.
"It's kind of like some of the last few games we've played," said Dungy. (The Rams) are very explosive. They'll try to get the game into an up-tempo game. We've got to try to negate some of that speed on offense and special teams and try to hold the score down. Then, we've got to try to control the football when we have it, move the ball and score when we get the opportunities. It's going to be very similar to last week, from our standpoint, playing a very explosive team like Washington."
There are even some very strong comparisons between the Rams and 'Skins offenses, both of which throw a lot of different looks at a defense. "There are some similarities: the pass protection, some of the routes that you see, multiple personnel groupings, moving people around, some of the shifts and the motions that you get," said Dungy. "You can see them try to create the same types of mismatches. They do a little bit more with the crossing routes with the crossing routes, and they've really got guys that can hurt you after the catch. They throw the ball a little bit more to Marshall Faulk than Washington did to Stephen Davis, but you can see the similarities."
Washington did manage to break a long play on special teams, scoring their only touchdown on Brian Mitchell's playoff-record 100-yard kickoff return to start the second half. However the quick-strike Redskin offense was not allowed a single play longer than Albert Connell's 23-yard second-quarter catch, the only play of plus-20 yards in the game for Washington. RB Stephen Davis, who turned in a 58-yard run the week before in Washington's first-round win over Detroit, had just one 12 yard run and was held to 37 yards on 17 carries. Washington gained a total of just 26 yards of offense in the second half.
Dungy knows that his team will have to put the similar clamps on St. Louis' long-play propensity. "I don't think we're going to be able to give them big-play touchdowns (and win)," said Dungy. "You can't give them kick returns and long passes. You can't give them scores when you're on offense. I think Minnesota played pretty well on offense (against St. Louis), scored points and did control the ball, but they gave up some big plays, and then in the second half, a couple of fumbles and a long kickoff return. Just like we were concerned about Washington, they have the ability to spurt and score 17 points very quickly. That's what we're going to have to eliminate."
They will if they hope to eliminate St. Louis and move on to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. That will take a Herculean effort, but one Dungy thinks his team can come up with. "For us to win, we're going to have to slow them down," he said. "I don't think we can win an 80-point game like they had today. No question, we're going to have to play our best defensive game of the year. This is an explosive offense, it's a unit that's used to scoring points. But we played teams like that this year and that's just the way the game's going to be.
"We've played against some explosive teams this year and this won't be any different. I don't think our guys will be awed by their personnel. We have to play a near perfect game, but I think we can win."