QB Brad Johnson has shown an ability to lead a Buc comeback, but Tampa Bay wants to avoid early deficits by running the ball better
In 25 and a half seasons, no Tampa Bay Buccaneers passer had ever completed more than 31 passes in a game.
Thus, it seemed extremely odd to see Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson throw 40 completions on Sunday as the second half of the 26th Tampa Bay season got underway. Was it the beginning of a new era in Tampa?
Well, 57 passes in a game and 94 in the last two contests would be more than a new era in Tampa – it would be an evolutionary leap. The 56 passes thrown by Johnson against Chicago, which tied a team record, was three games worth for the Tony Dungy Buccaneers, literally. Late last fall, the Bucs threw a total of 48 passes in three consecutive games against Buffalo, Dallas and Miami, all victories.
Which brings us to the probable answer to the question above: No.
On Monday, Dungy was asked if he was comfortable with the Bucs' all-out aerial assault of recent weeks. In truth, not too many NFL head coaches would be, given that an ineffectual running game had all but made it necessary.
"No, we're not running the ball as well as we need to," said Dungy. "I think for us to win consistently down the stretch we're going to have to run it better. We threw the ball on first down, that was part of our plan going in, and we threw the ball well on first down. Then we got, really, three scores behind and we had to throw on just about every down. We're not going to win many games with 15, 18 yards rushing."
Given that game plan, it's obvious that the Bucs are not content to run on first and second down every series, but the quick passing strikes on first down are supposed to loosen up the defense for the run.
For instance, Tampa Bay started Sunday's game with a play-action pass to fullback Mike Alstott and picked up nine yards. However, Warrick Dunn's second-down sweep to the right met strong resistance and ended in a lost fumble. On the next drive, a first down pass over the middle to Karl Williams picked up 14 yards but Dunn's run on the next play lost one. Even after two unsuccessful runs, however, the Bucs likely would have fed it to Dunn repeatedly, waiting for that big play, but a large deficit developed and Tampa Bay was forced to the air.
"We're throwing the ball decently and we've got some pretty good receivers and a good quarterback," said Dungy. "But we've got two good backs and we've got good linemen. When we look at the running plays, there just seems to be a break down somewhere, everywhere. We had some break downs in the passing game, but we were able to overcome it. The runs, we haven't got going early in many of our games, and then when we make mistakes and fall behind, we have to throw. It's probably a combination of us not being sharp doing what we should do and then falling behind."
Both issues will be tested once again next Monday night when the Bucs visit the St. Louis Rams. Not only do the Rams have the league's fourth-best rushing defense, but they're capable of quickly putting an opponent in a hole. Tampa Bay fell behind the Rams three times in last year's Monday night thriller but were able to rally three times while racking up 446 yards of offense. It was a balanced Buc attack that night, however, as 205 rushing yards help set up 241 yards of passing.
With a string of fourth-quarter deficits this season, the Bucs have mounted their comebacks mostly through the air.
"Well, I don't know that we're going to win without being able to run the ball, but we have to move, whatever way that is," said Dungy. "If moving it through the air is the way to do it, then we have to do that. We have to move it and score points."
And perhaps that is the silver lining to the Bucs' 40 and 50-pass games of the season's first half – the team's confidence in Johnson's ability to move the team in crunch time is growing.
"Yes, we thought we had an excellent chance to win it when it was 27-24 and we got the ball back," said Dungy, referring to his late-game confidence in Johnson on Sunday. "I think we all had confidence that we were going to take it down and score. We had taken it down before the half, so, yes, we do feel good in that situation."
And a 57-pass day with only two sacks allowed, 33 of them in the second half when the Bears knew the Bucs had to throw, also builds confidence in an offensive line that struggled earlier in the season. In fact, Dungy was pleased with the team's blocking in both phases of the game, even if it did result in only 19 rushing yards.
"I thought we pass-blocked well," said Dungy. "We actually run-blocked decently on some plays, especially early in the game. We missed a couple holes with the backs, we missed a check in terms of which way we wanted to run the ball, and then you have a break down here or there. We were making some three and four-yard runs and making positive runs, then in the second half we just didn't get many opportunities."
Chances are, Johnson won't get many more opportunities to throw 56 passes in a single game as a Buccaneer. If he does, the Bucs are confident he'll make the most of them.