Second-year lineman Sean Mahan stepped in at center on the second play of the game and helped the Bucs stay sharp on offense
Going into Sunday's game against Kansas City, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers felt it would be important to establish their running game, due to the Chiefs' aggressive defensive approach. The Bucs felt an offensive balance would be important to keep the blitz-happy Chiefs from making an all-out assault on quarterback Brian Griese.
So there must have been a few thick gulps on the Tampa Bay sideline when center John Wade, the only offensive lineman to start every game for the Bucs since the beginning of 2003, went down with a knee injury on the offense's first play of the game. Wade had to be carted off the field, and he did not return.
And if running the ball was a good idea for the Bucs' offense, stopping the run was an absolute necessity for the defense. Running back Priest Holmes had seven touchdowns over the previous two weekends, and his explosive numbers plus the concurrent play-action success of the Chiefs' passing game had helped Kansas City score 101 points in those two games. Let Holmes run wild and the Bucs might have been in a shootout they couldn't win.
So, of course, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, perhaps the Bucs' best run-stopper, goes down with a shoulder injury later in the first quarter.
It looked like the shootout was going to turn into a war of attrition.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Buccaneers' thrilling, 34-31 victory on Sunday: Sean Mahan stepped in at center and helped keep the running game in gear, to the tune of 130 yards on 20 carries. And Jon Bradley suddenly became a front-of-the-rotation player, clogging the middle as Holmes gained just 59 rushing yards.
Neither Mahan nor Bradley had ever played a single regular-season snap at those respective positions.
Later, Will Allen filled in at separate moments for Dwight Smith and Jermaine Phillips, the two starting safeties. Phillips missed a good chunk of time while a broken bone in his right arm was tended to (though he came back in time to secure the decisive, fourth-quarter interception). Charles Lee, his injured knee still not 100%, entered the game in the second half when Joey Galloway left with a hip injury and caught an important red zone pass on the game-winning drive. RB Earnest Graham, in his first regular-season game as well, gave Michael Pittman some much-needed rest and played a role on special teams. Second-year DE Dewayne White once again filled in on the inside and once again had a sack, this one on Kansas City's final play from scrimmage. Jeff Gooch played a stretch at middle linebacker when Shelton Quarles was banged up.
In other words, this was a full-team effort, and it's hard to imagine the Bucs coming away with their slim victory if men such as Mahan and Bradley hadn't stepped up in the time of need.
"Sean Mahan…first play of the game we lose our center," said Gruden. "I thought he did a good job coming in there and calling all of the line calls; same thing with Dewayne White, Jon Bradley. We lost McFarland with a strain in his arm. We don't know the severity of it yet. A lot of guys stepped up. Jermaine Phillips has a cracked bone in his wrist and makes a game-saving interception. I am really proud of our football team."
Mahan was a fifth-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2003, as a guard with a hard-nosed reputation out of Notre Dame. The Bucs liked him instantly but until Sunday had used him only on special teams while he developed in practice. Fortunately, he proved on Sunday that he was ready, as the Bucs went on to gain 418 yards, 409 after he entered the game.
It was a fantastic experience for Mahan, thanks to the victory.
"It felt great," he said. "I had a great supporting cast. The rest of the guys on the line did a great job and we did well communicating."
Mahan quickly felt comfortable within the Bucs' offense, which could be important if Wade's injury is at all serious. Tampa Bay has dealt with a maddening run of injuries this year, as they did last year, but they've stayed afloat thanks to the fill-in work of such players as Mahan. It didn't take long for Mahan to feel as if he were a natural part of the attack.
"We knew that Kansas City had a great offense and we knew that if we wanted to win, we would have to match their offense and be better," he said. "We knew that if we put our minds to it, we could hit on all cylinders and that's what we did."
Mahan at least had the advantage of a year and a half with the team. Bradley had just signed on October 20, and he had only been promoted to the active roster the day before the game. A rookie who originally came into the league as an undrafted free agent with Philadelphia in the spring, Bradley had never played a down on defense or special teams.
Bradley played extensively after McFarland's injury, almost by default. Besides he and Chartric Darby, the Bucs had no other true defensive tackles on the roster. White played inside on quite a few snaps, but almost always on third downs, when a pass rush was ostensibly more important than stopping the run.
Bradley finished with two solo tackles but, more importantly, kept the Bucs from being completely vulnerable inside after McFarland's injury. Surprisingly, the Chiefs ran the ball outside the tackles more often than inside in the second half.
"I didn't expect to get that much playing time, but more playing time is better for me as far as getting comfortable and trying to improve myself to where I can rotate," said Bradley, a 6-0, 301-pound gap-filler.
The Chiefs had 354 net passing yards on the day against the NFL's number-one ranked pass defense. Had Kansas City come close to its average mark of 167 rushing yards per game, the Bucs might not have held them back. But the Chiefs had only 105 yards, and only three yards per carry. Bradley knew his suddenly expanded role was important in helping the Bucs outlast the Chiefs.
"It's a lot of pressure because this defensive line has a lot of great tradition," he said. "Not wanting to let the man next to you down, it's a lot of pressure. But I am up to it and hopefully I can get better and help out the defense even more."
The Bucs don't yet know how significant McFarland's injury is and how big of a role Bradley will need to play in the coming weeks. They do know that he was needed on Sunday, as was Mahan and as were all of the role-playing Bucs who came up big against the Chiefs. The Buccaneers always say they need somebody to step up and make a play; on Sunday, they had many such somebodies.