Flynn's Focus: Defense Gets Ready For Rush Hour

October 18 – Tampa Bay's defense has come under the fire of some tough rushing attacks this season, but none of them compare to what Pittsburgh is getting ready to bring into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. The Steelers have the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, but Tampa Bay's defense likes their chances of halting Pittsburgh's diverse rushing attack.

We heard all offseason from the Buccaneers defense how their No. 1 priority this season was going to be stopping the run. We had heard it since mini-camp, so by the time training camp and preseason came around, the defense's pledge was starting to sound like a broken record. In fact, Tampa Bay's defense has done a lot of talking this year and not done much to back it up.

The Bucs defense is ranked 13th in the NFL against the run, but it's not because they are failing to stop opposing teams' running backs. The quarterbacks are the ones who are running wild on the Bucs, and with another elusive quarterback in Kordell Stewart and two dangerous running backs in Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue coming to Tampa, one would think Tampa Bay's defense is facing a serious dilemma.

"That's the way this league is going," said MLB Jamie Duncan. "You have these mobile quarterbacks that can make plays and make defenses get out of position and make them do things they normally wouldn't do in their philosophy. It's difficult because you have to be aware of it, but you don't want to change your whole scheme because they have a scrambling quarterback."

But the Buccaneers defense refuses to pick their poison. Instead, the Bucs defense is confident they will pick apart the Steelers' No. 14 offense and No. 1 rushing attack. But they know stopping the run is not a choice, but rather a necessity.

"We feel like we'll play better," said SS John Lynch. But we have to make that happen. We can't just say we will. It's got to start this week. We've just got to do it."

Tampa Bay's defense has had some mixed results against run this season. The Bucs are giving up 100 yards rushing per game, but the majority of those yards are not coming from the running backs. The quarterbacks are giving the defense the problems.

The Buccaneers have faced three quarterbacks that like to scramble out of the pocket and make plays with their feet along with their arms. Tampa Bay contained Dallas QB Quincy Carter. He rushed five times for only 13 yards against the Bucs defense in Week 1. But in their next game against Minnesota, Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper carried the ball five times for 20 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a quarterback draw in the fourth quarter. Holding two elusive quarterbacks to 33 yards on 10 carries is nothing to panic about. But last Sunday, Titans QB Steve McNair escaped the pocket nine times against the Bucs defense and rushed for 54 yards and one touchdown. The Buccaneers see striking similarities in Stewart and McNair.

"He's similar," said Dungy. "He's a guy that has been in a lot of big games and playoff games and he's a guy that can make people miss in the pocket. They have a lot more designed running plays for him than the other guys we have played against."

Stewart has rushed 25 times this season for 136 yards (5.4 avg.) and 1 touchdown, and with a less than stellar passing attack, he will certainly be running on Sunday.

"He uses his running skills as part of the offense," said Lynch. "There is designed running plays in there for him and we'll be ready for those. As far as keeping him in the pocket, we just have to do it."

The Bucs are well aware of their inability at times to stop quarterbacks after they elude the pass rush from their defensive front four, but Tampa Bay thinks practice is the only thing that can help them stop Stewart on Sunday.

"You have to account for them," said head coach Tony Dungy. "They bring another facet to the game and that's versatility and it makes you a little more cautious in terms of your blitzes and your pass rush gaps. It adds a little more to the preparation."

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin acknowledges the problems Stewart can create for his defense, but feels he has a Stewart clone in third-string QB Joe Hamilton.

"We're working hard on it," said Kiffin. "I promise you Joe Hamilton is going to be sore by the end of the week because he is going to be scrambling all over the field."

Stewart is just a fraction of Pittsburgh's ground game. Steelers RB Jerome "The Bus" Bettis is leading the charge of their rushing attack. Bettis has helped the Steelers average a whopping 192 yards rushing per game this season. The Bus has rushed for 407 yards per game on 76 carries (5.4 avg.) and is relied on to carry the offense since Pittsburgh's passing offense is ranked near the bottom of the league at 29.

"He's a big load and runs hard," said Lynch. "They're running well right now. Their offensive line comes at you with all kinds of different plays and schemes. They're really on it right now. They're aggressive, so it's a great challenge. We've actually been happy with how we've been happy with how we've played the run and we've got to continue that this week. Monte (Kiffin) talked about it this week and told us he can't remember and doesn't know if he's ever seen a team averaging 192 yards rushing per game in the NFL. That quite a statistic and it will be a challenge."

Pittsburgh has a third element to their running game and he is RB Amos Zereoue. He doesn't touch the ball too often, but when he does, he makes it count. Zereoue has carried the ball 29 times for 199 yards (6.9 avg.) this season.

After listening to Dungy, one will find the Steelers' offensive philosophy is strikingly similar to the one the Buccaneers used to have. Pittsburgh likes to pound the ball all game and throw in some low risk passes into the mix. By the end of the game, the score should be close, and you're counting on your running game to have worn the opposing defense out. Sound familiar?

"They're running the ball a lot," said Dungy. "They're playing a lot of ball control offense that's their way of scoring. They have very good backs and they have a good quarterback that can make yards on the ground. That's their game and they try to ware you down and beat you in the fourth quarter."

Dungy believes the Bucs defense is up to the challenge of stopping the No. 1 rushing attack in the league. But he knows his defense needs to be on top of their game and much more consistent.

"We need to basically tackle better, said Dungy. "Be in your spot, cover your guy and sack the quarterback when you get the chance. It's not a hard game."


Copyright 2001 Buccaneer Magazine/BucMag.com

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