The NFC South is littered with defending champions left defenseless.
Witness the proof:
Tampa Bay, 2002: Won the Super Bowl. Went 7-9 the following season.
Carolina, 2003: Lost in the Super Bowl. Went 7-9 the following season.
Atlanta, 2004: Went to the NFC Championship game and lost to Philadelphia. Went 8-8 the following season.
Tampa Bay, 2005: Lost in the Wild Card playoffs. Went 4-12 the following season.
So New Orleans' horrid start to the season — a 41-10 loss to Indianapolis — should be cause for concern, no?
One game doesn't make a season, win or lose. But a horrid loss such as that, followed by a divisional game, can be a recipe for catastrophe.
And that goes for Tampa Bay, too.
Winning in your division and winning at home is paramount to winning a divisional title — and thus guaranteeing a home playoff game — in the eight-division NFL.
Want proof? Well, look at last year's 12 playoff teams.
Average number of home wins? 5.5. Only one playoff team had an under-.500 record.
Average number of divisional wins? 4.0. Only one playoff team had an under-.500 divisional record. The Giants were 8-8 and a big reason they snuck in the playoffs was a 4-2 divisional record.
So whichever team loses Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium is in a hole.
"You've got to be stellar at home and you've got to take care of business not only in your separate division but in your National Football Conference, because those are the tiebreakers," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "Those are the things that come down to making the playoffs at the end of the season."
Tampa Bay has failed to generate at least 300 yards in total offense in 10 of their last 12 games. They finished last week's game much like they finished last season. Their record over that period is 3-9.
Just winning a game would do this team good, Gruden said.
"Oh, we need a win," Gruden said. "We need a win. We've got a lot of guys sick of losing. I can honestly say I'm sick of losing. Our fans are sick of losing. This is hard. It's sickening. I'm tired of losing. We've got a lot of young guys here – first, second, third-year Bucs – that have got to understand the torch has been passed to them and by God they need to do something about that and help us win a football game. I think they got that message loud and clear."
We'll see on Sunday. Let's get to the breakdowns and predictions.
If Tampa Bay can string together four quarters on Sunday that looked like their first quarter, then they'll be on to something.
Take a look at the first quarter last week — out of three drives, only one went three-and-out. The other two were sustained drives that lasted at least six plays and led to two field goals.
Then take a look at the final three quarters. Out of nine possessions, the Bucs went three-and-out six times.
What happened? Well, two major things happened. First, the Seahawks defense adjusted to the Buccaneers and accomplished two things — punishing the Bucs offensive line and creating holes for their linebackers, along with penning in quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Second, Carnell Williams left the game with an injury. He was just entering that period of the game where he gets dangerous. He had 12 carries for 60 yards, a 5.0-yard average.
"He was starting to warm up, yeah," right guard Davin Joseph said of Williams.
Whether Williams plays or not, the running game will be spread out among Williams, Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham, which only makes sense. Williams is making progress with his bruised ribs, but he won't be 100 percent. If he can handle the pain, he'll play. Pittman will be used much the way he was used last week — as a fullback and pass receiver. Pittman had eight touches, which is just about right with a healthy Williams in the lineup. Expect Pittman's touches to go up slightly.
Graham will be the big beneficiary. He's a smaller, shiftier runner than Williams that running backs coach Art Valero told me Thursday has an uncanny ability to find the right hole. The only real question about Graham is whether he can hold up the whole game being used as a back and a special teams performer. Graham is used on every special teams unit, and if Graham gets, say, 10-12 offensive touches, he's looking at about 25 touches on Sunday. That's a lot more work for a player that's not used to it. If Graham is used in such a way, the Bucs will have to make concessions to his special teams work.
At this point, this offensive line is a better run-blocking group than a pass-blocking group. The line generated 3.9 yards per carry last week. The pass protection, in Gruden's estimation, was "average" last week. A case could be made that it was worse.
The Seahawks had five sacks last week, tied for second best on opening weekend. Plus they had 14 quarterback hurries and knocked Jeff Garcia out of the game briefly. The protection became worse as the game went on, especially after Williams exited. The Seahawks had no reason to put eight men in the box, so they focused on limiting Garcia's effectiveness and did.
The Saints defense showed some real vulnerability last week, even though comparing the Colts offense to the Bucs offense is like comparing a Corvette to a Yugo. But the Saints pass rush was rather pedestrian and cornerback Jason David must have felt like a piece of burnt toast after giving up three touchdowns last week.
The success of this offense on Sunday comes down to how well the Bucs protect Garcia. If he has time to go through his progressions and room to step up and throw, he'll find receivers. Joey Galloway is sure go deep several times in this game, considering how porous the Saints secondary was last week. Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will have a bigger role in the passing game, though Ike Hilliard will start opposite Galloway. And I expect tight end Alex Smith to have a bigger impact on the game than last week.
The Bucs can accomplish this two ways. First, the Bucs have to shore up the inside blocking. Much of the pressure last week came from the inside, not the outside. So center John Wade, along with guards Davin Joseph and Arron Sears, must block better. The Saints have a dangerous front four, and while there will plenty of emphasis on ends Will Allen and Charles Grant, Brian Young is just as dangerous inside.
Second, the Bucs have to run the football at least four yards per carry, whether Williams plays or not. A productive running game will take the heat off Garcia and force the Saints into sets that leave their corners vulnerable in man coverage. The Bucs were just getting to that point on Sunday, I thought, before Williams was hurt.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on offense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):
1. Williams will play, but he'll basically split carries with Graham, and they'll total about 25 touches on Sunday.
2. Mark Jones will handle kickoff returns so Graham can play a bigger role in the ground game.
3. Galloway will catch the Bucs' first touchdown pass this season, and have two catches of 40 yards or more.
4. Tampa Bay's offensive line will give up fewer than the 5 sacks it gave up last Sunday.
5. The offense will struggle in the red zone, leading to at least two field goals for Matt Bryant.
It's all about pressure up front.
The Bucs must pressure Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday. The pressure doesn't have to be in the form of sacks. But it has to, at the least, come in the form of bodies flying around Brees throughout the game.
The Colts front four made the Saints offensive linemen look as if they had lead in their feet. But that's a quick front four. This Bucs unit isn't as fleet of foot, so the Saints front five should have a little more time to set up their pocket. Still, Greg Spires and Kevin Carter are sound, powerful rushers and they should be able to exert some pressure on Brees. The larger question is what will Gaines Adams do. He had an assist last week working largely against All-Pro Walter Jones. Jammal Brown isn't in Jones' league — yet — but he's plenty good. I'm not sure how effective Adams will be this week.
Chris Hovan will play inside, and the Bucs need more pressure from Hovan and Jovan Haye at under tackle if this is going to work. Hovan is more of the run stopper of the pair, but they need inside penetration on a regular basis or Brees will have plenty of room to step up if the ends can get around Brown and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. That's where the Bucs were hurt last week on the front four. The lack of inside push gave Matt Hasselbeck room to step up.
Of bigger concern is the secondary.
Brian Kelly won't play at right cornerback. He hasn't practiced this week and usually a player that doesn't practice doesn't play.
That means Phillip Buchanon slides over to the right side to start for Kelly. It also means that the Bucs are in a similar situation to last year when they lost Kelly and had to find a competent nickel cornerback.
They might be in a better situation this year. First, the Bucs can move Ronde Barber inside to that position, since he's the model player for the position. To do so, the Bucs would move newly-acquired Sammy Davis out to Barber's left corner position. This isn't a stretch. Davis is a former first-round pick who has six months of preparation for this (he was one of the Bucs' final cuts on Sept. 1). It's not as if he's stepping into a brand-new situation. He knows the scheme and his role, making him much farther along than Buchanon was when he had to move into a larger role last season.
Or, the Bucs could use Davis as the nickel, which I think it what we'll see more of on Sunday. Davis has played the nickel at both San Francisco and San Diego, so he has plenty of experience. Plus, at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Davis has the size to handle himself in the slot.
Remember when the Bucs faced New Orleans the second time around? Brees victimized them that day, and part of the reason was that Torrie Cox (all 5-9 of him) was on the field when he shouldn't have been. He had to work as the third cornerback when both Kelly and Juran Bolden were hurt. Davis is an upgrade over Cox, as is safety Kalvin Pearson, who can play the nickel corner, as well.
One player you won't see there is Tanard Jackson. He may play that position one day, but the Bucs want him exclusively at free safety for the time being.
Finally, a word on Derrick Brooks. The linebacker has taken some heat this week about the misplays he made last week against Seattle. Brooks will be the first to tell you that the misplays were on him. He'll also be the first to tell you that he doesn't feel he's lost a step.
Well, he has. What 34-year old linebacker hasn't, though? I said before this season that the defense would play inconsistently because of the mix of older players and inexperienced players, and I stand by that. Brooks is part of that older regime and you can't hold off Father Time forever.
But he will make plays this season, there's no doubt. But from now on, you have to expect that Brooks is going to get beat on occasion, too.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense:
1. Adams will not have a sack.
2. Cato June will have a better game and notch more than the three tackles he had against Seattle.
3. Ronde Barber will grab his first interception of the season, but it won't go for a touchdown.
4. Tampa Bay's defensive line will struggle to get pressure on Drew Brees, managing under three sacks and six quarterback hurries.
5. The Buccaneers will hold Reggie Bush under 75 yards of offense
I find it difficult to predict that the Buccaneers will score a lot of points because I haven't seen the proof yet. Sure, there's a ton of potential offensively. But this team wont' make strides until the offense starts scoring points. Once they do that it will take pressure off a defensive unit that still has some growing up to do. Yes, I know the Saints secondary had a lackluster game (well, really, just Jason David), but they'll bounce back. I just don't see the Saints starting the season 0-2. Brees will have a fine day, the Saints will get downfield more often and two or three big plays will, once again, be the Bucs' undoing. Saints 27, 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.