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Zoned in

The area inside the opponents' 20 isn't as forbidding this season for the Bucs.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002


photo
[AP photo]
Joe Jurevicius comes down with a touchdown catch Sunday against Atlanta.
DETROIT -- Brad Johnson has pleaded to have silenced the cannons from the pirate ship in the north end zone at Raymond James Stadium that boom whenever the Bucs drive inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

No wonder. The Bucs quarterback is the only real source of firepower in the red zone for Tampa Bay.

No team has fewer rushing touchdowns than the Bucs, whose offense has reached the end zone the past 15 times via the air.

"That's been a real key in terms of scoring," coach Jon Gruden said. "The hard part to believe is, normally we'd have felt that running the ball is critical down there. And we haven't done that worth a hoot.

"We get a third and goal for a touchdown (pass) against Green Bay, we get a fourth and goal for a touchdown (pass) against Carolina. It's very hard to throw down there.

"But we've gotten some really good execution. We've had some nice throws from Brad and some timely plays by (Joe) Jurevicius and (Keenan) McCardell. Guys have stepped up and made plays. But we've done it the hard way, now. It's not been easy. It's very unconventional, as far as I'm concerned."

If you want to see where Gruden has improved the Bucs offense, look at their efficiency in the red zone.

In 39 possessions, Tampa Bay has a touchdown percentage of 51.3 percent (20 touchdowns, 11 field goals). Last season the TD percentage was 45.3 percent.

No quarterback is hotter than Johnson, who has broken a club record with 22 touchdown passes. More startling is that 15 of them have come within the red zone, when the field becomes shorter and it is harder to squeeze passes between defenders.

Johnson insists the credit belongs to Gruden, who pores over film to make sure his play calling near the goal line is anything but predictable.

"I just think Jon mixes up plays," Johnson said. "If we have tendencies, I don't really know what they are. Because I don't think any of us really know what he's going to call. We practice and I know what five or six runs we have and what five or six passes. But from week to week, it may be Week 1 when he pulled out the same play.

"He really breaks his own tendencies. He's very careful. He studies his own film and does research of himself, what he's done against the same coordinator or against the same team. He looks into that with great detail. We work on it a lot. I just think we've been pulling the trigger down there. It's just making plays, guys making plays. Getting a little protection time in there and guys breaking tackles, whatever it may be."

Watch closely and you will see the Bucs executing great timing patterns between Johnson and his receivers inside the red zone.

As the field shrinks, speed becomes less of a factor and Johnson can squeeze the ball into big receivers like 6-foot-5 Jurevicius, 6-4 Keyshawn Johnson and 6-5 tight end Ken Dilger.

"It really is a credit to (Johnson) and a credit to Friday's practice when we go out and only emphasize red zone (offense)," Gruden said. "We realize that one throw there is worth seven points. On a regular field, one throw might be worth 7 yards. But right there, one strike, one timely pattern, that much separation, that much location is seven points. And I think our guys get up for Friday's practice. I think they like the package, they feel like we've got a chance to strike and are running precise patterns.

"We're getting paid, too, now. We're not getting paid to let them break it up and cover us. We've got big guys and in the red area particularly. We may not have the 40-yard watch time, but we do have size advantage most of the time. Jurevicius makes a great catch against Green Bay because of his wingspan for the touchdown. And we've had numerous plays down there like that because you have a bigger surface to throw at and sometimes it pays a big dividend."

Another factor has been taking care of the ball. Johnson has thrown one interception in the red zone and Tampa Bay has not lost a fumble near the goal line.

"More than anything, we've stayed away from turnovers," Johnson said. "We haven't been fumbling down there, we haven't been throwing picks. At least, we've been coming away with a field goal attempt. We've scored the points. We've scored touchdowns, but we haven't been turning it over. At least you get three. We've driven down there, but the defense has gotten us down there, too, with turnovers."

Credit Gruden's aggressiveness inside the 20. Former Raiders coach John Madden always liked to take a strike at the end zone as soon as his team reached the red zone. The Bucs might not be that predictable, but Gruden agrees with the premise. It's hard to drive within scoring distance and teams have to take advantage of those scoring chances.

"It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to do it on the first play," Gruden said. "But normally, it's an aggressive approach. It can be three downs to score a touchdown, not just to make a first down. But then again, there are some defenses that you're seeing now that aren't like they used to be. They used to blitz more than they are now and you used to get the single coverage there because of the shrunken field. But now you're seeing a lot of double zone, a lot of seven in the end zone and box-type coverages where finding windows are very hard and it's almost now where you have to be committed to run it. You have to say we're going to score on the ground. But we haven't been able to do that lately."

In fact, the Bucs' last rushing TD came in Week 6 against Cleveland. So close the gun turrets. If someone is going to take aim and pull the trigger in the red zone, it's Johnson.

"Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get," Gruden said. "We still have a long way to go to get this offense where we want it to be."


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