Perhaps it has been lost over the last 20 months, what with the myriad ups and downs – the struggles of 2009 and the sudden return to relevance in 2010 – but this was Raheem Morris' vision for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he took over as head coach in January of '09:
Be physical. Run the ball effectively and consistently. Play tough, hard-nosed defense. Oh, and if we didn't already mention it, be physical.
Morris' Buccaneers may have had bigger wins over the last two seasons. Maybe the Green Bay shocker last year in Josh Freeman's start, which was certainly a harbinger of great things to come for the young quarterback. The stunning upset of New Orleans last December, not long before the Saints won the Super Bowl. The comebacks in Cincinnati and Arizona that proved this young team's mettle.
Maybe those games were bigger than the Buccaneers' 21-0 blanking of the 49ers in San Francisco on Sunday. But none of those games fit that original blueprint as well as the team's first shutout since 2004.**
And the best part is, the emergence of Freeman since he was taken in the first round in the 2009 draft, several months after Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik laid out their vision, has added a new dimension to the team's evolution. Now the Buccaneers can dream even bigger.
Take a look at Sunday's win in San Fran. Freeman actually started the game a little slow, missing a few throws he usually makes. The Bucs' offense didn't do much of anything with its first three possessions, actually. But Tampa Bay's defense was absolutely stifling from the opening snap, keeping the game scoreless until the offense could get in gear. Most importantly, the Bucs stood up against Frank Gore and the 49ers' very good rushing attack again and again, allowing Gore just 13 yards on nine carries in the first half.
That gave Tampa Bay time to get LeGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams going, and soon the running game was in charge. The Bucs mounted a methodical 14-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter that featured four Blount carries for 29 yards, a few key Freeman scrambles and Williams' six-yard touchdown run. At that point, the Bucs were starting to feel like the formula was going to work, even if it was too early to assume anything.
"It was awesome," said Freeman. "The defense came out and played a great game. When you can go out and shut out a team, as an offense you can't help but find a way to score to win the game. We scored that first touchdown, I said, 'Man, the way defense is playing, we might just shut them out.' But let's not take any chances and try to score some more."
They wouldn't before halftime, but the defense remained impenetrable. San Francisco had just 64 yards of offense at the intermission and 49ers QB Troy Smith barely even tried to throw the ball downfield. The Bucs' pass-rush – easily the area the team would most like to see improvement in down the stretch – produced a season-high six sacks and never let Smith get comfortable.
Freeman, though, was able to get comfortable. In the second half, he completed nine of 11 passes for 105 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 117.9. He converted some key third downs with throws to tight end Kellen Winslow and jump-started the day's second touchdown drive with a rollout, 33-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Mike Williams. That drive ended with a little lob to Williams that turned into an eight-yard touchdown despite pass interference by cornerback Shawntae Spencer.
"We weren't moving the ball," said Freeman of the game's opening quarter. "We just couldn't hit anything. I missed Rejus [Benn] in the flat, had to throw the ball away, missed Kellen. We just didn't start as fast as we wanted to. But then again, it's a game of four quarters and we found a way to bounce back. Mike Williams had a few great catches, including that touchdown, and we just had a number of guys step up against what we considered a very good defense."
That drive made the game 14-0, which seemed at the time – and was borne out over 60 minutes – to be an impenetrable lead. It was a cool and systematic march, made possible again by the team's stifling defense and productive running game.
"It's helping a lot, it really is," said Freeman of a rushing attack that has produced 120 or more yards in four of the Bucs' last five games. "Cadillac came out and had another very productive play. They were doing a lot to hinder him out of the backfield on checkdowns and certain routes, but LeGarrette had another strong day running the ball. People are starting to realize just how big and physical that guy is. It's an awesome sight seeing him play like he does. It's great to have Earnest Graham back this week. He got a couple carries and was productive for us. The running game is really setting everything up, from a passing standpoint. Being able to run gives us the opportunity to suck in the safeties to take shots over the top. We didn't really have any of those today, but at the same time we kept them off balance."
And the defense did the rest. The Bucs played the field position game well – San Francisco's average drive start was their own 29-yard line – and in the few instances where the 49ers did get the ball in good position the defense made its stand. Most notably, the Buccaneers tried an innovative fake punt near the end of the first quarter, with Micheal Spurlock throwing a pass out of the shotgun to Graham, that didn't work and gave the 49ers the ball at midfield. Three minutes later, the home team was punting.
"At that point it becomes a field position battle," said Freeman, recalling how the dominance of the Bucs' defense and running game was steadily making itself clear. "You don't want to get pinned down. You don't want to let the other team's offense get field position. Obviously, on the fake punt they stopped us and got great field position, and the defense really stood up and held them to three-and-out. What really had me thrilled was seeing that D-Line. They were rotating them in, the D-Line was getting the pressure. They were sealing things up on their end with the pass-rush and the run-stopping, and then our linebackers and secondary were just locking everybody up on the outside. It was sweet to watch from the bench as a quarterback. Everybody on our offense was thrilled."
Obviously, Buccaneer fans should be thrilled as well. The 2010 Bucs, thought by many to be a transitional team with its sights set on the future, is solidly in the NFC playoff race. They have won in an almost amusing variety of ways this season, including a 38-35 shootout in Arizona and a turnover-heavy, big passing day in Cincinnati. The Bucs may find a new way to win, hopefully, next week in Baltimore or the following weekend at home against Atlanta. They may have a tough time, however, producing another game that follows Morris' original blueprint for a physically dominant team as much as Sunday's thrilling victory in San Francisco.