Tampa Bay is just plain awful on the West Coast. I mean, AWFUL.
Just get the Bucs within the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean and they seem unable to win. Consider their records against West Coast teams (defined by being in California or Washington State):
At Oakland: 0-5 (including one trip to Los Angeles)
At San Diego: 1-3 (not including the Super Bowl XXXVII victory at Qualcomm Stadium
At San Francisco: 1-10
At Seattle: 1-2.
That's 3-20 if you're scoring at home (or, even if you're alone).
The Bucs have tried everything to overcome the bugaboo, short of inviting Max Von Sydow's "The Exorcist" preacher to the locker room before the game. But nothing's worked.
There is a unique challenge in traveling cross-country either way, both the Buccaneers and the Seahawks agree.
"It's a different sort of preparation," California native Jeff Garcia said. "It's a two-day trip instead of a one-day trip. It is a long flight. But it's really about focus. It's really about discipline and it's about being prepared throughout the week so that when Sunday comes you're just reacting. You're not allowing the elements to rattle you or confuse you."
Rattled and confused? Wasn't that the name of the Bucs' 2006 NFL Films recap video?
Can the Buccaneers win this game? Sure. Will they? Well ….
I think there's a good chance Jeff Garcia will throw 40 passes or more on Sunday. First, the Bucs are going to start this game in a hole. Remember how last season ended? The Seahawks ran out the final eight minutes of the clock with a tremendous example of ball-control football at Raymond James Stadium. The Seahawks closely resemble that group from last year. The offensive line hasn't changed much. The backfield is still the same, plus running back Shaun Alexander is fully healthy. I expect the Seahawks to come out and run the football well early, control the clock and put a couple of early touchdowns. That means the Buccaneers will be trying to rally and head coach Jon Gruden will put the game in Garcia's hands. I think that's what Gruden wants to do because he trusts Garcia more than any other quarterback he's had since Rich Gannon in Oakland.
Because of this, you'll see plenty of the three wide-receiver sets you saw in the preseason. Gruden wants to spread the field. That means you'll also see running back Carnell Williams in single-back sets the majority of the time he's in the game. I don't believe that formation benefits him on a consistent basis. I think he needs the lead blocker. But with Mike Alstott moving to injured reserve, Gruden seems intent on using Michael Pittman as a hybrid running back/fullback. Pittman will see plenty of work. In fact, he'll see more work that Williams, in terms of total plays on the field. Thanks to falling behind early, Gruden's reliance on Garcia and Pittman's increased role, there's a good chance Williams will see fewer than 20 touches on Sunday, and no more than 15 carries.
I don't think it matters who starts opposite Joey Galloway on Sunday. David Boston, Maurice Stovall, Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton have all had solid training camps and preseason. Because of the increased role of the wide receiver in the offense this year, they're all going to get a few chances to make plays. I expect, based on the preseason, that Boston and Hilliard will see the most time. They're vets and I think Gruden trusts them more that Stovall or Clayton at this point. That will change as Stovall produces this season — and I think he will. The tight ends will also play a big role this year. You'll see fewer of the max protect sets we've seen the past two years, and more sets in which there's a single tight end. In fact, I expect to see tight ends set up in the slot or just off the offensive line more often than the traditional setups this season.
Is that because Gruden trusts the offensive line more? I'm not so sure about that. I think he trusts Garcia more. This offensive line must be graded on a curve for the first few weeks. Center John Wade is the only player on the line that started on opening day. RT Jeremy Trueblood didn't start until Week 2. RG Davin Joseph didn't start until Week 5. LG Arron Sears was in Tennessee. LT Luke Petitgout was in New York. I think Sears' and Trueblood's injuries stunted the chemistry of this line a bit. Sears wouldn't answer questions about his knee on Wednesday, but Gruden said he's ready to start. Trueblood, in my opinion, wasn't having a great preseason before he was hurt. The line bears close scrutiny early. When Williams has had big games, he's been able to break off a 8 or 10-yard gain early in the contest. He can't do that without great blocking. If this line can't produce, Williams can't produce and the outcome rests with Garcia.
Two things really stick out from last year — the pass rush and the safety play. The Buccaneers are hopeful they've addressed both this offseason. I'm not so optimistic.
If you're a regular reader here, you know that I disagreed with the release of defensive end Simeon Rice. For a defense that generated only 25 sacks last season, this line needed all the help it could get this season. Rice will be a beast for the Broncos this year. Just watch.
I expect Gaines Adams to start on Sunday. It's about 70/30 between Adams starting and Kevin Carter starting at right end. I think the way things have settled — the release of Rice, the injury to starter Patrick Chukwurah — all but demands that he start. This is a great subplot in this game, watching Adams go up against Seattle left tackle Walter Jones, one of the game's best. He'll be nervous, and Adams may rely too much on his speed to try and get around the crafty Jones, who is great at leveraging his bulk and quickness in pass protection. I would be surprised if Adams had a sack from the right side. Carter, a savvy veteran, may have a better chance.
The run defense was middling last year and Seattle provides a great test in Alexander. He rushed for nearly 100 yards against the Bucs last year and he's healthier now than he was all of last year. Holmgren said Alexander may be in the best shape of his career, and that could be bad news for the Bucs. The first-team defense had three great possessions against Jacksonville and three inconsistent possessions against Miami, including the long touchdown drive led by Miami quarterback Trent Green.
The Bucs will depend on new under tackle Jovan Haye to get pressure up the middle, while Chris Hovan will try and open up space for the linebackers. Haye's performance is pretty critical in this game, and not just because the position is critical in of itself. With Carter likely rotating on the end, Haye's backup is the untested Greg Peterson, who showed flashes of potential in the preseason but is nowhere near ready to be a heavy regular season contributor. If Haye is unable to generate the necessary pressure — run or pass — up front, the Bucs will have to adjust by moving Carter inside and using Greg White as a rotating end on the right side, and the Arena Football star is still getting used to the 11-man game again. In this worst-case scenario, left end Greg Spires doesn't see much of a break. I personally think the line's performance will be average on Sunday, without much pressure on Matt Hasselbeck.
At safety, I think Tanard Jackson will start at free safety, but Will Allen will play plenty. Jackson is a safety who plays like a cornerback, so he'll play ball first when he can. He's able to hit and he's a solid tackler, but this would be his first NFL start and you have to believe that Hasselbeck will take every opportunity to test Jackson's ability and inexperience on Sunday. That's another matchup I'm interested to watch, because the last time we saw him in coverage he broke up two touchdown passes in Jacksonville.
The linebackers are the unit of least concern on the defense. Derrick Brooks should have a fine game. He's one of those players that will get it done on opening day. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud will play well against the run, but may struggle a bit against the pass early in the season. There will be no one looking over his shoulder on Sunday. Recently signed Jeremiah Trotter will be a non-factor on Sunday, as he's still learning the Cover 2 system. Cato June will be fine on the strong side. I think he'll be able to take on tight ends in the slot and will play well in coverage.
I think the Seahawks are going to run the football well early in this game, control the clock and grab a double-digit lead before Tampa Bay knows what hit them. I don't have much faith in Tampa Bay's defense at the moment. Perhaps that's last year's record talking, but I don't think the changes this offseason have made the defense much better. I believe that Jeff Garcia's presence behind center will make a difference in terms of production. But, as I said earlier, he'll throw plenty because Gruden wants to and the Seahawks' lead will demand it. That will probably lead to a few mistakes on Garcia's part, plus some protection breakdowns, especially in the shotgun, a formation the Bucs are still getting experienced with. The bigger casualty will be Carnell Williams, who I don't see gaining more than 50-60 yards on Sunday, unless he's able to break a long one. Gruden will be far too enamored with throwing the football, and Garcia will spread the ball around so much Williams will be lost in the shuffle. The defense will be adequate. They'll make some plays, and I could see Cato June or Tanard Jackson netting an interception. But I think the Bucs will be on the field too much to catch their breath, leading to breakdowns in coverage. The Bucs won't get to .500 in Seattle on this trip. It could be the start of a long season. Seahawks 26, Bucs 13
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.