The Bucs may need a big day from Warrick Dunn and the rushing attack to tip the Vikings
If you can handle one more reference to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 27-24 win over Minnesota on November 1, 1998, please consider these numbers drawn from that game's stat sheet: 246-70.
That game, of course, has been referred to repeatedly in recent days, as the similarities between that 3-4 Buc team's win over another 7-0 Vikings squad bears a remarkable surface resemblance to the situation Tampa Bay faces this coming Sunday. If the Bucs truly want to reclaim the glory of that day in '98, however, they may have to figure out a way to post another 246-70.
What is that? It's the rushing edge Tampa Bay had over Minnesota that afternoon. The Buccaneers rushed for a team-record 246 yards, with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn becoming the first pair of backs in franchise history to each go over 100 yards in the same game. The Vikings were held to just 70 ground yards and only ran the ball 19 times.
In 2000, however, the Vikings bring the league's most potent rushing attack into Raymond James Stadium, a ground game that has piled up 149.4 yards per game. "They're leading the league in rushing right now, and that, I think, is because of how much attention you have to pay to their passing game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Then they kill you with the running game. So they're very well balanced, and making the plays you need to win."
The Bucs' running game, meanwhile, has sunk from fifth in the NFL after four weeks to 18th after eight weeks (including a bye).
Tampa Bay is averaging 111.3 yards per game, but its numbers have dropped precipitously since the New York Jets game on September 24. Through the first four games, the Bucs were running the ball 36.3 times per game and gaining 133.8 yards per contest from it; in the last three, those averages have fallen to 22.3 carries and 81.3 yards.
The problem, as Tony Dungy sees it, is not specifically with the running game, but with the offense as a whole.
"We didn't run it poorly against Detroit, we just didn't have many runs," he said. "We had a one-play fumble in the second quarter, then we had a three-play drive where we ran on first down and threw on second and third and then the quarter was over. So we had one quarter with three runs, and that's not easy to overcome unless you're making first downs. That's what we have to do, make first downs. If we make enough, I think we'll get our run game going."
The Bucs had just 12 first downs in their loss to Detroit, exactly six in each half. They also did not convert a single third-down try after the second quarter. That made it more difficult for the team to spread the ball among not only Alstott and Dunn but the offense's other primary playmakers.
"It can be (difficult to spread the ball around), especially if you're not making first downs and don't have many plays," said Dungy. "But when you're making first downs and things are rolling pretty good, then you get a chance to use everyone. That's what was happening early in the year. In the last couple of weeks, we've kind of short-circuited because we haven't made our first downs."
Neither team exploded in the run game when the Bucs and Vikings got together for an eventual 30-23 Minnesota win in Minneapolis on October 9. The Vikings out-rushed the visitors 115 to 63, and both quarterbacks added significantly to the running game, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper gaining 35 yards and a touchdown and the Bucs' Shaun King countering with 22 yards and his own score.
That is not atypical of a Bucs-Vikings game, however, as Minnesota generally does whatever it takes to shut down Tampa Bay's rushing attack, the 246-yard day of 1998 not withstanding. The Bucs took to the air in Minnesota a few weeks ago, with King recording a season-high 295 passing yards. The Vikings are tied for 10th in the NFL against the run while the Bucs' run defense has taken a downturn similar to its run offense. After the Jets game, Tampa Bay was fifth against the run; now it is 13th.
"We're just not playing sharp," said Dungy. "To handle the running game, you've got to be on all elements. At least we do. We've got to have everybody involved, everybody where they're supposed to be, everybody tackling well, everybody playing with great intensity. When you're missing one of those elements, anywhere along the line - a guy being out of position, not where he's supposed to be, not tackling well, whatever – it only takes a little bit. That's where we are right now. We're a little bit off, and we've got to get that back."
Still, the raw elements for another rushing day in the 1998 vein seem to be there. The Bucs have the same pair of backs and an offensive line sporting two new Pro Bowl blockers – guard Randall McDaniel and center Jeff Christy. Tampa Bay's defense still sports such rugged run-stoppers as John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, with rising DT Anthony McFarland thrown in.
So how similar of an outcome can the Bucs force this Sunday?
"I don't know…I hope very similar," said Dungy. "They're playing well – that's similar – and we're playing hot and cold. We've been more cold than hot recently. We were a little bit more up-and-down in '98. But they're coming in with a very explosive team, and a team that hasn't lost, so it probably is very similar."
Dungy is certainly going to actively go after that type of game, because he knows the Bucs didn't sit back and wait in 1998.
"We played aggressively in that game," he said. "I think we will play a similar game, knowing we've got to put points on the board, keep our drives going and play better defensively."