DEs Gaines Adams (left) and Kevin Carter escort Falcons QB Matt Ryan to the ground
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dug an early hole for Matt Ryan on Sunday, picking off two of his first eight passes, then later in the game they buried him.
Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons faced an all-day uphill battle at Raymond James Stadium after those early interceptions set up 10 points and led to a 17-0 Tampa Bay lead. The rookie passer, making just his second professional start, managed to right the ship somewhat in the second half, helping the Falcons pull to within eight points with five minutes to play.
Still, the Atlanta offense had to scramble with the clock working against it, and that's when the defensive focus switched from the Bucs' talented secondary to its hungry defensive line.
Despite some creative blitzes, the Bucs had sacked Ryan just one time through the first three quarters, following a season opener in New Orleans in which the Tampa Bay defense notched only one sack of Drew Brees. When the Buccaneers really needed a pass rush against the Falcons, however, they got it.
Thanks to the rotating defensive end trio of Gaines Adams, Kevin Carter and Greg White, the Buccaneers sacked Ryan on three of his last 12 drop-backs, and pressured him significantly on many of the others. Adams finished with 2.0 sacks (actually participating in three of the four takedowns), while White had 1.5 and Carter provided the other half-sack.
After waiting the better part of two games to see it, Head Coach Jon Gruden was pleased to see the pass rush finally break through in crunch time of the home opener.
"It was exciting," said Gruden. "Normally you get opportunities to [rush the passer] when you get a team behind in the down-and-distance and behind on the scoreboard. And we had some good opportunities not only to rush but to be creative with our blitz selection and we applied some pressure with the four-man rush and with the blitz.
"That was our goal to try to stop the run, get some second-and-eights, nines and hopefully some third-and-longs where we can unleash a pass rush. I thought our guys got some good looks [against Atlanta] and got some things done."
The core philosophy of the Buccaneers' Cover Two defense relies on getting pressure from the defensive line alone, so that the other seven defenders can cover as much of the field behind the line of scrimmage as possible. Of course, the Buccaneers aren't in a Cover Two alignment at all times, so blitzes and other defensive approaches figure into their strategy as well. Still, the defense works best when the pressure is coming from up front, and so far all five of the Bucs' sacks in 2005 have been produced by Adams, Carter and White.
White, last year's emergent surprise and team sack leader (8.0), is on top of the sack chart after two games with 2.5. He is the only player to get a QB takedown in each of the first two games. Adams is right behind with the two he got against Atlanta. The Bucs are starting games with Adams at right end and Carter at left end, then bringing in White in selected situations. The versatility of the Bucs' two starters has helped, as Carter can play both end and tackle and Adams can slide from the right side to the left side. That second option allowed the Bucs to put Adams and White, a pair of speed rushers, on the field together in the obvious passing situations late in Sunday's game.
Adams has no problem moving to the other end of the line to let White take a crack at the left tackle.
"I play wherever the coaches tell me to be," said Adams. "I go out and try to do my best. Right or left end it doesn't matter, my objective is to get to the quarterback and we did that. You have to give it up for the defense, we came out ready to play and we knew what we had to do this game."
The Bucs hope to do the same thing, only more so, next Sunday in Chicago. Bears starter Kyle Orton has yet to throw a touchdown pass through two games, but he also hasn't been intercepted and has been sacked just three times. Orton is no easily-confused rookie, but the Buccaneers at least want to make him uncomfortable, and hopefully force him into some damaging mistakes.
"We didn't want him to get comfortable back there," said White of Ryan. "We worked hard in practice and we'll work hard again getting ready for Chicago."
Linebacker Derrick Brooks overcame a hamstring injury to play against the Falcons, surprising even himself. He later revealed that his career-long streak of consecutive games played – now at 210 – looked like a goner when the week of preparation for the Atlanta game began.
Gruden spoke in reverent terms about Brooks' grittiness after the game. Brooks, however, was just as impressed with how many of his defensive teammates contributed to the win.
When the Hall of Fame-bound linebacker began his NFL tenure in 1995, such Buc defenders as Sabby Piscitelli, Geno Hayes and Elbert Mack were still years away from starting their high school careers. Now those young men are making plays all around Brooks, or sometimes in his place.
"A lot of people contributed," said Brooks after the game. "I think that's what I'm most proud of when I look at us today. We got the turnovers, but more importantly, we played a lot better and a lot more people played today, which is going to help us down the line."
Piscitelli and Aqib Talib got their first career interceptions on Sunday. Hayes played in his first regular-season game and had his first four tackles, all in periodic relief of Brooks and his hamstring. Mack filled in when Talib was slowed by his own hamstring injury and helped the secondary stay solid. In all, seven defenders who are either rookies or second-year players contributed to a defense that held the Falcons to 234 yards.
Hayes prepared all week to fill in, potentially, for Brooks, but then watched as the veteran took his place on the field for the 210th consecutive time. However, Hayes still played extensively, particularly in the second half. He impressed his coach with a heady debut performance.
"He did a good job," said Gruden. "He showed poise. He is a collision player; he is going to find ways to get around the ball. He has good instincts and we were pleased."
Talib got his interception on the third play of the game, as he was in as the third cornerback in the nickel package. Piscitelli's opportunities to play aren't as strictly defined, but he was in the game in the second quarter and in the right spot to pick off an errant throw by Ryan and return it into field goal range. The previous week, Piscitelli got an assortment of snaps in New Orleans and opened eyes by blasting wide receiver Marques Colston a yard short of the sticks on a third-and-six completion.
It may be difficult for Piscitelli to expand his playing time significantly, given how much the Bucs believe in their starting safety tandem of Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips, but he's already making the most of what he's getting.
"Sabby shows up with big plays whenever he plays," said Gruden, though he made a point of needling the young safety for his imprudent pitch after a fumble recovery on Sunday. "I didn't like the lateral in that situation late in the game but I was really happy with the way he played. I don't want to undermine what Tanard Jackson did yesterday as a football player either; he was outstanding. Our young safeties, to go with Jermaine Phillips, have really been impressive so far and Sabby is off to a good start."