Seahawks Opponent Preview – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

.NET reporter Scott Eklund continues his weekly look at the Seahawks' 2004 opponents. Up this week: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who the Hawks travel to meet at Raymond James Stadium on September 19th.

Overview: When head coach John Gruden inherited the talented, yet underachieving Buccaneers in 2002 he took over a team that had team leaders littered all over the defense. The Bucs’ offensive team had one star, WR Keyshawn Johnson, and a bunch of role-players. Gruden and the offense rode a stifling defense all the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2002 and the “experts” projected more of the same in 2003.

The reality was that 2003 saw the team fail to make the playoffs and a retooling was in order during the offseason.

Enter new GM Bruce Allen, who was hand-picked by Gruden and more than 20 new players and you are looking at the most active team during the offseason.

Gruden traded the mercurial Johnson for speedster Joey Galloway to create team unity and more plays down the field. Defensive leaders DT Warren Sapp and S John Lynch were allowed to leave and the Bucs acquired some talented backups to make plays on special teams.

This is Gruden’s baby and he has some interesting parts at his fingertips to make things happen.

Offense: Gruden hates it when people refer to his offense as a West Coast clone. With a few variations, Gruden’s offense is probably the truest version of the scheme devised over 25 years ago by Bill Walsh.

This offense is based on a horizontal passing game that mixes in power running and a quick-hitting passing game. Gruden has the perfect general for his attack in QB Brad Johnson.

Johnson lacks anything resembling mobility and his arm strength is only average, but what he lacks in natural athleticism he makes up for in accuracy and intelligence. Last year, his quick decision-making abilities escaped him down the stretch when he threw only 10 TDs and 13 INTs in the final eight games of the season. On the season, Johnson completed 62.1% of his passes for 3,811 yards, 26 TDs and 21 INTs.

If Johnson isn’t able to regain his usually reliable form, look for Gruden to turn to veteran Brain Griese. Griese has had a roller-coaster career, but he still has good experience and he is a solid leader when called upon.

At RB, the Bucs’ lack of a true game-breaker was obvious down the stretch in 2003. Enter veteran Charlie Garner, who was with Gruden in Oakland in 2001. Garner’s speed in hitting the hole and his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield make him the playmaker that Tampa has been looking for. Garner split time with Tyrone Wheatley in Oakland, but still managed 553 yards (4.6 yard average) and three TDs on the ground. Garner also added 48 receptions for 386 yards and one TD.

FB Mike Alstott is coming off season-ending neck surgery that may prevent him from being his typical bulldozing self early on. Doctors have projected him to make a full recovery, but it is still unclear whether his neck can withstand the kind of pounding his running style demands. Near the goal line there aren’t many backs better than Alstott.

Galloway was acquired during the offseason to provide more of a deep threat than the Buccaneers had in the last two seasons. While Galloway does not run precise routes and he is only an average blocker, his speed and abilities after the catch make him dangerous. In Dallas last year, Galloway averaged 19.8 yards on 34 receptions for 672 yards and two TD’s. He should be able to stretch defenses enough to open up the short and intermediate routes for the plethora of possession receivers on the team.

34 year-old Keenan McCardell had a resurgent season in 2003. He went to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement after catching 84 passes for 1,174 yards and eight TDs. He is at his best settling in zones and using his quickness to get open across the middle. Vying for time as the third wideout will be six-year veteran Joe Jurevicius and rookie first-rounder Michael Clayton. Jurevicius is still recovering from a knee-injury that ended his season early and he may not be ready in time for camp. Clayton is more quick than fast, but his dimensions (6’3”, 200 lbs) make him an ideal candidate to play the slot in this offense.

TEs Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley fit perfectly into Gruden’s system. Dilger is a great blocker, especially when he goes in motion and can lead block, and is an adequate outlet for Johnson. Dudley can stretch the deep middle and get down the seam, but his blocking is only average.

Questions surround the offensive line as the Buccaneers head into camp. Four of the five projected starters were acquired during the offseason and while they are experienced it is still an unknown as to how they will hold up during the season. LT Derrick Deese was signed in free-agency and while he is 34 and on the downside of a solid career he is still able to pass-protect well and use his quick feet and smarts to stymie most pass rushers. RT Todd Steussie was also signed in free agency and he is a natural LT, but he has lost a step and he lacks top lateral movement. He was solid for Carolina in 2003 and the hope is he still has some gas left in the tank.

C John Wade is the only holdover from 2003 and while he lacks ideal athletic ability he is a tenacious blocker who has good size and is smart. LG Matt Stinchcomb was a reserve for the last five years in Oakland, but he is expected to get the starting nod. RG will be a battle between Jason Whittle and free-agent Matt O’Dwyer. The staff wants to go with Whittle, but he must prove that he has recovered from the injuries the sidelined him last season. Look for O’Dwyer to get the nod unless Whittle comes on strong.

If the line can pass-block and open holes in the running game, the Bucs have enough octane in their offense to make teams pay.

Defense: Ever since former head coach Tony Dungy took over the Buccaneers, they have been known for tough, hard-hitting and opportunistic defenses. Tampa Bay finished eighth in takeaways with 33 (20 INTs and 13 fumble recoveries) and tied for 13th in sacks with 36. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin rarely blitzes and likes to play cover-two most of the time, but this defense is very aggressive and every player flies to the ball.

The front wall of the Buccaneer defense is talented and athletic. DT Anthony McFarland’s progress allowed the team to release the declining Sapp. McFarland is just as quick as Sapp and his amazing agility and speed allow him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline. McFarland can collapse the pocket and get the QB and the thought is he will be able to better Sapp’s sack production the last couple years.

Next to McFarland will be a rotation of veterans Darrell Russell, Ellis Wyms and Chartric Darby. Russell is the X-factor as he has the talent to complement McFarland, but his inability to stay out of trouble makes him a question mark. Wyms and Darby are solid but lack great athleticism and burst.

DE Simeon Rice has become one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL. He compliments his immense athletic ability with a tireless work ethic and desire to be the best. In 2003 Rice finished tied for second in the NFL with 15 sacks; he also had six forced fumbles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

On the strong side, second-year veteran Dewayne White and six-year veteran Greg Spires split time and both are solid. White will likely get the most snaps, but both excel at getting the QB and each has the bulk and strength to make plays against the run.

The linebacking corps of the Buccaneers may not have as much depth as in recent years, but the starting trio could be the best in the league. None of the three starters has ideal linebacker size, but they make up for that with smarts and speed.

Weakside LB Derrick Brooks may be the best in the league. His speed allows him to cover backs out of the backfield with ease and track down plays anywhere on the field. He led Tampa Bay with 103 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and nine passes defensed.

MLB Shelton Quarles is an excellent tackler and his speed allows him to get into zones downfield faster than almost any linebacker in the league. Newly signed Ian Gold will man the strongside spot in Kiffin’s run-and-chase scheme and his abilities as a blitzer will allow Kiffin to be a little more aggressive up front.

The Buccaneers are betting that the loss of Lynch to the Broncos will be offset by the improved play of third-year S Jermaine Phillips. Phillips doesn’t pack the punch that Lynch did when tackling ballcarriers, but his speed will help him make plays that Lynch could not. His speed will allow the Bucs to do more against the pass.

Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are the starting corners but they will be pushed by free agent pickup Mario Edwards during camp. Edwards is bigger and stronger than Barber and Kelly, but the latter two have experience in the cover-two scheme. Barber breaks on the ball better than most DB’s and Kelly has the strength and quickness to make a Pro Bowl run in 2004.

With Edwards playing the third corner spot, it seems that the aggressive and hard-hitting Dwight Smith will be staying at free safety. He seems well suited to this spot, with outstanding speed for the position. In 2003 he led Tampa with five INT’s and 10 pass breakups.

This defense is talented and the front seven may be better than any in the league. It is imperative they continue to cause turnovers so the offense will have a short field for drives.

Special Teams: Usually reliable K Martin Gramatica had a down year and blames it on preseason groin surgery. It is hoped that rest and rehab will do the trick and allow him to get his leg strength back. P Josh Bidwell was signed as a free agent to replace Tom Tupa who signed with Washingotn. Bidwell can really drive the ball, but he lacks the consistency and mechanics to be a good directional punter.

The last time the Seahawks and Buccaneers met: In 1999, the Seahawks sat atop the AFC West with a 7-3 record after ten games and they were coming off a big win versus division rival Kansas City the week before. New Hawks head coach Mike Holmgren and QB Jon Kitna had led the Hawks to the brink of the playoffs and it appeared they would be able to coast the rest of the season; but nothing is ever that easy for the Seahawks.

Tampa Bay and its outstanding defense headed to the Kingdome trying to win the NFC Central and make a Super Bowl run.

The teams traded field goals in the first half with K Todd Peterson hitting a 25-yarder in the first quarter and K Martin Gramatica hitting two from 42 and 40 respectively in the second quarter.

It was a defensive battle the entire game with each team struggling to move the ball. Buc QB’s Trent Dilfer and Shaun King threw for 82 combined yards while Kitna had one of the worst games of his career completing only 19 of 44 passes for 197 yards and five interceptions.

King hit TE Patrick Hape with a two-yard touchdown and Gramatica nailed a 37-yard field goal to put the final nail in the Hawks coffin.

Seahawks WRs Shawn Dawkins and Derrick Mayes combined for seven receptions for 122 yards. RB Ricky Waters had a solid day against the Buc D rushing for 64 yards and second-year RB Ahman Green made an appearance running twice for five yards.

This was the beginning of a horrible stretch for the Seahawks as they went on to lose four of their final five and then narrowly back into the playoffs when the Raiders beat the Chiefs on the final week of the season.

Tampa went on to play the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship game only to lose a heartbreaker 11-6 to the “Greatest Show on Turf”.

The Seahawks lead this series 4-1 with the only loss coming in 1999.

2004 Projection: The 2004 Buccaneers have the talent to reach the Super Bowl. Defensively they have improved their team speed and playmaking ability with the release of Lynch and Sapp and the acquisition of Gold. They will miss Sapp’s motor and Lynch’s leadership, but they don’t lack for leaders on defense with McFarland, Brooks, Barber and Smith.

On offense the biggest question is the offensive line. If they can provide solid protection for Johnson, this team may score a lot of points.

Gruden is one of the best coaches in the NFL and this season will require a little more from him in terms of motivation. He has the players, now he needs to get the most out of them.

Look for the Bucaneers, with their talent and experience to pull off a huge coup and win the NFC South. 10-6 might be the best they can hope for as far as record because the NFC South is the toughest division in the NFL. A deep run in the playoffs is not out of the question.

.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories