With a win over Green Bay last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improved to 9-2 on the season, which is the best record in the National Football League. The Bucs are off to its best start in franchise history and while the team is proud of what they've accomplished thus far, they still remain focused.
"We have taken care of business at home, that was a big goal we had," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden about his team's 9-2 start. "We had a difficult stretch on the road, regardless of who people perceived we were playing. We felt coming back in November with three home games and a bye week that we had to play great football and win these three games. I think our team responded and here as we enter the home stretch, we have put ourselves in a good position. But as we have said all year long, it's not where you line up, it's where you wind up. And I think our players are genuinely enthused with what they have accomplished right now and they respect what needs to be done."
While its game against Green Bay was its biggest contest of the season, Tampa Bay's game at New Orleans, which will be nationally televised on ESPN Sunday Night Football on Dec. 1, will be the Pewter Pirates' next challenge.
Although they escaped Raymond James Stadium with a win in Week 1, the 7-4 Saints will need to defeat the Buccaneers in order to keep up with Tampa Bay, who is in sole possession of first place in the NFC South Division. That said, Tampa Bay, who already has a two-game lead in its division, can all but eliminate New Orleans from the division race by winning Sunday.
"It's going to be a tremendous challenge," Gruden said of next Sunday night's game in New Orleans. "They have lost two games in a row, and I think they are looking at this as an opportunity, just like we are. You have to respect that. We will have to prepare for a different Saints team. We'll see if Deuce McAllister will be ready to go, but it's going to be a loud, playoff type atmosphere, much like it was yesterday."
When it's all said and done, the Saints may not be the team the Bucs are competing with for the NFC South Division title. The Atlanta Falcons have come out of nowhere to improve its record to 7-3-1 on the season and they haven't lost a game in seven straight contests. The Buccaneers will host the Falcons on Dec. 8 in what will certainly be another critical game for both teams.
"The Falcons have been very impressive," said Gruden. "You cannot help but tip your hat to Michael Vick. Warrick Dunn is playing extremely well. Wade Phillips, what he has done with this defense, is remarkable. The 3-4 lineup has caused a lot of problems and they have the players to make it happen. I think they have the longest unbeaten streak in football. In Pittsburgh, to come back and tie that game to push it into overtime, and what they did yesterday against Carolina was impressive."
While Tampa Bay owns the best record in the league with just five games remaining in the regular season, Gruden said his team will remain focused on its next game, which is at New Orleans.
"I think that is very premature," Gruden said of all of the Super Bowl talk. "That game is not until February and there is a lot of football left to be played. People are going to talk about the future, but we are going to stay focused on what we need to do."
RICE, KELLY LEADING THE PACK:
Tampa Bay's defense is ranked No. 1 in the league. They're ranked No. 6 against the run and No. 1 against the pass. But not only are they succeeding as a group, but a couple of individuals have elevated their level of play.
Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly, who hauled in two interceptions against Green Bay last Sunday, leads the NFL in interceptions with six. Needless to say, Gruden and Co. have been very pleased with Kelly's emergence at the left corner spot.
"He's having a great season as a corner, a cover guy, and a tackler," said Gruden. "He has been very consistent. He and Ronde Barber play extremely well. Brian Kelly, to me, is on the cusp of being a household name in this league if he continues to play how he is playing. He has a real swagger about him right now. He's playing with great confidence. He has long arms and great range as a football player. He, Barber, and Dwight Smith give us three rock solid corners."
Bucs right defensive end Simeon Rice, who recorded 11 sacks last season, has notched 11.5 through 11 games this season and leads the NFL in sacks recorded.
"I put Simeon Rice's poster up in my house last night," said Gruden. "A big poster of Simeon Rice in my living room. I love Simeon Rice. I don't know if he is on the rise, or soaring to new stratospheres. In the last three or four games, my goodness, he is really rushing the passer and playing physical against the run. He is a heck of a football player and I think he is right on right now, in terms of his game. His big play ability is very unique."
A CHANGE AT QUARTERBACK?:>
Jon Gruden's patience with backup quarterback Rob Johnson could be just about used up. While Gruden didn't actually say he was going to promote QB Shaun King to second-string quarterback and demote Rob Johnson, his comments on Monday morning certainly suggested Gruden was thinking about making a switch. Rob Johnson struggled while playing a few series in relief of Brad Johnson, who left last Sunday's game after being poked in the eye. Rob Johnson completed 3-of-5 passes for 33 yards and threw an interception. He was also sacked twice in the few minutes he played. Brad Johnson, who returned in the beginning of the second quarter, was not sacked by Green Bay's defense.
"I will always assess that situation, but I probably won't announce publicly where we are heading in terms of the backup position," Gruden said. "I think Rob was victimized in the opening series. He threw a ball that I thought was catchable that was tipped and intercepted. There were a couple instant pressures where he had to move. There are a couple spots there where we could have used better judgment, but again he was tossed into a very difficult situation yesterday."
JUREVICIUS STEPPING UP:
While Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson struggled to play Sunday with sore ribs, WR Joe Jurevicius stepped up in his place, especially near the goal line, where Jurevicius caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Jurevicius led the team in receptions Sunday with five for 41 yards. He has hauled in 23 passes for 265 yards and he's scored two touchdowns this season. Gruden has been excited to see Jurevicius come around in his offense.
"He's had a big impact for us, not only as a receiver, but as a blocker," Gruden of Jurevicius' play as of late. "He's a versatile guy. He can play split end, he can play flanker, he's good in three receiver sets. There are a couple of routes that he can really hit and one of them was a play we ran in the red zone for the touchdown. This guy is a wide receiver who is on the verge of becoming a darn good player in the NFL. He's coming off of a career year, last year in New York, 50 catches and we would like to use him more. We would like to get into more three, four receiver sets in the near future, but the guy can clearly play and he's a real physical force after the catch."
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