Bucs have finally learned their offense runs on Blount force
TAMPA, Fla. -- The play is called "19 Weak." It's the signature of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running game and there's nothing complicated about it. Just weakside isolation and a beastly 250-pound tailback running downhill.
"We call it power," offensive coordinator Greg Olson explained. "But it's really just LeGarrette Blount coming at you."
The play must be so basic, in fact, that the Buccaneers pretty much forgot about it for the first six quarters of the 2011 season, a block of time encapsulated by a lopsided 27-20 Week 1 loss at home to the Detroit Lions and a 17-0 halftime deficit on the road against the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday.
When coach Raheem Morris and friends finally got around to remembering who they were and the identity they forged in winning 10 games last season despite the youngest roster in the NFL, the Buccaneers had a first down at the Minnesota 27 on their first possession of the second half.
"19 Weak" time.
Blount, the 6-foot, 247-pound manchild, rushed for 1,007 yards in just seven starts last season, but had only 19 yards through one-and-a-half games. Time to make up for lost time. Blount took the handoff from Josh Freeman, got a great block from his fullback and rumbled into the secondary on the way to a 27-yard touchdown that awoke Tampa Bay from its early season slumber. About 90 minutes later, the Buccaneers were celebrating the equaling of their second-biggest comeback in franchise history -- a 24-20 victory -- thanks in great part to Blount's 71 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the second coming on a 4-yard blast into the teeth of the Minnesota defense with 31 seconds to play.
"We learned a lesson about sticking to the game plan," Blount said of an offense that generated 273 yards after halftime against the Vikings. "We definitely felt like we should have made some of those big plays before. Now, we have to find a way to start faster and not be playing from behind."
This would be a great week to do so.
If the Buccaneers (1-1) have ambitions in the rugged NFC South, they'll need to be sharp on all fronts when the reigning division champion Atlanta Falcons (1-1) come to town Sunday to renew what has turned into a fiery rivalry.
"Can't call it a rivalry yet," Morris said. "We haven't won any of them."
True. The Falcons have swept all four meetings since Morris took over for fired Jon Gruden in 2009. All four were won by the Falcons making plays in the fourth quarter.
For Tampa Bay, the challenge of stopping Matt Ryan and Michael Turner and Roddy White and ... (deep breath) ... Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones and Harry Douglas and all the rest will be formidable enough, given the Buccaneers will go into the game with a defense ranked 28th in the league, including 31st against the run, allowing 156 yards per game. They better control the ball -- and the clock -- and get Blount involved often.
And they better do it early, for a change this season.
"Good thing the game doesn't start until [4:15 p.m. ET]," Buccaneers Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn said. "We usually don't get started 'til about 3:30, anyway."
The Falcons had an emotional 35-31 comeback win Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, knocking Michael Vick, the one-time Atlanta icon, out of the game with a concussion in the second half. Along the way, though, the Falcons showed some vulnerability on defense, surrendering 27 first downs and 447 yards, including 133 on the ground.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, learned a hard lesson about being balanced in their season-opening loss to the Lions. Morris, his team down seven at the break, ordered Freeman to work from the two-minute, hurry-up attack for the entire second half, basically forsaking any facsimile of a running game. For the game, Tampa Bay attempted 46 passes to just 16 runs. Scored just one offensive touchdown, also.
"That's not us," center Jeff Faine said.
That's why, despite the 17-0 deficit at the Metrodome, neither Morris nor Olson entertained thoughts of breaking out the hurry-up against the Vikings. Instead, they went with the "Blount Force" treatment that served them so well last year.
"Every great offense in this league has a flow," backup tailback Earnest Graham said. "We hit our flow when LeGarrette is running the ball really, really well and [Freeman] is hitting play-action passes. That's what you saw in the second half [at Minnesota]. Once LeGarrette got going and those play-action passes started hitting, our confidence just shot through the roof."
Falcons coach Mike Smith saw as much reviewing the tape. Not that he needed a review.
"It's one of our major musts to be successful -- stopping the running game," Smith said. "[Blount] is such a big, strong running back and when he gets through the first level of the defense, he can really create some problems. You're not going to be able to tackle him with one set of pads. You're going to have to get multiple sets of pads on him. I know Raheem and what he wants to do offensively. He wants to feature that and he wants to run the ball."
In the first meeting last season, the Falcons held Blount to just 46 yards and stuffed him on fourth-and-inches from the Atlanta 2-yard line with 2:44 to go, preserving a 27-21 victory at the Georgia Dome. In the Tampa rematch a month later, Blount was in the starting lineup and ran for 103 yards and a touchdown, but the Falcons rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to steal a 28-24 road win.
"It's going to be a challenge for our defense to contain him," Smith said. "If he has a big game, it enhances their chances of winning, no doubt about it."
Rewind exactly one year.
Two games into last season, Blount was an undrafted free agent just three weeks removed from being claimed off the Tennessee Titans practice squad and had yet to take his first NFL handoff. It was in garbage time of a Week 3 blowout loss against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers that Blount got his first action, carrying six times for 27 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run.
"This time last year we were just giving him the ball and looking for him to go forward," running backs coach Steve Logan said. "If he didn't do that, he was coming out of the game."
The 12 months since have been eventful for Blount, who became just the second undrafted rookie ever to surpass 1,000 yards in a season and did it with some numbing, jaw-dropping highlight-reel runs when he either ran over or (yes, true) jumped over would-be tacklers.
After having to learn to play tailback in the NFL basically on the rookie fly, he's still in something of a student mode because the league's labor lockout cost him valuable offseason time with coaches in the classroom and teammates on the practice field, especially relative to his pass-blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield.
"He certainly has acclimated to our offense in that time, and certainly has more than the three plays we sent him into the Pittsburgh game with last year," Morris said. "I feel comfortable with him out there in just about any situation. Now, do we have other players better suited for some situations? Of course. But he's in the process of getting even better."
And he's also well beyond any process of carving out his role on the offense. Morris said it best. Freeman is the face of the franchise, everybody knows that.
"He's the heartbeat," Morris said.
If he does flat-line again, it will be because of great defense. Buccaneers coaches won't be the ones stopping LeGarrette Blount anymore.
Two words: "19 Weak."