Copyright 2003 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
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Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. In order for Tampa Bay to beat Philadelphia and advance to its first ever Super Bowl, I firmly believe that the Bucs need a command performance from defensive tackle Warren Sapp. With a recent, stinging column in Pewter Report from yours truly, detailing how Sapp has failed to make any impact plays in the playoffs since the 1999 NFC Divisional playoffs against Washington and suggesting that the Bucs trade him instead of signing him to a contract extension, coupled with a TwinkieKilla.com parody of his QBKilla.com website this week by the Philadelphia Daily News, a Daily News headline that blurted "Send In The Clown" above a huge picture of Sapp, and constant, irritating questions from the irritating Philadelphia media, Sapp should have all the motivation he needs to come up with a day full of impact plays.
Did I forget to mention that he's 60 minutes away from his first Super Bowl and a chance to solidify his reputation as one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game? Well first, Sapp needs to play like the best defensive tackle in the league this Sunday.
Tampa Bay got by last week when Sapp recorded just one tackle, which was an alleged half-sack of San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia when Garcia got tripped up by his guard's feet. After reviewing the tape, linebacker Derrick Brooks got to Garcia first and shouldn't have had to split the sack with Sapp.
The reason I wrote the column suggesting that the team trade Sapp instead of extending his contract, which runs through the 2003 season, is because he will likely want an average of over $8 million per year and be paid as the league's best defensive tackle. The problem is, Sapp hasn't shown up in big games, and in my opinion, the 30-year old Sapp is peaking. If the Bucs were to dole out any big money on Sapp, it would be for a very good player whose skills will begin to decline over the next couple of seasons.
The Bucs coaches and brass still brag on Sapp and say how dominant he is, yet the statistics don't lie. Sapp, who is handsomely rewarded for his pass rushing prowess, hasn't recorded a sack since Week 8 at Carolina. The coaches talk about how he draws so many double teams and that he frees up the sacks for other players, yet several other good defensive tackles still find ways to bust through double teams for an occasional sack or a forced fumble.
Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton certainly did that against Tampa Bay guard Cosey Coleman and Jeff Christy when he knifed through for a sack and two forced fumbles inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line, which killed two potential Bucs touchdown drives. The Steelers won the game on Monday Night Football, 17-7, and ultimately knocked the Bucs out of contention for homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. Sapp, by the way, finished with one tackle after getting blocked one-on-one for most of the night by Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca.
Apparently I'm not the only one who has this view on Sapp. Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman, also known as "Dr. Z", thinks that Sapp has disappeared far too often in big games lately. Here's what he's written about Sapp in his two latest columns on CNNSI.com:
"I have a theory about great defenses. The really good ones I've seen generally have at least one difference-maker on each unit -- line, linebackers, secondary. The really great ones have more, of course, and the all-time units, such as the Steelers of the 1970s, have one at almost every position. If we are to consider the Buccaneers as a really outstanding defensive group, even if they never have won a championship -- and a lot of great defensive teams never won the Super Bowl, Buddy Ryan's Eagles, the Vikings' Purple Gang, etc. -- let's look at each of their units. Derrick Brooks is the difference-maker among the LBs and has been for some time. Ronde Barber, to me at least, is the big-play guy in the secondary. But how about the line? Warren Sapp is the best for quotes, but have you watched him recently? Against the Steelers, and especially the Niners last weekend? You say you didn't notice him. Join the group. I didn't either. He was going through the motions. At one time, yes, he made a difference, but not lately. But the unit does have its big-play guy, Simeon Rice, who came over from Arizona last year. It's odd that despite having great defenses the past six years Bucs have never really had an explosive rusher off the edge. But they do now."
"Tampa Bay got to Garcia on Sunday, but it was interesting that the Bucs had to resort to blitz pressure, which they don't usually do. Except for one fumble-producing sack by defensive end Simeon Rice, the front four was very ordinary against San Francisco, and Warren Sapp was practically invisible."
Sapp, who will be booed vociferously by the hostile Eagles fans, needs a big performance in this big game. After posting just five tackles at St. Louis in 1999, and four tackles in the last two playoff losses at Veterans Stadium, Sapp needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If he fails to come up big in yet another big playoff game, I'll ask general manager Rich McKay to re-read my Buccaneer Blitz column during the offseason.
FAB 2. There is a quiet confidence about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they head up to Philadelphia. The players seem to really believe that they can beat the Eagles and are looking forward to the game, which is a stark contrast to their thoughts about going up to Philly over the last two years in the post-season.
The Bucs have confidence because of three things. First, they played the Eagles close through three quarters in Week 7 this year and felt that they gave the game away. The 20-10 score was far from the blowouts that they have suffered at Veterans Stadium in playoff contests in 2000 (21-3) and 2001 (31-9).
Second, the Bucs offense and special teams are clicking better now than they were in Week 7. The defense has been steady and stout all season long, but the offense and special teams have had their growing pains under new coordinators Jon Gruden and Rich Bisaccia.
"It's no different than the confidence we had before," Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith said. "The difference will be in the execution. All three phases of our team has grown tighter and gotten better. Two of the phases are new - offense and special teams. As the year went on we've gotten better."
Tampa Bay's pass protection has been better down the stretch and stands a much better chance of not surrendering six sacks to the Eagles as they did in October.
"In Week 17 you've seen just about everything the NFL can throw at you," Bucs offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "In Week 7, you might be seeing a look for the first time, but in Week 17, you might be seeing that look for the second, third or fourth time. With familiarity you get more confident."
The offensive line has also done a much better job opening holes for the running backs, and the running backs have done a much better job of finding those holes. Over the past five games, the Bucs are averaging 126 rushing yards per game, including a 121-yard effort last week against San Francisco.
"Success breeds confidence," Muir said. "Having some success has breeded some confidence, and you've seen a result with the running backs being able to run with more authority because they have more confidence in the productiveness of the blocking schemes up front, and the blocking schemes being more assertive because they are more confident of the backs' demeanor."
Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman, who ripped off a season-long 22-yard run against the 49ers, agrees with Muir.
"You see everybody coming together on this team," Pittman said. "Everybody is starting to get a feel for everybody on this team. Our offensive line is coming together and our running backs are coming together."
Tampa Bay right tackle Kenyatta Walker says that the offensive line will enter Philly with a run-first mentality.
"We need to run the ball," Walker said. "When you get a team like this, if you're back on your heels passing all day you're playing their game. We need to go in there with a run mindframe. We just can't be a third-and-10 team."
And finally, head coach Jon Gruden has done a masterful job of dealing with the psychology of his team this week. The Philadelphia media has tried to create distractions by harping on the rowdy crowd of Eagles fans, the dangerous turf at Veterans Stadium, and the bitterly cold weather that is expected in the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday. Hogwash says Gruden.
Gruden has his players believing that the only thing standing between them and San Diego is the 11 Eagles on the field on the other side of the ball. On Monday, he took exception to a reporter's comments about the venue, saying that his team will "get on a plane and be there." Gruden also said that he didn't care if they played the game at the Vet or on the Walt Whitman Bridge. That type of bravado and defiant talk has worn off on Gruden's players.
"I don't care if it's the Vet or a parking lot outside," Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson said about playing in Philadelphia. "The bottom line is getting to the Super Bowl. I don't think we're concerning ourselves with the football atmosphere in Philadelphia. Just like Coach said the other day, 'Jiminy Christmas, we're not going to Mars to play this game. We're going two hours away.' That's the biggest thing that everybody needs to understand. Whether it's the stadium, the weather, the grass, whatever the case is, we've all played football on terrible surfaces and bad atmospheres and we've all succeeded pretty well doing that. I've won games in stadiums like Buffalo, and it doesn't get any worse than in Buffalo. You've just got to go out and play."
Running back Michael Pittman added: "We're not worried about the cold weather and Veterans Stadium. In Philadelphia they're going to be cold, too. The only difference is that its there home stadium. We just have to do whatever it takes to win."
Expect an effort from the Bucs that will rival their performance in the 1999 NFC Championship Game at St. Louis when Tampa Bay's defense held the league's most potent, high-scoring offense to just 11 points.
"Our guys are anxious," Gruden said. "There is a lot of enthusiasm around here. Our guys are aware of the magnitude of this game and what's at stake. We have to be composed and concentrate to play our best game."
FAB 3. I spent Wednesday working the Bucs' locker room asking different players on offense and defense what the ever-elusive offensive touchdown would do for the team on Sunday in the NFC Championship game. I went into the interviews thinking that an offensive touchdown in Philly in the first half when the outcome of the game was still in doubt would do wonders for the team's confidence and morale. I was right.
After failing to score a touchdown on offense (linebacker Derrick Brooks scored a defensive touchdown at Philadelphia in Week 7) in the Bucs' last three trips to Veterans Stadium, a smile came across the faces of the Buccaneers players when they envisioned the offense finding the end zone.
"If we get one or two touchdowns we think we can win this game," cornerback Dwight Smith said. "If we go up and score a touchdown there's no telling how this team might act because we haven't scored one there. We're 60 minutes away from where we want to be, and to get up 7-0 early, it would be awfully tough for them to come back on us."
In the Bucs' last two trips to Philly in the playoffs, when the offense had to settle for field goals, it seemed to deflate the Bucs defense and energize the Eagles defense.
Tampa Bay right tackle Kenyatta Walker likes the idea of finally getting a touchdown on the board, but says that scoring a bunch of field goals wouldn't be the death knell that it has been in other playoff games, either.
"It's going to be a low-scoring game," Walker said. "I don't look at it as there being a lot of points scored. But we definitely need to score points and get a touchdown in there somewhere. We need to get the pressure off of our defense. I don't care if it's three or if it's seven. We need to get points on the board. We just need to score every time we drive down there. If it's only three, let's get it. It adds up."
Walker may be right about the game being low scoring. The Eagles have the league's No. 2 scoring defense (15.1 points per game) behind Tampa Bay (12.3 points per game).
"I hope it's not low-scoring," said Bucs fullback Darian Barnes. "I hope we score a lot of points."
FAB 4. While other media outlets will state and overstate the obvious in terms of the key Philadelphia players that the Bucs have to account for in the NFC Championship Game (see Donovan McNabb, Duce Staley and Hugh Douglas), Pewter Report asked the Bucs assistant coaches and players which Eagles players really scared them. What we found out was a bit surprising.
The one player who often gets overlooked on Philadelphia's defensive line is Darwin Walker. Walker, who plays in between Douglas and former first-round pick Corey Simon, the Eagles' other starting defensive tackle, is a stud. Walker was a third-round draft choice by Arizona in 2000, but was released after the first game of the season that year and claimed off of waivers by Philadelphia.
Walker has worked his way up the ranks into a starting role and is now just as devastating a force as Simon or Douglas are. The Bucs found that out in Week 7 as he bullied left guard Kerry Jenkins and center Jeff Christy all day and recorded a sack and several hurries.
"Walker is not an unsung player any longer," Muir said. "He might have been earlier in the year. I think after our game earlier in the year he got a $7-million contract, so I'm hoping there's a banquet or something set up for us up there. He owes us something.
"He's a surprise player in the league. He's a relative unknown unless you are in Philadelphia, but they had the foresight to see the talent there."
The 6-foot-3, 294-pound Walker has capitalized on starting for the injured Hollis Thomas this season by turning in 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Jenkins will have his hands full again on Sunday, but he's closer to being at 100 percent now as opposed to when he was coming off a broken leg and a broken orbital bone from injuries prior to their Week 7 encounter.
"I think his stamina has come back and his strength has come back," Muir said of Jenkins, also noting how he had such a strong game against San Francisco last week. "He's back to where he was before."
Other Eagles that have the Bucs concerned are starting wide receivers Todd Pinkston and James Thrash. Just six days after shutting down the NFL's premier wide receiver in San Francisco's Terrell Owens, why on Earth would the Bucs be concerned about Pinkston and Thrash? Neither one would crack the list of the league's top 15 receivers. Neither one is a Pro Bowler. Neither one came close to posting a 1,000-yard season.
Often underestimated, Pinkston and Thrash almost always produce, and at inopportune times for their opponents. Pinkston, who hauled in 60 catches for 798 yards and seven touchdowns this season, turned in his longest pass play of the year against Tampa Bay in Week 7, hauling in a 42-yard touchdown bomb from Donovan McNabb to give Philadelphia a 10-7 just before halftime. Pinkston had four receptions for 61 yards against the Bucs that afternoon.
Last week in the NFC Divisional playoffs against Atlanta, Thrash caught a short pass on fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 35, spun away from cornerback Ray Buchanan, and turned on the jets to find his way into the end zone to push the Eagles' lead from 13-6 to 20-6 late in the fourth quarter. Thrash only had two catches for 77 yards on the day, but like Pinkston did against the Bucs in Week 7, he made his limited opportunities count against the Falcons. This season, Thrash hauled in 52 catches for 635 yards and six scores, but was limited to two catches for 17 yards against Tampa Bay in Week 7.
"There are a lot of guys around the league that you hear about and they don't do much," Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith said. "But (Pinkston and Thrash) might not have the numbers, but their productivity is great and they come through in the opportune times. We need to limit their yards after the catch. That's the main key we had against Terrell Owens was limit his yards after the catch. If we hit these guys early we think they may shy away. If we don't go out and hit them we may never know."
Smith's position coach, Mike Tomlin, said that the Bucs can't overlook Pinkston and Thrash for even one play just because they aren't "household name guys."
"It's the sign of a team that wins a lot of football games," Tomlin said. "Your lead dogs don't make all the plays. Everybody has to contribute and those guys step up when their team needs them. We have guys around here like that, like Joe Jurevicius. How many third down catches does Joe Jurevicius have to make before people realize he's a threat on third down? (Pinkston and Thrash) are guys have the ability to stick a dagger in you at any time."
Another Eagle on the Bucs' radar screen is third receiver Antonio Freeman, who has caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns this year. They can't look past him, either.
FAB 5. Here's a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
- Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson said that the Bucs have some "special plans" for Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor. There is a feeling in the Bucs locker room that he is overrated. Don't be surprised to see some pump-faking going on in Taylor's direction due to his anxiousness and propensity at jumping routes.
- Tampa Bay offensive line coach Bill Muir is worried about right tackle Kenyatta Walker. Unlike left tackle Roman Oben, who will play every down against defensive end Hugh Douglas, Walker will face run-stuffer Brandon Whiting on first and second downs and pass rusher N.D. Kalu on third downs and obvious passing downs.
"That's a good rush group," Muir said. "Kalu, who is not a starter, but comes in on third downs, presents an entirely different type of rusher than Whiting does. All of a sudden, Kenyatta sees two distinctly different types of rushers and I think that's a problem."
- One of the reasons why the Bucs have averaged 126 yards rushing in their last five games has been the powerful blocks of rookie fullback Darian Barnes. Barnes, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound product of Hampton, was claimed off waivers from the New York Giants at the start of the season and has wrested away the blocking duties for Mike Alstott from Jameel Cook. Barnes will square off against Philadelphia's 300-pound middle linebacker Levon Kirkland on Sunday.
"He's a load," said Barnes, who will give up 50 pounds to Kirkland on Sunday. "I'm not going to change my game because of his size. I'm going to go at him. I respect his talent. He's an excellent linebacker. I'm looking forward to the challenge. I need to bring everything to the table. This is such a huge game. It means everything and I have to bring my "A" game. We have to convert on third down and any way I can be a part of helping us, I'll do it."
Barnes is an aggressive blocker who packs a whallop, but needs to come in lower with his pad level when he engages his opponent.
- Technically, the Bucs finished with the best regular season record in the NFL this season. Their 12-4 record tied Philadelphia and Green Bay for the league best, but their opponent's winning percentage is the highest among the other two teams. Tampa Bay's opponent winning percentage was .482, while Philadelphia's opponents was .469 and Green Bay's opponents was .451.
The highest Tampa Bay will draft is 30th, which will be the case if the Bucs lose to the Eagles on Sunday in the NFC Championship game. If the Bucs win on Sunday, yet lose in the Super Bowl they'll pick 31st, as is traditional for the Super Bowl loser. If Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl they'll pick 32nd.
The Bucs will again be without their first-round draft pick this year as it was surrendered to Oakland in the trade for head coach Jon Gruden.
Copyright 2003 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.