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Offense finds that not moving the chains can cause production problems.
By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2000
TAMPA -- The Bucs have two Pro Bowl offensive linemen and a Pro Bowl fullback. They have a running back who has rushed for 1,133 yards and a quarterback who has 3.5 yards a carry.
Yet, entering Sunday's NFL wild-card game in Philadelphia, the Bucs still have no definitive answer for the short-yardage game.
In a nutshell, the Bucs successes in short-yardage situations have been proportionate to their wins. In their six losses, the Bucs are 3-for-17 (17.6 percent) in third-down situations of 3 yards or fewer. In its 10 wins, Tampa Bay is 20-for-35 (57.1 percent).
"It's definitely not right," right tackle Jerry Wunsch said. "We have to improve our short-yardage plays. It's not a very good situation and it's something we have to get better at real quick.
"I'm sure in (Philadelphia) we're going to get into a situation where we're going to have to convert on third and 1, or fourth and 1 to have a chance to win the game. We can't get to the point where it becomes something that we get so discouraged with that it actually hinders our chance of accomplishing things. We need to get better at what we're doing and pound it up in there."
At Green Bay Sunday, the Bucs showed classic examples of poor execution in short yardage. Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, the offense had punted three times and needed to drive and allow its defense to rest.
Running back Warrick Dunn scampered for 9 yards on first down at the Bucs 44. But on second and 1, Mike Alstott was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. On third and 1, quarterback Shaun King threw an incomplete pass to Dave Moore, forcing another punt by Mark Royals.
The defense held the Packers and the Bucs got the ball back on their 27. Dunn gained 8 yards on first down, but the Bucs could not take advantage. Dunn was stopped for no gain and King threw another incomplete pass to Moore to force Royals' fifth punt.
"There are a lot of third and 1s that end up being big situations and it's something we're going to have to look at and research," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's something we've always been very good at in the past. We've been poor this year and we've got to get that back.
"In the past, ... we executed them. It wasn't pretty, but we did a good job with it. Now, we're looking at different things. Sometimes we don't get the defense we think we're going to get or we haven't run the plays enough for everybody to make the right adjustment. ... But definitely, when you get to third and 1 in the playoffs, you've got to make the first down."
It may be too late in the game for wholesale changes, but throughout the locker room players have explanations.
"It's everything," right guard Frank Middleton said. "The right tackle, the right guard, the left tackle, the left guard. ... When we get into short yardage, it seems like everyone starts messing up for some reason. People always expect us to run the same play and we pretty much do. We have to change it up a little bit and get things going."
Middleton said the Bucs need to flip a few chapters in the playbook to keep defenses honest.
"Most of the time everybody is looking for us to run the ball and that's what we do most of the time," he said. "You watch, any time we're in short yardage, you've got nine or 10 guys in the box and we're still trying to run it. It's like we're beating ourselves against the brick wall when we should be doing some kind of play-action stuff. Some misdirection stuff."
Offensive coordinator Les Steckel admitted that the short-yardage efficiency has been disappointing and that the team has a tendency to run out of a specific number of sets. But blame the execution more than the play calling.
"It usually boils down to execution or them playing a defensive front that we were taken aback by and the guys were unsure of what to do and that's credit to the defenses that we're playing," Steckel said. "We've mixed in the play-action pass just enough to keep them honest. Against Green Bay, they were ready for it. You could see they were alert to that."
Dunn, who has been the Bucs' most productive runner all season, said the responsibility lies with the players and the play calling.
"I don't think there's a secret, I think it's just a matter of executing better," he said. "Simply because you get 9 yards on first down doesn't mean it's automatically going to be a first down. Our mentality has to be that we have to get more than 1 yard. Maybe some big plays, home runs, dominate the line of scrimmage, get movement and always try to gain positive yards upfield. ... You get your guy, I get my guy and we're going to do what we have to do to get the first down. Guys have been taking that mentality, but it's just that sometimes we still have mental and physical mistakes."
An update from Philly.com, a Web site run by Philadelphia media, including the Inquirer and Daily News, which is running an unscientific poll this week. The question: Who do you think will win Sunday's game between the Eagles and Buccaneers? With more than 76,000 votes cast, more than 90 percent picked the Bucs.