In the Bucs' case, they made need Bruce Gradkowski and the passing game to set up Cadillac Williams and the running attack, instead of the other way around
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden would prefer to run the football a lot more. In fact, if he had his way and it would work, he'd run the ball on every down. However, with a rookie quarterback leading Gruden's offense, teams have been determined to stop Tampa Bay's running game and force the Buccaneers to beat them through the air.
That's a trend that should continue Sunday when the (2-5) Buccaneers take on the (5-2) New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium in their second meeting of the season.
"I think a lot of defenses want to put the ball in my hands – let me make plays," said that rookie QB, Bruce Gradkowski. "But hey, there are definitely plays out there to be made."
Sunday, the Buccaneers will have to make those plays. It's like John Madden has often said: sometimes the pass has to set up the run.
With a rookie quarterback, that may hold truer than ever.
Today's defenses are talented enough and prepared well enough to take away certain aspects of an offense if they are determined to do so. That works until an offense makes them pay for it by exploiting whatever else has been opened up accordingly. And that's exactly what Gradkowski and his group of receivers must do in order to find success against a quick, swarming Saints defense.
That's not to say the Buccaneers won't lean on running back Cadillac Williams. He's still the team's biggest offensive threat, but when the defense is stacked to stop him, his fellow offensive teammates must step up. Against the New York Giants last week, the Bucs struggled to do that. A number of untimely dropped passes prevented the Buccaneers' aerial attack from finding its rhythm and led to a limited role for Williams as the team fell behind by two scores early in the game.
"I'd like to run it every play, not have to throw it, because it's the safest way to win," Gruden said. "But when you're going to get the kind of defense that we saw [against the Giants] that's dead-set on making you do something you don't want to do, you're going to have to throw the ball at some point in time to make people play honest. You can't bring a double-corner blitz and drop both defensive tackles and bring perimeter pressure over and over again and expect to run the ball with tremendous success. We're going to have to make some plays in the passing game to take advantage of the style of defenses that we're seeing."
Against the Saints, Gradkowski has a chance to do just that. Though the Saints boast the second-ranked pass defense in the NFC, the Baltimore Ravens last week found success against them with a short, quick passing attack and the mobility of quarterback Steve McNair. After the loss to the Ravens, Saints defenders said they were surprised by how early and often the Ravens threw against them.
Furthermore, Gradkowski has already seen the Saints once this season. In fact, he had his bet outing as a starting quarterback against New Orleans in a game that was nothing less than his first start in the NFL. In that road game, Gradkowski completed 20 of 31 passes and threw for two touchdowns, finishing the contest with a 107.6 passer rating. For a rookie quarterback who seemingly faces a new defense each week, having already once seen the schemes of the Saints defense should prove beneficial.
"I think it's definitely going to help knowing that we've played this team already," Gradkowski said. "I've faced the guys out there. I've faced this defense, so it's going to be a little easier preparing this week, but it's never easy. You've got to continue to work hard and prepare hard. You never know what can happen."
Take last week for instance. On the road and in a wind-filled Giants Stadium, Gradkowski somehow managed to place at least three potentially big passes in the hands of his receivers. Any of them might have changed the momentum of the game. Any of them had the possibility of loosening up the Giants' stiff run defense, so that Williams could get something going on the ground. Any of them could have resulted in a score. Instead, none were caught and the Buccaneers' offense remained hemmed in, ultimately only scoring three points. That's something Gruden says can't happen if the Buccaneers are going to be successful.
"When you get guys wide open down the football field three or four times, that will end the blitzing right away when you make those plays," Gruden said. "We all know that, and until we answer the bell and respond better, we're going to continue to see some exotic looks and some exotic fronts and coverages and blitzes. And they're going to make it tough on us."
Gradkowski agrees and remains undeterred by the recent offensive woes. What keeps him and his coach particularly optimistic is the fact that the Buccaneers' offense hasn't been stopped as much as it has shot itself in the foot.
"There are definitely some plays downfield to be made on everyone's part," Gradkowski said. "I need to throw better balls out there – the wind is not an excuse. We just have to make plays and make it happen. We just have to find ways to make it happen."
If they can, the Saints defense will be forced to respect the pass, thereby loosening up their run defense. That's when Williams has a chance for a big day on the ground, and the Buccaneers have a chance to regain the offensive balance that has recently eluded them.