The athleticism of the Bucs blockers is helping to spring Warrick Dunn.
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
TAMPA -- Collectively, they weigh 906 pounds.
But Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel and Frank Middleton are pulling their weight for the Bucs, and it is helping Warrick Dunn pull out some big runs.
In football terms, pulling is when an offensive lineman crosses behind a fellow lineman to help clear a path for the running back.
Middleton, McDaniel and Christy have pulled on various plays to create seams for Dunn, who has rushed for 391 yards in the past three games. It is a blocking scheme the Bucs began using more of this season because of the athleticism of McDaniel and Christy, who were acquired in the off-season through free agency.
"We have a completely different running game than we had last year," coach Tony Dungy said. "We still have some of the same plays in, but there's much more where we're angle blocking, pulling guards, pulling the center.
"On a lot of Warrick's big runs, we were getting outside and pulling Jeff around, which is different than we've done before. And I think it's just taken all of us awhile to get a groove with it, but the last couple of weeks, it's been good."
Angle blocking is different from straight-on zone blocking because it creates more one-on-one matchups for the linemen. The biggest key for the Bucs is Christy, one of the best centers in the league at pulling. Dungy said other teams are doing it but not with the proficiency of Christy.
"It just gives us a different option, a different way to block things other than the general zone left or zone right," Christy said. "When you man block, it cuts the line off, and it gives you the ability to get a blocker one-on-one with the linebacker. It gives you more room when you cut the line."
Christy said he started pulling when he was with the Vikings in 1997. He had watched Pittsburgh All-Pro Dermontti Dawson do it for years and began emulating Dawson's style. It helps that Christy is more mobile than many other centers.
Offensive line coach Chris Foerster said Christy's experience as a high school fullback gives him a greater sense of where to direct his blocking when he is pulling.
"He has as good a feel as any lineman I've been around ... for how an offense works," Foerster said. "He does a nice job."
The strategy is particularly effective in springing Dunn on the perimeter, but there has been a period of adjustment. The Bucs began the season trying to cross block with the tackles and tight ends as well as the center and guards.
"We just weren't getting it done well enough," Foerster said. "It was new to us, and it wasn't something we were doing very well. So we changed the tackle-tight end area to stay more zone blocking, but then we still do our cross-block thing on the inside. We block down with our guard on the nose guard or the inside shaded guy, and then we pull the center for the linebacker."
Dunn's 70-yard touchdown run against Dallas on Sunday was a textbook example of the effectiveness of cross-blocking. Running what the Bucs call a stretch play, McDaniel blocked down on the Cowboys noseguard, and tackle Pete Pierson zone blocked the defensive end.
On the backside, Jerry Wunsch and Frank Middleton double teamed the other defensive tackle, and then Middleton stretched to the strong safety. Patrick Hape zone blocked on the defensive end.
At the same time, Christy pulled around McDaniel and into the seam created by McDaniel and Pierson to seal off the middle linebacker. When the free safety overpursued to cut off Dunn's outside lane, the running back turned it inside, behind Christy, and ran untouched.
"What you try to do in the outside running game is you try to stretch the defense, and then somewhere along the line, the defense gets cut off," Foerster said. "If (Dunn) can run to the outside, he runs. If he can't, he's looking for the first place where the defense is getting cut off so he can hit it."
The big question is: Can this rushing attack work against Miami on Sunday? Dunn had success against Dallas, but Miami is far better at defending the rush. The Dolphins defense is ranked ninth overall and 14th against the run. The Cowboys were last in the league against the run.
The Bucs can derive confidence from the Cowboys and Dolphins running very similar defenses. But Miami has better personnel. The Dolphins aren't likely to change their strategy of stopping the run with seven in the box because if they can succeed without moving up the safety, it will hamper Tampa Bay's ability to pass.
Foerster said he doesn't think the Bucs are going to deviate from their latest rushing plans, either.
"We're trying to get outside with our plays, and that's what we are (doing) with Warrick," Foerster said. "Throw in a couple of draws and that's what we feel Warrick does best, although Warrick can do just about anything.
"Hopefully, we'll do that until they don't let us play any more."