DT Anthony McFarland's return has helped the Bucs' improve their run defense by leaps and bounds
Yes, this Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium will be the first regular-season convergence of former Auburn tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Brown and Williams were the second and fifth picks, respectively, in last April's draft, and both have given their new teams an immediate boost in the running game.
A funny thing might happen along the way to that expected Tiger track meet. See, this game also features something else of great significance when it comes to the ground game: The top two rushing defenses in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams' team, have allowed only 61.6 rushing yards per game through five contests, easily the best mark in the league. A bit farther behind but still the second-best on the chart is Brown's team, the Miami Dolphins. Miami, under new Head Coach Nick Saban, has allowed just 82.0 rushing yards per game.
And it's not like either team has faced a collection of running-game patsies. The Bucs have already had to contend with Willis McGahee, Ahman Green, Curtis Martin and Kevin Jones. The Dolphins have also gone up against McGahee and Martin, not to mention Stephen Davis. Brown and Williams may have the big days everyone is hoping for, but they'll have to earn every yard.
The Bucs have improved their run defense from the bottom half of the league in 2004 to this year's best by adding DT Chris Hovan, getting DT Anthony McFarland and S Jermaine Phillips back from injury and committing to sound, 11-man play within the scheme. The Dolphins, who ranked 31st against the run last year, have some new personnel as well – DT Keith Traylor, DE Kevin Carter, LB Channing Crowder, Ss Lance Schulters and Tebucky Jones – but a good deal of their improvement can probably be traced to the arrival of Saban and his interesting schemes.
"Well I will tell you this, they might have the best defense I've seen," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They are very, very good on defense. They have a unique style now under Nick Saban. It's a three-man line, it's a four-man line, and Jason Taylor is here, there, and everywhere. Zach Thomas, (Junior) Seau, and (Sam) Madison – they've got guys who know how to play defense. And they'll get after you."
In fact, the numbers might suggest another defensive struggle in Raymond James Stadium, pitting the first and fourth-ranked squads overall, because both the Bucs and Dolphins are still searching for consistent production on offense. Tampa Bay ranks 19th in the league and has struggled in the last two weeks with little contribution from the injured Williams. The Dolphins rank 17th and have been much more productive at home (61 points in two games) than on the road (21 points in two games).
The Bucs, however, believe the pieces are in place for an explosive offense, and evidence of that has shown up in big games by Williams, WR Joey Galloway and TE Alex Smith. Injuries to Williams and WR Michael Clayton, last year's breakout rookie, have caused some problems but haven't dimmed the team's overall confidence in its attack. Perhaps the most encouraging development has been improved play on the offensive line, which has been a trouble spot for the Bucs in recent years.
The Dolphins, too, have a significant number of offensive weapons playing behind a slightly rebuilt offensive line. Right tackle Vernon Carey and right guard Rex Hadnot are 2004 draft picks and opening-day starters for the first time. They're helping protect much-traveled veteran QB Gus Frerotte so that Frerotte can utilize a deep backfield and a stable of big, physical pass-catchers.
"The return of Ricky Williams…Ronnie Brown…they have a great tight end, (Randy) McMichael," said Gruden, ticking off some of the Dolphin weapons. "(Chris) Chambers and (David) Boston can hurt you. And (Marty) Booker is a good receiver as well."
Gruden pointed out that the Dolphins, while 4-12 last season, have been one of the NFL's most consistent winners over the last decade. In fact, they had been over .500 for seven straight years before 2004 and had averaged 10 wins a season during that span. That period, 1997-2003, also coincides with the Bucs' return to prominence, which began with a 5-0 start to the season in '97.
Though theirs has always been an emotionally-charged rivalry, the Bucs and Dolphins met only twice during that seven-year period. Both games were significant. The first was a 31-21 victory for the Buccaneers at home, the fourth win in that 5-0 start that propelled the team to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. The second meeting was in Miami, in a driving rainstorm, which the Bucs won 16-13 in December to pave the way to another playoff spot.
The Buccaneers could be forgiven for thinking that this weekend's game is critical, as well. After the Dolphins leave town, Tampa Bay will have only a bye week and a cross-country trip to San Francisco before the intra-division games start popping up on the schedule. A 4-1 start is nice, but the Bucs would love to have five or six wins when the Carolina Panthers come to town on November 6.
That's our analysis, of course. Buccaneer players and coaches are surely not looking ahead to November, knowing that a formidable opponent is on the docket this Sunday.
"They are a team that I think were characterized as not very good by some people because of their win-loss record a year ago," said Gruden. "But in the last six or seven years they are closer to the top with the most victories in all of football. It will be a challenge for us, no question about it. We plan on playing much better."