Hitting the high spots
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
It's no stretch to say one key to the Bucs' successful passing attack is the size advantage of their top receivers.
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003
TAMPA - As Joe Jurevicius jogged to the sideline after his first touchdown against the Eagles on Monday, the one before the Immaculate Deflection, he repeatedly was slapped on the helmet by an exuberant Keyshawn Johnson.
"And you're slow! And you're slow!" Johnson kept repeating.
Of course, Johnson was referring to the general misperception that because Jurevicius is 6 feet 5, 230 pounds, he must be about as fast as cold molasses.
But whether it's Jurevicius, the 6-foot-4 Johnson or 6-foot-1 Keenan McCardell, the Bucs receivers keep running opposing secondaries ragged.
Why? Because they run precise routes, use their body to shield defenders from the football and can leap over smaller defensive backs in a single bound.
"It's like lobbing it up to Yao Ming," quarterback Brad Johnson said of Jurevicius. "He's so tall and... he's got long arms so he's kind of like a guy who's 6-7.
"I think all three of our receivers have something they bring to the table. In this league nowadays, I don't think it's all about speed. More important than anything else for a receiver is being quarterback-friendly with your body. Running good routes, being able to catch the ball in traffic and then getting yards after the catch. That's kind of where the game is."
The Carolina Panthers (1-0) will need to be particularly aware of where Tampa Bay's trio of receivers are today, especially since cornerbacks Terry Cousin (5 feet 9) and Reggie Howard (6 feet) will be vertically challenged against a Bucs passing game that is often horizontal.
It will be hard for the Panthers to zero in on one receiver because coach Jon Gruden likes to spread the ball around. Nine players caught passes in the Bucs' 17-0 win at Philadelphia Monday and six had multiple receptions. Fewer than half of Johnson's 27 completions went to his wideouts.
"In this offense, you catch short passes and make long runs," McCardell said. "A prime example was my first catch. It was about a 5-yard throw and I ended up with 20. It's the yards after the catch. We'll take our shots if we have them, but a lot of times, we're going to move the chains and control the game."
Gruden is a disciple of the West Coast offense, which he learned as an offensive assistant under then-coordinator Mike Holmgren with the 49ers in 1990. He always has been partial to big, physical receivers who run slants and crossing routes and catch in traffic.
"You take the West Coast offense in general," Keyshawn Johnson said. "When you think about it, Jerry Rice and John Taylor, no speed. Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks, not real speed demons. Terrell Owens, as much as people want to make him a speed demon, he's not; he's a playmaker. Keenan McCardell, Keyshawn, Joe Jurevicius, not speed demons.
"When you talk about this offense, you talk about big fullbacks like Tom Rathman, we've got Barnes. You talk about big tight ends, Keith Jackson, Rickey Dudley, Brent Jones and Ken Dilger. That's what this offense is all about. It's not about throwing 80 yards downfield. We catch the ball, we get tackled, we get 5 yards and it's first and goal from the 6. We put me in there, they double me, we throw it to Joe - touchdown!"
When it comes to selecting receivers, Gruden has always thrown away the stopwatch. "You get to the 40-yard dash (at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis) and guys get giddy about 4.41," Gruden said. "What's the difference between that and 4.56? I can't even start and stop it in that time. Believe me, we're looking 4-flat that can play with functional football speed. A lot of guys put their shoulder pads on and run across the middle don't run as fast - maybe they do in track spikes.
"Sometimes, you run out of room, you know? That's why you like bigger guys in general on the regular field, too. If you sit down and write down the names of guys who are playing who are 5-10 or less, there's not a lot of them."
Furthermore, what receiver has ever made it in the NFL without being fast? Jurevicius pulled away from the Eagles in the open field during his 71-yard reception in last year's NFC Championship. Keyshawn Johnson got plenty of separation in man-to-man coverage against Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent on Monday and McCardell took a 5-yard pass and turned it into a 20-yard gain.
"I've always thought I'm not going to play wide receiver in the NFL if I'm slow," Jurevicius said. "Maybe because I'm 230 pounds and the initials for my position are WR, they say I'm not fast. But if those initials said TE for tight end, maybe I'm blazing. I don't worry about it. If I'm making the play and other guys are making the play, if they say I'm slow as molasses, we're very successful in terms of this offense."
In the red zone the field gets shorter and Bucs receivers look bigger.
"The deal down there, the holes are very small and you just don't have that much room," Brad Johnson said. "Sometimes it's a lob thrown into the back of the end zone. Sometimes it's a bullet shot. You're dealing with narrow gaps and stuff like that. It helps in this system to have big, physical receivers. We have that with all three of them."
That's how Keyshawn Johnson can elevate over the middle, take a shot from Eagles safety Sean Dawkins and hold on. It's what allows Jurevicius to play volleyball and deflect the ball over the head of Vincent to himself in the end zone.
"There's an advantage. It's the same reason why, in the NBA, you don't have a 6-foot guard guarding a 7-foot center," Jurevicius said. "It's a size mismatch and you try to look for them in the game of basketball just like you do in the game of football. It's not going to work every time, but if we can take advantage of that sometimes, just as we can with Keyshawn, we need to use it."
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