FB Mike Alstott and the Bucs have seen better running days, and believe they will again
Six minutes into the second quarter in Washington, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had done little on offense when they got the ball back on their own 13. The Bucs' first five drives had produced a total of 16 yards and no first downs.
Suddenly, the Bucs were moving the ball. Three completions by QB Brad Johnson in the span of four plays put the ball at the 35, where the visitors faced a very non-threatening second-and-one situation.
That's when Washington sent in the dogs.
Specifically, the Redskins ran a 'run dog,' a blitz of sorts that sends extra attackers shooting to the spot the defense believes the offense will try to run the ball. The 'Skins read it right, and Mike Alstott's attempt to get the first down by barreling over left guard had no chance. He was met by a wall of blockers a yard deep in the backfield.
Now it was third down, and when Walt Harris stuck to Tim Brown and knocked away a short pass, the drive was over. The Bucs wouldn't score again on offense.
Not many of Tampa Bay's running plays went as expected on Sunday, and some of that was due to the aggressiveness and tight execution of the Washington defense. Backed by a howling throng of 90,000 fans, the Redskins were very quick to the ball on Buccaneer running plays, whether blitzing or not. A good portion of it, however, was a lack of execution by Tampa Bay.
That doesn't mean the Bucs' running game is necessarily in dire straits. Head Coach Jon Gruden believes the offense has the versatility to handle such situations; they just failed to do so on opening day.
"We just did not take advantage of some of the looks we had hoped to take advantage of," said Gruden. "Run blitzing and blitzing period can be a detriment to any kind of running game. That's something that we have to recognize better and we have to do a better job of next week."
The Bucs gained only 30 yards on 15 carries against the Redskins. Thirteen of the 15 runs went for three yards or less, and eight went for one yard or less. Even with Joey Galloway out for four to six weeks, there's reason to believe the Bucs will be able to pass the ball well. They finished sixth in the league in passing last year, the protection was at times quite good in the opener and Johnson still has very good touch. But the Bucs have to be significantly more successful on the ground in the coming weeks if they want to recapture their playoff presence.
And the job of fixing the running game falls on everyone involved.
"We need to do a better job of running the ball period," said Gruden. "Our backs have to be more disciplined. Our blocking from right to left needs to be better. Our lead back needs to be better. And we've got to give our guys some better diagrams, too. So it's the combination of all those things. The execution. It's calling the right play in the right situation. We've got to have success when we run the ball."
As interesting as Gruden's passing game is, it's obvious he would be happy to run the ball all day if it were successful. He repeatedly tried to get the offense into shorter-yardage situations on Sunday by running the ball first. In fact, the Bucs started three of their first five drives, and seven of 13 overall, with a run. None of those drive-starting runs was particularly successful, however, so the offense faced a lot of second-and-nines and third-and-10s.
"We can't go from one yard, two yards, zero yards in repeated situations," said Gruden. "We've got to stay committed to it and that's what we're going to make an effort to do this week.
"Our first down success rate has to be much improved for us to ever become, I think, a purely balanced team and a really good rushing team. Like I said, it's all of us, we have to do a much better job as a staff, and as a football team executing on the early downs."
The Bucs had the lowest rushing total of any team in the league in the first week. After signing running back Charlie Garner, fullback Greg Comella and offensive linemen Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie and Matt Stinchcomb, the team expected more. And they still do. The Bucs aren't pleased with their slow start on the ground, but they still believe the attack will come together.
"I'm going to be concerned until we start showing some rhythm, some balance, some good mixture in terms of how we attack," said Gruden. "It's been a tough preseason given that fact that we haven't had any of our guys together for any extended period of time. It's our first game together. It's the first time Mike Alstott has gone wire-to-wire at fullback in about a year. It's something we have to learn from and we have to grow from this game. I am confident that we can do that."
Defending the Home Front
Just as it did two years ago, the Bucs' season-opener proved to be a disappointing start. In 2002, however, the Bucs' first-game loss was at home, as they dropped a 26-20 overtime decision to the visiting New Orleans Saints.
This year, the Bucs still have an opportunity to win their first home game. After going 3-5 at Raymond James Stadium last year – a shocking development, considering the team had been 30-10 at home in the first five years after the stadium opened – the Bucs are determined to do much better on their own turf in 2004.
"It's been a primary emphasis of our team to play much better at home, for our fans," said Gruden. "[We need to] take advantage of our stadium, our setting here and put our best foot forward. We've got to do that. We need the help, there's no question, from our fans. We know they're going to be there for us. We have to give them a reason to get involved in this game. That involves offense, defense and special teams for 60 minutes."
The Bucs proved in 2002 that you could rebound from a season-opening loss and still realize all of your dreams for the season. It's not the recommended path, however, and it will certainly lead to some soul-searching this week at One Buccaneer Place.
"There are 16 teams that are 0-1," said Gruden. "You don't ever want to underestimate defeat. Defeat is humbling. Whether it is the opening game, or the last game, or a playoff game or pre-season it is a humbling feeling. And it will take us time to get over it. You re-access, re-energize, re-focus and get ready to go."