1. QB JEFF GARCIA
Wide receiver Ike Hilliard didn't want to say it. But it was so obvious even he couldn't ignore it.
"Our success lies with him," Hilliard said. "I don't like putting it on one guy, but he's the one that will make us go."
Garcia is probably the biggest difference between the Bucs of 2007 and the Bucs of 2005. That latter team, piloted by QB Chris Simms, didn't have an anchor of experience behind center.
This one does.
Garcia has five playoff games under his belt, including a pair last year for Philadelphia (one of which was against these Giants). He has a solid postseason record — 57.3 percent passing, six touchdowns and five interceptions. It should be noted that his accuracy totals have gone down every postseason. He completed only 52.5 percent of his passes last postseason.
But the things that Jon Gruden values — and that succeed in the postseason — are what Garcia possesses. He has playoff experience. He runs the offense efficiently. He avoids mistakes. He reads defenses well. He can make things happen on his own.
His experience will be key, but his preparation may be even bigger. This Giants defense, led by new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, does not resemble the outfit Garcia played last year. They're more aggressive, more apt to blitz and better in the secondary. Garcia's ability to read disguised coverages, recognize blitzes and check into different plays and receivers will be a huge key to the Buccaneers' success or failure on Sunday.
2. LT DONALD PENN
Gruden made special mention of backup defensive end Justin Tuck on Monday. Tuck is a backup defensive end who has made just two starts this year, but has put together a highly productive 2007. Tuck has 10 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. He backs up right end Osi Umenyiora, who has 13 sacks and 35 hurries.
A key matchup is quickly coming into focus. Penn, the second-year tackle with just 12 NFL starts will likely have to block both players on Sunday.
Umenyiora had a huge game earlier this season against Philadelphia, notching six of those 13 sacks on Sept. 30. Considering that Umenyiora had led the Giants in sacks each of the past three seasons, his performance this season isn't a revelation.
Tuck's, however, is. He missed part of last season with an injury and bounced back to notch double-digit sacks this year.
The Giants, as explained earlier, like to use a lot of blitz schemes, which can confuse or overwhelm young players. Penn cannot give into the temptation to try and do too much on Sunday. He'll have his hands full with Umenyiora and Tuck as it is. His best option is to stick to the game plan, block fundamentally well and keep either player in front of him and away from Garcia. The Giants want to hit Garcia as much as possible early in the game. It's up to Penn to make sure that doesn't happen from the back side.
3. DE GREG WHITE
Why White? Well, he leads the Bucs in sacks with eight and he's shown an innate ability to get to the quarterback, sack the quarterback and force a fumble in one play. That's playmaking ability the Bucs weren't sure they would have at the start of this season.
White has forced seven fumbles this year. What is key for White is that he does his best work from the back side of quarterbacks. He forced Atlanta's Byron Leftwich, Houston's Sage Rosenfels and Atlanta's Chris Redman into the same mistake.
White comes off a speed rush on the right side (the quarterback's back side), gains leverage on the left tackle, pushes them aside and knocks loose the ball from behind. This especially works well for White on seven-step drops or shotgun formations, and since he plays mostly on third downs, that's what most quarterbacks run, especially when it's third and long.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning has developed a reputation for holding onto the football a little too long. He's taken 27 sacks this year and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23). He'll have those games where his feet seem to move as if they're in lead and his release is a tad slow. White will square off with Giants LT David Diehl, who replaced current Buc Luke Petitgout during the offseason. If White is able to work his magic on third downs, Manning could have a long afternoon.
4. CB RONDE BARBER
Overlooked by the Pro Bowl (and probably justifiably so, if you look as his numbers), Barber will be the key defensive back on Sunday.
Why? Plaxico Burress.
Burress, at 6-foot-5, can be a matchup nightmare for some teams. He's big, strong, runs solid routes and has tremendous leaping ability. He burned the Buccaneers for a touchdown last year in their regular season meeting. Burress excels just about anywhere on the field because of his skills. But he's especially effective running the deep post or the fade. His height makes him almost impossible to defend in the red zone.
Barber is only 5-foot-11, but he's made a living off of defending players he doesn't match up well with. The key is Barber's physical play. Knocking Burress off his route at every opportunity begins at the line of scrimmage and no Buc has a better chance of doing so than Barber. You don't record 20 career sacks by being a shrinking violet at the line of scrimmage.
I would expect to see Barber defend Burress almost exclusively when the receiver is in the slot, just as Barber did with Santana Moss earlier this season. Playing the nickel corner will allow Barber to play closer to the line of scrimmage, thereby allowing him the chance to knock Burress around. Timing is everything for a receiver like Burress because Manning relies on him to leap up to get footballs other receivers can't. If Barber throws Burress' timing off, then it could throw the entire offense off.
KR MICHEAL SPURLOCK
Talk about pressure for the former Mississippi quarterback. He'll make his postseason debut against the New York Giants just two weeks after, well, you know.
Spurlock has had less than a season to become a competent kick returner. In many respects, he's an unknown commodity. Yes, he's quick and he has a touchdown to his credit. But is Spurlock smart enough to take what the special teams unit will give him the entire contest? Will he try to make something happen when there's nothing there, thereby risking a fumble or turnover?
Spurlock's ability to possess the football is crucial because one turnover in special teams could turn the entire contest one way or the other. Spurlock's kickoff return for a touchdown against Atlanta pretty much iced that game. Imagine if Spurlock had fumbled the ball and the Falcons had recovered?
Spurlock can also give the Bucs great field position in the kickoff game. He did so against Houston and Atlanta. The Bucs would rather start drives at their 40 and not their 25 any day. Spurlock is averaging 27.8 yards per kickoff return and he'll need to have a solid afternoon to help the Bucs get a shorter field on offense.
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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.