TAMPA — As huge a hole as DT Gerald McCoy's season-ending biceps injury creates, the Bucs already had problems stopping the run for most of this season.
Tampa Bay allowed 195 rushing yards in Sunday's loss, when coach Raheem Morris said his defensive front was "flat-out out-physicalled" by the Saints. The Bucs, who rank 26th in run defense (132.4 yards), won't have it any easier Sunday, when the Texans' second-ranked rushing attack comes to town.
Houston RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate each ran for more than 100 yards in Sunday's rout of the Browns and are among the NFL's top 10 rushers. The AFC South-leading Texans, who average 155.1 yards rushing, have won three straight.
"I think they're coming in hot," DT Frank Okam said. "Arian and Ben Tate have been a dynamic duo back there. They're playing (with) one of the top offensive lines in the league as a unit right now. It's definitely going to be a challenge."
S Tanard Jackson said the Bucs' struggles against the run Sunday were due to tackling. "We missed a lot of tackles," Jackson said. "I wish I knew the stat, what the yards after contact was, but I'm sure it was a lot."
The run defense could be aided with a potential return of Okam, who missed Sunday's game with a calf injury but hopes to be back.
"When you give up yards like that, you have to start back at the fundamentals," Okam said. "Linemen assignments, angles to tackling, gang tackling to stop leaky yardage. It all goes back to fundamentals you hone in on in training camp. It's about guys playing to our capabilities."
support for FREEman: Morris acknowledged that QB Josh Freeman "obviously is not playing his best football."
Freeman is coming off a solid statistical games: his highest QB rating (103.5) of the season, with no interceptions. But there were two big missed opportunities, on wheel routes to running backs, that could have led to touchdowns. The Bucs haven't been very good in the red zone all season, and Freeman has just eight touchdown passes in eight games (compared with 25 for the season a year ago) and has 10 interceptions.
"(We) miss two big, huge throws, whether you want to call them drops, or whether you want to call them misses. Those are the difference in the game," Morris said. "When you get into the red zone on the Saints, you have to score touchdowns. They're too good on offense not to capitalize when you do those things."
But Morris isn't concerned with his third-year quarterback.
"At the halfway point, you're (playing) .500 ball, he's got a chance to have his team go win eight more games," Morris said. "All those guys believe in him, I know this whole organization does, we just want him to be great, and we're going to help him get there."
RED-FLAGGED: Penalties continue to be an issue for Tampa Bay, and the team is not using youth as an excuse.
Okam said it's a matter of players using more "emotional intelligence," not letting the heat of the moment take over. The Bucs had nine penalties for 80 yards Sunday, including a costly 15-yard personal foul on RB LeGarrette Blount for shoving the facemask of Saints DE Will Smith.
The Bucs have focused on the penalty problem in the film room, and reinforced it on the practice field. Morris said solving it has to come "from inside."
"It has to come from deeper than just running in practice," Morris said. "That has to be not wanting to hurt your team, that's got to be unselfishness. It has got to be doing all those things that you care just about winning the football game more than you care about anything else. The internal sacrifice, that's where it's got to come from."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.