Wednesday, January 22
Something has to give
By John Madden
Super Bowl XXXVII is finally here, and Sunday's game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be a good one. I'm really looking forward to doing the game with ABC (pregame show, 2 p.m. ET; game, 6 p.m. ET) in San Diego.
This one is going to be so interesting because you talk about the Tampa Bay defense being the best in football. And then you have the Raiders with the best offense in football. So, is Oakland going to be able to do what they've been doing before? And that's darn near pass the ball on every down. Defenses try to make teams one-dimensional, but the Raiders almost make themselves one-dimensional. Heck, they don't even try to run the football. They just want to throw it and they do that very well. They did try to get some balance during the season, but that caused 'em more trouble than anything. And so, they just figured, the heck with balance, we'll just be a passing team.
Now, how do the Bucs handle that? Every defensive philosophy has always been: stop the run, make the team one-dimensional and then go after the passer. One of the strengths of their defense, and one of the reasons they have the No. 1 defense, is that their front four can "get there" to the quarterback without having to blitz. And that's a big thing.
And by getting there, it's not always a sack. It means getting close to the passer. Oakland's a rhythm-passing team, and Rich Gannon's a rhythm-passing quarterback. So, for the Bucs, that means getting to a position, or getting pressure or getting a push to throw Gannon out of that rhythm. To not let him step up where he wants to step up. To not let him have that lane to pass in that he wants to pass in. Or, just as he steps up, hit him.
Those are the kinds of things that you want to do to him. And those are things that the Tampa Bay defense can do, mainly with Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. You don't have to bring linebackers and defensive backs, which they will also do sometimes. They will blitz, but that's not a big part of what they do. And, it doesn't have to be a big part of what they do because they can put pressure on Gannon with their front four.
And their secondary, if the Raiders aren't going to run, will play a lot of that "Cover-2" zone, where the safeties are deep and they will play kind of a loose umbrella. Then if they go with three wide receivers, the Bucs will go with five defensive backs.
If Ronde Barber gets on the slot, that's where he becomes kind of part-cornerback, part-safety, part-linebacker. That's where he gets a lot of his plays and blitzes -- especially when he's on the right defensive side. Barber kind of becomes more of a rover than a corner, and he really knows how to do that well.
So, when you say, "OK, what are we talking about here?" Well, for the Raiders, it gets down to pass protection. Since the Bucs have the guys to get to Gannon, you obviously have to stop 'em from getting there. And the receivers have to get open. And it's just the opposite for the Bucs. Their defense has to "get there." They want to make Gannon throw when he doesn't want to. And then they want to play tight on the shorter type of stuff that Oakland will throw.
When Tampa Bay has the ball
Gruden has been a very positive influence on the Buccaneers. And part of it is bringing a system. And part of it is his motivation. But maybe the biggest part of it is his play-calling and what he's done with Johnson.
Johnson isn't a mobile quarterback, and he'll stand in the pocket and take a lot of hits. He's a big, strong guy, but he doesn't run around out there. So he has to get rid of the ball quickly and he's done a great job of that this season.
The thing that's kind of hurt Tampa Bay this season is that they haven't been able to run the ball. The Raiders haven't been able to run the ball consistently either, but they don't really care. But the Bucs still care. They want to be able to run the ball. As Gruden says, "he still wants to pound the rock." He wants to run, but they haven't been very successful. And that makes the job by Johnson even more amazing.
Offensively, Oakland could very well not try to run the ball. But Tampa Bay will try and Gruden will try. He believes in getting some kind of balance and taking some of the pressure off the quarterback.
The Bucs don't have a great offensive line, and they don't have a great running back. And they don't get any running from their quarterback. Gannon can give the Raiders some runs -- and he did last Sunday against Tennessee -- in addition to the runs that Oakland might call. But Johnson won't give the Tampa Bay offense any runs.
So protecting him will be big so that he can get the ball out there quickly to his receivers. And getting enough running so that they can remain relatively balanced.
The third key element
But it's about kickoff coverage and getting down there and making tackles and making plays. It's about kickoff returns, and it's about trying to block a punt or an extra point. Usually, a good play in this phase of the game can either give you a touchdown or good field position to help get you a score. Big plays on special teams can be momentum-changers.
I was speaking with my partner Al Michaels on Tuesday night, and we were talking about how in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they've never had a kickoff return for a touchdown. That's an amazing thing. So, we were saying, "what if they got their first one in the Super Bowl?" That would be something.
A lot of times we talk about the offense and defense, but then it comes down to a special teams play.
Heck, just ask last season's New England Patriots about that.