Conservative Offense Capitalizes Just Enough
As he ran toward the locker room following his team's 16-0 victory against the Cowboys on Sunday, Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry jumped on the backs of two of his players and shouted, ``That's the way to play, guys. That was Buc Ball right there; that was Buc Ball.''
It was Buc Ball all right. Circa 1997. In a game that looked like it had been pulled off a highlight reel of Tony Dungy's heyday, the Bucs' defense dominated, and the offense, though conservative and inconsistent, capitalized just often enough to keep Tampa Bay (4-3) from falling below .500. ``In a lot of ways,'' Jon Gruden said, ``it was a defensive struggle.''
Many figured it would be. But few expected the tug of war that slowly materialized. With the Bucs having to insert two replacements into their secondary because of injuries, many thought it would be the Tampa Bay defense that would struggle. The Bucs' secondary appeared so vulnerable, in fact, that several players went into the game thinking the Cowboys would spend the day trying to pick it apart with passes. Like the 49ers a week ago, though, the Cowboys tried to run on the Bucs - repeatedly. They called six consecutive running plays to start the game and it wasn't until after the Bucs had built a 10-0 halftime lead that Dallas came off that approach. ``We were actually a little surprised by that,'' Ronde Barber said. ``At halftime we were saying that they really hadn't tested [our secondary] at all. That's was their fault.''
Actually, it may have been the 49ers' fault. A conservative offensive team themselves, the Cowboys believed after watching tape of the Bucs' loss last week at San Francisco that the best way to beat Tampa Bay was by consistently pounding the ball between the tackles. What they didn't expect was for the Bucs to challenge them to pass by bringing Barber and a linebacker to the line and leaving the corners and safeties mostly in man coverage against their trio of big-play receivers. ``They schemed us real good,'' said Cowboys lead back Troy Hambrick, who carried 11 times for just 25 yards. ``They brought the safeties down at the right time and they capitalized on our mistakes.''
They didn't capitalize fully. The Bucs intercepted Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter twice, but neither of those turnovers was converted into a touchdown. Instead, the Bucs settled for a pair of Martin Gramatica field goals. ``We hoped to make more plays than we did offensively,'' Gruden said. ``We definitely missed some opportunities to continue drives.''
Penalties were part of the problem. After first-time starting free safety Jermaine Phillips intercepted Carter two plays into the second quarter, the Bucs were flagged for procedure penalties twice at the Dallas 1, the second time on a fourth-and-goal try. The Cowboys were part of the problem, too. As their No. 1 overall ranking would suggest, they bowed up in front of their end zone after Barber intercepted Carter early in the third quarter, forcing Brad Johnson to throw the ball away on second- and third-down plays from the Dallas 8. In fact, the Cowboys forced Johnson to throw away several passes and sacked him twice. Overall, though, Johnson thought his protection was good and the offense performed well. ``We did a great job not turning the ball over and getting points when we needed to,'' he said. ``In diagnosing their fronts we did a good job and we came up with some big pass plays.''
The biggest came off a flea-flicker play in which Johnson took a toss back from running back Michael Pittman and then threw deep to a wide-open Ken Dilger. The Bucs gained 48 yards on the play, which Johnson suggested using during practice last week, and it set up their only touchdown - a 7-yard pass to Keyshawn Johnson. ``We worked on it all last week,'' Brad Johnson said. ``Looking at them we just thought they would bite on it. So we knew we were going to call it. We actually wanted to get to it earlier, in the first quarter. But coverage dictates that.''
Concerns about coverage dictated a lot of what the Bucs' defensive front seven did Sunday. With their secondary revamped, the linemen and linebackers knew they had to put pressure on Carter. ``[Defensive coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] challenged us to stop their run with a seven-man front because we couldn't use our safeties,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``So we said, `Y'all stay back and we'll handle it.' ''
They handled it all right. They got sacks from Sapp (who lost his helmet on the play), Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Chartric Darby, and stopped the Cowboys on nine of their 12 third-down tries. ``We played with a purpose today,'' Barber said. ``We knew we had to bounce back after that loss last week and we did. It was like old times again. And really, when you think about it, this defense hasn't changed much since Tony Dungy was here. If we bring our A-game, nobody's going to beat us.''