Observation Deck: Bucs-Texans preview

From the Observation Deck, you can get a complete preview of Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans. Offensive and defensive breakdowns, key matchups and my 10 predictions for the game are included in this premium piece.

Jon Gruden wants it made clear that Jeff Garcia is the starting quarterback in Tampa Bay. Luke McCown wants it made clear, too.

Garcia? Well, he knows the obvious. But McCown explained it best.

"One game I played last weekend doesn't outweigh what Jeff has done all year," McCown said. "Are you kidding me? The guy is the reason we are where we are. He's the starter, and when he's ready to play, he'll start."

This is the guy that threw for 313 yards last week, threw the game-winning touchdown pass and basically saved Gruden's bacon after the head coach made a "gut" decision to start McCown.

There's gutsy, and then there's foolish. Foolish would be starting a quarterback controversy of any kind.

Especially when that starter let's you know about it.

"He's barking at me," Gruden said about Garcia on Wednesday. "He wants to play."

The right call is to start Garcia on Sunday in Houston if he's physically ready to go. McCown is taking reps right now just in case Garcia has a setback. Sure there's a temptation to start McCown again to see if he can duplicate what he did last week.

McCown's the hot hand, right Jon?

"Jeff's hot man," Gruden said. "He's got a hot hand. Jeff's our quarterback. There's no debate about where we are at quarterback."

Not this season. The debate begins and ends with Garcia.

Imagine this team without Garcia and you're likely to need industrial-strength therapy. Or, just think back to how you felt last week, if you're a Bucs fan. You probably haven't felt that much dread since Mike Alstott's neck injury in August.

McCown's performance was a revelation, even to me and I've seen the guy play since high school. A happy, joyous revelation. Certainly he can be included in the conversation about this team's future. That's WHEN Garcia finally leaves or retires. Whenever that is.

It won't be this week.

There is still plenty to play for if you're the Bucs. The division title isn't quite secure yet, though it might as well be. But the Bucs can still contend for a No. 3 playoff seed or, in the event of a complete Packers collapse, a No. 2 seed.

Don't tell Gruden it's time to let up.

"You're playing for a lot and we want to win," Gruden said. "We're trying to win five straight games and that hasn't happened in a while around here. There's a lot of things going on that we're after."

He'll rest the veterans when the time comes. But with something still at stake, he must play your best guys until there's nothing left to play for. Gruden is smart enough to know that and keep the pedal on the floor until it's not necessary.

Until then, start Garcia. There shouldn't even be a debate.

ON OFFENSE

They're young, and as second-year left tackle Donald Penn said, they're "hungry dogs."

They're also playing some of the best football in team history.

Despite an average age of 25.2 years old and four starters with less than two full years of NFL experience, the offensive line is producing at a level that has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-4) a win away from clinching the NFC South.

The line has surrendered 22 sacks this season and is on pace to surrender 29, which would be the sixth-lowest total in franchise history. That current total is ranked seventh in the NFC and 14th in the NFL.

The line also has the running game on pace to record its highest per-carry average in a season. The Bucs are gaining 4.30 yards per carry, .08 yards better than its 4.22-yard average in 2000.

That average is tied for fifth-best in the NFL.

Penn, who took over at left tackle in Week 4 when Luke Petitgout suffered a season-ending knee injury, knows it's rare for a successful NFL offensive line to be this young. But he actually thinks that works to their advantage.

"It's great being a part of a young O-Line because we're all feeling the same thing," Penn said. "We're young and it's our first time going after a playoff run. It's nice. It's great."

The only grizzled veteran on the line is 10th-year center John Wade, who serves and mentor and police officer when the youngsters get out of line with, say, an official.

When Wade left last Sunday's game with cramps, the younger players were in disbelief and their reaction underscored Wade's importance to their success.

"The funny thing was last week, when he was walking off the field and cramping up, we were running over there like, ‘Wade?! Nooo! Nooo! Nooo! Come back! Where are you going?!'" Penn said. "He's like the old father, the old grandfather in the huddle. He'll cuss you out, he'll let you know where you need to be. If I say something to the ref, he'll pull me back fast and say, ‘Don't talk to the ref.' He's our daddy."

The Buccaneers may have finally gotten it right up front. After years of struggling and using every sort of option to find a cohesive offensive line, they've committed to a young group that seems to be growing exponentially as the season goes on.

Of course, many of us thought the same thing after the 2005 season. How many starters are left from that offensive line? One. Wade.

Luke Petitgout will be back next season to compete with Penn at left tackle. Sears will have to deal with talk of a sophomore jinx. Wade may even be replaced. Who knows.

For now, though, the future up front has promise, perhaps more promise than any offensive line unit in recent Buccaneers history.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

DECEMBER RUN: Watch how the Buccaneers run the football this month. Buccaneer head coach Jon Gruden made a great point earlier this week in that great teams usually run the football well in the season's final month and beyond. Why? Two factors seem to make sense. First, teams that run the football well have been doing so for a while during the season and have formed cohesive offensive lines. The Bucs appear to be in that category. Chemistry is key up front, and the good lines have had three months to experiment and find the right formula. Second, everyone is tired, especially defensive players. It's been a long grind since training camp for everyone. Defenses, especially bad ones, are more likely to wear down sooner in games, especially if offenses make it a point to establish the run early. One thing I like about Gruden this season is that he's committed to running the football, even as his running back carousel has, at times, spun out of control. He's put faith in it and the ground game is delivering. Playoff teams usually have solid running games. If this team continues to gain at least 125 yards rushing every game — and they've done so four of the last five games — they'll be a potent playoff team.

MATCHUPS

BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. TEXANS SECONDARY: It may take the entire group to stop Galloway. The Texans start a rookie safety and a rookie corner. CB Dunta Robinson is out for the season. The Texans will need to draw safety help to whatever corner covers him. That will open holes for other receivers. But I expect Galloway to have another big day.

BUCS LT DONALD PENN VS. TEXANS RDE MARIO WILLIAMS: Williams is coming off his best game as a pro with 2 ½ sacks against Tennessee. Penn is rounding into a nice, solid left tackle. Certainly not elite yet, but he appears hungry to be so (as his comments earlier suggest). Handling a guy like Williams would be a nice benchmark in his progress.

BUCS TE ALEX SMITH VS. TEXANS MLB DEMECO RYANS: You can be sure the linebacker will draw Smith in coverage at some point. Ryans is just as athletic and able to win this matchup as Smith. Gruden loves Ryans. Watch on Sunday and you'll see why.

OFFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.

1. Tampa Bay will rush for at least 135 yards. The Texans defense is young and talented, but get this. Houston has allowed at least 100 yards rushing in seven of their last eight games. The average is 143.5 yards per game.

2. Jeff Garcia will start and be his usual self. His stats won't be huge. He'll probably throw 20-25 attempts for about 200 yards and a touchdown. The Bucs will keep it on the ground to take advantage of a vulnerable run defense.

3. But Joey Galloway will catch at least two deep balls. This secondary is talented but young in Houston. Galloway will take full advantage.

4. The Bucs won't struggle on third down. I've harped on their middling third-down conversion rate all season. I think will be above 45 percent on Sunday because a successful running game means the Bucs will face third-and-short situations several times in the game.

5. Michael Bennett will see more carries. I have a feeling the Bucs will have this one in hand in the fourth quarter, allowing Bennett some reps he sorely needs. He'll get at least five carries.

ON DEFENSE

The Houston offense is teetering on the brink of falling into an abyss. Why?

First, QB Matt Schaub is out for the game and will be replaced by Sage Rosenfels. Rosenfels has thrown nearly as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns (8). He's efficient, but he's only making his fourth NFL start this weekend and there's tape of him for the Bucs to break down.

Second, Ahman Green was placed on injured reserve on Friday, sapping what as is already a thin and banged running game. Ron Dayne is healthy enough to start, but banged up himself. After that, there's nothing. It's no real surprise the Texans are ranked 23rd on the ground.

Third, the Buccaneers are tied for second in turnover ratio at plus-11 and the Texans are next to last in turnover ratio at minus-11. Despite an improved offensive line, the Texans don't take good care of the football. Their 31 turnovers are the worst in the NFL.

All of this sets up for a "Happy Meal" for the Bucs this weekend (that's the term a former high school basketball coach used to use to describe a team that his team should beat by 50 points). The Bucs are by no means going to win by 50, but they're capable of holding the Texans to under 20 points.

The run defense for Tampa Bay is playing better than its No. 16 ranking, as it has allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards three of the last four games. The primary backs on those three teams were Edgerrin James, Warrick Dunn and Reggie Bush. It stands to reason this defense can handle Dayne.

The pass rush has improved to the point where the Bucs are getting pressure consistently, especially late in games. So Rosenfels is going to get an eyeful of the Bucs defense all day.

And the Bucs secondary didn't pick off a pass last week against New Orleans. Certainly they're itching to get the Bucs back on the turnover pace they were on before they only forced one against the Saints last week (and even that one was a gift).

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

STOPPING ANDRE: Houston WR Andre Johnson has four 100-yard games in five starts this season. He's the only serious receiving threat the Texans have. Slow him down and the rest of this offense grinds to a halt.

WATCH BROWN: Texans K Kris Brown kicked five field goals in a game earlier this year. He's kicked three or more field goals four times this year and he's among the top scorers in the league. Why? Even though above I gave you all the reasons why the Texans offense seems to me to be on a downward slide, they are still capable of moving the football. They're 21st in the NFL in red zone production, which leads to a lot of Brown field goals. He can keep them in a game.

LOOKING AHEAD The Texans have the fourth toughest schedule remaining in the NFL. Their remaining four opponents have a winning percentage of .646 (31-17). Can you say 5-11?

MATCHUPS

TEXANS WR ANDRE JOHNSON VS. BUCS SECONDARY: I've mentioned Johnson already. The Bucs were beaten deep twice last week but kept most everything else in front of them. They don't want Johnson getting on track.

TEXANS LG KASEY STUDDARD VS. BUCS DT CHRIS HOVAN: Fred Weary's season-ending injury ushers the rookie into the starting lineup. He's been inactive most of the season. Studdard is 299 pounds, which seems a bit small to me for a guard. Hovan can take advantage of that.

TEXANS QB SAGE ROSENFELS VS. BUCS BACK SEVEN: Rosenfels has a nice arm and solid ability to read coverage. The trick will be if he can decipher the Bucs' various defensive schemes they disguise with their base Cover 2. Drew Brees had little problem last week, but that's Brees.

DEFENSIVE PREDICTIONS

1. Sage Rosenfels will throw at least two interceptions. He's throwing more than one an appearance this season. It's not a stretch for him to throw more than two.

2. The Texans will rush for less than 100 yards. Dayne is on his own. But the injury to LG Fred Weary severely saps their size and experience on the offensive line.

3. The Bucs will get to Rosenfels for at least three sacks. Watch for plenty of stunts on the left side as an avenue to take advantage of new LG Kasey Studdard's inexperience.

4. Tampa Bay will force at least three turnovers. I thought they would last week, but that didn't happen. Their odds are much better this week.

5. Tampa Bay will hold the Texans to less than 17 points. I'm just not real confident in Houston's ability to move the ball on this Buccaneers defense. Can you tell?

THE PREDICTION

This ought to be a slam dunk for the Bucs. Yes, this Texans defense is young and talented, but I'm convinced the Bucs defense will keep the Texans offense under its thumb most of the day, taking a lot of pressure off Jeff Garcia in his return. At the end of the day, the Bucs will have their NFC South title and their ninth victory this season. Bucs 24, Texans 13.

For more on the Buccaneers from Scout.com, visit Bucsblitz.com Click here.

Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

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.


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