Consistency. How much did Jon Gruden crave that last year?
All the rotation at quarterback, the injuries up front and the loss of Simeon Rice at midseason pretty much robbed Tampa Bay of any hope of creating any real chemistry last season.
That's why Sunday's game is such a golden opportunity for this team. So little was expected out of this team entering the season that another performance like last week's victory over New Orleans would surely make the Buccaneers a 2-1 team entering a Sept. 30 contest at Carolina, which is about as important as NFL games come that early in the season.
But playing on Sunday against St. Louis with the same success as they played against New Orleans could be even more important than a victory. It could signal a shift in the expectations for this team in 2007.
Consistency is key to a winning season, any coach will tell you. In fact, any quarterback will tell you that, too.
"That's exactly it," Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "We have to find a way to be consistent. It's been awhile since we've seen that consistency. For us to come out this week, and play another good football game, be good with the football, not turn the ball over, eliminate the negative plays, the sacks or the penalties (is critical)."
Two years ago, when the Buccaneers started 4-0 and eventually won the NFC South title, the team established itself early as a consistent football team. Certainly, they had their bumps in the road that season — the New England debacle springs immediately to mind — but by and large they played at the same level week in and week out. That level of consistency is important to any team that hopes to make the playoffs.
Is this a playoff team? No, not yet. But there's a path this team can take this weekend that could help clear the way. If they do, this season could get interesting in a hurry.
We'll see on Sunday. Let's get to the breakdowns and predictions.
Gruden is a West Coast offense disciple, and when his offense is firing away, it's easy to see the formula at work.
Bill Walsh's brainchild is an awesome piece of work. But at the time — the late 1970s — it flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Teams back then didn't use a short and intermediate passing game to set up the run. But Walsh did, and it worked. The Hall of Fame personnel helped, too.
Last week against New Orleans Gruden used that formula about as well as I've seen him since I've covered the team. Consider the run-pass breakdown in the first half:
Run — 12. Pass — 10.
In the first half big plays set up the Buccaneers with a huge lead at halftime. They didn't move the ball as consistently as those Niners teams did, but they produced points and dictated the game's pace. And that's all that matters. "It can help a lot," Gruden said. "When you throw the ball successfully people have to account for that. That certainly will help us I think become more balanced."
In the second half, the Buccaneers ran the ball 21 times and passed just six. Granted, they were protecting a big lead. But the run game was productive, and surely part of the reason why was the respect the Saints had to show the Buccaneers passing game.
The Buccaneers will use the same formula this weekend, but the success may be more muted. The Rams have the No. 4 ranked pass defense in the NFL right now. The Rams have only allowed 327 passing yards. Yes, Carolina's Jake Delhomme did go over the top of them in Week 1 to fire a touchdown pass to Steve Smith. But this back line unit has played well. They signed S Corey Chavous in the offseason and they hope to get cornerback Tye Hill back this week (as of Saturday morning, however, that didn't look promising). Getting down the field will be tougher this week, so I expect the Bucs passing game to remain confined to the short and intermediate routes and forced to put together long drives to score the football. The passing game will be less successful than a week ago.
Of course, for every yin there is a yang. The Rams' exceptional pass defense is offset by a porous run defense, an awfully surprising development given the talent up front, including end Leonard Little, under tackle La'Roi Glover and rookie nose tackle Adam Carriker. The Panthers piled up about 170 rushing yards in Week 1, while San Francisco's Frank Gore rushed for 81 yards last week, including an absolutely back-breaking 43-yard touchdown run.
The Rams are ranked 25th in run defense and they appear vulnerable.
That's good news for Carnell Williams, who showed some toughness in playing with bruised ribs and scoring twice last week. Statistically, Williams is not off to a roaring start. He's only averaging 3.4 yards per carry (36 carries, 121 yards). But a couple of important things are happening.
First, Williams carried the ball 24 times last week, his first 20-plus carry game of the season. And the Bucs won. There's no better way to remind Gruden of Williams' value than for the Bucs to improve to 9-0 when Williams carries the ball at least 21 times. Even though the yards were hard to come by, I thought Williams ran strong, absorbed contact well and showed signs of a back pointing toward a breakout game.
Second, this offensive line is improving. Now, I don't think they're suddenly going to become an All-Pro unit. But they protected Garcia to the tune of zero sacks. Plus, in the second half when the Bucs needed to run to protect the lead, the linemen took advantage of a spent Saints front four and cleared the way. In 21 rushing plays, the Bucs had just one for no gain and one for a loss. That's an encouraging sign.
A couple of other things to hit on. First, someone else in the passing game needs to step up besides Joey Galloway. At some point he will be well-covered the entire game and someone will need to get open. My candidate is tight end Alex Smith. He had a big catch on that first touchdown drive that nobody talked about all week. Second, watch RT Jeremy Trueblood square off with Little on Sunday. Little is one of the better left-side rushers in the NFL and will give Trueblood a nice test to gave the second-year tackle's development.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on offense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):
1. RB Carnell Williams' production will increase from last week, as he'll clear 80 yards and hit the 21-carry plateau for the second straight week.
2. QB Jeff Garcia will struggle early in the game as the Rams will blitz heavily in an attempt to throw the 37-year-old out of the rhythm he established early in last week's game.
3. WR Joey Galloway's production, naturally, will come down, but he'll catch this third touchdown of the year. But it won't be a game-breaker like last week's 69-yarder.
4. WR Ike Hilliard will not be the No. 2 receiver statistically this week. I expect TE Alex Smith to have a good game, including a touchdown.
5. The red zone offense will not be as efficient as it was a week ago, but Matt Bryant will have a nice game, kicking at least two field goals and one will be an important one.
Breaking down defensive goals for a game is never this season.
One — stop Steven Jackson.
The Rams back is a beast and he's frustrated by the 0-2 start. His apology to the team for his outburst last Sunday notwithstanding, he must be apoplectic about the offensive line woes in front of him. Jackson flat can find any daylight, and even for a back as talented as him that's a problem.
If the Rams fail to get him going early, expect to see him catch a lot of swing passes in the flat to try and use his athleticism in a way that could be disruptive to the Bucs' front seven. He'll likely get either Cato June or Derrick Brooks in coverage in those situations, and Jackson can beat them one-on-one. I think the Bucs will limit Jackson's effectiveness on the ground, but they won't stop him.
Second — rush Marc Bulger.
First, Bulger is one tough customer. I watched that Rams-49ers game and he took everything the Niners could dish out. He got up, he never complained and he still made great throws even as he knew hits were coming. We don't talk enough about this guy. To stand in that pocket on Sunday and make throws with zip and accuracy, despite the flurry of activity around him, was stirring.
And that's why the Bucs have to improve their rush this week, because as good as Bulger was last week under duress (he threw for nearly 400 yards, and would have had it if a couple of passes weren't dropped), he's downright lethal when he has time to throw.
The Bucs have four sacks and eight hurries in two weeks. Not exactly scintillating numbers, though the quality of their pass rush last week against New Orleans was an improvement over the season opener against Seattle.
This Rams offensive line is ripe for exploitation. Tackle Orlando Pace is out of the year. Guard Richie Incognito is out for the week. The Rams made three changes on their offensive line last week, and one of those changes — Claude Terrell at right guard — is banged up himself. This unit gave up six sacks and a bushel of pressures to the 49ers.
Plus, this will be the Rams' first road game, meaning their first game outside of the Edward Jones Dome. Meaning they haven't played a game in heat like Tampa's since a preseason finale at Kansas City on Aug. 30. They've been indoors for nearly a month, and practicing in the heat is not the same as playing in it.
It's imperative that the Bucs continue to use the rotation they started last week to keep their linemen fresh. It's also important to see their backups and younger players sustain their effort from a week ago. Jovan Haye and Greg White had the sacks last week, the first NFL sack for each of them. The sacks will come for the rest of the unit. But the fact that these two got to Brees is encouraging, because the backups must play to the starters' level.
Three — Play plenty of nickel.
The Bucs ran the nickel formation at least 30 times against Seattle, and probably just as often against New Orleans. The nickel allows a defense to sub an extra cornerback in for a linebacker to provide another speedy DB in pass coverage.
With Jackson's struggles, the passing game has sustained the Rams' offense. Bruce, in his 14th season, is producing like Galloway, and Holt is his steady self (though he did have a huge fumble last week). If there's any complaint about the receivers it's this — they're dropped too many passes and made too many mistakes once they catch the football.
This isn't the greatest show on turf anymore, but it's still pretty good. Bennett offers them a big receiver in slot situations. This group is different than New Orleans' receivers last week, in that they're experienced and craftier. They'll become less frustrated if the Rams struggle because they've been through those valleys more than a Marques Colston.
The return of Brian Kelly — he should play this week — gives the Bucs four talented corners, and you'll see them all this weekend. In fact, you might even see all four of them on the field at the same time. It would be unorthodox, certainly. But, when you face an offense as explosive as the Rams' you have to be willing to be a little unorthodox. You might even see the Bucs use a 3-4 at times to allow them another body to cover on passing downs.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense:
1. DE Gaines Adams will have his first tackle for loss of the season.
2. LB Derrick Brooks will have his first interception, even though the Bucs will use him 10-12 fewer times in nickel situations.
4. A porous and inexperienced Rams offensive line will allow the Bucs' front four to have its most productive day yet rushing the passer. I expect at least 3 ½ sacks and at least 6 pressures.
5. The Buccaneers will hold RB Steven Jackson under 100 yards rushing, a result of the Rams' line woes.
If last week was all about proving that they could put together a fine effort, then this game is about whether the Bucs can do it on a consistent basis. If they can produce an effort similar to their effort last week — win or lose — then I think there is hope for this team to be much more than I expected entering this season. Winning teams produce that consistent effort on a weekly basis, and that's something Tampa Bay struggled with last season What few times they did play well last season, the Buccaneers were unable to sustain it. The worst thing that could happen for a team developing chemistry at this early stage would be to lay an egg, especially against a Rams team that has a shaky offensive line and an underperforming Steven Jackson. For the first time so far this season, I'm taking the Buccaneers to win. I'm banking that Jeff Garcia's experience will continue to be a stabilizing force on the offense. More importantly, I think the Bucs defense will take advantage of the Rams' offensive line woes and have a big day, and in doing so hold the Rams to one offensive touchdown for the third straight week. Bucs 19, Rams 12
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.