T Todd Steussie played the entire second half against Detroit, and the offensive line allowed no sacks after halftime
It's supposed to be his job title, not his assignment.
Thank goodness tackle Kenyatta Walker is willing to be flexible in that regard.
Walker made a game-saving tackle on Sunday against the Detroit Lions, and it was every bit as dramatic as that sounds.
Three-and-a-half minutes into the fourth quarter of the game, the Bucs were trying to pad a 17-10 lead when quarterback Brian Griese's pass down the East sideline was intercepted by Lions safety Terrence Holt. Holt dashed upfield, then across the gridiron at about the spot of the original line of scrimmage, the Lions' 42. He was already beyond most of the Bucs' "skill-position" players, who were downfield in their pass routes, and he was clearly turning the corner on Griese and the linemen who had formed his pocket.
Left guard Dan Buenning tried to cut Holt off as he turned up the West sideline, but he didn't have a good enough of an angle to overcome Holt's speed. That left only Walker, who was cutting across the field toward the sideline and looked to be a long shot, at best, to get to Holt before the safety found open field.
Walker persisted and, at the last second, flung his 6-5, 302-pound frame into the air. He hit Holt square, wrapped him up with two arms and pulled him down at the Buccaneers' 23. Denied the seven points, Detroit would eventually have to settle for a field goal off Holt's takeaway, and that would prove to be the difference in a 17-13 Tampa Bay win.
Amazingly, Walker has now pulled off this same feat in two straight games. In Green Bay a week ago, Griese threw a pass that was intercepted near the sideline by cornerback Ahmad Carroll. At the time, the Bucs were leading 17-13 with just under 10 minutes to play. Most of the Bucs thought Carroll was down by contact – he had essentially rolled over Michael Pittman in making the pick – but no whistles were blowing as the Packer got up and started sprinting down the sideline. On this occasion, Walker's angle was such that his only hope was a desperation dive at Carroll's feet. It worked, as Walker tripped up the defender just enough that he stumbled to the ground a few yards later, at the Bucs' 32. The Packers couldn't put it in the end zone, kicked a field goal to make it a one-point game and, once again, that was the end of the scoring.
Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden has been so impressed with those two hustle plays – two plays that quite literally could be the difference between 4-0 and 2-2 – that he's even contemplated a position switch to take advantage of Walker's newfound talent.
"We might move him to safety," joked Gruden on Monday morning. "He's really made two unbelievable effort plays to help us win two games in the last two weeks. That was a heck of an effort for a big guy at the end of a long half, to run across the field and make that kind of play. And really, it was a game-saving play. Let's be honest."
The Bucs actually got key efforts from two offensive tackles in Sunday's victory, and neither one was second-year man Anthony Davis, who has drawn virtually all of the positive attention at that position for the last couple months. By stepping in so smoothly and unexpectedly at left tackle this summer, Davis saved the Bucs from disarray following the training camp foot problems of 2004 starter Derrick Deese. And it has been behind Davis and rookie left guard Dan Buenning that the Bucs' fourth-ranked rushing attack has done most of its damage.
On this day, however, Davis was hurt at the end of the first half, coincidentally while trying to make his own tackle on an interception return. He took a blindside blast from another Lions defenseman-turned-blocker while cornerback R.W. McQuarters was scampering around the field, and the resulting shoulder stinger kept him out for the second half.
That brought 12th-year veteran Todd Steussie into the game at left tackle, marking his first regular-season play at that spot since he joined the Buccaneers during the 2004 offseason.
It has been a strange road for Steussie back to the position at which he excelled for so long in Minnesota and Carolina. The Panthers released Steussie after their 2003 run to the Super Bowl and the Bucs signed him with the hopes of moving the veteran to right tackle. All sides agree that experiment went poorly, and Steussie was subsequently released just before this year's training camp.
However, that didn't prove to be the end for Steussie, who still felt as if he could contribute if put back on the left side. When Deese and a number of other Buc linemen went down with injuries in camp, the Bucs brought Steussie back and he has basically proven his contention. Though Steussie has been the target of much criticism during his year-and-a-half with the Bucs, the team has become very comfortable with him in his new role as backup left tackle.
Against the Lions, Steussie played the entire second half and the Bucs' offense seemed no worse for it. Tampa Bay gained 170 yards of offense in the first half, and 183 in the second half. All three sacks of Griese occurred in the first half, before Steussie entered the game.
Gruden knows there will still be those skeptical of Steussie's contributions, given last year's experience. In fact, in addressing the tackle's efforts on Monday morning, he thought it necessary to repeat his assessment a second time, louder so that everyone in the room would hear.
"Todd Steussie played good," said Gruden. "Todd Steussie played good. He played very good for us. In fairness to him, he's been a lightning rod here. I thought he came in and really, really played well in the second half."
Yeah, but can he tackle?
Wait and See
For the first time this year, the Bucs had a lengthy postgame injury list to worry about following Sunday's contest. Among the players who could be question marks this week are Davis, running back Carnell Williams and safety Dexter Jackson. As of Monday morning, however, the team had few definitive answers.
Davis, for instance, was still awaiting tests on his bruised shoulder. At the time of his injury, he was considered "probable" to return to the game, but he did not play in the second half. If he is unable to play against the Jets next Sunday, Steussie would start at left tackle.
Williams tweaked a hamstring against the Lions, adding to his discomfort from a foot sprain that has bothered him since the Bucs' Week Two win over Buffalo. The team is not yet sure how severe Williams' hamstring injury is, but the running back is going to wear a boot on his ailing foot on Monday, just as he did two weeks ago before the Green Bay game.
There was no way to know for sure on Monday, though.
"I've been frustrated, as has he, with the last couple weeks," said Gruden. "The foot injury has been persistent. It is getting better, but how much better I really don't know. We're going to put him in a boot today, take the boot off tomorrow and see how he feels. In the time being, Earnest Graham, [Michael] Pittman, those guys will go."
Williams has practiced only sparingly the last two weeks. While that didn't stop him from rushing for 158 yards on 37 carries at Green Bay, he was in for only 11 runs for 13 yards against Detroit.
"Obviously, when you miss practice it's not a good thing for anybody to get ready to play, and it is a concern of ours," said Gruden. "Whether it's a hamstring or any injury you've got to be careful with it. We're going to do what we deem is best for him and for this season."
Jackson has his own hamstring issue to deal with, and it landed him on the inactive list against Detroit. He suffered the injury near the end of the first half in Green Bay has not played in the six quarters since. However, Gruden said on Monday that Jackson is expected to be ready to play against the Jets.
Jackson's return will not necessarily mean the end of playing time for second-year man Will Allen, who has played well at free safety in the veteran's absence. Gruden indicated that both men will fit into the defensive scheme in the coming weeks.
"I think both of those guys are going to play," said the coach. "We'll make a determination on that once we see Dexter on the practice field here, hopefully Wednesday and Thursday."
Another player who had to make a visit to the training room on Monday was Griese, who took a blow to the head on a seven-yard scramble early in the second quarter on Sunday. Griese was a little out of sorts for awhile after the hit, but he was cleared to play by the team's medical staff and he eventually threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bucs were eager to see how Griese would feel on Monday morning, and he reported to One Buccaneer Place in a good mood and without any apparent lingering symptoms.
"The trainers talked to him this morning," said Gruden. "He felt good and that's a good sign. That's a big concern. We were very concerned about him, but he passed the test medically and was able to finish the game. He appears to be in good spirits and he appears to be okay
A Long Way to Go
We've discussed 2-0 starts and 3-0 starts, and since the Bucs have now made it 4-0, it's time to look at those numbers as well.
In this case, our analysis takes us back to the 1984 season, which leads to a sample size of almost five dozen teams.
From 1984-2004, 59 NFL teams started the season with a 4-0 record. Here's how their respective fates break down:
- 49 of the 59 (83.1%) went on to make the playoffs; * 52 of the 59 (88.1%) finished with records better than .500; * 4 of the 59 (6.8%) finished with .500 records; * 3 of the 59 (5.1%) finished with sub-.500 records.
Those are rather encouraging numbers for this year's 4-0 squads, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Indianapolis (At 3-0, Washington could join the ranks this weekend.) Of course, Gruden would respond to those numbers the same way he did to predictions based on the team's 2-0 and 3-0 starts.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "I am happy to be 4-0, and I also have a lot of respect for what needs to be done here. We're going to count on some guys to get better, and not level off. We have many areas to get better in, many."
There is also much of which to be proud, as one might expect on an undefeated team. The Bucs have rather spectacularly reached their twin offseason goals of improving the running attack and the run defense, ranking fourth in rushing in the NFL and first in stopping the run. The Bucs have also grabbed turnovers at a faster rate, played very well on third down on both sides of the ball, controlled the clock, mostly avoided injuries, made their field goals and struck more consistently with big plays.
None of that is what has stood out for Gruden through the season's first quarter, however.
"I like the way we practice, I like the way we prepare for games, I like the energy on the football team more than anything," he said. "We have a lot of good energy. I think there's some young players gaining confidence, although some are getting leg weary. And that doesn't just apply to the young guys. We've pushed them hard and they've responded and it now becomes a test of wills."