S John Lynch and the Bucs' defense is looking forward to the type of physical game the Steelers' excellent running game will breed
Despite what you might have seen in The Replacements, Keanu Reeves is not in the NFL, which means the entire league is still looking for someone to slow down The Bus.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to invade Tampa, both Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin have said the same thing – they can't remember a team averaging 192 rushing yards per game.
That's the Steelers' league-leading pace heading into their fifth game, and while it seems highly unlikely that they will maintain that incredible rate, it's telling that the second-place team on the rushing chart, San Francisco, is nearly 40 yards per game back.
And the man leading that incredible rushing charge is Jerome Bettis, a.k.a. The Bus. Just the 14th player in NFL history to surpass the 10,000-yard rushing mark – he did that during a 153-yard performance against Cincinnati in game three – Bettis has been described as 'rejuvenated' in 2001 even though he was far from washed up last season.
After rushing for 1,341 yards and eight touchdowns last season, Bettis has burst out of the gates with 407 yards through the first four games of this year. The biggest improvement is in his yards per carry, which are up from 3.8 last year to 5.4 so far this season.
"I think The Bus has bought some stock in Greyhound," said Sapp. "He's running. We're going to have to bring the big-boy pads this weekend. One guy's not going to bring him down."
That's partially because the 255-pound Bettis is such a load and partially because his running plays are concerted team efforts on the Steelers' part. Pittsburgh has decided that it will live and die with the rush and their offensive linemen are relishing the challenge.
"They're offensive line, they come at you with all kinds of different plays, different schemes, and they're really on it right now," said Bucs safety John Lynch. "They aren't mis-blocking a lot of fronts. They're aggressive. You can tell that the offensive line is enjoying blocking for the run. They're running 30 yards downfield. It's a great challenge."
The Bucs' defensive front has taken up the challenge of stopping the run since day one, and for the most part has found renewed success. After dropping from fifth to ninth in that category from 1999 to 2000, the Bucs are only 13th so far this season but have been hurt by mobile quarterbacks and a few big plays.
"We've actually been happy with how we've played the run," said Lynch. "We've got to continue that."
Pittsburgh Head Coach Bill Cowher believes the Bucs' run defense is strong, regardless of the rankings. Tampa Bay has allowed exactly 100 rushing yards per game so far.
"We are going to have to throw the ball probably more effectively this week if we are going to have any success because I think these guys are pretty stout up front," said Cowher. "We are going to have to be able to do that to loosen them up a little bit and then hopefully have the ability to stay close in this game and be persistent running it. We are still going to do our thing. We are not going to get away from that."
And that, above all else, is the uniqueness of the Steelers' rushing attack this season. The Bucs are convinced that the Steelers are being forthright when they say they are going to stick to the running game, even if the Bucs stuff it early. Not only has that strategy worked so far in 2001, but it has returned the Steelers to a semblance of their glory days of winning with defense and a running game.
"The mentality of it is the same," said Sapp, comparing the current Steelers to their decorated counterparts of the 1970s. "The blocking scheme hasn't changed. They get on angles and they put hats on you. It's the same running game that Franco Harris ran back in the '70s, and it's effective. We've got to be ready to roll."
Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy was a part of that glorious Steeler dynasty of the 1970s, winning a Super Bowl Championship ring with Pittsburgh after the 1978 season. He sees the old Steelers in the new.
"I think they play to their strength," said Dungy, noting that third-down back Amos Zereoue is also piling up the yardage at nearly seven yards per tote. "They've got two very good backs right now that are running well. They're both averaging well over five yards a carry. They have a quarterback that can run the ball. Their offensive line is built for that, and I think that's their mentality. I think they've gotten back to their identity and they've created an identity that they can run and no one can stop them."
Believe it or not, this might be just what the Bucs needed. After a week in which the defense has stressed a return to the fundamentals, the weekend is likely to bring a smash-mouth, fill-your-gap, body-on-body type of game. The Bucs think they are well-built for that type of contest.
"It bodes well for us," said Sapp. "Bring it on. That will put us back in our fundamentally sound defense, a rough, tough game like this one."