The Bucs rank second from the bottom in offense with just 255.5 total yards per game, and on top of that, they are dead last in scoring at just 11.6 points per game. Ravaged by injuries and flooded with inexperience, head coach Jon Gruden - known as an offensive mastermind for most of his career - doesn't have much to work with right now.
Thankfully for them, the Bucs built their championship formula with tough defense, right?
The trouble is, Gruden's club has struggled on that side of the ball, as well. The Tampa Bay defense is a middle-of-the-pack unit right now, 16th in yards allowed at 330.3 per game and 21st in points allowed at 22.2 per game. Weakside linebacker and former Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks is still in the fold, but the days of Warren Sapp wreaking havoc up front and John Lynch laying the lumber in the secondary are long gone.
Now they have to face the 11-2 Bears at Soldier Field with the top seed in the NFC playoffs possibly on the line.
Gruden has enjoyed a lot of success during his NFL career, but this season has been especially tough on him.
"I really don't have anything to compare this to other than it's been tough," Gruden said on Wednesday via conference call at Halas Hall. "We have a long way to go, but guys are working hard, and it will be probably our greatest challenge of the year this Sunday against the Bears, I'm sure."
Although the Bucs have had their share of injuries and are playing a lot of youngsters these days, Gruden has taken his share of the blame.
"You've got to take responsibility as a coach, obviously," he said. "We do have a lot of youth here. We have had some injuries, key injuries. And we haven't had any continuity either in the last few years. And you put all those things together with the fact that we have played a real challenging schedule, it's not going to be easy. But you've got to keep working, but it will be a great challenge this Sunday, that's for sure."
The Bears enter this Sunday's matchup as the two-time NFC North champions and could possibly wrap up home-field advantage with a win over the Bucs coupled with a Saints loss to the Redskins. Quarterback Rex Grossman solidified his position atop the depth chart by throwing two touchdown passes against the Rams in Week 14 and kicking his recent turnover bug. Brian Urlacher & Company gave up 27 points and 433 yards on Monday night, but much of that came in garbage time down the stretch.
Gruden is quick with his praise of the Bears and knows they have talent on both sides of the ball.
"Well, I just think from a football team, I just think they're very skilled," he said. "You don't want to just signal out the defense, although they're clearly a real dominant bunch. Offensively, they've got some real playmakers. I'm impressed with both of these backs (Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson). They run hard. They can catch the football. I like their receivers. I think [Muhsin] Muhammad is a well-documented great player, and [Bernard] Berrian is really coming into his own. Their offensive line with [Olin] Kreutz in the middle and the veteran linemen they have, they play hard, they don't make a lot mistakes. They've got a dynamic kick returner (Devin Hester), and they've got one helluva defense. And that's probably why they're as good a team as there is in the league right now."
Gruden was asked if he plans to kick the ball to Hester, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last week and has scored on an NFL-record six returns already this season.
"We might kick to him one or two in pregame warmup," Gruden joked, "but I don't know how many great looks we'll give him. He is a great player. I've never seen a guy explode on to the scene like this. It's a credit to the Bears front office and coaches and all that for drafting him and bringing him in there. But he's a special guy. We've got to limit the looks that he gets certainly."
After developing quarterback Chris Simms was lost for the season, Gruden was forced to turn his offense over to rookie sixth-round pick Bruce Gradkowski. Current Bears backup Brian Griese spent two seasons in Tampa Bay and had success in their version of the west coast offense, but the team was forced to cut him after last season for salary cap purposes. Griese has provided the Bears with the battle-tested second-stringer they so desperately needed.
Gruden in particular did not agree with the organization's decision to jettison Griese.
"It was very hard, very hard for me personally," Gruden admitted. "I know for our organization, I think he's a great quarterback. He's capable of leading a football team, and that's no disrespect to Rex. I think Rex is a young guy that's on the rise. But Brian really managed our stuff well, and unfortunately, after getting us off to a very good start, was injured. He's no longer with us, but we certainly miss him and wish him the best."
Gruden will get the chance to renew acquaintances with his former signal-caller on Sunday, although after Grossman's 114.4 passer rating last time out, Griese will do doubt be relegated to clipboard duty again.
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