Bailout Plan Saves Bucs Once More
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 17 November 2008

Their motto is "fly to the ball." They've spent most of this year flying under the radar. Maybe that will change after what happened Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

When they held NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson to 85 yards in a 19-13 victory over the Vikings it marked the seventh time this year the Bucs defense has derailed one of the league's top 10 ground gainers. "It would be scary to see where we'd be without the help of that defense of ours," Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "They've pulled us out so many times this year."

Sunday was another in a long line of bailouts. Though they moved the ball well at times, the Bucs offense struggled to score yet again, settling for four field goals on five trips inside the Vikings' 20-yard line. The Bucs also blew a chance to seal the game late in the fourth quarter, when Matt Bryant missed a 46-yard field after the Bucs forced the Vikings to give the ball up on downs at their own 27-yard line.

The defense came to the rescue yet again, though, this time by forcing a Chester Taylor fumble that wound up in the hands of cornerback Ronde Barber with 1:14 left. "You really have to give them credit," said Peterson, who was coming off a 192-yard rushing effort against Green Bay the week before. "They did a good job. They just totally took us out of our game."

The Vikings game is to run the ball. As Peterson's league-leading 1,015 yards prior to Sunday indicate, they usually do a good job of it. They did a good job of it for a while on Sunday, too. Peterson racked up 71 yards on 13 carries to help Minnesota build a 13-6 halftime lead. The second half belonged to the Bucs, though. In particular it belonged to the Bucs defense.

A long drive to open the third quarter resulted in a touchdown that tied the game and the defense took over after that, limiting Peterson to 14 second-half yards while the Vikings managed just three second-half first downs. "We didn't change anything that we were doing," said Barrett Ruud, who led his team with 11 tackles and had one of the Bucs season-best five sacks. "We just played better."

They needed to. With Carolina winning again the Bucs (7-3) needed the victory to keep pace with the Panthers, who lead the NFC South division with an 8-2 record. No one in the Bucs locker room wanted to talk about Carolina on Sunday, though. They wanted to cherish this victory for at least a day or two and then their plan is to focus on Detroit.

It's a wise approach because the winless Lions could prove to be a problem for the Bucs, especially after giving the Panthers a bit of a game before losing on Sunday. The Lions were one of the teams to beat the Bucs last year, and they'll have a chance to throw an upset loss on Tampa Bay again this week when the Bucs travel again to Ford Field.

Already people are wondering if that upcoming Lions game might be a trap game, and it could be, especially after the Bucs nearly got trapped at Kansas City two weeks ago. As it did on Sunday, though, the Bucs defense allowed Tampa Bay to pull out a key victory at Kansas City, largely because it played superbly in the second half of the game. "It seems like nothing has been easy lately, but a win is a win and we'll take anything we can get," Ruud said. "Every week is important right now. It's going to come down to the wire in this division."

That may be a good thing. The Bucs clearly have some areas of deficiency that have to be addressed, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and especially in the red zone. They went into Sunday's game ranked 30th in the league in red-zone touchdown production and only got worse. They're now scoring a TD on just a third of their trips inside the 20 and everyone seems concerned about it.

Adding to the concern is the potential loss of running back Earnest Graham, who left the game with an ankle injury after just two plays. Graham was already nursing a sore knee, and now he has a new malady that could limit him. Of course, the loss of Graham didn't really seem to hurt the Bucs all that much against Minnesota. They moved the ball between the 20s with ease at times and created several scoring chances.

Warrick Dunn was one of the big reasons. Though he only gained 2.7 yards per carry, he accounted for 118 total yards, including 65 that came as a result of four pass receptions. "He had to play in every situation, all the time," Jon Gruden said of Dunn. "It's really a credit to him. I don't even know if we punted today. Maybe one time at the end of the first half. But Warrick Dunn caught the ball, made some really big plays, made some really good traffic runs and at the end of the day, protected the ball for us, which was really big against a team like this."

The Vikings couldn't protect it. They gave the ball away twice on fumbles, once during a kick return and once during a critical drive, both times late in the game. That and the defense's ability to swarm to Peterson and limit him allowed the Bucs to pull out a victory that just may force the rest of the league to finally take notice of what's happening here in Tampa.

"Hopefully some of our defensive players start to get some recognition now," Gruden said. "I don't know why people don't talk about our middle linebacker [Ruud] more. Or why people don't talk about our defensive players more. But if you're listening out there, we do have a heck of a defense here. We really do."