S Dexter Jackson was the only one of the Bucs' four
Over the last month, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive periods during midweek practice have been one big blitz reel. On some days, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden, nearly every snap in a 12-play period has featured a blitz of some kind or another by the scout-team defense.
And the results have been very encouraging. The Bucs have gone two straight games without allowing a sack, despite 48 drop-backs by quarterback Chris Simms. Even against the Carolina Panthers, none of the six sacks sustained by Simms came on a blitz. It's not easy to prepare an offense for every mad rush they might see in today's blitz-happy NFL, but the Bucs have clearly done as much as they can.
Now it's the defense's turn, and the issue is obvious: Third downs.
Just three weeks ago, the Buccaneers were second to none in the NFL in stopping the opposition on third down. Through their first seven games, the Bucs had allowed their opponents to convert an anemic 25.3% of their third-down tries. Something gave way over the last three weeks, however, as Tampa Bay's defense has allowed a stunning 51.1% of third downs to be converted against Carolina, Washington and Atlanta. The slide culminated last weekend in an 11-of-17 performance against the Falcons that nearly cost the Bucs a critical ballgame.
"It would be easy to stand here and tip my hat to Mark Brunell and Michael Vick, some of the dynamic play-making that they have made," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We've had guys make diving catches. We've had backs hurl themselves and thrust forward for that big yard to make a first down. The bottom line is that we've given up third-down conversions too many times."
Obviously, Tampa Bay's defense has proven it is capable of being a stifling presence on third down, not just during the first two months of this season but for many years in a row. The worst the Bucs have been against third downs since 1997 is 36.1% in 2001; compare that with the entire NFL average on third downs this year: 37.8.
The issue is regaining that form, and it begins on the practice field.
"We're addressing that," said Gruden. "We started yesterday [in coaches planning sessions] and we worked hard on it today. We feel like we've got the firepower and potential to play a lot better there and I'm confident we will. But it's been short-yardage defense, it's been our dime defense, our nickel defense. All of us together have to be responsible for making the corrections and I'm confident based on today that we're in the process of doing it."
Cornerback Ronde Barber, part of a smothering pass defense that usually licks its chops when it sees third-and-long, was surprised at how often Vick and the Falcons came up with long completions in that situation on Sunday.
"We will solve it, we will," said Barber. "Last week, it was the big plays. It wasn't necessarily giving up a slant on third down, [it was] giving up a 40-yard pass when [Vick] scrambled a little bit. That happened way too many times. I think they had nine big plays in the passing game on third down. That's not what we're about at all."
Barber's fellow cornerback, Brian Kelly, knows how important the consistent third-down stop is. The Bucs' defense repeatedly stopped Vick and the Falcon backs on first and second down only to see drives sustained by third-down breakdowns.
"It's just back to the basics," said Kelly. "It's not a lot of things that they're doing, it's things that we're not doing. You know – schematics; just being on your coverage; making the tackle when you need to get the tackle; being where you need to be. We need to get back to that."
Kelly was feeling a bit under the weather on Wednesday afternoon, so it wasn't his most active practice of the year. Otherwise, Gruden said, the Bucs' defense went at their assignments hard and at full speed on Wednesday to start the week of preparations for the Chicago Bears.
"I think if today is any indication they're bouncing back pretty good," said Gruden. "We showed real good resolve and good energy today. They're excited about the opportunities ahead, I think."
The Buccaneers' most significant injury concerns continue to be in the secondary, where the safety position has collectively absorbed a string of hard knocks this season. This week, however, there are also concerns about the blockers up front.
The two safeties who have effectively shared the free safety position this year – Will Allen and Dexter Jackson – are both questionable on the Bucs' first official injury report of the week. Neither Allen nor Jackson played in last Sunday's win at Atlanta, leaving the starting position to first-year man Kalvin Pearson. Pearson missed some time in the fourth quarter due to cramps and the Bucs were down to just two healthy safeties, strong safety starter Jermaine Phillips and rookie Donte Nicholson.
Jackson has actually missed four games in a row (plus the bye week) since suffering a severe hamstring pull against Miami on October 16. Jackson had originally injured the hamstring against Green Bay and had to sit out the Week Four game against Detroit. Allen replaced him in the starting lineup for all five of those contests.
Jackson returned to practice in a limited fashion last week and was more mobile on Wednesday. Allen, however, did not practice and has not worked out since sustaining a knee injury against Washington on November 13.
The problems up front stem from a pair of injuries suffered late in Sunday's game at Atlanta. On consecutive plays on the Bucs' game-winning touchdown drive, tackle Anthony Davis went down with an ankle injury and tight end Anthony Becht had to leave with a knee ailment. Davis is the Bucs' starter at left tackle and a big reason the team has had a lot of success running to the left side this year. Becht has started every game at tight end and drawn high praise for his blocking.
Neither Davis nor Becht practiced on Wednesday. Both are considered questionable for the Chicago game, which features a defense that averages three sacks per game.
Seven's a Start
The Bucs' 7-3 start to the season marks just the fourth time in team history they've won seven or more of their first 10 games. The 1979 and 1997 teams opened with 7-3 records while the 2002 squad started 8-2. All three made the playoffs and the '02 team won the Super Bowl.
Actually, a record of 7-3 or better after 10 games has been a great barometer for success across the NFL. Over the past 10 seasons (1995-2004), a total of 78 teams have had seven or more wins through 10 games, and 70 of those teams went on to make the playoffs. That's a postseason success rate of 89.7%.
Last year, eight of nine teams that had seven wins after their first 10 games made the playoffs, excluding only Baltimore. All nine teams that reached that plateau were playing in the postseason in 2003. The only real aberration in the pattern over the past decade was 2002, when three of the seven teams that stood 7-3 or better (San Diego, Denver and New Orleans) slipped out of the playoff picture by season's end.
That's encouraging for the 2005 Buccaneers, of course. There is one small fly in the ointment, though.
See, the NFL has never had this many teams at 7-3 or better 10 games into the season. One third of the league is feeling as chipper about its playoff chances as the Buccaneers. That is, there are 11 teams at 7-3 in the league right now, including six in the NFC. The previous record for one season was nine teams, a level reached in 1968, '75, '86, '96, '98, '03 and '04.
There will be six teams representing the NFC in the playoffs, of course, but the 6-4 Falcons and 5-5 Redskins are waiting for any of the six in front of them to slip.
The 2004 Ravens are the perfect cautionary tale. Last year at this point, there were seven teams in the AFC (and only two in the NFC) that had seven or more wins after 10 games. Obviously, that meant one team, at least, was going to be the odd man out. Baltimore missed; the other six teams in that group held on.
In other words, 7-3 is nice, but it's no guarantee.