Bucs are still winning despite a 347-pound hole in the lineup
Big win, right? Monday Night Football. Nifty little comeback. What's not to like?

Well, I suppose there were a few minor complaints in Tampa Bay's 25-23 victory. I mean, the Bucs weren't the same team that steamrolled Green Bay and Las Vegas by a combined 83-30 the previous two weeks. But they can't all be laughers, am I right?

So forget I even brought it up. I'm sure it's nothing. It's just that … Did you see how many yards the Giants gained? Even worse, did you see how many yards the Giants left on the field because quarterback Daniel Jones couldn't hit a deep pass? New York gained a season-high 357 yards, which seems odd against a defense as good as Tampa Bay's.

It's probably just a fluke. A blip. A rare off-night for a defense that has forced as many turnovers as any team in the NFL, and has been the league's best at shutting down the running game for the past two years. But that's what was so uncharacteristic.

The Bucs had gone a team-record 13 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards before Monday night. Of course, the Giants only gained 101 yards, so it's not a big deal. Except, two weeks ago the Bucs gave up 94 yards rushing, which happens to be the second-most they've allowed in the last 14 games.

In fact, after holding opponents to 58.4 yards rushing per game through the season's first five weeks, the Bucs have yielded 90.3 rushing yards the past three weeks. Some of it can be attributed to quarterback scrambles, but not all of it.

Now, it's entirely possible that this has more to do with game plans and opponents and happenstance. After all, the Bucs have won all three of those games. It's not like opposing offensive lines were knocking the Bucs off the ball all night long.

It's just the timing that seems curious. You see, this all began when Vita Vea got hurt. Vea had already established himself as one of the best interior linemen in the NFL when he broke his ankle late in the Chicago game in Week 5. He was a 347-pound immovable object, who routinely drew double-teams and served as a valuable deterrent against teams hoping to run.

The Bucs immediately recognized the potential fallout and traded for Jets lineman Steve McLendon to team with Rakeem Nunez-Roches as tag-team replacements for Vea. And McLendon had a nice debut against the Raiders last week with five tackles. But it was kind of startling to see how determined New York was to run up the middle Monday night. It was even more startling to see the Giants have a modicum of success.

Linebacker Lavonte David did not sound overly concerned after the game, saying there were a few adjustments that were made during halftime that slowed New York down. "As you guys know, we take pride in stopping the run on this football team. That belongs to the front seven (and) we didn't get the job done," David said. "The first time we gave up 100 yards rushing to a football team, obviously that's something that we definitely don't want because we want to try to make teams as one-dimensional as we can. We made some adjustments and fixed the things that were hurting us."

It's not just the extra 30 or so yards per game that is cause for concern. It's how those yards affect everything else. The Giants ran the ball 16 times on first down, which is the second-most of any opponent against the Bucs this season. Coming into the game, the Bucs had held teams to 2.8 yards per run on first down. New York averaged 4.2 yards. That's a pretty significant difference in terms of play-calling on second down.

As David said, the Bucs have excelled at reducing opponents to a one-dimensional attack. By shutting down the run, Tampa Bay forces teams into passing situations, which allows the defense to blitz and create havoc with sacks and turnovers.

That just didn't seem as evident Monday night. Jones did get picked off twice while being pressured by Shaquil Barrett, but that seemed to have more to do with an inexperienced quarterback making foolish throws. There were far more occasions when Jones had time to throw and simply missed receivers downfield.

Like I said, the game was probably just an outlier. A rare occurrence where a determined offense ran into a sluggish Bucs defense. But Vea is the biggest injury the Bucs have had to overcome this season. And, three games later, it's still worth wondering how it will turn out.

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 3 November 2020