1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers must stop the run.
That sounds elementary, of course. But a successful running game means so much in the postseason, especially for the visiting team. The New York Giants are a team built for the road. They have a 7-1 record away from the Meadowlands this year, and their stout running game is a big reason why.
The Giants are 4th in the NFL in rushing offense and they managed to find a way to make up for the retirement of Tiki Barber. The Giants are now more of a power running team, led by burly 264-pounder Brandon Jacobs, who rushed for 1,009 yards this season despite missing six games. Veteran Reuben Droughns (275 yards) and newcomers Derrick Ward (602 yards) and Ahmad Bradshaw (190 yards) have pitched in at various times. Ward is now on injured reserve, but Bradshaw (5-foot-9, 198) has taken Ward's place as the speed rusher in the backfield. He gives the Giants that Barber-like speed they thought they would miss this year with Jacobs.
The Giants passing offense is predicated on play action. In other words, if the Giants can run the ball effectively, QB Eli Manning will be much more effective. An ineffective running game stunts Manning's numbers and effectiveness.
Tampa Bay's run defense enters the contest ranked 17th in the NFL. One must consider the fact that Tampa Bay's run defense has improved as the season has gone on. They're better up front than they were at the start of the season and have done a fine job shutting town some talented backs this season. Now, they've allowed some big days to San Francisco's Frank Gore and to Carolina's DeAngelo Williams the past two games, but that came with mostly backups in the game. When the starters have been on the field, the Bucs run defense has played well the past two months.
They'll have to hit Jacobs hard early and often in this game and put offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the defensive in his play calling. The more limited the Giants are running the ball, the more likely they are to put the game in Manning's hands against the Bucs' No. 1 pass defense. If the Bucs give up some big running plays early, it will be a long afternoon.
2. Tampa Bay has to force some turnovers and protect the football.
You could throw this into any five keys this season, but this week it could really mean something. The Bucs are a plus-15 in turnover ratio, the fourth-best ratio in the NFL. The Giants are a minus-9, the worst playoff ratio among any of the playoff teams. Much of that ratio is due to Manning's 23 interceptions this season. So the strategy is clear for the Bucs. They need to focus on creating some turnovers on defense and protecting the football, which the Bucs have done a nice of doing this season. The Bucs haven't lost this season when they've had a positive turnover ratio.
3. The New York Giants have to get a pass rush on Jeff Garcia.
If the Giants are going to win this game, it's going to be because their defense is able to mount a sustained pass rush on Garcia.
And that is certainly possible. The Giants lead the league in sacks with 53, led by Osi Umenyiora's 13 and Justin Tuck's 10. Michael Strahan has nine. And that's just from the guys up front. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been a blitz-happy coordinator this season and has used his linebackers and secondary to help create pressure on the quarterback. That, plus the improved health of the unit (Umenyiora and Tuck were both hurt last year) are the biggest changes in the Giants.
Garcia is a mobile quarterback who has hurt the Giants in the past. His only two playoff wins are over the Giants and for some reason they have problems defending Garcia. The Giants are certain to remain aggressive on the rush on Sunday, likely brining six or even seven rushers on passing downs. That will put Garcia into situations in which he must recognize the defense and audible into quick passing plays, which could neutralize speedy WR Joey Galloway's effectiveness.
The pressure will be on the Buccaneers offensive line to keep as much pressure off of Garcia as possible without committing penalties. That's key. This offensive line, as well as it has played this season, has committed some mind-numbingly ill-timed penalties this season, one of the reasons why the Bucs' third-down conversion average is, well, average. A defense that brings pressure like the Giants can only amplify that weakness.
Watch the Bucs use a lot of max-protect sets if the offensive line isn't capable of handling the Giants front four early in the game. That would limit the formations Gruden could use, but it could increase Garcia's time to throw against an aggressive Giants defense.
4. The Buccaneers cannot fall behind by more than a touchdown.
The Bucs, for all their veteran players, are not an explosive football team. Sure, Galloway can get downfield and make a couple of big plays a game for you. But they are not the type of team that will put 30 points up on the scoreboard every week. The reason is obvious — not enough playmakers.
For years this team has survived as a defensive team that does just enough on defense to win games. That's been true this year. But because of their offensive limitations, the Buccaneers are not a good come-from-behind team. Sure, they've rallied from some minor deficits this year and in years past. But it seems that once the opponent gets out in front more than a touchdown, the margin seems too great for this offense to overcome.
That's why the defensive performance by Tampa Bay is key on Sunday. Since many of the Bucs' offensive starters sat out last week's game, there's potential for the offense to sputter early, leaving room for the Giants — not exactly an explosive team themselves — to build an early lead.
The Buccaneers cannot allow that to happen. If they play this game behind the eight ball from the start, it will turn into a Meadowlands redux as Bucs fans will watch Garcia throw the ball 50 times at the expense of trying to build a running game. It is a recipe for failure in January.
5. Field position on kickoffs.
Statistically, there is a clear different between the Bucs and Giants on kickoff coverage. The Bucs are ranked No. 10 in the NFL, allowing a starting field position of the 26.6-yard line. At one time the Bucs led the entire NFL in the category, but they've remained steady throughout the season. The Giants are ranked No. 29 in kickoff coverage, allowing a starting average field position of the 30.2-yard line.
That four yards could make a big difference for either team, especially when you realize that on kickoff returns the rankings are flipped. The Giants are No. 7 in the NFL on kickoff returns with an average starting field position of the 30-yard line, while the Bucs are 25th with an average starting field position of the 26.5-yard line.
Yes, Micheal Spurlock did return a kickoff for a touchdown. But for the season the Bucs are still not getting the field position Gruden would like. As a team they're averaging 23.3 yards per kickoff return. The Giants are averaging 23.9 yards per kickoff return.
The coverage difference is starker, as the Bucs give up 19.5 yards per return and the Giants give up 23.1 yards per return.
Even though the Bucs have consistently failed to take advantage of good field position all season, they'll take the short field every chance they get. In addition, they'll want to do everything they can to keep the Giants from breaking a long return. Just one long return by either team could make the difference on Sunday.
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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.