Observation Deck: Bucs-Rams review

Last year at this time the Bucs were 0-3 and sinking fast. What's changed? From the "Observation Deck," I can tell you the turnaround is partly about turnovers. Plus, find out my opinions on Barrett Ruud, Mark Jones and a big sack late in Sunday's victory.

At this time last year I sat under a street lamp at a Tampa hospital trying to figure out how I might write Chris Simms' obituary.

I'm not being overly dramatic, either. There were reports that the guy might die from the ruptured spleen he suffered against Carolina. Most of us were camped out in front of St. Joseph's Hospital waiting for word on Simms' condition.

On that day, the Buccaneers' season died, certainly. I once heard a NFL assistant say, "If you have to start a rookie quarterback, your season is over."

Bruce Gradkowski, a rookie, slid into the starting role a few days later.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, that seems like YEARS ago, not A YEAR ago. To list everything that has happened to Tampa Bay since Simms' injury would simply take too long and bring some of you fans to tears. And, frankly, I think you've suffered enough.

The second reason is to illuminate one critical difference between the Buccaneers' 0-3 start a year ago and their 2-1 start now.

Turnovers — or more to the point, a lack of turnovers.

Maybe you've forgotten that Simms threw seven interceptions in his first three games that season. Simms probably hasn't. It's likely head coach Jon Gruden hasn't either.

The Bucs committed eight turnovers in those first three games of 2006. Their defense, which suddenly looked old, forced only five. The minus-3 ratio eventually ballooned to a minus-12, the worst in the NFC and the third-worst in the NFL last season.

Now look at the Buccaneers after three games this season. The Tampa Bay offense has committed three turnovers in three games. The new quarterback, Jeff Garcia, hasn't thrown an interception yet. The defense, which has five new starters this season, has forced six turnovers.

That's a plus-3 turnover ratio and a 2-1 record.

Perhaps that's why Gruden had such a quick hook with running back Carnell Williams on Sunday, after Williams fumbled the first carry of the fourth quarter. It may also be the same reason he used wide receiver Michael Clayton so little in the second half, after the receiver dropped a pass and nearly fumbled away a catch in the second quarter.

Bad memories of last year may have influenced those decisions.

"For us to be the offensive team we're going to be here, by God, we do not turn the ball over and we handle the ball better than everybody in the league," Gruden said.

So far, so good.

Game balls

RB Earnest Graham: Even if Graham never carries the football again the rest of his NFL career, he has Sunday, which is more than most of us can say.

LB Barrett Ruud : I guess I should just reserve him a place here each week. Check later for another entry on the MLB.

S Jermaine Phillips : Perhaps I was wrong to criticize the Bucs for not brining in a veteran safety this offseason. But let's keep that between you and me.

CB Phillip Buchanon : Two weeks in a row for Buchanon. This week, he picked off a touchdown pass.

FB B.J. Askew : Remember when I said I wasn't wild about the single-back formations in preseason? Not using this guy as a lead blocker was part of the reason. You might remember him paving the way for Curtis Martin's NFL rushing title a few years ago. Days like Sunday are his showcase.

The disappointments

LB Jeremiah Trotter : Inactive for the third straight week. I watched him going over blitz packages with LB coach Gus Bradley in pregame. That's about all he did.

WR Michael Clayton : He had the chance to make a big impact on this game and dropped a sure catch with plenty of field to operate. Plays like this are why the Bucs keep giving other receivers chances to take his job.

The pass rush: The Rams had perhaps the leakiest offensive line in football and they only managed one sack.

The Gruden Heat-O-Meter

Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden entered this season on the hot seat. Each week I'll take the temperature under that seat.

Last week: 5; Now: 4.

You can't turn the heat down too much, people. The Panthers are coming up on Sunday. But it sure must be more comfortable for him to sit in that office chair at 3 a.m. and break down game film.

A win on Sunday against the Panthers and the Bucs have the NFC South lead — and Gruden can take the fireman's trousers off. For now.

A WORD ON RUUD: Barrett Ruud had another stellar game on Sunday, notching 11 tackles, defending a pass and picking off his first NFL pass in the fourth quarter to ice away the game.

Last week Ruud earned his first NFL award, the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

I expected Ruud to struggle a bit as he made the transition from part-time to full-time player, especially in pass defense. But after three games he has completely validated not only the Bucs' decision to draft him three years ago, but also to have him replace Shelton Quarles this season.

Discussions about Ruud should now begin with "When do we start considering him among the top middle linebackers in football?" Not if, when. He's going to be that good.

The great thing for the Bucs is that Ruud is locked in through 2009 at a pittance of what Quarles would have cost them this year (Ruud is only slated to make $435,000 this year). But, with $15 million in cap space and knowing the kind of player and person Ruud is, the Bucs are likely to make a play to extend his contract long before it expires.

JONESING FOR A TD: I plan on doing a bigger story on Mark Jones this week, but right now you need to know this — he's a different returner than he was a year ago.

Need proof? Sunday he set career highs in punt returns (35 yards) and kickoffs (36 yards) in the 24-3 win over the Rams.

I admit that I thought Chad Owens would win the job as training camp began, mainly because Jones had not shown real explosiveness as a returner in his time in Tampa Bay. As the preseason came to a close, it was evident Jones had not only won the job, but that he had also grown as a returner. He seemed quicker off the catch and seemed to hit holes with more explosion.

So, naturally, the Bucs cut him after the preseason. I think having to keep four quarterbacks may have cost Jones a job. But when the David Boston situation blew up in Tampa Bay's face and team officials had to cut him, they re-signed Jones and immediately made him the returner.

Jones came fairly close to snapping the Bucs' comical drought of two billion kickoffs returns without a score in the first half. But he cut back from a would-be tackler and into the arms of another at midfield.

Still, his career high returns set up touchdowns for the Bucs on Sunday, and that's an ingredient that's been missing in Tampa Bay for a long time.

"Last year I think we had 12 possessions all season that started on the other team's side of the field," Gruden said. "That was last in the NFL. Mark Jones, in two plays today, had a lot to do with the victory."

SPEAKING OF SPECIAL TEAMS: I really neglected to discuss the yeoman's work the special teams coverage did on Rams returner Dante Hall. Hall had one punt return for 10 yards, and three kickoff returns for a 15.7-yard average. The Rams traded for Hall, long one of the game's most dangerous returners, in an attempt to pump up their special teams. But the Bucs blanketed him all day and deserve a lot of credit for not allowing Hall, who has 11 career touchdown returns, to be a real factor in a game that remained close going deep into the fourth quarter.

DRIVE CHART: Here's the drive chart for the Rams on Sunday:

Punt, punt, interception, missed field goal, end of half, interception, missed field goal, field goal, punt, interception.

All of this, and the Rams didn't have a three-and-out until the game's final two drives. The Bucs defense came up big on that first three-and-out in a 17-3 game with about eight minutes left.

Rams RB Steven Jackson went up the middle for five yards. Then after Bulger threw an incompletion to Randy McMichael, Bucs linemen Kevin Carter and Greg Peterson combined to sack Bulger.

It was Tampa Bay's only sack of the day, about as perfectly timed as any defensive play all day.

But Gruden is right that the Bucs have to force more three-and-outs and give this defense a rest. No one should be confusing this unit with the one in its prime five or six years ago. They're going to need help from the offense in the way of sustained drives, and they have to help themselves more by forcing more three-and-outs earlier in the contest.

The Scorecard

I made 10 predictions before the game. How did I do? Let's check, shall we?

Offensive

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. Wrong. He only carried 12 times for 46 yards, though he scored a touchdown. He also fumbled, paving his way to the bench.

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. Yes. By halftime Garcia was 10-of-18 for 93 yards, a far cry from his production a week ago. The Rams did blitz quite a bit, but Garcia handled it.

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. Wrong. He had four catches for 42 yards and no scores — plus one scary moment on the turn when a Rams player knocked the wind out of him.

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. Right and wrong. Statistically I was correct. But Michael Pittman had three catches for 35 yards, while Smith had three catches for 27 yards. Neither scored.

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. Yes. The red zone offense was 2-of-4 this week (it was 2-of-2 last week). But Bryant only kicked on field goal, though it gave the Bucs a 3-0 lead entering halftime and came in a driving rain.

Defense

1. DE Gaines Adams will have his first tackle for loss of the season. Yes. Late in the first quarter Adams stopped Jackson for a 1-yard loss, though it is not reflected in the final defensive stats.

2. LB Derrick Brooks will have his first interception, even though the Bucs will use him 10-12 fewer times in nickel situations. Wrong. No picks. Plus, I don't think Brooks left that much on Sunday, thanks to comfortable weather and a close game.

3. CB Brian Kelly will play, but there will times Sunday when the Bucs use all four corners — Kelly, Ronde Barber, Phillip Buchanon and Sammy Davis — in nickel coverage. Kelly played, but I couldn't tell if the Bucs used four corners. I don't think Davis played that much, expect on special teams. Buchanon had an interception.

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 hurries. Way off. The Bucs had one sack and three hurries. The line played well, but the production has to improve.

5. The Buccaneers will hold RB Steven Jackson under 100 yards rushing, a result of the Rams' line woes. Not quite. Jackson had 115 yards rushing. But the Bucs deserve credit for not allowing the big run Jackson seemed poised to get all day.

Prediction

I had the Bucs winning 19-12. The final was 24-3. I'm 2-1 this season, having correctly picked this game and the opener.

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.


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