FB Mike Alstott consistently broke tackles at the line of scrimmage on Sunday, giving him room to run through the Minnesota secondary
Statistically, it wasn't the most eye-catching play of the game. It certainly was no more important than Mike Alstott's three touchdown runs, James Cannida's tackle of Cris Carter on a near-disastrous reverse-field run or a host of other big plays during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 41-14 annihilation of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
It was a simple 16-yard reception by RB Aaron Stecker midway through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fourth touchdown drive of the first half. It was, however, symbolic of everything that has changed since the last time the Bucs played Minnesota.
In the midst of a two-minute drill that displayed Tampa Bay's killer instinct on the day, QB Brad Johnson was nearly engulfed by a Vikings blitz near midfield. However, reminiscent of the sack-escaping heroics of Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper a month ago in the Metrodome, Johnson switched the ball to his free left arm and flipped it backhanded to Stecker a few yards away. Stecker took the pass and gained 16 yards for a first down, keeping the drive alive so that Johnson could eventually hit Dave Moore with a five-yard touchdown pass.
Pretty much everything else before and after went right for the Buccaneers. How right? After an opening-drive punt, Tampa Bay scored on seven straight possessions, rolling up a 41-8 lead.
"This is what we're capable of," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We just have to get to this all the time. This team has all the ingredients of a great team, but this was the first time we put offense, defense and special teams together in the same game. We need to keep that going.
"I'm proud of the guys."
It was undoubtedly the most complete team effort of the season for Tampa Bay, but if any one man put the Bucs on the path to victory early it was fullback Mike Alstott, playing tailback for the injured Warrick Dunn.
Alstott ran 28 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns, and nearly every carry began with a broken tackle at the line of scrimmage. It was his first 100-yard day since a November 7, 1999 game at New Orleans in which he picked up 117, but it might be more comparable to another Vikings game in Raymond James Stadium two seasons ago.
During the Bucs' successful late-season division-title push in 1999, Alstott had to carry the rushing load in a crucial Monday night game against Minnesota with Dunn out due to injury. He did so marvelously, picking up 95 yards to power the Bucs to a 24-17 victory. He did not score in that game, however, but Alstott does have another three-touchdown game on his resume – he had three of the Bucs' five touchdowns in a similarly lopsided 35-0 drubbing of Cincinnati in the 1998 season finale.
Dunn was out again on Sunday, suffering from a hamstring pull suffered a week ago. While Alstott's role is more geared towards fourth-down erosion of the defense when Dunn is healthy, he was on the sideline in a baseball cap before the fourth quarter began, with the game firmly in hand. Alstott's third touchdown, a 10-yard rumble up the middle in the third quarter, made sure of that.
Alstott also finished off the Bucs' first two drives, both teams turning what appeared to be runs defunct at the line of scrimmage into scoring plays.
The first came at the end of an eight-and-a-half minute drive in the first quarter, the longest in terms of time for the Bucs this season. After the Bucs converted two third downs and one fourth down to get to the eight, Alstott took a second down carry to the left, saw a tackler waiting and cut it back up the middle for a three-yard score.
The next time the Bucs' got their hands on the ball, it was almost all Alstott. The punishing back carried six times for 40 yards on the 66-yard drive, taking it in himself from six yards out. On this one, Alstott was momentarily stopped at the line, but broke three of a leg tackle and steamed straight up the gut for his 42nd career score.
His third touchdown came in the third quarter at the end of a 56-yard drive that he opened himself with an 18-yard burst around left end. This time it was third-and-one from the 10 and Alstott got much more than the first down, tying the team record for rushing touchdowns in a single game. It was his 43rd, putting him just four behind former Buccaneer great James Wilder on the team's all-time touchdown list.
In between the Bucs scored four more times, with two Martin Gramatica field goals and a touchdown each from Stecker and TE Dave Moore. Stecker scored on yet another third-down screen pass, this one executed just as it was drawn up. Johnson waited for the rush to arrive, then dumped it over the Vikings to the waiting back, who then weaved 35 yards through traffic for his first career score. As he neared the end zone, Stecker faked out cornerbacks Kenny Wright and Eric Kelly before running straight through safety Orlando Thomas for the last five yards, capping a 55-yard drive.
Minnesota's third straight three-and-out possession followed, setting up Johnson's flip to Stecker and a brilliant two-minute drill.
When the smoke cleared, the Bucs had a 28-0 halftime lead, tying for the third-best first-half scoring day in team history.
The Bucs' first half was surely the most dominant in recent memory, more impressive than anything the team did in a 41-13 dismantling of the Vikings almost a year ago to the day. Drink in the numbers, which need no interpretation: 297 yards for the Bucs to the Vikings' 44; 20 first downs to zero; 16 completions to four; five third down conversions to zero; 46 plays to 13; 23 minutes of possession to seven.
And the Bucs did all of that without the benefit of a single turnover. The first takeaway came in the third quarter, as S Dexter Jackson's acrobatic sideline interception of a Culpepper pass set up the second of Gramatica's field goals, a 48-yarder. The Bucs' third-year kicker was also true from 44 yards on the team's first drive of the second half.
The outstanding efficiency of the Bucs' offense nearly overshadowed an inspired defensive performance. The Vikings hand an opportunity to put the Bucs in an early hole when a fumbled kickoff and a short punt gave the visitors an opening drive at the Tampa Bay 48. The Bucs' defense, which had allowed Minnesota to convert on nine of 12 third downs last month, forced a three-and-out and went on to turn away the reverse number of third downs this time, as Minnesota converted on three of 12 tries.
The Bucs' 41 points tied for the third highest in team history and might have equaled the 14-year old record of 48 had the Bucs not politely kneeled four times from the Vikings' five as the clock ran out.
No matter. There are still plenty of team and individual accolades to go around. Tampa Bay rolled up 446 yards of offense, more than twice the 192 they allowed. The 177 rushing yards were a welcome sight for a team that came into the game surprisingly ranked 30th in the league in ground gain, but it did more than revive the rushing game. As expected, a real rushing threat opened up the rest of the offense, as Johnson and backup Shaun King, who played the fourth quarter, combined for 20-of-28 passing, 276 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
WR Reidel Anthony, starting for an injured Jacquez Green, caught two passes for 21 yards but also picked up 16 yards on a critical end-around run on which he avoided two tacklers in the backfield. Stecker had 81 combined rushing and receiving yards and third receiver Karl Williams caught four passes for 80 yards. Usual offensive focal point Keyshawn Johnson caught five passes for 62 yards but had to leave the game at the end of the second quarter with a knee contusion.
Buccaneers.com provided detailed reports at the end of each quarter, complete with descriptions of all the key plays. For a closer look at the ebb and flow of the Bucs' dominant victory over the Vikings, find those reports below.
First Quarter Report