Stopping the Run Is Defense's No. 1 Priority

September 5 – Tampa Bay is just five days away from kicking off the 2001 regular season in Dallas. Although all of the questions swirling around One Buccaneer Place are about rookie QB Quincy Carter running the option, the Bucs' defense refuses to lose sight of stopping Dallas' rushing attack and RB Emmitt Smith.

Coach Dungy's message about stellar run defense appeared to be falling on deaf ears at the end of last season. After all, Tampa Bay's defense has carried the Buccaneers since Dungy has been the head coach (1996) and in 1999, the team made it to the NFC Championship Game with the third ranked defense in the NFL, just to lose to the St. Louis Rams, 11-6.

After the Bucs' offense scored 21, 41 and 31 in their first three regular season games last year, the defense let their guard down. The offense stalled soon after that and the defense was never able to recapture the flare they had possessed the year before.

But after watching the offensivless, but defensive powerhouse Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay's own backyard last January, Dungy's message is coming across to his players as loud as ever. On Sunday, Tampa Bay's field of dreams will be in Dallas. If they stop the run, wins will come.

"That's our philosophy, period," said Bucs' MLB Jamie Duncan. "No matter who we are playing, we try to stop the run to get people in passing situations so we can tee off with our front four and bring out blitz packages.

"This is how our team is built. Ever since I have been here, the number one focus has been stopping the run. We greatly increase our chances of winning when we are stout against the run. Stopping the run is our number one goal week in and week out."

Supporting Dungy's message are some pretty telling statistics. The last six teams that have reached the Super Bowl have all finished ranked third or higher in run defense. Pro Bowl SS John Lynch has no problem buying into Dungy's philosophy.

"That stat jumps out right at you," said Lynch. "No one illustrated that better than Baltimore last year and I think that kind of inspires us and probably other defenses around the league. It's shows you that it can be done and it emphasizes it a little more."

Pro Bowl LB Derrick Brooks is ready to stop talking about stopping the run and start doing it.

"I'm a little nervous for some reason," said Brooks. "I was sitting in the meeting thinking about that today. It's all for real now and we're looking good and feeling good right now, but I started feeling a little nervous for some reason. It's going to be fun, starting the season out on the road. There could be no better challenge than Dallas. We preached about stopping the run all preseason and we're going up against probably the best offensive line that we're probably going to see all year. We're up for the challenge."

Although stopping a team's rushing attack calls for certain individuals to maintain their gaps and make solo tackles, all 11 defensive players hold themselves responsible for stopping the run as a team.

"On this defense, it's everybody's responsibility," said Duncan. "All it takes is for one person to lose their gap and we're going to get gashed. Everybody's responsibility is to stop the run, so it's definitely a team effort."

Not only are Duncan and the Bucs' defense out to prove they can stop the run, but they are also planning on using Dallas as a stage to show the NFL and themselves they should still be considered one of the best defenses in the league.

"We didn't finish the season off the way we wanted to last year," said Duncan. "Ninth in the league is pretty good for a lot of people, but for us, we expect to be the top defense in the league every year. This is our first chance to prove to everybody and ourselves that we are the best defense in the league."

Tampa Bay made good on their goal in preseason. The Bucs only allowed the four offenses they faced to rush for a total of 145 yards (48.3 yards per carry). But Tampa Bay will be tested on Sunday when their defense attempts to stop one of the best running backs to ever play in Emmitt Smith, who rushed for 1,183 yards last season.

Making this task even more difficult will be facing an elusive quarterback in rookie Quincy Morgan and a solid offensive line blocking in front of them. So with these weapons along with wide receivers Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail, what must the Bucs' defense focus on first?

"Stopping the run," said Bucs' DT Warren Sapp. "That has got to be our first priority going into this thing. We're going to face a veteran offensive line that knows how to move the ball. We've got our work cut out for us. We're putting the big hats and big pads on and we're going to Dallas with a purpose and a mission.

"You try to stop the running game. They're not going to put the game in Quincy Carter's hands. That's just not smart. You have the greatest runner in the game, so turn around and hand the ball off. If we're not going to stop the run, they are going to continue to turn around and hand the ball off. That is why this game is going to be won in the trenches. Our four in front versus their five over there."

Dungy's message appears to be loud and clear, but he still can't stress the importance of containing a dangerous back like Smith enough.

"We have to keep Emmitt Smith under control," said Dungy. "If he can dictate the pace of the game and get 25 carries and keep us off balance, then we're going to have a tough time."

Although the Bucs defense held Smith to just 80 yards on 20 carries when the Bucs and Cowboys clashed in Raymond James Stadium last year, Sapp knows the defense must respect his game.

"Our goal has always been to stop the run," said Sapp. "Once we get them out of their running game, you're talking about a one-dimensional team. That bolds well for us because we've always rushed the passer well. When you have a guy like Emmitt and a rookie quarterback that they are not going to put the game on his shoulders, they are going to give the ball to Emmitt as many times as they can and play-action pass and other things. We must be prepared."

Some think there should be cause for concern for the Bucs' defense against the Cowboys' offense since Dallas have implemented the option play, draws and rollouts into their offense, but Tampa Bay's defense is not concerned about it.

"It's possible (that the Cowboys will run the option)," said Bucs' DE Simeon Rice. "But that's only one play. It's just another play you prepare for. It's like a shovel pass, except when you miss a shovel pass, it's incomplete, where as a missed option is a fumble."

In fact, Rice seemed to be pretty confident in his defense's ability against the option play if the Cowboys decide to run it.

"We're preparing for it," said Rice. "It's just one play. It can't break you. They scored on it in the preseason. Will they score on it against our defense? I don't know-I doubt it. It's just another play."

Sapp welcomes the possibilities of Carter running the option against the Bucs' defense.

"If they're going to do it, then it's their quarterback funeral," said Sapp. "I have a wring side seat for it, so I have no problem with it. Nobody runs the option. Are y'all crazy? It's just a changeup for a guy with speed and good mobility. That's playing to the strengths of his feet."

Although the Cowboys ran it in their final two games of the preseason, the Bucs' defense is not sold on Dallas running the option play against them on Sunday.

"It's an added wrinkle," said Duncan. "It's just one more thing you have to prepare for, so in that sense, it does help out their offense. It's one more thing we have to prepare for as far as our blitzes. It's just one thing you have to spend extra preparation on. It can cause a problem if you are not ready for it.

"I don't think they will run it. I think they were just doing it for preseason. Like I said, just so we can spend more time working on it. It does take up some of your time."

Although the Buccaneers do not believe the Cowboys will run the option against their defense with Carter, Dungy is still preparing for the possibility of seeing it by using elusive third-string QB Joe Hamilton in practice this week.

"Joe is going to be our look squad quarterback and will simulate Carter," said Dungy.

The Buccaneers' defense is a unit on a mission. That mission is to be the top defense in the NFL and in order to obtain that goal, their run defense must improve. It will all start on Sunday at Dallas.

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