FB Mike Alstott found his route clogged with Lions on third-and-one on Thursday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy held his usual day-after-the-game press conference on Friday, about 12 hours after his team lost to the Detroit Lions, 28-14. For approximately 25 minutes, he fielded the searching questions of a local media looking for the causes of the Bucs' unexpected four-game losing streak.
The answer is simple and straightforward to Dungy: execution. And, truly, that is an inescapable conclusion. The Buccaneers have the same core of players that was so successful in 1999, plus some obvious upgrades. Yet, during the four-game losing streak, they have failed to execute in some of the situations and areas that had previously been the team's strengths, fourth quarters of close games, run defense, ball protection, third-and-shorts.
But, ah, that last one. Even Coach Dungy conceded that the Bucs of 2000 have not yet hit on the formula to be consistently successful in that crucial scenario.
"We're going to have to look at that," said Dungy, after the Bucs failed on four third downs of two or less yards against Detroit. "We'll have to come up with something that we can hang our hat on, and do well and have confidence that we're going to make those third-and-ones. We've got a good third-down-and-one back, and he's been that for us in the past. Somehow, we've got to get that back."
Dungy was referring to fullback Mike Alstott, of course, a player that has been any team's dream back in short-yardage situations during his five-year career. Over the last four games, however, the Bucs have been mostly unable to get him over the line when just a yard or two is needed.
Alstott was the ballcarrier on the first of those third-and-shorts against Detroit on Thursday, a third-and-one from the Lions' eight-yard line on the first possession of the day. Tampa Bay brought in its power package and tried to run Alstott behind such enormous blockers as Jerry Wunsch, George Hegamin and Patrick Hape, but Alstott was caught in the backfield before he could even take a crack at the line of scrimmage.
That has been a familiar refrain for the Bucs over the last month. In its season-opening three wins, Tampa Bay was successful on 11 of 18 third-down tries from three yards or less; in the last four, it is two of 11. The downturn has not been from a lack of creativity. The Bucs tried to convert those four third downs against Detroit in four different ways.
"We have different things that we're doing and different plays that we've run," said Dungy, "plays that we haven't run as much as plays we had been running for four years. It's not quite as sharp as we would like it, but we've got to get it there."
After failing with the short run early on, the Bucs attempted to convert their next third-and-short, a two-yard try from midfield at the beginning of the fourth period, with a pass. The Bucs lined up in the power formation again, but QB Shaun King rolled right and tried to throw a quick out to WR Keyshawn Johnson. CB Bryant Westbrook read the play and knocked the pass away at the last minute.
Just a few minutes later, the Bucs had another third-and-one near midfield, and this time King faked a handoff to Alstott and rolled left, trying to find Johnson down the left sideline. The pass was intercepted by LB Chris Claiborne. Finally, with another third-and-two midway through the final period, King tried a quick pass to WR Jacquez Green, but Westbrook knocked it away again.
In the final analysis, the issues may not be confined to third downs, but to the Bucs' overall grasp on their new offense. The Bucs have had very good days with Les Steckel's newly-imported attack this season, but they've also had times when the offense isn't clicking. That's not exactly surprising to Dungy, but it is getting to a point where it needs to be corrected.
"We've got to search a little bit on offense for what we are going to do, how we're going to get the ball to our guys, what we're going to be," said Dungy. "That, we're all still learning. It's new, and that's part of the growing pains of a new offense. But we've got to figure that out and get that going."
Dungy has reason to believe there is success to be found on third downs with his team. Last year, Tampa Bay converted 56.9% of its third downs of three or less yards. That number goes up to 66% if a combined 0-9 in two rough games against Denver and Oakland is removed. Moreover, Alstott got the call on third-and-one nine times last year and converted on eight of them.
"What we've got to draw on is that we can play well when we're doing things right, when we're on top of the details and when we're playing our game," said Dungy. "We've got to re-establish that."