Receivers Keyshawn Johnson (19) and Jacquez Green (81) were primary targets against Detroit and Minnesota
After averaging 67.5 yards on the ground over the last two games, here is something you can expect to hear from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week: 'We have to re-establish the ground game.'
And it's certainly true. This isn't Air Coryell, this is Down-n-Dungy. Under Head Coach Tony Dungy, the Bucs believe in running the ball perhaps more than any team in the league, and they generally begin on the ground to set up the passing attack.
That being said, there just might be something in the air this Thursday and the following Sunday. A lot of footballs, that is.
Even if the Bucs do intend to air it out against Detroit and Minnesota over the next 13 days, Dungy and his staff wouldn't be likely to reveal the game plan. So we'll just have to rely on the numbers.
Against Detroit in September, under typical Silverdome decibel levels, the Bucs passed for 211 net yards. That is their second best total of the season, trailing only the 283 they posted in their most recent game, at Minnesota on October 9. Tampa Bay completed 44 of 71 passes (62.0%) in those two contests combined and didn't throw a single interception.
But it goes beyond just one pair of games. Since the beginning of the 1998 season, the Buccaneers have recorded over 200 net passing yards in 11 games; seven of those have been against either Detroit or Minnesota. That's a remarkable rate, considering that only 10 of the Bucs 38 games in that span have featured the Lions or Vikings as opponents.
Dungy believes the team-to-team familiarity within the NFC Central is the main reason for this surprising statistic.
"Knowing our division, and playing them twice a year, they come in geared up to stop us (on the run)," he said. "And we have a familiarity with them, so we have a good idea of how they're going to play us and what routes we can run. I think our quarterbacks are comfortable against them. It hasn't always translated into wins, but we have been able to throw the ball and move it."
Especially this year. Tampa Bay's two best total-yardage days have come against Detroit (331) and Minnesota (346), as have their two best completion-percentage games (60.0% against Detroit, 63.4% versus the Vikings). The Bucs' success in the passing game has also helped the team be much more proficient on third downs, converting 62.5% of tries against Detroit and 53.8% against the Minnesota.
With that recent history, you might expect one or both of these teams to come into town with a reversed approach these next two weeks. Coach Dungy would disagree.
"I don't know," he said skeptically. "It seems like they always come in and play us determined to take the running game away. So the games that we do throw well, we're effective. I think we're going to have to throw well to beat both of those teams."
That would be good news for the team's emerging pair of wideouts, Keyshawn Johnson and Jacquez Green. The Bucs' passing game against Detroit in September and Minnesota last week was much more than a series of short dumpoffs. Johnson and Green were the primary targets in the attack each of those two days, and they put up huge collective numbers.
In the Detroit and Minnesota games combined, Green caught 14 passes for 187 yards and Johnson snared another 13 for 155 yards. Johnson led the receivers in Detroit with a season-high eight receptions for 84 yards and believes the Bucs can duplicate that effort if they can recapture their early-season momentum.
"You just have to execute," said Johnson. "We were doing a better job back then. We were 3-0 and we were doing a good job offensively. If we can just build on that and look at some of the things we did against Detroit last time and try to capitalize on that, I think we'll be okay.
Add to the mix the fact that the Lions have experienced some injuries in the defensive backfield (no Detroit injury report had been released as of Monday), and you've got reason to believe that QB Shaun King will be a busy man on Thursday.
"Their secondary…guys have been banged up the last couple of weeks," said Johnson. "I don't know if (strong safety) Ron Rice will be playing, if (cornerback Terry) Fair's going to come back and play this week. We were able to do certain things in the passing game the last time we played them, so we look forward to getting back to some of those things. If we can do those things and just execute, we can put ourselves in a good position."
Without any definitive word out of Detroit, Dungy chooses to believe that Rice and Fair will be in the lineup on Thursday.
"He's a good player," said Dungy of Rice. "The word that we hear is that he may not be 100 percent but he's going to play. He's made plays against us, he's a good tackler, he's got a lot of range. We're expecting him to play and expecting him to be at full strength. Terry Fair got hurt in our game and missed a couple of games after that, but I see that he played last week. We're expecting them all."
While the Bucs and Lions are battling it out, perhaps through the air, the Vikings will be at home against the Buffalo Bills. If they can get past Buffalo, Minnesota will then come to Tampa with a 7-0 record on October 29, just as they did in 1998 on November 1. The Bucs knocked the Vikings off their unbeaten path that season, though mainly through the work of an explosive running attack. When Minnesota comes to town this year, they may have to deal with a resurgent passing attack. King recently said that he expected the Bucs' offense to be truly clicking by week eight.
Johnson thinks that timetable could be accurate. "As time goes on, I think you get a little more comfortable with the offense in general," he said. "Offenses are usually slow starters, especially now with a new offense. It's going to be a little slower than normal. You get a feel for what you're doing offensively and you just learn different things. Different people are running different routes than they're accustomed to. As the weeks go on, and the months go on and the games go on, you'll see a big difference between what people are doing in week two and what they're doing in week eight."