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Dear Tony/Les: Please, please open your offense


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 9, 2000

MINNEAPOLIS -- They'll let it fly against the Vikings. I mean, by Bucs right-wing offensive standards. I sense a tempered uncorking, even as Tampa Bay guys blab their usual starchy cliches, laced with "execute better" and "work harder."

Yada, yada ... Zzzzzz.

Shaun King's passing game needs infusions of tonic, or the Bucs become NFL middleweights. Commoners, not royalty. Outsiders, not favorites, to ascend to Super Bowl XXXV.

A couple of days ago, Warrick Dunn seemed to be slipping a message. With that cute little tailback smile, the old FSU scooter said, "Watch us, we're going to cut loose with new things -- trust me."

Did he see me salivate?

Quickly, he walked away, like a chap who figured he'd better disappear before spilling secrets. Okay, I'm teased, Warrick. Five or six times, on the overhyped Monday Night Football stage, I want to see something from the offense that makes millions exclaim, "Wow, did you see that?"

In preparatory hours for the Metrodome kickoff, I want to think offensive coordinator Les Steckel, a onetime Vikings coach who went 3-13, was scheming with mad-professor zeal. Working on the solid X's and O's that Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy demands, but slipping in a few jalapenos; potential sucker punches against a Minnesota defense that can be stung.

Mike Alstott pounding the middle; Dunn darting, in search of running room; that's not bombardment enough. A fact painfully affirmed the past two Sundays in losses to the Jets and Redskins.

Creativity retros to questionable.

King needs more high-percentage passing opportunities, where his blocking is semi-secure, while down-the-field routes of Bucs receivers are dynamic but efficient.

Open arms, Keyshawn, not mouth.

Tampa Bay's quarterback needs deliverance from so many heated, pursued, desperate third-down heaves. Johnson is ravenous for enough big-impact catches to regenerate his New York ego and recapture that California smile.

Shaun's completion percentage on third-down passes (42.2) is worst among NFC starting quarterbacks. That won't do. When throwing on first or second down, his numbers rise to 52.2. So how about more play fakes and throws on early downs?

Too many Bucs series see Alstott smash for 3 yards, Dunn get hemmed after maybe a yard, then King tries to pass on third down as a lukewarm offensive line struggles against accelerated rushes.

"Often it's field position that's cramping what we're trying to do," Steckel said. "If you begin a drive at your 20-yard line or worse, the chances of scoring are about 15 percent.

"Until you move past your 30 or 35, only about 10 percent of the playbook can be intelligently utilized. Trying risky plays that so easily mess up, they're too prone to creating big losses and/or turnovers."

In a 20-17 overtime loss at Washington, these are the yard lines, all in Bucs territory, where Steckel's offense took possession: 5, 22, 25, 27, 10, 36, 18, 20, 32, 26, 11, 10, 20, 31, 25, 14. Sixteen possessions, with just five beyond the Tampa Bay 25; five inside the 15.

That stinks.

"Shaun is getting some criticism, but he did wonderful things against the Washington pass rush, a group that may be the best we see all year," Steckel said. "Our quarterback doesn't forget where he is on the field. It should make a major difference if we can take over a few times near midfield or beyond."

Okay, down by down ...

King completed 7 of 14 passes on first-down plays against the 'Skins, gaining 65 yards. On second-down throws, he was 9-of-12, picking up 72. But on third downs, often under a nasty rush, the Bucs pitcher was 3-of-12, although one, with a football dribble and a King scramble, got 46 yards and a touchdown.

Tampa Bay ranks 28th in NFL passing yardage, better than only the Bengals, Seahawks and Dolphins. Super Bowl stuff, not. Another deficiency is on first-down plays, where the Bucs average 4.75 yards, standing 13th in the NFC, ahead of only Green Bay and New Orleans.

Please, more element of surprise.

One more ugly in the package of offensive ineffectiveness is third-and-1 situations. Despite the power of the 245-pound Alstott, on five such opportunities the behemoth from Purdue has made first downs twice.

"We think we should be 100 percent on those," Steckel said, "but a bad block messed up one time, a missed assignment on another, and then there was a great defensive play."

Always something.

So, Les, about increasing unpredictability ... I mean, without going wild-play berserk. There must be mechanisms in your fat playbook that can provide King more time and downfield vision, plus a few running plays less than totally anticipated by rival defenses.

Oh, it will be noisy.

"When we played in a loud, domed stadium against Detroit, we took command early and the crowd seldom got into it," the offensive chief said. "That will be vital against the Vikings. If we allow them to get up on us early, it'll get so loud that functioning will become extremely difficult."

But, Les, what about a few more deep shots to Johnson? Giving the 6-foot-3 receiver some chances to outjump and outscramble smaller defensive backs. "He's great in traffic," Steckel said of Johnson, "but if our quarterback sees No. 19 with two or three guys guarding him, doesn't it make sense to search for alternatives?

"Look, our offense is not where it needs to be. But there is a solid plan in place for Minnesota. We expect it to work. Everybody knows it's a huge game. We don't want to fall three games behind the Vikings in the NFC Central."

So, some sucker punches?

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