Head Coach Tony Dungy admitted to second-guessing one of his Monday decisions, but victory made any miscues easier to swallow
For three hours Monday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made every effort to stick to their special recipe for an upset in St. Louis. From time to time, though, things got a bit messy in the kitchen.
Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy didn't stop to worry about the mess. Press on, he told his team. Finish the job.
Only afterward, on Tuesday, with the Bucs' 24-17 victory over the Rams still cooling, did he stop to look back on the spills and slip-ups.
"It was one of those games where you couldn't let calls or situations or dropped balls or anything else get in your way," said Dungy, who was asked his opinion of the replay reversal on a Steve White sack and forced fumble. "I guess I'm not sure on what the rules are when it's a fumble or when it's an interception. Again, it was not the time to even worry about that. You just have to go out and make something happen."
As reinvigorating as the victory was to the Bucs' strangely sputtering season, it still contained some of the mistakes and inexplicable moments that have led to five Buccaneer losses of seven points or less. Replay taking away a turnover; an ill-advised throw leading to a potentially devastating interception; costly penalties on kick returns; dropped passes. But, on this night, the Bucs answered every single one of these challenges and never let the game, or the game plan, slip away from them.
The Bucs even quickly nullified the effects of that one turnover, as Brian Young's interception late in the fourth quarter was followed by Donnie Abraham's a few minutes later. A blocked punt had given Tampa Bay a golden opportunity to push their lead to two scores with about five minutes remaining, but QB Brad Johnson made his only big mistake in an otherwise ultra-sharp game when he tried to hit Dave Moore on the right sideline late in a play that wasn't working out.
"Actually, we were looking for Keyshawn in the corner of the end zone, and they covered it well," said Dungy. "Mike Alstott was in the flat early, and we tried to come back to him late. It was really a ball that we should just throw away. But again, it was that type of game. If something goes wrong, you can't focus on that. You've got to go out there and get the job done defensively. In the fourth quarter we did. I think they had two yards rushing, and Warner was 3-for-10 passing. That's what you have to do to win big games. Somebody has to step up and make plays in the fourth quarter, and defensively we did."
But why, on this night, was the team able to overcome such a mistake, when in Green Bay it couldn't escape the effects of a punt return penalty that pinned it back on its own end zone in the last half of the fourth quarter? Was fortune just smiling on the Bucs this time around when a replay call with which they disagreed – the reversal on White's play that robbed the visitors of a golden scoring chance – meant the Rams had no recourse to challenge a Warrick Dunn touchdown run that appeared to include a smidgen of sideline territory?
Dungy thinks it was his team finally capitalizing on its own potential.
"The big thing is, I think we just made plays when they were available," he said. "We converted some big third downs. We had good kick coverage on some real top-notch returners. We came up with the turnovers when we needed them. We finished off three drives in the red zone. There was some good that came out of it, but really what it came down to was guys making the plays when they had the opportunity."
(Slyly, he added of his opinion of Dunn's tightrope walk on the sideline: "Probably, he was inbounds as far as Kurt Warner's arm was not going forward (on White's hit). It was very similar.")
Still, there were a few glitches that still require a second look, a job made much easier by the victory. Dungy may have no regrets about the miscues because they were quickly erased by other big plays, but he does admit to rethinking a bit of strategy employed Monday night.
With the Rams facing a third-and-19 at the Bucs' 24 with five minutes remaining in the first half, Warner was chased out of the pocket by defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Warner saw only blanket coverage downfield and tried to dump a short pass off to RB Marshall Faulk, but the pass was incomplete and the Rams were also flagged for holding. Rather than accept the penalty and give St. Louis' offense another shot at third-and-29, the Bucs declined, forcing a 42-yard field goal attempt that cut the Bucs' lead to 7-6.
"If I was going to second-guess anything, (it would be) declining the penalty," said Dungy. "We could have pushed them back to the point where it's a 52-yard field goal, and maybe you try to get another sack to push them back further.
"But with their weaponry, I didn't want Marshall Faulk to have a chance to touch the ball there. So that's one you could second-guess looking at it, but I really didn't want give them another down."
Just a few minutes later, Warner converted a third-and-13 situation by throwing a 42-yard pass to WR Isaac Bruce, so perhaps Dungy's decision to play it safe makes sense even in retrospect. Since the Bucs allowed only one touchdown and went on to win, 24-17, it's hard to find too much fault with any of the game day strategy.
Last week, after the Bucs lost a thriller, 27-24, to the Chicago Bears, Dungy pointed out that defeat tends to put extra emphasis on the mistakes a team has made. In contrast, the win on Monday night lends focus not to the little miscues here and there but to Tampa Bay's ability, finally, to overcome them.
If leaving St. Louis' intimidating home field with a victory was one 'upset,' for the Bucs, then finishing an indoor game on turf with almost no new injuries was a second surprise.
Most of the Bucs came out of the game no worse for the wear, though safety John Lynch was unfortunate enough to suffer two injuries. The Bucs' Pro Bowl safety hurt his left leg while coming up to help tackle Faulk, then bruised his lower back hitting the turf hard after breaking up and nearly intercepting a fourth-quarter pass to TE Ernie Conwell.
"We really came out of it pretty well," said Dungy. "At the end of the game, John Lynch had a bruised, I guess, fibula. Jerry Wunsch had some dehydration, and we had to work on him after the game. But other than that, nothing overly serious."
WR Keyshawn Johnson was obviously walking with a little discomfort after the game, but it has become commonplace for him to appear on the postgame injury report. Well on his way to a franchise record with 76 receptions through 10 games, the astonishingly tough and resilient Johnson has played through hip, leg, knee, ankle, back and other injuries this season, seemingly a new one each week. Yet he has not missed a game.
"He's got a little bit of an ankle sprain," said Dungy of Johnson. "He's an amazing guy. He seems to get banged up every week, but usually by Thursday he's back out there practicing."