For three weeks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have built a head of steam based on three things — a productive running game, an efficient passing game and a swarming defense reminiscent of their defenses of the past.
The Indianapolis Colts are exactly the kind of team that could take that momentum and crush it out like a cigarette butt.
Granted, this is not a game that Buccaneers MUST win. The result will not matter in terms of playoff tiebreakers. Of course, if the Bucs were to win and the Panthers were to lose to New Orleans, the Bucs could build a two-game lead in the NFC South. But a must-win it is not.
Rather, this is a game where the Buccaneers must prove they can play on without two key cogs of their offense — running back Carnell Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout. This is a game in which the Buccaneers must prove it can slow down an explosive offense like Indianapolis. New Orleans, St. Louis and Carolina don't count — unless you think beating down wounded teams is a sign of doing so.
And this is a game where the Bucs must prove they're for real. Even if they were to lose on Sunday, I think they can do that by remaining true to the formula they've created the past three weeks and keeping this game manageable. That way, in the fourth quarter, the Bucs may be able to prove they can steal a win on the road against a team they're sure to be an underdog against.
The Colts are wounded, too, but not nearly to the degree that the Rams or Panthers were. Even if Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai don't play on Sunday, the Colts still have Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
Oh, and Peyton Manning.
Winning is secondary this week. Quality of play is first and foremost. If the Bucs are to continue to be a Top 10 team in the NFL — and they leapt to that echelon in most NFL power rankings this week — they must prove they can maintain the level of play they've forged the last three weeks, even without a completely healthy lineup. That's what playoff teams do.
The play of second-year left tackle Donald Penn is the most critical part of the Buccaneers' offense on Sunday. Poor or uninspired play by Penn could wreck the Buccaneers offense.
How? Well the pass protection is an obvious point. Penn will have to protect Jeff Garcia's blind side, something Luke Petitgout did ably before his injury last week. But Petitgout never had to go against a player like Dwight Freeney, as Penn must this week. Freeney is one of the quickest speed rushers in the NFL. He can blow by a player of Penn's inexperience before he even has time to react. Freeney only has one sack so far this year, and this will likely be his best matchup, individually, so far this season.
But Penn could also be a liability in run blocking if he doesn't play up to the level he did last week. We don't talk about a tackle's run blocking as much because pass protection is so important on the left side. But the Bucs are a left-side running team, so Penn's ability to push through to the second level — and that means getting past Freeney — will be paramount to the Bucs running the football effectively.
I think Penn will be less of a liability in run situations, but he won't play up to Petitgout's level. That's to be expected. If the Bucs are smart, they'll funnel their running game to the right side, where guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood have been very effective on run plays. The running game is important for two reasons. First, the Bucs want to control the clock and keep Indy's offense off the field. Second, they need steady production from Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham to stay out of third-and-long situations, which weren't kind to the Bucs in the season opener at Seattle.
As for Garcia, this may be the week he takes a bit of a step back. He's one of only two quarterbacks in the NFL without an interception (Jacksonville's David Garrard is the other). That's bound to change, and the Colts are a quick enough defense to jump passing lanes and create turnovers. Plus, I just don't think that Penn will have a lot of success against Freeney. That means the Bucs must use a tight end or a running back to help Penn block, reducing the number of Garcia's passing options. His numbers will end up being about what we're used to, but I see a few more mistakes coming this week than in the past few weeks.
If safety Bob Sanders doesn't play for Indianapolis, expect the running game to be a bit better than the league average. The Colts run defense is abysmal without him, but Pittman and Graham aren't explosive enough to take full advantage. The Bucs will grind away on the ground, but don't expect big gains. Also expect Alex Smith to get involved if Sanders isn't patrolling the middle, either.
I think the offensive production will take a step back this week, given the losses of Williams and Petitgout. It has to. If it doesn't, though — look out.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on offense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):
1. Jeff Garcia will throw his first interception of the season and take at least three sacks. He'll throw more than 30 attempts because the Bucs will fall behind early.
2. Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham will combine for 100 rushing yards, but their per-carry average will be around 4.0, as the Colts will be without Bob Sanders.
3. The leading receiver on Sunday will be … Joey Galloway.
4. Donald Penn will give up at least two sacks to Dwight Freeney.
5. Pittman will enjoy a great day as a receiver, catching at least five passes for 50 yards.
The Bucs have just about everything they need to keep up with Peyton Manning — except a scary pass rush.
The secondary has played exceptionally, as have the linebackers. But the pass rush has been serviceable, and because of that the Bucs defense could be vulnerable.
Tampa Bay has eight sacks in four games, which, if you look at the number of changes up front, is actually encouraging. But the Buccaneers are 22nd in the NFL in sacks per pass play, meaning that, more often than not, the opposing quarterback has enough time to throw.
That won't work against Peyton Manning. Giving him time to pick apart a defense is like allowing a Samurai access to your sword collection — bad idea.
What makes it worse is that if the Buccaneers are unable to generate sustained pressure from their front four, then defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will have to resort to blitz packages to create pressure. The ripple effect? In doing so, Kiffin would expose his linebackers and safeties to single coverage, which for Manning is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Shoney's.
So what do you do if you're the Bucs? For starters go to work on the Colts' rookie left tackle, Tony Ugoh.
We haven't talked much about Ugoh this week, but he's almost as green as Penn. He just has a better pedigree. Ugoh was a second-round pick and became a starter immediately this summer. He's the show dog to Penn's mutt.
Ugoh has started four games and done a serviceable job. He hasn't made anyone forget about Tarik Glenn yet. But he's a quick lineman who threw the hammer in college and can stay with most NFL edge rushers because of his strength. But he's still young and he's being thrown into the fire, just like Penn.
And, Ugoh has a gimpy ankle. The Bucs should attempt to use their top two speed rushers — Patrick Chukwurah and Gaines Adams — as a tandem, throwing speed rush after speed rush at Ugoh in an effort to tire him out. He's 301 pounds. He's bound to wear out.
Either way, there's a weakness there that could be exploited.
As for the rest of the defense, it's paramount to keep the Colts receivers in front of the secondary this weekend. Reggie Wayne loves to go deep and down the middle, while tight end Dallas Clark likes to run underneath and crossing routes. Both have enough speed to take a short catch and take it long. Bucs MLB Barrett Ruud will likely be responsible for Clark, while S Jermaine Philips will probably help the corners with Wayne. Without Marvin Harrison, their job gets a bit easier. But Manning is a master of creating matchups that favor his offense, and so good at audibles at the line that he can create mismatches at the last second. Plus, don't forget about Anthony Gonzalez, the Colts first-round pick. He is seen as the next Brandon Stokley and he's quick enough to take a quick hitch and take it to the house.
I think the Bucs will do a solid job against the run, whether Joseph Addai plays or not. They're getting more inside penetration now, and without Addai I don't believe his backups will generate the offense the Colts will need on the ground. I think this game ends up, like many Colts games, in Manning's hands.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense:
1. The Buccaneers will struggle with their pass rush early in the game, but the Colts' weak running game will open up opportunities for the Bucs to register a sack or two in the second half, much like against Carolina last week.
2. Colts TE Dallas Clark will beat Bucs MLB Barrett Ruud for at least one long catch.
3. Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon will pick off Manning.
4. The Bucs will have trouble containing Anthony Gonzalez in the slot, as they'll pay special attention to Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
5. WLB Derrick Brooks will force a fumble and have at least eight tackles.
I think there are signs that this could be a nice road upset win for the Bucs. The Colts' overall health is one factor. They could be without as many as four starters on Sunday. The run defense is average, and without safety Bob Sanders it can be downright bad. The possible absence of Marvin Harrison could limit Peyton Manning's options. But the Colts still have a solid pass rush, and Dwight Freeney, I think, will expose new Bucs LT Donald Penn for the second-year pro that he is (read: inexperienced). The Bucs should keep Anthony Davis active, just in case. Without Carnell Williams, the run game will take a hit production-wise, but Penn's potential struggles lead me to believe the Bucs offense will struggle, too. Count on it being a low-scoring game until the fourth quarter. Then, it will come down to a last-minute field goal by the Colts' Adam Vinatieri. Colts 22, Bucs 20.
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.