G Dan Buenning and the Bucs' offensive line has proved to be particularly strong in the fourth quarter this season
It was 59-and-a-half minutes into regulation on Saturday afternoon and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed about a foot to ensure they would get another 15 minutes on the clock.
Fourth-and-one, officially, at the Atlanta six, the Bucs trailing the Falcons 27-20 with 31 seconds to play. The home team needs a touchdown to tie, but first they have to make sure they get a foot, or the game is over. The most common call here is a sneak by the quarterback, but that is also putting your fate into the hands of player who isn't used to blasting for yardage between the tackles.
Head Coach Jon Gruden never hesitated on the play call, and it was a simple us-against-them decision, no trickery in the matter. We'll send our running back, Cadillac Williams, over left tackle. You see if you can stop him.
More often than not this year, the Buccaneers have won that very battle in the latter stages of the game. In fact, you could argue that Tampa Bay's fourth-quarter prowess on the ground, its push in the elemental battle between two big lines at the point of attack, has been one of the main reasons all those close losses in 2003 and 2004 have turned into comeback wins in 2005.
The Bucs didn't even use a timeout before that fourth-down call. Once the referees spotted the ball after Joey Galloway's nine-and-a-half yard catch on third-and-10 and started the clock, the Bucs ran up to the line and quarterback Chris Simms took the handoff several yards back to give it to Williams. The rookie back darted left, met no immediate resistance and would have easily fallen forward for the first down had he continued forward. However, he also saw the end sealed off, so he scooted diagonally to the pylon and ran in untouched for the game-tying score.
Williams got the glory, and deservedly so on a 150-yard afternoon that made him the top rookie rusher in franchise history, but he knew he didn't do it alone.
"They need as much praise as I need," said Williams of his blockers, who also allowed only two inconsequential sacks of Simms, none in the fourth quarter or overtime. "Those guys just paved the way. It did feel great, but this is a team victory and we control our own destiny."
In overtime, after a brief hiccup that included a fumbled kickoff return and then a blocked field goal by the Buccaneers, the formula remained the same.
After the block, Tampa Bay took over on its own 31 and didn't even think about putting the ball in the air. Gruden called four straight running plays and each time the Bucs' line blasted Atlanta's tiring front wall several yards off the ball. Williams and Michael Pittman ran well, but they had a full head of steam and were past the line of scrimmage before they got hit on carries of 11, eight, six and three yards. That took the Bucs into Atlanta territory before Simms finally hooked up with Galloway on a 30-yard pass (it was an audible, by the way) to get the ball down to the nine.
The Bucs missed the ensuing field goal, but they drove the ball effectively two more times and eventually won on Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds left. The Bucs, in fact, rang up 134 yards in one overtime period and it was clear that the offensive line was dominating the game at that point.
"Their will to win right now is what's pushed us over the edge, as far as I'm concerned," said Simms. "They're workhorses, they really are. Especially the young guys like [Dan] Buenning and Anthony Davis who haven't played and haven't played a lot of snaps until this year. They're just extremely cohesive. They're a very close group, always joking, always playing."
Simms says the offensive linemen often gang up on him during the week, riding him constantly and basically making every joint meeting five-and-one. But it is Simms who starts what we should have done at the top of this account, naming those men up front. Davis and Buenning, a first-time starting tackle and a rookie guard, respectively, make up the left side of the line. John Wade is the veteran stalwart at center. And third-year player Sean Mahan and former first-round pick Kenyatta Walker make up the right side.
There are actually nine members of the Bucs' offensive line, including reserves Todd Steussie, Jeb Terry, Chris Colmer and Scott Jackson, but we focus on those starting five because, amazingly, they have been together the entire season. The Bucs are one of only four teams in the NFL that has had the same five players start every game along the line, and not surprisingly all four are either in the playoffs already or are strong contenders – Denver, Seattle, Carolina and the Bucs.
That's an impressive and somewhat surprising streak for the Bucs' line, given that 60% of it is comprised of, essentially, first-time starters. Davis was barely on the radar outside of team headquarters when training camp began, Mahan had just spent the second half of 2004 as the starting center, and Buenning, while a fourth-round prospect the team had high hopes for, was likely to spend his rookie season learning the ropes as a reserve.
But that fivesome jelled during a training camp in which almost every offensive lineman suffered an injury of some kind or another, creating opportunities, and they hit the ground running. With the offensive line opening big holes, Williams rushed for an NFL-record 434 yards in his first three games.
And they stayed healthy, which is a testament to both luck and toughness. In the NFL, "healthy" means "not injured too much to play." Walker and Davis have fought through nagging injuries and Wade has shown no signs of being slowed down by the catastrophic knee injury he sustained in 2004.
"They've fought through little injuries all year long," said Simms. "Anthony Davis has been banged up, Kenyatta [Walker]'s been banged up, I'm sure they're all banged up."
Wade downplays the injuries that he and his mates play through, but the courage of these men in dealing with pain would probably surprise some fans.
"It's not like that's any big deal," he said. "Go to any team – if you're not hurt you probably haven't been playing. Some people are unfortunate. I was unfortunate last year; it was not something I could play through. Sometimes there are injuries you can play with, and there are injuries you can't play with. Fortunately for us, a lot of guys have had just little nicks they've been able to fight through, and I think it's helped us tremendously from a continuity standpoint."
The Bucs' stamina hasn't been just a week-to-week issue, either. The Bucs have commonly been the stronger team in the closing minutes this season, and maybe that's why they're 6-3 in games decided by seven points or less after being 2-8 last year. The statistics back up the general impression that the Bucs' offensive line has been a force with the game on the line this year.
Consider that Tampa Bay has allowed only seven sacks in the fourth quarter or overtime all season, and four of those came in the 15-10 loss at San Francisco. In their 10 wins, the Bucs have allowed only one sack in the fourth quarter or overtime. Simms has had time to make the right decisions with the game on the line, and that has helped him germinate a reputation for comeback prowess.
The Bucs have also rushed for an average of 36 yards per game in the fourth quarter and overtime this year, an outstanding number. In their 10 wins, they've rushed for 52 yards per game in the fourth quarter and overtime. Yes, those numbers are inflated by the fact that a team is going to run more when it has the lead, but one also has to be successful running the ball to adequately protect those leads. Look to the Green Bay and Carolina road games as perfect examples of that dynamic.
Williams has impressed with his stamina this year, both in terms of the full season and specific games, but he's had help from a front line that likes to exert itself in the late going.
"I think our offensive team [gets] stronger, too," said Gruden. "I thought the line came off the ball. [Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach] Bill Muir's done an excellent job, he and [Senior Assistant] Aaron Kromer."
They seem to be saving their best for last. Remember the Bucs merely trying to run the clock down and kick a field goal at Carolina, before Williams broke free for a 10-yard touchdown run on third-and-nine? He was in the second level of the Carolina defense before anyone could blink. The closing power the Bucs' offensive line showed in Charlotte and at home against Atlanta paved the way for the two biggest wins of the year.
It has also vaulted Williams over 1,000 yards and given the Bucs momentum heading into the postseason, if they can finish up the necessary qualifications.
"Obviously he's a great talent, but I think we've opened holes for him at times," said Wade. "At the same time, I think he's made us better at times when things looked bleak as far as the holes. But it's a group thing. It's us working for him and him working for us and obviously it's worked out well."