Observation Deck: Bucs-Jags preview

From the "Observation Deck," I bring you the view of Sunday's game between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Get analysis of the Bucs on offense and defense, my 10 fearless predictions on the game and my final score prediction.

It would not be out of line to call Quinn Gray an enigma.

Need proof? Here's what we do know about Gray entering Sunday's game against Tampa Bay:

— He had thrown exactly 36 regular-season passes entering this season;

— He had thrown for two touchdowns and rushed for two touchdowns in his three regular-season appearances;

— He went 13-of-22 for 166 yards, and rushed two times for 26 yards and two touchdowns in last year's season finale against Kansas City;

— He led Frankfurt to a World Bowl championship.

All of that will mean little on Sunday. None of that came in meaningful game action. So, for most of this week the media has chosen to focus on what Gray did on Monday against Indianapolis — 9-of-24 for 56 yards and two interceptions.

And, you know what? That doesn't matter either. I'm going to let Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia — who last year did exactly what Gray is doing — explain it.

"Indianapolis was able to do that (frustrate Gray) and that's probably because that kid wasn't able to get any reps in practice," Garcia said. "He's going to get a full week of repetitions and he's going to be better than what he was last week."

This is Gray's fifth year with the Jaguars, but he's spent most of that time as the third quarterback, meaning he was inactive on game days and didn't get many reps beyond the preseason. He has two things going for him — he knows the offensive system and he has at least some level of trust with his teammates, which Garcia said go a long way in this situation.

"I think he'll have trust in his teammates because he has a good group around him," Garcia said. "Now it's a matter of gaining trust in what he can do as a player and how he can make plays."

Gray also has a stellar ground game to lean on, so it's not as if he'll have to do it by himself. Gray's inexperience in the regular season, however, could be damaging to the Jaguars if he makes mistakes. He threw two interceptions against the Colts last Monday. The Buccaneers defense, I think, is comparable to the Colts. They could goad Gray into a bad day.

If you're looking for a comparison to make regarding Gray, think of him as a bit more experienced than Bruce Gradkowski, but certainly far less accomplished than a healthy Chris Simms.

And his play will be the X-factor on Sunday.

ON OFFENSE

Statistically, the Jaguars are a middling defense — at least in terms of yardage. But where it matters most — points — they're a stellar unit. Even after losing to the Colts, they are tied for first in fewest touchdowns allowed (nine) and No. 2 in points allowed (14.5). That's all you need to know about this Jaguars defense. Points will be at a premium.

So what does that mean for the Buccaneers offense? There can't be any of the problems they had last week, in terms of cashing in red-zone chances. They can't rack up 400-plus yards and only have 16 points to show for it (though, if the Bucs gain 400 yards on this Jags defense this may be a much different ball game than I'm anticipating). And they cannot make mistakes. Absolutely, cannot, make mistakes. Their two turnovers against Detroit led to 14 points. The Bucs are undefeated when they win the turnover game. Point made.

The Bucs are going to have difficulty running the ball because the Jaguars have perhaps the best tackle tandem in the league in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. They stuff the run and are able to get to the quarterback. The Buccaneers may have to commit up to three lineman to block these two, which opens up inside tackling lanes for the linebackers and might force RT Jeremy Trueblood and LT Donald Penn into larger roles in the running game. Michael Bennett needs a bigger role this week. If Bennett can get to the outside, his speed can stretch the defense out and force the Jags to tweak their scheme. But the Bucs are not a stretch-play team. They like running north and south, so the sledding will be tough for both Bennett and Earnest Graham. You might see FB B.J. Askew get a few carries, as his size gives him an advantage.

As for the passing game, well the Jaguars are pretty good there, too. Rashean Mathis, for my money, is one of the league's best shutdown corners. He only has one pick so far, but that will change at some point. The Jags also get a good pass rush, and they've gotten solid work out of backup Paul Spicer, who has five sacks as he's shared time at right end with the hobbled Reggie Hayward. Their linebackers are speedy enough to help there, too. With the Bucs realistically only having three receiving options this week — Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall — this really muddies things up for Jeff Garcia.

I think the Jags will smartly bracket Galloway in coverage with a corner and a safety, leaving the other corner to handle Hilliard. This means Stovall is going to have to step up and make the Jaguars respect his ability to catch passes. If he does so early in the game, the Jaguars may have to change their defensive plan, which may open things up for Galloway. I think the Bucs need a big play from Garcia and Galloway on Sunday to win.

Offensive predictions

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. I see Rashean Mathis picking him off. This streak is bound to end at some point.

2. I would be surprised if, between Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett, that the Bucs rushed for 80 yards on Sunday. The Jags run defense is that good, and they'll be pumped on Sunday knowing their young quarterback needs a lift.

3. The leading receiver on Sunday will be … Ike Hilliard for the third straight week.

4. Donald Penn will have his hands full with Paul Spicer, giving up at least one sack.

5. The Buccaneers' interior linemen — Davin Joseph, John Wade and Arron Sears — will block Jaguars DTs John Henderson and Marcus Stroud to a draw.

ON DEFENSE

No one doubts that Jacksonville will want to run the football on Sunday. The Jags average 148.5 rushing yards per game, third-best in the NFL. The Jags rushed 47 times in a win over Denver, but only 17 times in their season-opening loss to Tennessee. So the key, it would seem, is to get the Jags to get away from the run, as they did in trying to rally back against Indianapolis on Monday night (27 carries against 36 passes).

Easier said than done. Tailback Fred Taylor has rushed for at least 100 years in each of his two regular-season meetings with the Buccaneers. These meetings came in 1998 and 2003, at a time when the Bucs were at their peak on defense. The speedy, shifty, Maurice Jones-Drew adds a great wrinkle to their offense, and after a slow start he's become very dangerous. Yes, he has a knee injury, but I expect him to play.

But it's not all about the backs. The Jags' offensive line is a physical group that doesn't mess around with a lot of shifts and pulls. They're a straight-sledding, power run team that likes to control the clock, eat up yards and move the chains. If this rushing offense puts together about 35 carries on Sunday, watch out.

I'm not sure the Bucs have faced a more potent rushing offense this year. St. Louis certainly committed to the run in Week 3, and maybe that's the best way to look at this. The Bucs defense bent in that game, but never broke, allowing Jackson more than 100 yards but no touchdowns. I think that's the key. Taylor and Jones-Drew can be as productive as the Bucs were last week on the ground — but they cannot score. The tandem backs make it doubly tough. Watch the Bucs used every down lineman they have on Sunday in constant rotation.

I also think Monte Kiffin will commit at least one safety — probably Jermaine Phillips — to run support. He can do this because the Jaguars' wide receivers aren't exactly intimidating. Jacksonville's top receiver so far is Dennis Northcutt, who is really more of a return specialist by trade but has caught 22 passes. Tight end Marcedes Lewis is No. 2 at 16 catches, along with Jones Drew. The Jags don't seem to have a consistent passing game, and Matt   Jones — who is turning into a bust two years after being a first-round pick — is likely to be inactive as the third quarterback on Sunday. The one receiver to watch is Reggie Williams, who has caught three touchdown passes so far.

I think Kiffin will use a lot of different looks and blitz packages on Sunday against Gray. He has to. It's his first NFL start and the Bucs have to make him as uncomfortable as possible. Getting to Gray early in the game is key. If they allow him to go untouched the first quarter then Gray has the potential to gain confidence and develop some fearlessness against a Bucs defense he really ought to fear. By hitting him early, you take him out of his rhythm and potentially force him into bad decisions, which is exactly what the Bucs need as this is likely to be a low-scoring game. So I expect a little bit of the 3-4 alignment we've seen sporadically this season, plus some full-house blitz packages early as the Bucs gamble on discombobulating Gray.

Defensive predictions

Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):

1. It's about time Ronde Barber had a big day. Expect him to pick off Quinn Gray and sack Gray at least once. One of those plays may go for a touchdown.

2. The Buccaneers have not scored a defensive touchdown all year. I think that streak ends Sunday. The low-scoring nature of this game demands the defense create a big play.

3. Barrett Ruud bounces back from last week's "sub-par" performance and gets back into the 10-tackle area this week. The Jags like to run inside.

4. I think this might be the week we see Jeremiah Trotter on defense. Why? He's physical and can stop the run, and the Jags' exceptional ground game makes him a natural play. But don't expect Ruud to leave the field. I envision Trotter being used sparingly in a 3-4 set alongside Ruud.

5. The Buccaneers will sack Quinn Gray three times, one of which will lead to a fumble.

Prediction

The defenses will score more than the offenses in this game (in fact, given my final score, they may score all the points). It could be ugly. David Garrard's absence will limit the Jaguars offense, and the Jaguars defense will limit the Bucs offense. But I think the Bucs only need to run the ball effectively enough to force the Jags to respect Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett. I think one deep pass from Jeff Garcia to Joey Galloway could be the difference. The Bucs are undefeated at home, so I take them, 13-10.


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 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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