FB Mike Alstott wants to recapture his earlier success against the Packers
In a locker room you might expect to be dominated by talk of the Buccaneers' six Pro Bowl selections, Wednesday's hot topic was something less pleasant: the recent decline in Tampa Bay's running game. After totaling just 75 rushing yards in their last two games, the Buccaneers are determined to get the ground attack moving again this Sunday versus the Packers.
"We have to have it on our mind that we are going to run the ball," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We can't get away from it early. That can be tough if you fall behind in the first quarter, though, so some of that is going to fall on our defense."
It's not as if the Buccaneers have to search hard for evidence of the strength of their rushing attack. Even after stalling for two straight weeks, Tampa Bay still has the league's seventh-best rushing attack. The Bucs had gone over triple digits in rushing as a team in nine of their first 11 contests, including a 173-yard effort at Green Bay on October 10. FB Mike Alstott is headed to his third straight Pro Bowl and RB Warrick Dunn, a 1997 Pro Bowler, remains a dangerous run-receive threat that cannot be ignored.
Still, 75 yards in two weeks gives the team pause, and they paused to talk about it on Wednesday. "We just have to get it going," said Alstott. "We have to get the backs involved and establish the running game. We have to be aggressive and basically pound the ball. We haven't been doing that the last couple of weeks."
The team's ground-based success against the Packers is encouraging, however, and is surely a focal point in both teams' film rooms this week. The Buccaneers averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 32 totes, including a 22-yard touchdown run by Alstott on which the big fullback blasted up the middle behind a collection of strong blocks and went almost untouched into the end zone. That play was a good demonstration of how C Tony Mayberry feels the Bucs can be successful against the Packers' defensive set.
"This defense likes to create a lot of one-on-one situations," said Mayberry of a Packers unit led by coordinator Emmitt Thomas. "They play their linebackers up tight and try to keep you from getting into a lane. They think they're going to win more of those one-on-ones than you do. If everybody on the field can get their blocks the way we are supposed to, we can have success against them."
The Bucs' running success wasn't enough to bring a victory in October, although Tampa Bay did briefly take the lead on Alstott's run with less than two minutes to play. The last time Green Bay visited Raymond James Stadium, last December 7 for a Monday Night Football contest, the Bucs did come away with a 24-22 victory after rushing for 105 yards. Tampa Bay scored the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 53-yard drive that included eight carries for 43 yards. The other 10 came on a screen pass to Dunn.
Of course, that game is more vividly remembered for the two long passing touchdowns Tampa Bay came up with in the first half to rush to a 14-6 lead. Even those plays can be traced to a strong rushing game, however, and a validation of the Bucs' offensive belief that success on the ground can be coupled very dangerously with big-play moments in the passing game. Both of the touchdowns, a 64-yard catch by WR Jacquez Green and a 62-yarder by WR Bert Emanuel, came on similar third-and-short situations, plays on which the Buccaneers often choose to run. In each of these cases, the receiver caught a quick slant on a three-step drop by QB Trent Dilfer and zipped across the middle of the field to the end zone. Plays such as this are more likely to occur if one or both of the safeties have been drawn upfield by the threat of the run.
Such strategical points are rendered moot, however, until the Bucs can re-establish the ground game that has carried them offensively throughout the season. Rookie QB Shaun King will be making just his fourth career start this Sunday and he would be greatly aided in his quest to raise his personal starting record to 3-1 by input from the proven portion of the Bucs' attack. The numbers bear this point out repeatedly: Tampa Bay is 24-6 under Dungy when it manages to run the ball more than 30 times, 27-8 when it gains 100 yards or more on the ground, 27-9 when it outrushes its opponents, 8-2 when either Dunn or Alstott rushes for 100 yards and 22-4 when Alstott finds the end zone.
Or, as Dungy said: "When (Dunn and Alstott) play well, we generally have a good game."