What We Learned
Three things we know after the Bills-Buccaneers game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
TAMPA, Fla. -- All 7-5 records are not created equal. With the NFC playoff picture growing tighter by the week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) kept pace with a 31-17 defeat of Buffalo that wasn't as impressive as it might sound. Here are three observations from the game, which dropped the Bills to 7-5 and into a third-place tie with Indianapolis in the AFC East:
1. Bills linebacker Sam Cowart is a certifiable Pro Bowler.
Three Buffalo Bills deserve strong Pro Bowl consideration -- Cowart, receiver Eric Moulds and nose tackle Ted Washington -- but the line starts with Cowart, who had a dominating first half of football against the Bucs before leaving the game after halftime with a high ankle sprain.
Cowart might end up missing as many as three or four weeks, and he still shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to the NFL's all-star game. After collecting Pro Bowl numbers last year but not being selected, Cowart earlier this season said he wouldn't believe he was bound for Hawaii until it happened. Believe it, Sam. Buy some magazines and a good book for the long westward flight. Maybe even a gaudy flowered shirt or two. You belong.
In a span of six plays in the first quarter, the third-year veteran was a one-man wrecking crew, sacking Bucs quarterback Shaun King 2 1/2 times, for minus-20 1/2 yards. On a first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 46-yard line, Cowart shared his first sack with Washington, for minus-7 yards, even though he could have finished the job himself.
On second-and-17, Cowart broke through again on a blitz, dumping King for a 9-yard loss. After Bills right end Marcellus Wiley made it three in a row with a 5-yard sack of King -- redefining the term three-and-out for Tampa Bay's offense -- Cowart was in the backfield again on the Bucs' next possession. On third-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 17, Cowart blitzed and dumped King for an 8-yard loss, forcing a punt.
All told, Buffalo generated four of its seven sacks in that late first-quarter span. Besides Cowart and Wiley's combined 4 1/2 sacks, Washington chipped in with the other 1 1/2 sacks, more than doubling his season output (2 1/2 sacks).
But it is the tackling-machine Cowart that has led the way for Buffalo's underrated defense. Though tackles are not an official statistic in the NFL, Cowart entered Sunday's game with a league-leading 174 tackles, including 116 solos, three sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and five passes defensed.
Cowart totaled six tackles in his first half of work against the Bucs, snapping his seven-game streak of having 10 tackles or more.
Healthy or not as the Pro Bowl voting looms, Cowart has been an all-star in every sense this season. He should not be overlooked, even if he has to play on one leg.
2. Rob Johnson wins votes, if not the game.
Regardless of how you come down on the Buffalo quarterback debate -- and I've been firmly in the opposite corner occupied by Bills head coach Wade Phillips -- you have to admire Johnson's toughness.
Johnson has been criticized in the past for absorbing too much punishment in the pocket and not getting rid of the ball. Against the Bucs, he withstood six sacks and was either hit or hurried at least twice that amount, and still produced a strong 24-of-39, 262-yard performance, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Repeating history, however, Johnson was knocked out of the game with 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter after being viciously slammed to the turf by Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. Somehow, Johnson underhanded the ball to running Shawn Bryson just before hitting the turf, a play that gained 17 yards.
With Tampa Bay leading 24-14, Flutie replaced the woozy Johnson and led the Bills to a chip-shot field goal that closed the Bucs' lead to seven points. Johnson afterward said he was fuzzy from hitting his head but would be fine for next week's game at home against Miami. That the Bills (7-5) could not rally to their fifth consecutive victory should not be blamed on Johnson.
Johnson has now been sacked a staggering 34 times in playing all or parts of eight games. He has been knocked out of seven of his 15 career starts with the Bills, spanning 1998-2000. The more mobile Doug Flutie avoids such punishment and led Buffalo to a 3-1 record earlier this year when Johnson was sidelined with a separated right shoulder.
Johnson and Flutie bring different games to the Bills' offense, but they're both quality games. I've come around to think that no matter if he starts Flutie or Johnson, Phillips really can't make a bad decision.3. Tampa Bay has more on defense than just Warren Sapp.
Bucs Pro Bowl safety John Lynch's repuation for both enduring and handing out pain grew measurably Sunday. Lynch played the entire game despite suffering a dislocated left shoulder last week at Chicago. Lynch was originally told he could miss up to four weeks with the injury. Then a team doctor revised the diagnosis and said Lynch would be out at least a week or two.
Refusing to sit out what he called the team's "crossroad game" of the season, Lynch talked Bucs head coach Tony Dungy into not deactivating him Friday for the Buffalo game. Lynch worked with the Bucs' scout team Friday, his first workout of the week.
The extra two days made all the difference, as Lynch slowly convinced the Bucs that he could contribute in his usual hard-hitting fashion from free safety. Lynch contributed three tackles and did not seem to be sparing his body in any way against Buffalo. On one third-quarter reception by Bills tight end Jay Riemersma, Lynch actually led with his injured left shoulder on an attempted tackle, but missed and instead flew out of bounds, nearly taking out Bucs running back Warrick Dunn on the play.
Lynch's effort, though heroic, was handily topped by the game turned in by another Bucs Pro Bowl defensive starter. Outside linebacker Derrick Brooks was credited with a whopping 19 tackles, to go with a forced fumble and a sack. Brooks has a team-leading 146 tackles, almost twice as many as Lynch's 78, which ranks second.
When Brooks dumped Rob Johnson for a 2-yard sack late in the first quarter, it gave Tampa Bay a team record 45 sacks this season, besting the total of the 1997 Bucs. It was Brooks' first sack this season. Tampa Bay had six sacks on the day, giving them a league-high 49 this season. Later in the game, defensive tackle Sapp picked up his second sack, eclipsing Hall of Fame defensive end Leroy Selmon's team record of 13 sacks, set in 1997. Sapp has 13 1/2 sacks this season, to go with defensive end Marcus Jones' 12.
Tampa Bay's defense should once again dominate the NFC Pro Bowl squad. Sapp, Lynch and Brooks are no-brainers, and Jones will get strong consideration with his break-through season. Now, about that Bucs offense ...