John Keim: Are you convinced that the Bucs are for real? If so, why?
Matthew Postins: For real in the sense that they can win the NFC South? Absolutely. The Bucs are easily the best team in a mediocre division. They have everything going for them in terms of record (two games on the rest of the division), division record (3-0, with a win against each division foe) and remaining schedule (the Redskins are the only .500 team left). It would stun me, at this point, if they collapsed enough to lose the division, because they could claim the title with nine victories. Now, in the sense of the playoffs? No. I could see them winning a home playoff game, but I can't see them making what would be a likely trip to either Dallas or Green Bay and winning a divisional playoff. In terms of what I expected out of this team — and what many expected out of this team — they've exceeded my expectations. They may even have exceeded their head coach's.
John Keim: What does Jeff Garcia bring to the Bucs that they were missing? Is it just on-field play or are there other intangibles?
Matthew Postins: Consistency. You can't appreciate what Garcia has done for this offense until you consider that the Bucs have had to make a major quarterback change due to injury each of the last three years, and two of those season were losing seasons. Garcia's health, consistency and efficiency have been the largest factors in this offense's success. Garcia is the perfect quarterback for Gruden. He probably wishes he had gotten Garcia five years ago when he left San Francisco.
John Keim: I keep hearing about their safeties and what big hitters they are. How good are the safeties and how much have they changed this secondary?
Matthew Postins: It's funny. Plenty of fans were ready to jettison strong safety Jermaine Phillips after last season. Admittedly, he played horrible. But he's playing at a Pro Bowl level this year and a lot of that is due to secondary coach Raheem Morris. He worked as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's assistant when Morris coached DBs in Tampa Bay, and he's just like Tomlin — tough, uncompromising and a great technical coach. The players love him. Ronde Barber got down on his knees in mock prayer one day when asked about Morris' return. It's obvious last year's secondary coach, Greg Burns, wasn't a great fit and that Morris has energized Phillips' play. Phillips is also benefiting from being used more against the run and from a pass rush that is getting better. Yes, he's a hard hitter, as is rookie free safety Tanard Jackson, and that's a bit of a surprise. The Bucs grabbed him in the fourth round because they worked the former CB at safety at the Senior Bowl and saw something. Jackson gives them a safety with corner cover skills, which is a real asset. But he's had several highlight-reel hits. Between the two, they've laid out several receivers this year. By working the middle so well, it makes it harder for opposing offenses to work the most vulnerable part of the Cover 2 — the deep middle.
John Keim: How surprised are you by Earnest Graham? Why has he done so well?
Matthew Postins: I'm used to watching Graham work his magic in the preseason, so I knew he had talent. So did the coaching staff. But you never know what a player will do when they're asked to step up in the regular season, and I think Graham has responded better than most expected. He shouldered the load by himself for a month and the running game improved every week. Graham's greatest asset is that he never seems to lose yardage. Even if he's hit, he finds a way to fall forward and get a yard. He's small, but stocky, and tough enough to take a hit and wear down defenses. Garcia's the offensive MVP, but Graham is the savior.
John Keim: The Redskins were hit hard by big plays against Dallas last week. How much will the Bucs look downfield and will they do so with anyone other than Joey Galloway, who never seems to slow down?
Matthew Postins: The Bucs will take their shots, but Galloway is the only realistic deep threat. None of the other receivers are fast enough to get past the secondary. It seems Galloway gets open once or twice downfield every game, and Garcia almost always hits him. That's another big difference from last year. Galloway was neutralized by Chris Simms' season-ending injury because rookie Bruce Gradkowski wasn't accurate enough or strong enough to hit Galloway consistently downfield. Garcia is, and that's why Galloway averages more than 50 yards per touchdown catch this season.