A swarming Buccaneer defense has mostly avoided the big play so far this season
Apparently, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are favored by seven points over the New York Jets this weekend. Don't bother telling that to the Bucs; they don't gamble when it comes to wins and losses.
Betting lines and studio analyses aside, it's the rare and foolish NFL team that forgets the 'Any Given Sunday' principle. As that saying reminds us, there is so much talent in the National Football League that any team can beat any other any week, regardless of who's favored.
Monte Kiffin understands this possibility. Architect of the fearsome defense that has driven the Bucs to a 3-0 start this year, Kiffin has to look back only one year to know that even his unit is vulnerable.
Tampa Bay wasn't 3-0 after three weeks in 1999, but they were putting up unreal defensive numbers. The Bucs have allowed only 228.7 yards per game so far this season, but that's actually worse than last year's average through three games, 143.3 yards. Game four was in Minnesota.
"It's only three games," said Kiffin of this year's high-flying start. "Last year, we started out with three good games on defense, then went up to Minnesota. It was 21-0 before I could even walk on the field."
The Bucs actually made that one close, losing just 21-14 after a three-touchdown first quarter against their defense. But mistakes were clearly made early on and the team couldn't quite climb out of the whole. The Vikings piled up 364 yards of offense, and Green Bay got 450 the following week.
So what do you do? Tremble in fear, knowing that the lords of parity are coming to get you?
Well, no. Let's not confuse realism with dread. The answer is to understand that disaster awaits the unprepared and, thus, to be sure you are prepared.
And that means understanding the opponent and the difficulties they pose. In the case of the New York Jets, Head Coach Tony Dungy has three keys he feels his team must accomplish to remain undefeated.
One: Solve the kickoff coverage problems.
"The biggest thing we have to do is do a good job of covering kickoffs," said Dungy. "They have some good returners, and we haven't done well in that area so far. We have focused on that in practice this week."
Jets S Kevin Williams has five of the Jets' 13 kickoff returns so far, and has made the most of them. Thanks to a 97-yard touchdown return, Williams is averaging 38.0 yards per runback.
Last week in Detroit, the Bucs let another stellar return man, Desmond Howard, pick up 218 yards on seven runbacks, including long-gainers of 70 and 63 yards. Considering how difficult it is to move the ball against Tampa Bay's defense, it is imperative that the special teams don't shorten the field for their opponents.
Two: Squelch the Jets' big-play hopes.
The number-one goal for the Bucs' defense in any game is to stop the run. Number 1-A is to take away the big play. Tampa Bay has been generally successful in this regard in 2000, though the two offensive touchdowns they've allowed were passes of 39 and 50 yards.
The difference this weekend is that the Jets may come in specifically determined to hit the long gainer.
"They go for big plays more than any team we've played so far," said Dungy. "We don't normally give them up, but the Jets really go for them. We need to remain aware of that."
One of the hidden key stats of the Buccaneer defense is the opponents' average of 5.66 yards per pass attempt and 8.8 yards per completion. Those are remarkably low numbers that indicate most of their opponent completions have been very short passes.
The Jets, however, have averaged 6.46 yards per pass attempt and an excellent 13.3 yards per completion. Speedy receiver Dedric Ward has averaged 21.8 yards on his 10 receptions.
"Dedric Ward's playing very well for them right now," said Kiffin. "He's a legitimate deep threat. He basically won that Packers game for them."
Ward's 61-yard catch down to Green Bay's two-yard line in the fourth quarter of opening day in Lambeau Field was the big play the Jets needed at the right time. RB Curtis Martin scored on that drive to give the Jets a 20-16 victory.
Three: Don't get overanxious with the ball.
"Our offense has to stay patient," said Dungy. "We'll hit the big play, maybe on play action, but we have to make sure we succeed on first and second down. We want to keep our third downs to third-and-shorts and third-and-mediums."
That approach was well-illustrated last week in Detroit. A game that still seemed in doubt, at 21-10 to open the second half, was basically put away with the Bucs' drive of nearly 10 minutes in the third quarter. It was a methodical march in which the Bucs put themselves into one third-and-six, one third-and-two and one third-and-three. They gained a new set of downs each time.
After throwing to WR Keyshawn Johnson underneath four times for 27 yards in the first half, the Bucs also took the opportunity on that drive to get the ball to him deeper, completing a 38-yard play on third-and-10.
Dungy raises these three issues not because he fears his team is vulnerable but because he wants them to understand the challenge at hand. As his squad proved in Detroit last Sunday, they are developing the type of mental toughness it takes to remain at the top of their game every week.
"I think that really started in the playoffs last year," said Dungy. "I really thought we needed that toughness to play week in and week out and to practice right week in and week out."