I can't think of a free agent signing that has been more important to Tampa Bay this season than retaining cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
Ask yourself this — can you imagine this secondary without him? I posed that question to defensive backs coach Raheem Morris.
"You never want to be without a guy like Phillip," Morris said. "You need those types of guys."
Buchanon is one of the team's reclamation projects, something they've become pretty good at lately. The former first-round pick of the Oakland Raiders appeared to be lost after the Raiders traded him in 2005 to Houston, and then the Texans released him in 2006.
The Bucs signed him shortly after his release because they needed a cornerback to replace the injured Brian Kelly. But the Bucs have gotten so much more than a veteran backup. They've found a player that could be a starter in this Cover 2 for years to come.
Buchanon looks comfortable in Monte Kiffin's scheme. The Cover 2 seems to suit him. And, for the first time in his career, Buchanon said, he's not perceived as being "Superman."
"Coach Kiffin told me, ‘Don't worry about making mistakes because you're going to make them,'" Buchanon said.
Buchanon plays with more freedom in Tampa Bay than he did in Oakland or Houston because they perceived him as "Superman." Certainly Buchanon had talent. But his 11 career interceptions before he arrived here were well below the expectations.
Buchanon said the environments in Oakland and Houston didn't help his progress.
"It was a totally different message," Buchanon said. "Everyone wanted me to be Superman. Don't get me wrong — I kind of wanted to be Superman too. But they harped on me a lot and we just weren't winning. When you're not winning everything's bad."
Buchanon isn't front and center in Tampa Bay. Certainly he could be. But that's not the system. Everyone fits in, even a four-time Pro Bowler like Ronde Barber. Everyone plays the system. Everyone plays the run (Buchanon is a better tackler than most critics give him credit for).
Is it the scheme? Maybe, but Morris has another idea.
"I don't know if it's the scheme," Morris said. "I think when you have a guy as talented as that guy, your scheme should fit him or find a way to make it fit him. The tackling thing is all about want to. He's asked to that here and he does it. I don't know what other teams asked him to do."
Those other teams asked him to be Superman. The Bucs only needed him to be a savior when Kelly's persistent groin problems began after the season opener. Buchanon took his spot in the lineup in Week 2. He hasn't given it back.
Again, imagine this pass defense without Buchanon there to take Kelly's place during the Bucs' injury-riddled October.
Now you get it. Now let's get to it.
Earlier this week I told WHBO's Scot Brantley that the Buccaneers had to run the ball well this week in order to win. By nature, I'm a big proponent of a good running game. I think it just creates so many more options offensively.
And the way Earnest Graham has rushed the football since he became the starter, one would believe that another big game from Graham is in order. He's averaging 4.2 yards per carry and is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games.
But that may not be the case this Sunday. The Redskins are 10th against the run, allowing 97.1 yards per game. They held the Dallas Cowboys — one of the better running teams in the league — to less than 100 rushing yards last week. Their linebackers, led by London Fletcher, are playing outstanding against the run right now.
For the Bucs, RB Michael Pittman is likely to be out of the game, which means Michael Bennett would be active and that would force head coach Jon Gruden to strip down the playbook a bit. That would also mean that Graham would have to assume a load similar to what he did against Detroit and Arizona, where he had more than 30 touches in each game. Plus, there's a chance that starting FB B.J. Askew could be out of the game, which would mean rookie FB Byron Storer would be Graham's lead blocker. Askew is questionable and that seems unlikely.
All of that uncertainty, to me, adds up to a lackluster game on the ground and puts the onus on QB Jeff Garcia on Sunday.
The Redskins have a name-brand secondary — that's how owner Daniel Snyder likes it. You're never going to find D.S. buying the Diet Dr. Thunder at the local Wal-Mart. Most of the secondary is filled with guys you're heard of — Sean Taylor, Fred Smoot, Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers among them. Rogers, however is out for the season. Plus, Taylor, the team's top safety, won't play on Sunday.
Now factor in the numbers. The Redskins are 23rd against the pass this year. They've allowed 17 touchdown passes this year. Only four NFL teams have given up more TD passes than the Redskins. With that much talent back there, how is that possible?
If you watched the Dallas-Washington game last week, you know that Terrell Owens caught four touchdown passes. The Cowboys were able to get behind the Redskins' coverage and pass on them nearly at will. Now, I'm not sure that Garcia and Joey Galloway can be as prolific. But, if Taylor doesn't play, the middle will be open for Ike Hilliard, Alex Smith and Maurice Stovall. If they produce, that will suck in coverage and open up the deep routes for Galloway.
One final point to ponder. The Redskins secondary has allowed at least three touchdown passes in four of their last five games. During that time, they've only managed seven of their 23 sacks this season. The Bucs need to protect Garcia and let it fly.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
1,000-YARD CLUB: Graham is averaging 55.6 yards per game rushing, if you look at the entire season. He's averaging 81.8 yards per game rushing since he became the full-time starter five games ago. Take his starting average and figure it for the season's final six games and Graham would finish with 1,046 yards rushing. It's not out of the realm of possibility when you consider the Bucs' soft remaining schedule.
THE KEY BLOCKERS: Expect Bucs LT Donald Penn and RG Davin Joseph to get workouts on Sunday. Penn will square up with Redskins RE Andre Carter. Now, Carter is no John Abraham, but he has seven sacks and 44 tackles this year. He's not considered an effective run stopper and Penn could take advantage of that. Joseph will have to tangle with DT Cornelius Griffin, who is quick and a solid one-gap penetrator. Joseph will have to keep him out of the backfield.
HANG ON TO THE BALL: I thought when Pittman gave up that early fumble last Sunday the Bucs were on their way to blowing the game. But they got it together and didn't commit another turnover. The turnover ratio is so crucial for this team, especially when they haven't won a game with an equal or negative turnover ratio all season. Garcia and the offense cannot make mistakes on Sunday. Good news is, you can still count his mistakes this season with both hands and have fingers to spare.
BUCS RB EARNEST GRAHAM VS. REDSKINS MLB LONDON FLETCHER: Fletcher is a savvy vet that some Bucs say is one of the smartest linebackers around. Graham has to find a way to be semi-effective against Fletcher when they meet up one-on-one.
BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. WHATEVER REDSKIN IS COVERING HIM: It could be Fred Smoot or Shawn Springs. Both have the speed to keep up with Galloway. What those corners must guard against are those savvy, subtle moves Galloway can make, such as the cut he made on Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall last week to score a deep touchdown.
BUCS HC JON GRUDEN VS. REDSKINS DEF. COORD. GREGG WILLIAMS: Former Bucs WR Keenan McCardell told me earlier this week that no head coach he's been around exploits matchups better than Gruden. If Taylor can't play, Gruden will see an opportunity and Williams will have to find a way to counter, most likely with a youngish Reed Doughty at safety. That's a matchup Gruden probably thinks he can win.
I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.
1. Earnest Graham will have less than 70 yards rushing. But that may be enough on this day.
2. Jeff Garcia will throw at least two touchdown passes. I'd say three, but there's a lot of talent back there, and Fletcher is good in coverage. He has three interceptions in the middle.
3. Donald Penn will take care of Andre Carter. I'm not sure why I believe this, but I do.
4. Michael Clayton will go without a catch again. And he'll continue to simmer about it the following week.
5. Maurice Stovall will catch one of Garcia's two TD passes. It's about time a fourth target started to emerge.
Jason Campbell is a far different quarterback than he was at this time last year. He's more accurate, most mobile and better able to move the ball downfield. He's even better at the two-minute drill, as evidenced by his play last week.
But the Redskins don't want Campbell throwing 54 passes in a game, such as he did last week. Sure, his numbers were the best of the season, but the Redskins lost. That's because the Cowboys defense shut down the Redskins running game.
Clinton Portis had just 36 yards rushing. Ladell Betts, who in my opinion is one of the best No. 2 backs in the NFL, had 8 yards. The Cowboys noticed that Portis had rushed for at least 100 yards in the previous two games and made a concerted effort to slow him down. Portis racked up those games against the Jets and the Eagles, which have terrible run defenses. Before that spate of success, his rushing yards had declined each game for four straight weeks. Portis is not the back he once was, but if you don't focus on stopping him he will hurt you. He has two 100-yard games in three meetings with the Bucs (he sat out last year's game on injured reserve).
If Portis is successful, the Redskins always have a chance. That's why the Bucs — still ranked only No. 18 against the run — must do to Portis what they did to Atlanta's Warrick Dunn last week. They must shut him down and put the game in Campbell's hands.
The Bucs' secondary is their strength right now, and this new Cover 4 defense they're using is really hurting opposing quarterbacks. It looks like their Cover 2, but it divides the field into fourths for the secondary and employs man and zone principles. The Bucs have had some real success with it in recent weeks, and the defense needs to put Campbell in situations where he has to work hard to make reads.
An improving pass rush for the Bucs should help, so long as they can apply that rush against an always tough Redskins offensive line. This group seems to have recovered from the loss of T Jon Jansen after the season opener. Otherwise, there's been plenty of continuity. LT Chris Samuels and LG Pete Kendall form a formidable left side. Campbell has only been sacked 15 times this season. The Bucs probably won't get many sacks this week, but they need to get pressure. Campbell has the ability to pick apart a defense, but he made most of his mistakes last week with a Cowboys defender in his face.
As for the wide receivers, they don't scare me. Chris Cooley is their best receiver, but the guys out wide haven't done much to help Campbell this season, and the way the Bucs secondary has played this season they stand a great chance of shutting them down on Sunday.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
WATCH MOSS: It's probably no coincidence that Campbell had his best game of the year when Santana Moss had his best game of the year. Moss caught 9 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown last week. He's still one of the best speed receivers in the league. But he's been hurt all season and has a heel issue entering Sunday's game, which may limit him.
INTERCEPTIONS HAPPEN: Campbell has thrown nearly one interception per game this year. He's tossed an interception in five of his last six games.
TIME MANAGEMENT For whatever reason, Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs is having a hard time managing the clock in his second incarnation as a head coach. He was roundly criticized for his clock management against Philadelphia on Nov. 11.That could be a factor on Sunday.
REDSKINS TE CHRIS COOLEY VS. BUCS MLB BARRETT RUUD: Cooley is Campbell's favorite target and Ruud is going to be held responsible for defending him on seam routes, where Cooley does the most damage.
REDSKINS LG PETE KENDALL VS. BUCS DT JOVAN HAYE: Haye is starting to show signs that he's becoming a more dominant inside defender. Kendall has been around the block a couple of times and won't make the same mistakes the Falcons made last week.
REDSKINS WR KEENAN MCCARDELL VS. BUCS CBS RONDE BARBER AND PHILLIP BUCHANON: With Moss limited, I think McCardell will step up to try and have a big game against his former team. McCardell will be in the slot quite a bit.
1. Keenan McCardell will have a solid day. I see six catches and potentially 100 yards receiving for the former Buc, who will be plenty motivated to play in a stadium he likes.
2. Clinton Portis will rush for 60 yards or less. I think his career is on the downhill slide. Plus the Bucs are going to focus on making him a non-factor. He's hurt them before.
3. Chris Cooley will hurt the Bucs for a touchdown. He's coming off an 8-catch, 89-yard, 1-TD game against Dallas.
4. Jason Campbell will hurt the Redskins twice. He's still young. The Bucs will employ some blitzes early to keep him on edge. Campbell will likely throw at least one interception and lose a fumble.
5. Cato June will bring it. After his DUI arrest, June will be especially motivated to play well. Plus, he's coming off a nine-tackle game against Atlanta. A double-digit tackle game and an interception aren't out of the question.
This game is a hard one to figure. On the surface, the Bucs have won two straight and the Redskins have lost two straight. So the Bucs are the pick. But the Redskins are a fine team that is struggling because they're playing good teams. At one point this week, I took the Redskins because I just felt the Bucs were due a loss. The last four meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, and that won't change on Sunday. What will change is the Bucs' formula for winning. They'll go to the air more and try to take advantage of a vulnerable secondary. Defensively, they'll try and take Clinton Portis away and make Jason Campbell win the game, which he's capable of doing. Something tells me the breaks will go Tampa Bay's way on Sunday. I'll take the Bucs to win, but it will be tight. Bucs 23, Redskins 20.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.