The Bucs certainly tried to establish the run on Saturday, handing off to Cadillac Williams on seven of their first eight first downs
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran the ball only 18 times among 59 plays on Saturday against the New England Patriots. The final score was as lopsided as that run-pass balance, and it dropped the Bucs to 3-20 over the last five seasons in games in which they fail to run the ball more than 20 times.
The running-play and victory numbers go up together on the chart. In games with 21-30 runs over the same span, the Bucs are 19-15. When they've run it 31-40 times, they're 17-2. And when they've managed more than 40 carries, they're 3-0.
Of course, there is a very serious cause-and-effect confusion here. Take the Bucs' 17-16 win at Green Bay in Week Three. Tampa Bay ran the ball 41 times for 161 yards in that contest, but they had just 18 carries for 48 yards in the first half while building a 17-13 lead. As the visitors tried to protect that lead in the second half, they were willing to let Cadillac Williams carry the ball over and over as long as he remained effective and the Bucs remained on top.
And, yes, it worked the opposite way in Foxborough. A frustrating series of events just before halftime put the Bucs down by three touchdowns and forced them to abandon the rushing attack in the second half. Tampa Bay ran on only six of its 32 plays after the intermission, as the clock increasingly became its enemy.
But, all that said, it would be a mistake to say that the Bucs' running game only went away against the Patriots after it became impractical. Tampa Bay was obviously intent on establishing the run in the first half, as evidenced by the fact that they handed off to Williams on seven of their first eight first downs. In this case, the Patriots' stifling of the Bucs' running game was a big reason for that large first-half deficit, which in turn led to more offensive imbalance by necessity.
"I think the longest run we had was a four-yard gain," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That's not going to help you really get a lot sustained. We got destroyed on a third-and-one play in the first half, a play that is a trademark play for us. We didn't knock people off the ball [Saturday] like we had in previous weeks. It's a credit to New England and it's certainly something that we've got to raise our hand and say, 'Hey, we did not do a good enough job.'"
Gruden's memory was accurate; the Bucs longest run was a four-yarder, and that was also the team's second-to-last carry, by Michael Pittman four minutes into the fourth quarter. None of Williams' 14 carries went for more than three yards, though he seemed to be running as hard as he had in averaging 102 yards per game over the previous four contests.
Given that the Bucs' formula for success in winning five of its first seven road games – strong running game, solid defense and turnovers – was right there on videotape for the opponents to see, it's safe to assume stopping Williams was a top priority for the Patriots. A return to health by some of New England's stars had helped that team rise from 27th to 11th in the league's run defense rankings over a five week period, and it was clicking on all cylinders against the Buccaneers.
"I'll say this about [Richard] Seymour: He has been hurt, he has not been playing much earlier in the season – he's a great player," said Gruden of the Patriots' Pro Bowl defensive lineman. "He certainly was a disruptive force yesterday. [Vince] Wilfork, the nose guard, was very disruptive, very physical. He shocked us on some plays. Their linebackers are very physical in the hole, very instinctive."
Still, the Bucs went into Gillette Stadium expecting to be able to run the ball, just as they did six days earlier on Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium. Carolina has the league's fourth-best run defense, but Williams stung it for 112 yards and two touchdowns and the Bucs handed off 36 times.
Thus, Tampa Bay feels as if the stall in its running game in Foxborough's cold was an equal dose of their own stumbling and the Patriots' stifling front seven.
"Well, I'd say it had a lot to do with both yesterday," said Gruden. "We weren't outnumbered. It wasn't like they were doing things they hadn't done or we didn't try to prepare for. We have to isolate what we did wrong and improve on it this week."
Indeed, the Bucs used the run to beat Atlanta five weeks ago at the Georgia Dome, gaining 140 yards on 27 carries. Tampa Bay has lost only once this year when it has managed to rush for at least 100 yards, but they're 2-4 when they fail to reach double digits.
In other words, the Bucs quite literally need to go on a playoff run over the next two weeks.
What to Root For
On Monday, for the first time this season, the Buccaneers appeared on the NFL's list of official playoff scenarios.
Readers of Playoff Watch 2005 will know that the Bucs are guaranteed a playoff spot and at least the fifth seed with victories in their last two games. In fact, the division title is still within reach if two Buc wins are paired with at least one Carolina loss.
However, the NFL's weekly list of scenarios concerns itself only with those teams that can clinch a playoff berth – or some other playoff advantage, like a division title or a first-round bye – during the upcoming weekend of play. The Bucs cannot clinch a spot merely by winning, but they can punch their ticket with a combination of outcomes on Saturday and Sunday.
Basically, it comes down to a Buccaneer win coupled with losses by any two of the following three teams: Dallas, Minnesota and Washington. (Forgive us if we ignore the "tie" scenarios, as there has been only one tie in the NFL in the last eight years and we don't expect to see one over the next 13 days.)
The reason that scenario puts the Bucs into the playoffs is actually pretty straightforward:
1) Beating Atlanta would give the Bucs 10 wins and mean the Falcons could not get more than nine; and, after that…
2) Losses by any two of Dallas, Minnesota and Washington would mean that, at most, six teams in the NFC could reach 10 wins.
Here is the specific way in which the NFL presents its playoff math, as it applies to the Buccaneers in Week 16:
Tampa Bay can clinch playoff berth with:
1) TB win DAL loss or tie WAS loss or tie, OR 2) TB win DAL loss or tie MIN loss or tie, OR 3) TB win WAS loss or tie MIN loss or tie.
Carolina, which leads the Bucs in the division by one game, can qualify for the postseason on their own, simply by winning this weekend against Dallas (which would also, ironically, do the Bucs a favor in those above scenarios). The Panthers can win the division if they win and the Bucs lose.
A Leg Up in the Voting
The NFL will not reveal its 2006 Pro Bowl rosters until Wednesday, but it gave a hint as to some of the players you might see in the all-star game by releasing its on-line and wireless fan voting numbers on Monday.
The list of top vote-getters provided on Monday should not be confused with an early announcement of Pro Bowlers. The NFL determines its all-star rosters by combining the composite votes of its fans, its coaches and its players. Thus, players could do well in one portion of the voting and still miss the Pro Bowl if neglected in the other two.
Still, it should be considered a very good sign to win the on-line fan voting, and that is good news for Buccaneer punter Josh Bidwell.
Bidwell led all NFL punters in the balloting, drawing 236,305 votes. The AFC's leader was Denver's Todd Sauerbrun, who got 176,240 votes. Bidwell is aiming for his first Pro Bowl berth and, if he gets it, would become the first Buccaneer punter ever to make the all-star game.
Bidwell leads all NFL punters with a gross average of 45.7 yards per kick. He has had at least one punt of 50 or more yards in 13 of the Bucs' 14 games and has dropped 20 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line.