T Anthony Davis has had good practice-field preparation for such premier rushers as Jason Taylor
Offensive linemen, no matter how accomplished, always have the slimmest bios in the team media guide. The problem: no stats.
When assessing an O-lineman's performance statistically, one can basically point to team rushing stats and the number of sacks allowed as barometers of success, and even those are hard to pin on any specific individual.
On the other hand, when it comes to critiquing a lineman, those stats suddenly become concrete. If the left defensive end had two sacks, then surely the right tackle struggled. If the running game gained just 75 yards, then surely there was no push up front.
And, if you lose, those stats are magnified several times over.
Thus, we head into Week Six of the 2005 season, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sporting an NFC-best 4-1 record, and there are rumblings about the team's left tackle, Anthony Davis.
Those rumblings are based on the three sacks the Bucs allowed against the New York Jets and the 84 rushing yards they gained in that 14-12 loss, in which starting tailback Cadillac Williams did not play. Davis' bio is particularly slim – this is his first starting gig – so he's not likely to get the benefit of the doubt.
Ah, but there's something you should know about NFL offensive lineman. There's one thing that's more important to every trench-dweller than any stat that can be concocted to judge his performance: His coach's confidence.
Davis has that.
"I like him," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden of the 6-4, 329-pound mauler. "We had a few sacks last week and a lot of those were pinned on him, and if you look at the film, that's not justifiably the case. He's had a couple penalties, a couple negative downs, but he's helped us tremendously in the running game. He gives us a chance to knock somebody off the ball and be an effective rushing team. His pass protection's getting better. He is playing with an injured shoulder and I think he's getting better, also."
In fairness to those who would be critiquing Davis' play this week, there's a good reason to be focusing on the left tackle. Next up for the Buccaneers' pass-protectors: pass-rushing dynamo Jason Taylor.
Taylor has 67 sacks since the beginning of the 2000 season, more than any other NFL player other than Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. He is lean, muscular and ridiculously quick, the very definition of a speed rusher of the edge.
At least, that's the easy definition for Taylor, who stands 6-6 and runs 255 pounds. A couple of Bucs say the danger is even greater than that.
"Guys tend to think they can get into him, and since he's light they can move him around," said tight end Anthony Becht, who had his run-ins with Taylor as a New York Jet for five years. "That's really not the case. He's a very strong, quick player, and he knows what his weakness can be. And he turns it into a positive for himself. He has a good very technique, really just good, quick feet. He's a tough player to block and go against."
As troublesome as Taylor has been – he had a critical sack/forced fumble in the Bucs-Dolphins preseason game – Gruden thinks he might be even more dangerous in the defensive system implemented by new Head Coach Nick Saban.
"He's playing all over the field, you don't know where he's going to be anymore," said Gruden. "His energy level is supreme. He's got a fantastic motor. He can rush the passer. I've seen him run down the field and cover receivers down the seam in two-deep. This guy's a phenomenal football player. What can I say? We've got to deal with him and we'd better be ready for him."
Since Davis plays left tackle, he's the first man who must be ready for Taylor. But Davis won't deserve all the credit if Taylor is shut out, just like he wouldn't be the only one responsible if the Dolphin end had a big day.
"He isn't going to be over Anthony all the time," said Gruden. "I've seen him play middle linebacker in this 32-nickel-rover package they have. He's all over the field. This guy's going to line up over somebody and challenge him. At the end of the day, we'd better respond to the challenges that he presents."
Davis is a first-year starter, but he's not exactly green. He's already stood up to a long list of challenges, not the least of which was the Bucs' own defensive linemen in training camp. After all, if Davis can block Simeon Rice, he can handle just about anybody.
"Everybody in this league is good," said Davis. "Everybody that I have faced is good, even in practice. I just have to keep working hard and get excited to play ball, that's all."
Getting His Leg Into It
Punter Josh Bidwell is proving that his preseason prowess was no fluke. He is well on his way to a career season and has established himself among the league leaders in gross and net punting.
Bidwell's latest effort was one of the best single-game punting performances in franchise history. In fact, his gross average of 51.8 yards on five punts marked the highest average ever by a Buccaneer punter in a game played outside.
Those five punts came in the swirling winds of the Meadowlands, against the Jets on Sunday. The only two single-game averages that topped Bidwell's effort were the twin 52.0-yard games Tom Tupa put up in New Orleans' Superdome on December 1, 2002 and December 7, 2003.
Two weeks ago, Bidwell was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week following a big day in his former home, Green Bay's Lambeau Field. Bidwell averaged 47.3 yards gross and 40.2 yards net on six punts in the Bucs' 17-16 win, making an enormous difference in a game that hinged on field position.
Through the first five games of 2005, Bidwell has compiled a gross average of 47.7 yards per punt, the second-highest mark in the league behind that of Minnesota's breakthrough rookie Chris Kluwe (48.8). Bidwell also ranks fourth in the NFC and 10th in the NFL with a net average of 38.8; Kluwe tops that list, as well, at 42.6.
If Bidwell can maintain his current pace – and the season is admittedly only one-third complete – he would establish new single-season records in both categories. Tupa set the Bucs' gross punting average record in 2003 with a mark of 43.25. The net punting average has stood a bit longer, since Tommy Barnhardt set it at 37.8 in 1996.
Reaction to Barber Fine
On Wednesday, cornerback Ronde Barber was fined $30,000 by the NFL for inadvertently hitting official Butch Hannah during Sunday's game against the Jets.
After the fine was announced, Barber's business agent, Mark Lepselter, released the following statement:
"Although this accidental incident was regrettable, Ronde was simply trying to remove the opposing player's hands from his facemask. There was no intent whatsoever to harm the on-field official and Ronde immediately apologized to Mr. Hannah. The officiating crew assessed the situation and chose not to eject Ronde from the game due to the fact that he was not throwing a punch at the opposing player. Therefore, we feel this fine is excessive in nature.
"Ronde will take the normal course of action with regard to his appeal of the fine."
Gruden had no comment on the specifics of the fine, but he reiterated his earlier thought that the incident, in which Barber's swipe at Jets center Kevin Mawae's arm clipped Hannah near his right eye, was no reflection on the cornerback's character.
"I promise you that he meant no harm by that incident," said Gruden. "This should in no way symbolize what he is all about. That was an accident – I believe that. Hopefully the league, at the end of the day, will continue to look at this and will resolve that. We all have a lot of respect for number 20 and hopefully we can put this behind us because this one great football player and great guy."