S Will Allen scored his first career touchdown on a 33-yard fumble return late in the third quarter
Forgive us the military metaphor, but Jon Gruden sounded like a general surveying the battlefield late Sunday afternoon.
"I look out there today and I am really proud of our team," said Gruden, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach. He was figuratively eying a squad that had limped off the Raymond James Stadium turf on Sunday with a 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins and a troublesome injury report to go with it.
There was no life-or-death battle on the field Sunday in Tampa, of course, nor did Gruden suggest any such parallel to real warfare. But he couldn't be blamed if he was wondering where the next round of reinforcements would come from. That's an issue that will get more attention on Monday, given the injuries to Brian Griese, Dexter Jackson, Shelton Quarles and Juran Bolden, and the continuing health issues of Cadillac Williams and Jermaine Phillips.
On this day, though, the Bucs had more than enough to get through, and that's what thrilled Gruden. Griese's knee injury will probably be the most important issue come Monday morning, but with backup Chris Simms filling in nicely under center on Sunday, it was the depleted secondary that could have threatened the Bucs' hopes during the game.
Could have, but didn't. Miami gained only 139 yards of offense through the first three quarters of play and scored its only touchdown on an eight-yard run after a Tampa Bay fumble. The Bucs' defense was without both of its safeties and its primary nickel back by the middle of the fourth quarter, but it still never broke.
Thus, kudos should be delivered to reserve safeties Will Allen and Kalvin Pearson, extra corner Torrie Cox and the men who get them ready to play.
"I am very pleased with the job our coaches are doing; [Defensive Backs Coach] Mike Tomlin, the secondary, we were depleted a little bit with injuries," said Gruden. "Those guys have stepped up with Jermaine Phillips out. I am really happy with the work they did."
Technically, Miami finished with 243 net passing yards, but that statistic (like many of them, Gruden would surely say) is misleading. Through three quarters, with both teams playing straight up, the Bucs had allowed only 85 net passing yards. In the final period, leading 27-6, Tampa Bay ran the ball on every down, punted frequently and played a very soft zone defense. It's typical to give up big chunks of yardage in that situation, which the Bucs did, but even so the secondary didn't allow any Dolphins into its end zone.
"We are very critical on ourselves, but overall I think we did everything that was asked of us," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who along with fellow corner Brian Kelly gave the defensive backfield some much-needed veteran presence. "We stuck together and had guys in the right spots. When it came to crunch time we were able to make the plays."
Barber had three tackles and two pass-breakups, and Kelly knocked down two balls that would have been third-down conversions. That's to be expected from one of the NFL's best starting CB duos. But the young guys got into the act, too. Allen scored what was essentially the game-clinching touchdown when he picked up a Gus Frerotte fumble after a Greg Spires sack and ran 33 yards for the Bucs' third touchdown late in the third quarter. Pearson broke up two passes, including one in the end zone in the closing minutes.
"I was just thankful for the opportunity that the sack by Greg created," said Allen. "I knew once I picked up the ball, I was going to score and that's the mentality you need to have. I am just thankful for the chance to score my first career touchdown."
Allen has actually started three straight games, and four of the six this season. While his first start, versus Buffalo, was the result of Jackson's hand injury on the opening kickoff and was basically a fluke, his last three have proven his deep value to the secondary. He started at free safety when Jackson missed the Detroit game with a hamstring ailment, then opened the last two at strong safety for Phillips, who is recovering from a thumb injury.
Allen is in just his second year in the league, and he played sparingly as a rookie, but he takes his job as a reserve on the NFL's top-ranked defense very seriously. As Sunday's game demonstrated, a defense is only as good as its depth. Allen's presence means the Bucs can remain confident during the training-room days of Jackson and Phillips.
"We have some depth in the secondary and the coaches preach to the backups to prepare like starters and I think you can see that on the field," said Allen. "When all of the guys, from the veterans to the rookies, are playing hard, it makes us a very difficult team to beat."
The injuries to the Bucs' original starting safeties are not considered season-threatening, but it's a good bet that players like Allen, Pearson and backup cornerbacks Torrie Cox and Blue Adams will be called upon to deliver several more times this season. Sunday's game should give the Bucs more confidence that they can do so.
"Injuries are going to happen week in and week out in the NFL; it's how your depth responds to that," said Simms. "You see some teams that are demoralized by injuries. I think we're one team that has depth at just about every position. We're confident we won't miss a beat whether it's the first string guy or the second string guy."