At the end of last November, Tampa Bay was 9-3 and tied for the NFC South division lead. But the Buccaneers collapsed down the stretch, with a four-game slide costing them a playoff berth and coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen their jobs. Former defensive backs coach Raheem Morris takes over a team in transition, with prospects for a 2009 playoff run uncertain at best.
OFFENSE (#5 total yardage, #5 rushing, #8 passing, #t14 scoring):
Coming off a trip to the Pro Bowl, Jeff Garcia started the 2008 season opener at quarterback, but took just one week to fall out of favor with Gruden. Banished to the inactive list. Garcia reclaimed the job when Brian Griese was injured. Neither was invited to return. Instead, Byron Leftwich is back in Florida after spending last season backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and keeping the seat warm until first-round pick Josh Freeman (Kansas State) is ready to take over. Like the Bills, Tampa changed offensive coordinators just before the season started, bouncing Jeff Jagodzinski in favor of quarterbacks coach Greg Olson.
Running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams burst onto the scene in 2005, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors on the strength of performances like the one against Buffalo. But after tearing the patellar tendons in both knees, costing him large chunks of both the 2007 and 2008 seasons, many observers wondered if he’d ever be able to make it all the way back. So far, so good: the Caddy cruised to a 7.5-yards per carry average against Dallas. He’s joined in the rotation by former Giant Derrick Ward and holdover Earnest Graham, giving the Bucs a dangerous trio of big-play backs.
Following an 83-catch, 1,248-yard season, wide receiver Antonio Bryant cashed in by signing a $9.88 million franchise tender in the offseason. (Yes, that’s more than either Lee Evans or Terrell Owens will make this year.) Unfortunately for the Bucs, though, it looks like Bryant’s surgically-repaired knee will keep him out of this game, with rookie Sammie Stroughter (Oregon State) likely getting the starting nod opposite Michael Clayton. With veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard no longer in the picture, there’s not much depth at the position, so Leftwich will probably look to tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens early and often.
The line took a blow last week when center Jeff Faine went out with a biceps injury. Sean Mahan, with the team through training camp, was re-signed to fill in; rookie free agent Jonathan Compas is also an option at the position. Tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood started every game for the Bucs in 2008; they combine with guards Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah to for a young-but-improving front five that didn’t allow a sack by Dallas against the not-exactly-elusive Leftwich.
DEFENSE (#t29 total yardage, #24 rushing, #30 passing, #t28 scoring):
The Buccaneers defense has consistently been one of the best in the league, earning a top-10 ranking in 11 out of the last 12 seasons. But when Monte Kiffin left to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee and new coordinator Jim Bates was hired to replace him, the Tampa braintrust decided it was time for an overhaul. Five starters are gone from last year’s squad, including probable Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Right end Gaines Adams, the team’s first-round selection in the 2007 draft, led the Bucs with 6.5 sacks last year. On the other side, Jimmy Wilkerson inherits the spot left open by Kevin Carter’s departure, and Stylez White will also see some time in the rotation. Tim Crowder was signed on Monday, after the Broncos gave up on their former second-round pick because he didn’t fit their new 3-4 set. Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims are the tackles, but there’s little depth behind them.
With Brooks and fellow outside ‘backer Cato June gone, MLB Barrett Ruud will take on an even greater role as the anchor of the defense. He’ll be flanked by Quincy Black and Geno Hayes, neither of whom had started a game before this season. (In fact, Hayes still hasn’t: he showed up late at the stadium on Sunday, and backup Matt McCoy started instead.)
Despite the steady presence of Ronde Barber and the raw talent of last year’s first-rounder, Aqib Talib, at cornerback, the backfield was shaky against Dallas last week. Strong safety Tanard Jackson is serving a four-game suspension; Tony Romo abused his replacement, Sabby Piscitelli, and the rest of the secondary for touchdowns of 42, 66, and 80 yards.
Matt Bryant converted 32 of 38 field goal attempts last year, finishing fourth in the league with 131 points. His reward? Tampa signed Mike Nugent to compete for the job. And when a strained hamstring sidelined Bryant throughout the preseason, he was shown the door. Time will tell if that was the right decision, but early returns aren’t promising, as Nugent went 0-for-2 with a block against the Cowboys in Week 1.
Longtime punter Josh Bidwell is on injured reserve, so journeyman Dirk Johnson is sporting pewter and red this year. He landed 13 of 40 kicks inside the 20 as a Cardinal last season, but netted just 35.2 yards per punt.
Backup running back Clifton Smith won the return job last year and responded with a Pro Bowl season. The undrafted rookie from Fresno State finished second in the league in punt-return average and fifth on kickoffs, running back one of each for a touchdown. If the Bills’ coverage teams play like they did against New England, he will burn them.
So that was the offense the Bills have been keeping under wraps all preseason. Well, part of it, anyway, since the Patriots were determined not to let Lee Evans or Terrell Owens get deep on them. Still, it was almost enough – SHOULD have been enough – to finally end the oh-for-Gillette losing streak. Matched against a defense in transition, one which gave up big play after big play last week, they should be able to put some points on the board.
(Aside: kudos to Fred Jackson, who piled up over 100 yards from scrimmage for the third consecutive game, dating back to the Week 16 win over Denver. A few more performances like that, and Marshawn Lynch might not get his job back.)
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs’ power running game and Paul Posluszny’s absence make for a troubling combination. Tampa Bay averaged over five yards per carry against Dallas, and if the Bills allow them to do the same this week, they’re in trouble. And although the Buffalo secondary should be able to match up with the wideouts minus Bryant, they’ll also have to keep a wary eye on Kellen Winslow.
But while I don’t think it will be a blowout, I like Buffalo’s chances in this one.
See you at Hammer’s Lot !
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot)com.
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