Earnest Graham's first career touchdown run came at a critical time in Sunday's victory. The Bucs were up only 10-3 with about eight minutes left in the game and desperately needed a score to put some distance between themselves and the Rams.
Graham made it happen — with some help from the men up front.
Tampa Bay faced 1st and goal at the Rams 8. This came just after Graham bulled his way to a 20-yard gain. Tampa Bay was in an I-formation, with fullback B.J. Askew as the lead blocker. Receiver Joey Galloway was split wide left and the Buccaneers were in a two-tight end formation overloaded to the right.
At the snap, the play shifted to the right, so it's a stretch or off-tackle play. Garcia pitched to Graham. Luke Petitgout and Arron Sears sealed off the back side. Meanwhile, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood pulled out and joins tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith in sliding to the right.
As Graham received the pitch, a lane developed between Trueblood and the two tight ends. Trueblood sealed off the outside rusher, allowing Graham to cut inside and follow Askew, who further sealed off the inside with a block of his own. Right guard Davin Joseph and, it appeared, center John Wade, sealed off the left side. As Graham ran across the 10-yard line marker outside the right hash, the crease became clear.
The final obstacle came at the 5, where Becht hung on to his seal block for dear life. He was in Graham's way, and the back leapt outside a bit to avoid Becht and find daylight. At that point, there's no stopping him.
It should be noted that the same play scored Carnell Williams in the third quarter. When run correctly, the play works exactly like that — the strong side blockers create the crease, while the back side blockers seal off pursuing linebackers and defensive backs.
Defensively, the Bucs made plenty of big plays. Here's two of them.
The Rams faced third-and-three at the Tampa Bay 35 with 13:30 left in the second quarter. The Rams chose to make a living on short passes all day. Steven Jackson was the lone set back. The Rams had a receiver on each side, but close to the offensive line, plus a tight end just off the offensive line on the right. The Bucs defense had eight in the box.
At the snap, Holt broke off the line of scrimmage and ran a short out, while safety Jermaine Phillips held his position inside of the receiver. Bulger rolled to his right and had good protection.
Bulger thought he had Holt open on the sideline with enough yardage for the first down. But Phillips made one of the most athletic plays I've seen him make, leaping in front of the ball to make the catch and register Tampa Bay's first interception of the day.
At first glance, this looked like a complete failure on Bulger's part, but looking a little deeper the Bucs used their defense to disguise Phillips a bit. Derrick Brooks shadowed Bulger on the play. You could see Brooks extend his hand to try and bat down the pass. Perhaps Bulger was occupied with avoiding Brooks and didn't notice how well Phillips ferreted out the play.
Either way, Bulger never saw him.
Late in the fourth quarter the Rams faced 3rd-and-5 from the Rams 23. The Rams, down 17-3, had to make a play.
The Rams were in the shotgun, with Jackson to Bulger's left. The Rams are in a "trips" formation — two receivers to each side. The Bucs were in a base defensive set. There was no blitz at the snap.
Bulger took the snap and dropped back. But the pocket broke down quickly, thanks to left end Greg Spires who sped around the right tackle and forced Bulger to move up in the pocket.
Inside, Bucs rookie tackle Greg Peterson seemed to come slowly off the snap, perhaps on a stunt. On the replay, something odd happened. Peterson stood up his blocker and Greg White — playing right end — moved laterally to hit Peterson's blocker and open up a lane. It seemed to happen almost by accident. But, in doing so, Peterson became free to move into the pocket as Bulger stepped up.
Peterson couldn't be slowed. Bulger tried to move to his right, but Kevin Carter — playing inside — cut off Bulger's path and shared in the sack with Peterson.
What didn't work?
Up against the end zone a team can't take a big loss. But that's what happened to Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia in the third quarter, as he took an 11-yard loss that pushed the Bucs back to their own 4-yard line.
The Bucs faced 2nd-and-8 at their own 15. Tampa Bay featured six blockers (including a tight end), receivers set in the slot on either side plus an offset I with Michael Pittman deep. The Rams defense had five on the line of scrimmage.
Garcia should have had adequate protection, but as he snapped the football and dropped back to fake a handoff to Pittman, his protection quickly broken down.
Rams right end Trevor Johnson went straight against Bucs left tackle Luke Petitgout — or at least that what he probably thought would happen. Instead, the play's design had Petitgout help guard Arron Sears with nose tackle Adam Carriker. Then the tight end would block Johnson before going out to receive. But the tight end, Alex Smith, didn't lay a hand on Johnson. That left Johnson a clear path to Garcia, who had no idea what was happening. Pittman attempted to pick up Johnson, but the end stayed on his feet after a cut block.
On Garcia's right side, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood lost his battle with left end Leonard Little. As Johnson regained his balance after Pittman's block, Little cut inside on Trueblood and made a path to Garcia.
Garcia attempted to slip away from Johnson, but was way too late recognizing the breakdown and lost 11 yards on the sack.
This play failed because the Rams schemed correctly on defense and Smith blew an assignment. St. Louis was able to get a rush on Garcia with five players, leaving six in coverage. Since the Bucs sent just two wide receivers, plus fullback B.J. Askew, out to receive, Garcia had no one to throw to and smartly took the sack instead of making a costly mistake.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.