Warrick Dunn hopes to get the Bucs' running game back in forward motion
Flash back to the 1998 season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are off to a disappointing 3-4 start and the powerful Minnesota Vikings are paying a visit.
Minnesota was 7-0 at the time; as you do when you're facing an undefeated team, the Bucs looked for chinks in the giant's armor. Apparently, they found one. A big one.
Tampa Bay beat the Vikings that week in a 27-24 game that was widely called a shootout, mostly because there was a total of just two punts in the game. But it was a Buc-style shootout, for sure, with Tampa Bay running for a team-record 246 yards. Not one but two Buccaneer running backs, Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn, rushed for over 100 yards in that game. In the other 376 games in team history, that dual feat has happened exactly zero times.
The Bucs face an undefeated Minnesota squad again this coming Monday, albeit on the Vikings' home turf. Still, Tampa Bay hopes that same chink in the armor is there for the piercing this week.
The reason for that hope? Minnesota ranks dead last in the NFL in per-carry average allowed. Viking opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry and three of the four teams Minnesota has played have racked up over 100 yards per game and over five yards per tote.
Sometimes, per-carry averages can be deceiving if a few long runs inflate an otherwise respectable number. That is not the case with the Vikings this season. The longest single run posted against Minnesota this season is 17 yards, indicating that it is possible to grind out the running game on the Viking defense. Two of the four teams Minnesota has played have racked up 10 rushing first downs, a rather high number.
So will the Bucs try to establish the running game in Minnesota? What do you think?
"We just need to play our game," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I think we'll go in with the same idea that we always go in with, and hopefully we can execute the plays and when we have people open we can hit them and create some holes for our running game."
Tampa Bay scored 31 points per game through the first three weeks but has been limited to just 17 in each of its last two games. Most of the members of the NFL's sixth-highest scoring team believe that the dip has been caused by a downturn in the running game.
"Once the running game gets going, then the passing game will be wide open," said RB Warrick Dunn. "That's going to help everything else. We were fortunate a few weeks ago to score 31, 41, because the running game was there. People didn't respect our passing game and we had the receivers to get open and those guys made the plays. Now the running game has disappeared, so it's put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and receivers to make plays down the field and we just haven't been able to do that."
The hand-wringing over the Bucs' rushing game might be a bit overstated. Tampa Bay still ranks 10th in the league on the ground and has had 119 or more rushing yards in four of its five games. That is generally good news for the Buccaneers; under Dungy, Tampa Bay is 32-9 when it hits triple digits in the rushing yards column.
"You've got to run the ball to pass, you've got to pass to run," said center Jeff Christy. "It sounds like a cliché, but they really do help each other out. They feed off each other, and whenever it's clicking, your passing game opens up and then your running game opens up. It kind of goes hand in hand."
In addition to duplicating the running attack they displayed in that famous (in Buc circles) game of 1998, the Buccaneers also want to get off to the same fast start. "That's what we hope," said Dunn. "We hope we can start moving in the right direction, do positive things, have big plays in the running game and the passing game. Put the pressure on their defense and take the pressure off our running game."
That will also help control the crowd noise in the Metrodome, something that Christy, a Viking for seven years, is very familiar with.
"The secret is going to be to take the fan base out of it, control the line of scrimmage and we'll be alright," said Christy.
Christy believed that the Bucs' running game could be revived with a simple return of the team's focus. That's particularly true with the team still grasping to learn a new offense.
"It's still a new system," said Christy. "When we started out 3-0, everyone thought that it was done and it was going to be that way all season. You have to know that it's still a new system. Some things went our way those first couple of games and we kind of got into a rhythm.
"For whatever reason, these last couple of games we didn't get into that rhythm. Then you're kind of grasping at what you can do. This offense is still trying to find what it does and what it's forte is."
The same could have been said of that 1998 team at midseason. The Bucs ranked 27th in offense heading into their much-hyped game with the Vikings. By the time the game was over, the Bucs had jumped three spots in the ranking and, most notably, had climbed from 16th in rushing all the way to eighth. The climb continued the rest of the way, with Tampa Bay eventually finishing fourth in the NFL in ground yards.
That's a formula the Bucs would like to repeat in 2000.