LB Shelton Quarles and the Bucs' defense routinely block all entrances inside the red zone
Is it too dramatic to say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a must-win situation this weekend? Probably; it's hard to say for certain that three games would define a team's season, whether all wins or all losses.
Perhaps it's enough to say that the Bucs' backs are against the wall. And if that's the case, then the team needs to take a cue from its defense. That unit seems to perform its best when there is no room for error.
Specifically, we're talking about red zone defense. The Bucs are good at it. Very good. Have been for years. Looks like they will be for awhile.
Through two games, Tampa Bay is tied with Washington for first in the NFL in red zone defense, which is ranked by the percentage of times the opposing team scores a touchdown after it has moved the ball inside your 20-yard line. It would be impossible for any team to rank ahead of the Bucs and 'Skins, whose touchdown-allowed percentage is currently 0.0%.
Of course, it has helped that the Bucs have allowed hardly any incursions into its red zone in the first place. Washington made it in three times and kicked three field goals. Seattle never got closer than the 27-yard line (though they did score from that point, on a touchdown pass to WR Koren Robinson).
Still, while the Bucs may not be able to maintain that 0.0% mark, their hot start is anything but a fluke. No team in the NFL has been as consistently good at deadbolting the door after the opposition got onto the porch. Since 1997, the first year of the Bucs' current run of annual playoff contention, Tampa Bay has ranked in the top 10 seven of eight seasons (including 2004) and never lower than 12th.
Here's a chart of the Bucs' red zone success under their current defensive system:
|**Year**||**TD%**||**NFC Rank**||**NFL Rank**|
Last year, 16 teams, or exactly half of the league, allowed a touchdown on more than half of their opponents' red zone drives. The 1997-2004 Buccaneers have never finished at 50% or worse. When the field shrinks and the territory becomes more crowded, Tampa Bay's outstanding defensive speed makes it very hard for opponents to find openings.
So far this season, Buc opponents have run nine plays inside the red zone, running the ball eight times for a total of 18 yards and throwing one incomplete pass. Oh, and they've kicked three field goals. Had the team's offense found a way out of its slump and into the end zone, the four points saved on each red zone trip probably would have made the difference in a pair of Buc victories.
Head Coach Jon Gruden, who saw his defense slam the door in the red zone better than any other NFL team during the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl season, expects the good work near the end zone to continue. And next on the agenda, after denying points in the red zone, is actually putting the ball in the opposing end zone, as CB Ronde Barber did on a fumble return in the season opener at Washington.
"I'm counting on our defense being outstanding," he said. "It's great, truly great. This is a fast, physical, explosive defense. It might need to score for us, if that's what it takes for us to win, because they sure have the potential to do it."
A Fine Start
After two games, Tampa Bay's Michael Clayton leads all NFL rookies with 13 receptions (for 114 yards). That's doubly interesting given that seven receivers, including Clayton, were selected in the first round of last April's draft.
Clayton's 13 catches is tied for 10th in the NFL as a whole, and if one removes the backs and tight ends from the list, Clayton is among the league's top seven receivers so far.
Two games in, that is not sufficient evidence, of course, to proclaim Clayton the best of the bunch. And, indeed, Detroit's Roy Williams, the second receiver taken, would certainly have an argument with his eight catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Clayton's start is enough to make the Buccaneers appreciate their decision to draft him with the 15th overall pick.
Clayton, who leads the Bucs in receptions with two more than Tim Brown, is likely to have the biggest impact by a Tampa Bay rookie receiver since Lawrence Dawsey in 1991. Dawsey, a third-round pick, set a then-team rookie record with 55 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns. (Fullback Mike Alstott has since broken the rookie catch record, with 65 in 1996, but Dawsey's yardage record still stands.) The only other first-round receiver in team history, Reidel Anthony, had 35 catches for 448 yards and four touchdowns.
Clayton has set a 16-game pace for 104 catches for 912 yards. With only two games played, that 'pace' must be taken with a grain of salt, but it's unlikely that Clayton's role in the offense is going to diminish.
All number juggling aside, this is clear: Michael Clayton is off to a very fine start.