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Red-zone O gets perfect score

Last year's worst team inside the 20 goes 3-for-3 and shows some innovation.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000


TAMPA -- There's a marketing ploy by a national pizza chain that promises to take a dollar off the cost of a pie for each touchdown the Bucs score on Sunday this season.

It never planned on losing this much dough.

A year ago, the Bucs were 31st in the NFL in touchdown percentage from inside the opponent's 20, commonly referred to as the red zone.

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[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Mike Alstott proves himself a prime red-zone weapon with his second touchdown.

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In Sunday's 21-16 victory at New England, the Bucs were 3-for-3 in touchdown efficiency. To put that in perspective, Tampa Bay scored three offensive touchdowns in a game three times all of last season.

"I'm really pleased. That's one area you've got to score every time, and it's tough down there," offensive coordinator Les Steckel said. "But if you score touchdowns down there, and it doesn't happen all the time and it won't happen all the time, but if you come down with field goals and/or touchdowns every time, you're going to be in great shape.

"I've told the players, hey look, one week has gone by in the NFL and 14 teams have failed to score at least once crossing the 20-yard line. That leaves 17 to go. That means 17 teams can score every time. Fourteen have already failed. And right now in the NFC, we're batting 1.000 because we're 3-for-3."

That's perhaps the biggest reason the Bucs hired Steckel. With the Tennessee Titans, his offense last season was third in the NFL in red-zone scoring, accounting for touchdowns in 31 of 50 tries for 62 percent. The Bucs' 27 touchdowns tied for the fewest in the NFL, and they were 15-of-45 in the red zone for a league-worst 33.3 percent.

Though the Bucs offense made the most of its scoring chances Sunday, it failed to put the game away in the fourth quarter. In fact, the Bucs went three-and-out on three consecutive possessions, allowing New England time to mount a comeback attempt.

Coach Tony Dungy has so much faith in his defense that he figures almost any lead is safe in the fourth quarter, with good reason. Twenty-three of 25 times since he arrived, the Bucs have protected their fourth-quarter margin.

As a result, Dungy has a tendency to become even more conservative late in the game on offense.

"We don't want to shut it down," Dungy said. "The disappointing thing is we made one first down in the fourth quarter. If we make three first downs, the game doesn't even get close. So what we want to do is go into a mode where we use Mike (Alstott). The tacklers are a little more fatigued and we've had a lot of success doing that and just making first downs. You don't have to score more points. But you do have to continue to move the ball.

"But no, if we're up 21-10, we're not going to try to win 35-10. If it happens that way, it happens."

But there's a fine line between playing smart and playing scared on offense late in the game. Steckel said the trick is not to whittle down the offense too soon.

"I think realistically, it's a tough decision based on whom you're playing," Steckel said. "And being on the road like that, our main thought is if we can eat up their timeouts and make our opponents go the distance without any timeouts, it's almost impossible. They got awful close. I've seen other teams do it.

"I think at the same time, you can't be too conservative too soon. I think yesterday, when we went three three-and-outs, that left a bad taste in our mouths for the offense. So for me personally, and I think for our offense as well, we've got to pick it up and put the hammer down."

Part of the reason the Bucs didn't have more scoring chances Sunday was the poor play of their special teams. The Bucs started inside their 20 seven times in 13 possessions.

"Our special teams killed us the first quarter and a half," Dungy said. "Then the middle third of the game we kind of controlled things, we got the lead and got right where we wanted to be with 11 minutes to go, and we should be able to close the game out and not let it be a nail-biter. But nail-biters aren't bad as long as you win."

Though the philosophy of the offense is the same, much was different about the Bucs attack under Steckel. There were more formations, outside running plays, more rollouts, reverses and, of course, the faked spike that resulted in the 8-yard touchdown from Shaun King to Reidel Anthony.

"We're utilizing guys in different ways," Dungy said. "The outside running is something that's much different than we've done. A lot of that is a function of the linemen we have. But the idea is the same. Run the ball, be solid. And then, how are they going to take away the running game? How can you hurt them with play-action passes, how can you hurt them on the move? So the philosophy is not really that different, but in what we're doing, it is a little bit different."

But give the Bucs a lead in the fourth quarter and Dungy's first priority becomes working the clock, reducing the risk of a turnover and forcing the other team to play on a longer field.

"It'll be calculated, it'll be play-action passes if they crowd the line of scrimmage, we'll do that," Dungy said. "But we're not going to come out in three wide receivers even if it's been good to us during the course of the game. We're going to try to use the clock and make sure we don't lose the game."

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