KEYS TO THE GAME: It's another emotional reunion for the Bucs, who will play host to the Broncos and former teammate S John Lynch. Of more concern is the Broncos' top-ranked defense against Tampa Bay's injury-riddled offense. The Bucs are hoping RB Michael Pittman will add a spark, but his endurance will be limited after being suspended the first three games. Defensively, Tampa Bay has had trouble generating pressure with its front four. QB Jake Plummer's ability to run boot legs will also force the Bucs to not over-pursue. Broncos RB Quentin Griffin's job might be on the line after losing a fumble in three consecutive games. The Bucs have already allowed two runs of 60 yards or longer and Denver should move the ball as long as it avoids turnovers that will keep the Bucs in the game.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Lead the series 3-2. ... Coach Mike Shanahan is 7-1 against Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden. ... Shanahan's son, Kyle, is an offensive quality control assistant on Gruden's staff. Buccaneers: LB Derrick Brooks' 131 consecutive starts is the longest streak among active defensive players. ... WR Tim Brown needs one touchdown reception to pass Steve Largent (100) for the third-most all-time.
PREDICTION: Broncos 20-17
PERSONNEL NEWS Broncos: --CB Willie Middlebrooks will probably see his playing time decrease with the return of Lenny Walls, which could be as soon as this week. Walls will likely assume the role of nickel back as soon as he's close to being healthy after suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1, and Middlebrooks will be Denver's dime cornerback. Middlebrooks, a former first-round pick, played well in Walls' absence and is still a valuable special-teams player.
--DE Raylee Johnson was moved to a reserve role after the team promoted Reggie Hayward before Denver's second game this season. The role is good for Johnson, a longtime veteran who can probably stay fresher with less playing time. Johnson is also a good presence in the locker room who won't complain about not starting.
--S John Lynch has been a good fit with the Broncos defense. He leads the team with 18 tackles. Lynch and fellow safety Kenoy Kennedy spent plenty of time blitzing last week, something future opponents will have to be wary of.
--LB Terry Pierce lost out on his chance to start at the beginning of this season when he hurt his knee in the preseason. But Pierce is playing well on special teams and his versatility -- he's Denver's top backup at middle and strong-side linebacker -- has earned him a spot on the active roster on game days.
--FB Reuben Droughns was named the AFC's special teams player of the week after a good game returning kickoffs against San Diego. Droughns is perhaps Denver's most valuable special teams player because he's on almost all of the units, and he's also the starting fullback and could soon take over as the Broncos' short-yardage back.
Bucs: --WR Frank Murphy is probable for Sunday's game against the Broncos. Murphy was inactive last week against the Raiders due to a hamstring strain. With Murphy out, CB Torrie Cox returned kickoffs.
--WR Joey Galloway is out 2-4 weeks with a groin tear.
--TE Will Heller will be active Sunday against the Broncos, replacing Rickey Dudley, who was placed on IR with a broken right thumb.
INSIDE THE CAMPS Broncos: Between the 20-yard lines the Denver Broncos have moved the ball well. Once they get inside the red zone, things have gotten difficult. The Broncos have scored three touchdowns in nine trips inside their opponent's 20-yard line this season, and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said that and Denver's 33 percent efficiency on third downs are two areas his offense needs to improve in.
"We have to do the little things as a team and make sure you get in there," Shanahan said. "So you've got to be pretty realistic about the mistakes that you did make."
Shanahan said the team would stress red-zone efficiency in practice this week after scoring one touchdown in three red zone trips against San Diego last week.
Shanahan said he was miffed because the Broncos let the Chargers stay in that game, which Denver ended up winning 23-13. Jason Elam kicked field goals of 22 and 23 yards after drives stalled inside the 10-yard line.
"We had a chance to dominate a football team," Shanahan said. "You don't get a chance to do that very often. It should have been 21-3 with eight minutes left in the second quarter. And all of a sudden it's 13-3 and it's a dogfight."
On both of Denver's drives that stalled inside the 10-yard line last week, they were stopped on third down and short. Picking up first downs in short-yardage situations has been an issue all season, and it is something the Broncos know they have to clean up.
"It's not rocket science," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "We have the right plays. Guys just have a missed assignment here and there."
"I don't have anything to report, although Kenyatta Walker is practicing better," Gruden said. "He appears to be improving physically. Sean Mahan is making strides, as is Anthony Davis. Our young players, like Jeb Terry, are getting better. There might be a point in time where we get them in a little bit, but we'll see.
"We're going to look at every avenue we have. I don't know how many more personnel changes we can make, quite honestly. We used Jameel Cook last week at fullback, Mike Alstott more and more at halfback. We're using Will Heller this week at tight end. We've used every receiver that's on our roster and we might look at some guys at other positions, also. We'll make those decisions as the week closes out."
The Bucs are 31st in the NFL in sacks allowed with 11.
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