In the postseason Tampa Bay's defense has unhinged two of the league's finest quarterbacks, the 49ers' Jeff Garcia and the Eagles' Donovan McNabb. Will the Raiders' Rich Gannon be the third notch on the Bucs' belt? To try to answer the question of how to stop this Oakland attack, I turned to a reliable, anonymous source: the respected defensive coordinator for an AFC team.
"Here's the problem with facing the Raiders," says our scout. "The quarterback can run, and he can buy time. All three wide receivers can hurt you. The running back can hurt you. The tight end can stretch the field. So where's the weakness? Beats me, except that you know you don't want to get into a fast-break game with them. We did, and we lost. You want to get pressure on the quarterback—make that, you have to get pressure on the quarterback."
So that means blitzing, especially if your front four isn't getting to the passer, right? "Not necessarily," he says. "They operate out of multiple formations and run crosses and picks and quicks. Throw a lot of blitzes at them and they'll kill you with the quick routes."
So you don't blitz, you play off and give them stuff underneath, right?
"Oh, no, Denver tried that, and it was painful to watch," says our scout. "That's when Gannon had that 34-for-38 night."
You know something, I'm going to cut it off right here. You can't blitz Oakland, you can't play off—might as well not show up.
The Titans tried a lot of schemes on Sunday. For instance, because the Raiders' base offense features three wideouts, Tennessee opened in a dime package with one linebacker and four defensive backs; Oakland beat it with a long touchdown march on the game's opening drive. So the Titans switched to a three-man front, with three linebackers and five defensive backs, alternating the three men on the line to keep them fresh; the Raiders drove 85 yards for a touchdown on their second possession. The message: Stopping Oakland isn't so much about the defense you use as it is about the players executing it. And Tampa Bay has the best defensive personnel in the league.
"We change our defense for no one," says outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "We're not changing a thing. We dictate. We attack."
The only thing unusual about that quote, which is one of the traditional Super Bowl lies, is that it generally comes from a coach. Of course teams change. They alter their plan every week, and some change most of all for the biggest game of the season. Two weeks ago the Bucs, who aren't known as a blitzing defense, blitzed plenty against the 49ers and screwed up the whole San Francisco operation. On Sunday they blitzed even more against the Eagles, then fell back into zones and then worked some odd matchups, such as middle linebacker Shelton Quarles on a wideout or cornerback Ronde Barber on the tight end. By the fourth quarter, Philadelphia didn't know which way to turn.
If Tampa Bay's front four can't penetrate one of the sturdier offensive walls in football, you'll see plenty of blitzing from odd places. "The whole idea," says middle linebacker Zach Thomas of the Dolphins, the last team to beat Oakland, "is not to let Gannon get comfortable. We were lucky. We could get pressure on him with [end] Jason Taylor and the rest of our front four, but if you can't get that pressure, you'd better start sending extra people."