What a rush
The Bucs offense is so simplistic, you would swear every team and its grandmother has it figured out. But at least admit that what it accomplished Sunday was unpredictable.
One week after being shut out of the end zone, the Bucs won an improbable shootout with one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn became the first players in team history to each rush for more than 100 yards in a game as the Bucs scored on five of their seven possessions to upset the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings 27-24.
It was the Bucs' third come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium, and at 4-4, it left them one game under last year's record at midseason.
"For what we'd been doing on offense to do what we did today, that's an awesome achievement," Alstott said. "We held together as a family. There was a lot of outside talk that we needed a new quarterback, or we needed a change, we needed this, we needed that. But that comes from our leader, that we're going to stick with what we believe in and how we've done things in the past."
The victory was vindication for coach Tony Dungy, who had been portrayed as some bobble-head doll for refusing to alter his offensive philosophy.
Dungy said the Bucs would win by running. They rushed for a team- record 246 yards against Minnesota. He said they needed to protect the ball. They had no turnovers. He said he didn't need to raise his voice, yet the message was heard by his maligned offense. "As often as we've said it all year, there would be a time when the offense had to bail the defense out, and they did that today," Dungy said. "They played great football. Our defense finally came up with a couple plays in the end and won the football game."
The Bucs were 6 1/2-point underdogs and minus their starting cornerbacks against the receiving trio of Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss.
The Vikings had not scored fewer than 29 points, and Tampa Bay's offense had hit rock bottom in a 9-3 loss at New Orleans the previous week.
"It was a shootout today," Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham said. "Whoever had the ball last was going to win, and they did."
Dunn, (115 rushing yards, 49 receiving), ignited the Bucs in the first half. Alstott, who rushed for a career-high 128 yards, put the game away in the fourth quarter.
"Probably those same ugly plays up the middle that nobody likes," Dungy said. "But that's our game."
The Bucs ended their ignoble streak of not scoring a TD in the first half, reaching the end zone on their first two possessions for the first time since 1989.
Each team had the ball three times in the first half, and each scored for a 17-17 tie at halftime.
Cunningham, who entered 5-0 as a starter in relief of injured Brad Johnson, was never sharper.
His 44-yard TD pass to Reed (six catches, 117 yards) came with rookie Brian Kelly on him like a rash. Cunningham also launched pinpoint passes of 41 yards to Moss and 30 yards to Andrew Glover. The Bucs trailed 24-17 on Cunningham's 1-yard TD pass to Reed with 9:23 left in the third quarter. "It was really unbelievable," Dungy said of Cunningham. "Picking up some third and longs, scrambling around, getting away from the rush. He just made a ton of plays. I said before, I think the first half of the season you'd have to say he's the MVP of the league."
Dungy chose not to attempt a field goal on fourth and 7 from the Viking 31, leading to a touchdown on the Bucs' initial possession for the first time in 20 games. It sent a powerful message to a foudering offense. "You go into the game against Minnesota knowing you're going to need points," Dungy said. "So we kind of had it in our minds all week if we got in those situations, we were going to go for it. You have to take some chances. You have to be aggressive on offense when you're playing against a great offense like they have."
The move, however, stunned his offense, which had to be told to return to the field. "We were looking for the field-goal unit," guard Frank Middleton said. "And then we stayed in, and I thought, 'Man, they're putting a lot of pressure on us because they think we can do it.' I mean, that was huge. I think that changed the game."
Trent Dilfer hit Dunn out of the backfield for a 10-yard gain and a first down at the 21. Dunn was Dilfer's third read. He capped the drive with a 10-yard run around left end, picking up a block from Alstott on safety Robert Griffith. Cunningham had a count of about five Mississippi to find a receiver for three quarters Sunday. The Bucs didn't want to put their young corners, Ronde Barber and Kelly, on an island because it would have been more like Rikers than a tropical one against the Vikings receivers.
But when the Bucs started to blitz more on third down, it disrupted Cunningham.
His arm was hit by linebacker Alshermond Singleton, forcing a wobbly pass that was intercepted by Derrick Brooks, who returned it 25 yards. That set up Michael Husted's 38-yard field goal to cut the Viking lead to 24-20. "We kind of saved some things for the second half," Dungy said. "We tried some things in the first half and wanted to come back with some counters. We just tried to pick it at the right time."
A corner blitz by Barber resulted in a sack of Cunningham and forced the Vikings to punt for the first time with 9:37 remaining.
Taking over at the Viking 43, Dilfer threw for one first down and scrambled for another. On third and 1, Alstott bulldozed 6 yards for a TD.
The Bucs led 27-24 with 5:48 left. Minnesota went three-and-out, with defensive tackle Brad Culpepper sacking Cunningham for an 11- yard loss on third down.
Alstott made it stand up by rushing for two first downs, including 37-yard run to ice it.
It was an unusual sight, watching the Bucs' No. 3 overall defense rely on its offense. "I was thinking that to myself in the third quarter," Dungy said. "I've never been in a game like this where you really felt like it was going to be tough stopping the other team. But our offense did a great job of fighting back every time and moving the football."
"The (offense) knew the heat was on them," Culpepper said. "We told them, 'Listen, you guys are going to have to do it for us. If we can keep them to 24, we've done a tremendous job.' They listened. I think they were determined all week to come out and move the ball. As bad as we feel after the win, I think that team over there feels twice as bad because they really got mauled."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998