Tampa Bay Buccaneer defenders say it every week: Job number one is stopping the opposition's rushing attack.
Stop the run, the thinking goes, and you rob an offense of its balance. There are more third-and-longs, more plays where the defensive line can think less and go after the quarterback more. The play-action becomes much less effective.
The formula was in effect last Sunday at Candlestick Park, where the Buccaneers shut out the San Francisco 49ers, 21-0. San Francisco managed 31 yards of rushing in the first half, almost half of it on a 15-yard scramble by quarterback Troy Smith. Featured back Frank Gore ran nine times before the intermission, and these were the yardage results: 0, 1, 2, -4, 3, 1, 6, 5 and -1.
And the rest fell into place. Almost all of Smith's throws were lateral; the 49ers could never get downfield. The play-action was erased. The Bucs' defensive line poured it one with a season-high six sacks. The 49ers managed just 189 yards of offense, and it was easily Tampa Bay's best performance of the year.
Duplicating that formula in Baltimore this Sunday, however, will be a difficult challenge, in part because the Ravens are excellent at maintaining their offensive balance. With running back Ray Rice touching the ball 22 times a game and young quarterback Joe Flacco distributing the ball to a deep group of very experienced receivers, Baltimore has snuck up to 12th in the NFL's offensive rankings. Moreover, they've done it in a more balanced fashion than most teams in the league.
In fact, only five teams in the entire NFL currently rank in the league's top half in both rushing and passing yards. The Ravens, 13th and 14th respectively, are one of them (the other four are Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia and the New York Giants).
"They've got a nice balance, and they've got Flacco," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, the team's defensive play-caller. "He's running the team well and doing a nice job. They're playing well off their play-action passing game and doing a lot of different things there."
The Ravens have four different players with at least 35 catches this year, including Rice. The others are their starting receivers, Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin, and their starting tight end, Todd Heap. Also in the mix but less used so far are NFL vets T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte Stallworth.
"That's arguably one of the best receiving corps we face this year, from top to bottom, talking about all those guys they've got," said Morris. "Mason is a very skillful route-runner; Anquan Boldin – toughness, hands; Houshmandzadeh, all the guys they've got in there who have caught a lot of balls. You look at their track record and what they've been able to do in this league and it's pretty impressive. They've got a nice receiving corps balance there."
At home, the Ravens tend to emphasize the run a bit more. Since the start of the 2008 season, Baltimore leads the NFL with 151.6 rushing yards at home; this year, they've even upped that a little bit to 155.8 per game. The Ravens have nice balance in their backfield, as well, with Willis McGahee spelling Rice for about seven carries a game and starting fullback Le'Ron McClain having a fine track record as a ballcarrier as well.
"They like to run the ball, period," said Morris. "They certainly like to come behind their big first-round pick, [left tackle Michael] Oher, they certainly come behind that big guy in [left guard Ben] Grubbs and run that ball with Ray Rice, which I've seen before in college."
Obviously, the Bucs would like to do to Rice what they did to Gore in the early going last weekend. Depending upon the flow of the game, however, the visitors could reverse the formula and keep Flacco in check to upset that half of Baltimore's balanced attack. Letting the Ravens move the ball in both manners will make a victory much more difficult to achieve.
"The whole thing, like it is every week, is to do your very best against the run and then make them one-dimensional," said Morris. "Or, you take away the pass and make them one-dimensional, make them half to run. One of those two things you've got to be able to do each week, then you've got to be your best self on third down and figure out in the end how to get a win."
If shutting down Frank Gore gave the Bucs a blueprint for this weekend's game in Baltimore, then so did facing San Francisco's 3-4 defensive front give them a sneak peek at some of the things they might see from the Ravens' D.
Of course, these days a 3-4 opponent shows up on the Bucs' schedule much more commonly; not long ago that defensive base had been relegated to just a few corners of the league, such as Pittsburgh. Now it's use is much more widespread, and even 4-3 base teams like the Buccaneers use variations of it on occasion.
In fact, matching up against the AFC North this year guaranteed the Buccaneers a shot at at least four 3-4 fronts, as every team in that division has gone that route. The Bucs already beat Cincinnati and Cleveland from the AFC North this year, and their work against San Francisco's 3-4 last weekend was encouraging.
On the other hand, Baltimore's defense is a different kind of beast, and the Bucs know better than to think any of last Sunday's results will have any bearing in this weekend's game.
"[The 3-4] is a little bit different in terms of blocking schemes, protection schemes, things you've got to do differently," said Morris. "We played it last week so we got a little bit of a jump and we've got two weeks in a row of the 3-4. We'll get a little bit of it in practice. Every week presents a different challenge. No matter what you did last week it's not going to be the same as this week. It's just not going to be that way. Everybody's going to come out and do different things. We're just going to be prepared to go out there and play our very best game and see what happens."
Earlier in the previous decade, when the 3-4 was less prevalent, the Buccaneers' offense struggled against it, particularly in terms of pass protection. For instance, Tampa Bay played the Steelers in 2001, 2002 and 2006 and gave up an average of seven sacks per game in those three contests.
Two things have helped Tampa Bay avoid such outings in recent years: more exposure to that defense, as mentioned above, and the play of underrated left tackle Donald Penn. This week, Penn will often find himself dealing with Baltimore's best pass-rusher, 260-pound linebacker Terrell Suggs, who leads the Ravens with 7.5 sacks.
"[Penn] is playing great – I'm looking forward to seeing him in a grass skirt," said Morris, alluding to what he hopes will be a first Pro Bowl trip for his left tackle, who signed a new long-term contract with the Buccaneers just before training camp. "He's playing Pro Bowl-caliber football. He's playing lights out. He wasn't given a contract by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he earned it. And he's gone out every day and earned it. Suggs is a great player and we've got to account for everything he's going to be able to do. Donald Penn is a great player in his own right, so they'll go out there and battle and compete. He's played against some great players already this year and done a great job."
Good Health for All
It doesn't appear as if injuries will have much of an impact on Sunday's battle between two 7-3 teams. Both the Buccaneers and Ravens submitted injury reports just five players long this week, and it's possible that only one of those 10 combined players will miss the game.
That one is Buccaneers' defensive end Kyle Moore, who as expected was ruled out on Friday's injury report, the first one of the week to include game-status designations. Tim Crowder will start at left end for the third game in a row in Moore's place.
The other four players on Tampa Bay's half of the report – linebacker Quincy Black (ankle), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot), tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) are all considered probable to play. That's particularly good news concerning Black, the only player among those four who missed last weekend's game. Black, in fact, has missed two games in a row with his ankle sprain but is expected to return to his starting strongside linebacker spot on Sunday.
There will probably not be a change on the offensive line, however, even with Trueblood getting closer to full strength. James Lee has started the last four games since Trueblood initially injured his knee, and played well, and the Bucs intend to stick with the third-year veteran this week.
"James started all week [in practice], so there's a good chance you'll see James," said Morris. "But that doesn't mean you won't see Trueblood in the game, like we've done in the past with [guards Jeremy] Zuttah and [Ted] Larsen and across the board."
The Ravens' injury report does list four players as questionable: guard Chris Chester (illness), tight end Ed Dickson (thigh), defensive end Cory Redding (elbow) and safety Tom Zbikowski (foot). However, only Chester, the team's starting right guard, did not participate in practice at all this week.
Redding, the Ravens' starter at defensive end, missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday but returned in a limited fashion on Friday. Zbikowski practiced without limitations on Friday, as did safety Ed Reed, who missed some time earlier in the week with an illness but is now considered probable.