Well, maybe the word "manhandle" is a bit of an exaggeration, but the Bucs' running game produced 183 yards on the ground and averaged 6.1 yards per carry against a respectable Miami run defense. Yes, running backs Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott, Travis Stephens and Aaron Stecker had a lot to do with producing those numbers, but so did Tampa Bay's offensive line.
Do you remember Tampa Bay's running attack last season, or lack thereof? It ranked 30th in the league, thanks to poor play from the offensive line and the consistent indecision of injured RB Warrick Dunn.
Well things certainly have changed since then, as Bucs offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir's troops demonstrated on Monday night. When Muir signed with Tampa Bay, it certainly was reasonable to expect the offensive line to improve this season. After all, how could they get worse? But the O-line showed something on Monday night that they severely lacked in the running game last season -- attitude.
Wasn't it refreshing to see left tackle Roman Oben consistently protect his quarterbacks' blindside? Wasn't it nice to see left guard Kerry Jenkins use proper hand technique to push Miami's defensive line back and open holes on the weakside of the field for his running backs? Wasn't it nice to watch Kenyatta Walker not get manhandled at left tackle, but instead hold his own at his natural position – right tackle? Wasn't it kind of cool to see Gruden pull not only his guards in blocking schemes, but his tackles, too? Isn't nice to know that if a starting offensive lineman isn't carrying his weight and/or is injured, the Bucs has options on the bench?
It was, indeed, refreshing to see Tampa Bay's running backs run through holes and into space instead of running into congested piles and their own offensive linemen's backs.
While the offensive line play has improved, Gruden's play calling alone has helped improve Tampa Bay's rushing attack. When was the last time you remember Tony Dungy's offense pitching to one of its running backs out of the backfield? How about a designed cutback? Still trying to remember? Well don't waste your time. You won't find too many of those plays in your memory from Dungy's offenses.
Some of Miami's defensive players suggested that Gruden pulled nearly all of the plays out of his playbook on Monday night in order to defeat the Dolphins. In case you're wondering, that suggestion is a falsehood. As a regular visitor to Disney's Wide World of Sports complex for training camp, I can honestly say, "you haven't seen anything yet". Trust me.
Gruden's running back-personnel has helped to improve the Bucs' ground attack, too. It certainly was nice to see a running back other than the "A-Train" run over a defender, wasn't it? Defenders won't be picking their poison in terms of Tampa Bay's running game. Gruden will pick it for them. The Bucs have a feature back in Pittman. They have two power-type backs in Pittman and Alstott. They have situational-type backs in Stephens and Stecker. With such a diverse group of backs, one has to wonder how this group can't succeed this season.
The offensive line has a lot of room to improve, but they look like they're already a better unit than last season, which bodes well for Tampa Bay's offense. The Bucs added a wealth of big-name free agents to its offense during the offseason, but don't kid yourselves – Gruden's offensive successes and/or failures will rest heavily on the play of his offensive line. Last season, the offensive line was on life support. After watching training camp and one preseason game, Gruden and Muir's offensive line looks like they're capable of being both a consistent and dominant force in 2002 in terms of the ground game.
But it was just one preseason game, wasn't it? I suppose the jury is still out, but a verdict should be in sooner rather than later.
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