Two games into a season that already is threatening to fall short of expectations, the Bucs were summed up in one numbing word by defensive leader Warren Sapp on Sunday. "Beatable," Sapp said in the wake of the Bucs' 20-16 loss to the Vikings at the Metrodome. "If there's one word to describe us, that's it. Beatable."
On any given Sunday, "beatable" can describe many teams in the NFL. It's not supposed to describe the Bucs. Not when they are ahead late in the fourth quarter and their opponent has to go 96 yards to reach the end zone. But that was just one of the holes the Bucs (1-1) allowed the Vikings (1-2) to climb out of Sunday. Another was an 0-3 hole, the likes of which the Vikings haven't been in for 34 years.
What was troubling Sapp the most was the escape the Vikings pulled off after finding themselves at their own 4-yard line and trailing 16-13 with 6:21 to play.
The Bucs have developed a reputation for burying teams mired in that situation, for turning that area of the field into a graveyard. Indeed, they were 46-7 when leading in the fourth under Tony Dungy before Sunday. That was why Sapp liked his odds against the Vikings so much. "With the 11 dogs I hunt with, no doubt about it," Sapp said. "I'll take that any time."
Sunday, the Bucs came to their graveyard without a shovel. On a self-exhuming drive that started with a 7-yard, life-giving run by Michael Bennett, the Vikings ate up those pivotal 96 yards in 11 plays, only one of which can be considered bigger than the 8-yard quarterback draw Daunte Culpepper scored on with 1:03 to play.
The biggest play was a Culpepper pass into triple-Pro Bowler coverage. Tight end Byron Chamberlain jumped over Donnie Abraham and Derrick Brooks, caught the pass and sprinted down the sideline before being run out of bounds by Dexter Jackson at the Bucs 3-yard line, completing a 37-yard play. "We've got three of our best players there," Sapp said, referring also to John Lynch, who was in on the play. "We've got to come up with that ball."
Indeed they do. But had that been the only play the Bucs failed to make Sunday, concern over the direction the team is headed might not be so high right now. There were plenty of other misses, including several sack opportunities that went unrealised.
Two came on third-down plays during a late second-half scoring drive. In each case Culpepper somehow managed to get the ball off to fullback Jim Kleinsasser (he literally flipped the ball to him on the second) for critical first-down gains. "We got good heat on him; we forced him to make some [dangerous] throws," nose tackle Anthony McFarland said of Culpepper, who completed a career-high 30 of 44 attempts for 322 yards. "We did everything but put him down and keep him from making big plays."
Brad Johnson made some plays himself, completing 20 of 34 passes for 224 yards. But neither he nor anyone on the Bucs' offense made enough big plays, especially when they reached the red zone. The Bucs ran just two times for a net total of 4 yards inside the Vikings 20 - where they produced one touchdown in four tries - and Johnson was just 2-for-8 passing, with a sack and an interception. "You can't get nothing but field goals and beat the Minnesota Vikings," Jacquez Green said. "I mean, we moved the ball; we just didn't capitalise on our opportunities."
That's nothing new. The Bucs, who set a team record for red-zone efficiency under co-ordinator Les Steckel a year ago, now have scored a touchdown on just two of their eight trips inside the 30 this season. "We've got to find a better way of finishing the big plays, the third-down plays," said Dungy, whose club followed an eight of 15 third-down showing at Dallas with a 1-for-8 performance Sunday. "We have got to find a way to score touchdowns."
They've got to get better at stopping them, too, and soon. The unbeaten Packers come to town next week, and while it's still very early, the Bucs' inability to beat the Vikings makes it a pivotal game. "We had a chance to finish a team off today and didn't do it," Brooks said. "We're down. But by no means are we out."