Mariucci Wary of Solid Tampa Bay Defense

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers enter Sunday's contest 3-0, but the team is playing soundly on both sides of the football -- especially with rookie running back Cadillac Williams leading Jon Gruden's offense. But as Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci noted, his own struggling offense will be tested by the revival of Tampa's stingy defense.

ALLEN PARK - Tampa Bay has gotten back to its roots. After getting to the Super Bowl behind Jon Gruden using a version of the West Coast offense, Tampa slid down to the depths of the NFC South for the next two seasons.

But talk about building on the fly! Gruden has the Buccaneers at 3-0 and on top of the division, their best start since 1999. The Buccaneers have used a formula that has served them well since their inception into the league - strong defense and a solid running game behind rookie-of-the-year candidate Cadillac Williams, (434 yards) the NFL leading rusher.

Williams became the first player since Alan Ameche to rush for over 100 yards his first three games as a professional. Williams appears to really get rolling in the later parts of games when Tampa has had a lead and needed to protect the football.

"I definitely feel like as the game goes on I do get a lot stronger, especially in the fourth quarter," said Williams. "That's when it all comes down to who wants it. Everybody's tired, everybody's sore, everybody's beat up, so that's when I feel like I can really do my damage."

Coach Gruden agreed with Williams.

"We wouldn't be putting him in these situations if we didn't know he could do it," said Gruden of Williams. "It's not a coincidence he's playing his best football late in the game. So, as long as he can take it, we will continue to give him these opportunities. If the situation has us with the lead, we're in the fourth quarter, and the clock is our enemy, you are going to see more 'Cadillac' Williams, yes."

That suits journeyman quarterback Brian Griese just fine. Griese excels at playing in a ball control type offense that grinds the clock, runs a lot of play-action passes and is content to move the chains. The former University of Michigan star is complieting 66.2% of his passes and sporting a solid 84.8 passer rating.

His receiving corps is led by a rejuvenated Joey Galloway (10 catches, 2 touchdowns), former LSU standout Michael Clayton (15 receptions, 185 yards) tight end Alex Smith and veteran Ike Hilliard. Clayton, 6-foot-3, 215-pounds will be a tough cover for Detroit's Andre' Goodman, making his first start of the season.

Gruden, for his part, is still putting the onus on his defensive unit, led by defensive end Simeon Rice, to win the football game. Tampa's defense leads the league in yards allowed with just 218.3 and fourth in points allowed, averaging just 10.7 per game.

"If we have a lead in the fourth quarter, the pressure is going to be on the defense to preserve the win. The other team is going to be in the two-minute drill. The defense is playing great, and we expect those guys to be at their best when we have a lead. We had a great pass rush, we defend the forward pass extremely well. But, we would like to keep them off the field if we can close games out offensively. And that is something we are very excited about here in these last three weeks."

Lions coach Steve Mariucci agrees that Tampa's defense poses a serious test for his struggling offense.

"It's a pretty good defense," said Mariucci after Monday's practice. They've got some continuity there. (Defensive line coach) Rod Marinelli is a good friend of mine. Monte Kiffin the defensive coordinator has been there for a long time. They've been running the same system for a long time and they're very good at it."

Tampa's defense is led by Shelton Quarles (22 tackles, 3.5 for loss and a sack).

Mariucci indicated that Lions will try to fight fire with fire.

"I think everybody wants to run the football," he said. "I think it's absolutely necessary. Now you've got to be able to throw the ball and get the explosive plays that end up on SportsCenter and that kind of thing, but it's so necessary to have a mindset, a physical sort of thing where you can say 'hey, we're going to shove the ball down your throat' at the end of the game, the beginning of the game, the whole thing and wear them down.

"That's never going to change, so we have to be able to stay in our game plan and do that from start to finish."

That would require Detroit's offensive line to open some holes for second-year back Kevin Jones (31st in NFL, 109 yards) who's barely gotten out of the starting gate, but thus far the unit has been in flux and while no substantial changes are expected for this week's game in Tampa, some players could be on a short leash.

Guard Rick DeMulling has been up-and-down in his short tenure in Detroit and was benched in the 38-6 loss to Chicago. DeMulling was replaced by veteran Kyle Kosier. Detroit also has last year's starter David Loverne back after he was released last week to make room for replacement kicker Remy Hamilton.

Detroit had hoped to get veteran fullback Cory Schlesinger back for this game, but after testing his leg, Schlesinger may pull back for a week. Quarterback Joey Harrington indicated Detroit has missed Schlesinger's tough presence -- especially if he is held out of such a physical ballgame.

"Of course we miss him; Cory is the rock of our ground game," Harrington said. "He is the lead back and he is the guy that everybody follows, but Paul (Smith) has done a good job in there and he has given us some things that Cory doesn't, but we want to get Cory back as soon as we can."

Detroit is likely to find tough sledding against a Buccaneers unit that is allowing just 51.7 rushing yards a game. That means Detroit will need their passing game to move the football.

Look for Detroit to try to attack the Bucaneers defense through the air in the intermediate zones behind the linebackers and in front of the Bucs secondary, instead of using the run game to set up the pass.

While the Bucs defense has been unusually stingy, Brett Favre and the Packers had success attacking in the intermediate zones. Tampa has been allowing an average of 166.7 yards through the air.

Detroit really needs a solid game from rugged receiver Roy Williams. Williams (7 catches, 109 yards) needs to come up big for his teammates after a disappointing effort against Chicago where he ran the wrong route and didn't go for a ball that wound up being intercepted by Chicago's Nathan Vashar.

The play set off a firestorm of discontent on Detroit's sideline as Jones got into Williams face and the two had to be separated. Williams made no secret of his displeasure with the way Jones approached him, but Harrington, receiver Kevin Johnson and others all got after the second-year wide receiver.

Williams is physical enough that he can outmuscle defenders for the ball. Harrington also can call on tight end Marcus Pollard (7 catches, 89 yards), who'll likely be matched up against Tampa weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks. It would also be nice for there to be a Charles Rogers sighting. Rogers, who missed most of the last two seasons due to injury has been missing in action so far.

A win in Tampa would be so huge for a Lions team that backed into first place in the NFC North after Chicago and Green Bay both lost games and Minnesota picked up its first win of the year.

A 2-1 start would give Detroit a leg up in the race for the division title.

INJURY UPDATE: Lions quarterback Jeff Garcia had the boot removed from his broken ankle and will begin rehabbing it this week. Corner Fernando Bryant could be out for the season after suffering a separated shoulder. Shawn Bryson, Alex Lewis and James Hall are all nursing injuries but expected to play this weekend.

Teddy Lehman returned to practice this week and could start at the weakside linebacker position ahead of struggling James Davis.

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