The Buccaneers are down, but certainly not out.
At the midway point of the season, Tampa Bay is 5-3 and one game behind Carolina and Atlanta in the NFC South.
So much for the good news. How the Bucs got here is of more concern, having lost three of their last four games following a 4-0 start. Worse yet, the Bucs have to find their way home with inexperienced quarterback Chris Simms, who has lost consecutive starts to the 49ers and Panthers.
But Tampa Bay has no lack of leadership, and linebacker Derrick Brooks is hoping his teammates rely - as usual - on the defense Sunday against the Redskins at Raymond James Stadium.
"I've got to give them a lot of non-verbal cues to turn it up," Brooks said. "Whether we started out 1-3 and went on a four-game winning streak to 5-3, it don't matter how we got here. We're here in the middle of things. We can't ask for anything else."
Actually, there is something else the Bucs and Brooks are pleading for this week against Washington - some turnovers. Failing that, more pressure on the quarterback might help.
During the Bucs' two-game losing streak, Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked defense has produced no fumbles or interceptions and only one sack.
That's highly uncharacteristic for a Bucs defense that went 50 consecutive games, from 2000 to '03, with both a sack and a turnover, the longest such run since 1963.
"It's obvious we need that," Gruden said. "For years and years, this defense has been able to do that, and there's no reason why this defense can't do it or won't do it. So we're going to go back to work here, back to the grind, and try to reach down deep to try to pull it out of them, because we do have the potential to get that done. But certainly, we have been missing the dynamic, play-making, game-changing type of plays that we're accustomed to seeing around here."
The Bucs also have to find a way to get their running game going.
After averaging 142 yards rushing in their first six games, the Bucs have managed 44 yards per game on the ground with Simms under center.
Some of the ineffectiveness could be traced to the foot injury of rookie Cadillac Williams, who set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games. Williams has been held to 62 yards on 35 attempts in his last three games. He rushed 11 times for 29 yards against the Panthers.
But until the Bucs offense finds its legs, it's the defense that will have to win games.
"Yeah, that's what this team is. We're a defensive team," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "We've won playing great defense around here; it's not going to stop. It's not going to change. The situation is where we're not playing as well on offense as we want to. We're going to get better at that aspect. But defense still is the strong suit, when we're winning, when we're losing - regardless. This is a defensive team. We win playing good defense."
Added Brooks: "More important than that, we want wins. The only stat, to be honest with you, that matters is the W. We play good defense and have been top-ranked the last couple years, but it hadn't produced wins. That's the thing we're leaning on now. Yeah, we're playing good, but we're not winning. So obviously, there's areas that need improvement."
SERIES HISTORY: 13th meeting. The Redskins lead the all-time regular-season series 7-5, but the Bucs have won five of the last eight regular-season meetings. The two teams have met once in the postseason, with the Bucs winning 14-13 in a 1999 divisional playoff game. The Bucs have dominated the series in Tampa, winning four consecutive home games.
Quotes and Notes
--One week after being sent home from San Francisco for missing a team meeting, defensive end Simeon Rice said he was out of sync against Carolina. He produced just one tackle.
"You know what I mean, I was on the ropes," Rice said. "That was a bit of a setback. But I've got to overcome it. I'll be out of it this week. It happens like that. That was like a curveball for me. Like I said, I'll be out of it in a hurry. Like I said, I was on a tear for a minute. But I'll be right back where I need to be. It doesn't take much for me to get right back in balance.
"You know what? I'm figuring it out this week. By the end of the week, I think I'll be able to tell you. But I've got to get back to balance, where I was. I was tearing it up, and I felt like I had a minor setback. So I've got to get back to how I was feeling and how I was."
--When the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are 29-8 over the past five years. When they are on the wrong side of the turnover margin, they are 3-20. Pressure on the quarterback certainly plays into that.
Tampa Bay is 24-7 when recording three to five sacks in a game. Conversely, the Bucs are 12-26 when they have two sacks or fewer. A defensive touchdown almost always results in victory. Tampa Bay is 10-4 when the defense produces a TD since 2001.
"The challenge now is for us is to turn the heat up on defense in terms of getting turnovers and cutting down on penalties and tackling better," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's three areas that we're going to address this week in practice and hopefully, if we make an emphasis of it, we'll go out and make it happen on Sunday."
--The Bucs are having a hard time putting a finger on why they can no longer run the football effectively.
"I don't think you can put your hand on one thing," quarterback Chris Simms said. "Overall, we just need to run the ball better. I don't think I could say there's one thing that's really determining the run game right now. We've just got to keep working. We've played two good run-stopping defenses the last two weeks. They did a good job, and we've just got to continue to improve and help ourselves out a little bit."
BY THE NUMBERS: 57 - Average rushing yards for the Buccaneers in their three losses this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is a little bit special. I did think about it. Yesterday, I thought about it a little bit. Growing up, watching my dad get involved in so many great Giants-Redskins games..." - Bucs quarterback Chris Simms on playing the Redskins.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Buccaneers' biggest goal this week is to get the running game untracked. That could even mean a few carries for Mike Alstott, the forgotten man in the Bucs offense who has just 11 carries this season.
"Maybe he would help," quarterback Chris Simms said. "He's a big, physical runner, he comes downhill. But again, I don't know. That's coach's decision."
--WR Michael Clayton did not practice Wednesday due to a right knee bruise he suffered against Carolina. He is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Redskins.
--WR Ike Hilliard took reps with the first-team offense at flanker in place of injured starter Michael Clayton.
--S Dexter Jackson, who missed the last two games with a hamstring strain, did not practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Redskins.
--RB Michael Pittman did not practice Wednesday due to a shoulder stinger and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Redskins.
--T Anthony Davis did not practice Wednesday due to a knee sprain but is listed as probable for Sunday's game against the Redskins.
GAME PLAN: Chris Simms needs to grow up in a hurry for the Bucs.
Simms will make his third straight start Sunday, and he figures to see plenty of blitzes from the Redskins.
Look for the Bucs to try to move the pocket to give Simms, a lefty, better passing lanes and more three-step drops to get the ball out of his hands.
The Bucs defense will focus on stopping RB Clinton Portis, who had a 62-yard touchdown run on his first carry in the 2004 season opener against Tampa Bay.
Getting turnovers, of course, is a priority for the Bucs, who have had none the past two games. But Redskins QB Marc Brunell has only thrown three interceptions this season.
"They're doing pretty much everything well," CB Brian Kelly said. "They're running the ball well, they are throwing the ball well right now. They are a pretty balanced offense. It's really not anything leaning stronger on the other. They're doing both well."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Redskins DE Phillip Daniels vs. Bucs LT Todd Steussie or Anthony Davis. Davis is probable with a knee sprain. But both he and Steussie could struggle in the passing game. The Bucs have given up five sacks in each of the past two games.
--Redskins WR Santana Moss vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber. Moss is a game-breaker who likes to get deep. Barber was burned last week for a deep pass by Carolina's Steve Smith.
--Bucs QB Chris Simms vs. Redskins CB Shawn Springs. Simms is struggling and making only his third start of the season. Springs is a great cover corner and also likes to blitz.
The Bucs have two serious concerns on the injury front. LT Anthony Davis has a knee sprain, but he is listed as probable. If he doesn't play, the Bucs would have to rely on veteran Todd Steussie, who is well past his prime, especially as a pass blocker. WR Michael Clayton is questionable with a right knee sprain. He would be replaced by veteran Ike Hilliard, who has been used exclusively in three-receiver sets this season.
It's halfway through the season, and the Oakland Raiders still don't seem to know how to best use their most significant off-season acquisition.
Randy Moss, slowed by rib, groin and pelvis injuries since falling in heap against San Diego on Oct. 16, has 26 receptions for 542 yards and four touchdowns. He leads the NFL with 20.5 yards per reception and has five plays of 25-plus yards -- tied for third in the league.
However, quarterback Kerry Collins has also thrown 31 incompletions in the direction of Moss, as well as two of his three interceptions. In Sunday's 27-23 loss to Kansas City, Collins threw to Moss eight times, with none of them coming close until a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:45 to play, giving the Raiders a short-lived 23-20 lead.
Since Moss hasn't spoken to the media since the season opener at New England, it's hard to know exactly how he feels physically. After playing in limited action the two previous games, he was on the field for all but a handful of snaps against Kansas City.
On one sideline route, Moss didn't make one of his patented leap attempts and often appeared to have less than his best burst of speed. Then again, after a touchdown to Jerry Porter, he felt well enough to go in for a vigorous celebratory chest bump.
"I think he has gotten better each week," coach Norv Turner said. "I think at times, particularly early, he looks like he's 100 percent. But his presence out there helps us. We gave him a number of shots. Obviously, he still gets a lot of coverage his way, and when we had a couple of other shots, we just didn't get them done."
Chiefs defensive back Dewayne Washington said Moss, "seemed gimpy, but he threw up his hand a few times (to indicate he was open) and we were lucky Collins didn't see him."
Collins said Moss is less than 100 percent, but credited him with going out when he was less than his best and still contributing.
"Teams still roll their coverage to him, that's one thing we're finding," Collins said.
Some of the same issues that dogged Moss during his tenure in Minnesota have followed him to Oakland.
In Week 3, Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins said Moss appeared to get frustrated and ran routes with less enthusiasm as he encountered bracketing and double coverage, an opinion that was echoed almost word-for-word by Kansas City safety Greg Wesley.
Former Raiders safety Rod Woodson, an analyst for the NFL Network, said Moss is the same player he always has been.
"Randy is a run-and-go-get-it, jump and catch it kind of player," Woodson said. "He's not going to catch a five-yard slant and go 90 yards. He's at his best with quarterbacks like Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper, guys who can throw it up so he can go get it. He's the best there is at that."
Another former Raider, Tim Brown, agreed Moss has unbelievable skill but limitations as a receiver.
"I don't mean this as a dig at Randy, because what he does is very, very special," Brown said. "But route-running is not his thing. He's at his best in a situation where he can use the skills he has that nobody else has."
SERIES HISTORY: 90th meeting. Raiders lead 54-34-2, but Broncos are 15-5 since Mike Shanahan became coach in 1995. Broncos won last meeting at McAfee Coliseum, 31-3 on Oct. 17, 2004. It was the Raiders' lowest scoring output of the season.
Quotes and Notes
--Raiders linebacker Danny Clark believes the reason Jake Plummer has only three interceptions has more to do with Denver's running game than a change in the quarterback. The Broncos lead the NFL with 170.8 yards per game rushing and a 5.3 average yards per carry.
"Their run game concerns me, as far as the Denver offense goes," Clark said. "Those guys stick to what they do and they do it well. So the challenge is up to our defense to stop that run and make Plummer make some decisions in the passing game."
--About midway through his daily press briefing, Turner was asked about the possibility of Terrell Owens becoming a Raider. "How did that take so long?" Turner asked. "It is the furthest thing from my mind right now. We just want to get our team ready for a very good football team. Denver is playing as well as anyone in the league right now.
--Quarterback Kerry Collins, having faced a dizzying array of blitzes in the loss to the Chiefs, thinks there could be more of the same against the Broncos.
"They give you some exotic looks," Collins said. "They blitz with some unusual looks that pretty much break down every protection that you have. It forces you to throw the ball quick."
--Left guard Langston Walker was back at the facility two weeks after undergoing emergency surgery for an intra-abdominal hemorrhage suffered while taking a blow to the side.
"It definitely puts everything into perspective," Walker said. "That's an injury you can die from. I don't think anybody at age 26, unless they're at war, really thinks about dying."
Walker will be out a minimum of five more weeks while his surgical wound heals. The Raiders will visit the possibility of putting him on injured reserve within the next few weeks.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 - Games the Raiders have won when LaMont Jordan carries the ball 20 or more times.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'll probably get fined this week for the simple fact that we have five losses and two of them you can chalk up to because the referees basically (bleeped) us." --RB LaMont Jordan on the Raiders two losses to Kansas City.
The Raiders liberal use of substitution on defense reached unprecedented heights when Grant Irons, Tim Johnson and newly-signed Reggie Tongue were all on the field at the same time against the Chiefs.
With defensive end Bobby Hamilton inactive with an ankle injury, the Raiders gave more snaps to Tommy Kelly, a starter who normally plays on first down and then gives way to Derrick Burgess, and also gave Burgess more plays.
Linebacker Tyler Brayton, a converted defensive end that still seems better suited to play there, also got some snaps as a nickel end. In one of his few snaps at linebacker, Brayton surrendered a 6-yard touchdown pass from Trent Green to Tony Richardson.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan paid for his decision to give Green a five-man rush in the game's final minute, resulting in a 36-yard completion to Larry Johnson which set up the Chiefs winning touchdown one play later.
With owner Al Davis being more heavily involved on the defensive side of the ball, it's possible Ryan may be a little less bold in upcoming games.
Offensively, Kansas City's success in blitzing Collins continually could bring more from the opposition, and likely will cause the Raiders to use more sets with fullback John Paul Foschi and an extra tight end (Randal Williams) to go along with starter Courtney Anderson for maximum protection.
The Raiders' successful strategy in pooch kickoffs to the Chiefs Dante Hall probably won't be repeated in Oakland, where Janikowski is adept at kicking deep - particularly into the north end zone.
--DE Tommy Kelly, with three sacks, extended Oakland's streak of one player having two sacks to five games. Derrick Burgess had four sacks in Weeks 4, 6 and 7, Warren Sapp in Week 8 and Kelly in Week 9.
--TE Courtney Anderson broke a string of 11 consecutive quarters without a catch, but does not have a touchdown reception since getting two in the season opener.
--C Jake Grove will continue to play in a reserve role, backing up at both guard spots as well as center behind Adam Treu. Starting right guard Ron Stone has been injury-prone and left guard Brad Badger is nursing a bad knee.
--CB Nnamdi Asomugha has played in 39 games in three seasons with 16 starts and does not have an interception. He dropped a Trent Green pass against the Chiefs. Coach Norv Turner insists Asomugha intercepts passes in practices, which are closed to the media.
--Rookie linebacker Kirk Morrison, who has been either first, second or third in tackles on the Raiders in each of his first seven games, had just two stops against the Chiefs.
GAME PLAN: The Raiders must cut a yard and a half off Denver's per rush average of 5.3 yards or risk being forced to play catch-up and subject Collins to endless blitzing. Offensively, getting Jordan on track is a must if they hope to exploit a Broncos secondary giving up 244.5 yards per game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Broncos C Tom Nalen vs. Raiders DT Ted Washington: At 6-foot-3, 286 pounds, Nalen is giving up close to 100 pounds against Washington, who is 6-5, listed at 365 and probably heavier. Nalen will use quickness and cut blocking with help from guards Cooper Carlisle and Ben Hamilton in an attempt to create running lanes for Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. If Washington can hold off those blocks, it allows Warren Sapp to penetrate and linebackers Danny Clark and Kirk Morrison to clean up and make tackles.
Broncos QB Jake Plummer vs. Raiders SS Jarrod Cooper: Denver has had success in past seasons with play-fakes and bootlegs, with tight ends doing much of the damage. Cooper must remain disciplined and not be overaggressive while watching Plummer closely. His failure to do so could mean big games from starting tight end Stephen Alexander, backup Jeb Putzier, or both.
INJURY IMPACT: The Raiders go into each game not knowing exactly how much they will get from Moss, with the result being he is not truly incorporated into the offense. Instead, he becomes a sideshow for a few plays, then disappears. Defensively, Hamilton's injury at defensive ends hurts in terms of an established veteran presence, but the extra snaps for Kelly and Burgess are not necessarily a bad thing.