Game SnapShot: Buccaneers at Panthers

<b>Game SnapShot</b><br> <b>KICKOFF:</b> Sunday, 1:00 ET<br> <b>GAMEDATE:</b> 11/09/03<br> <b>SURFACE:</b> Grass<br> <b>TV:</b> FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, Pam Oliver<br> <b>SERIES:</b> 7th meeting. Bucs lead the series 4-2. Carolina beat the Bucs 12-9 in overtime in the home opener for Tampa Bay. The Bucs tied the game on a Keenan McCardell TD pass on the final play of regulation, but Martin Gramatica's extra point was blocked, sending the game into overtime.

2003 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 6th (22nd rush, 5th pass); defense 4th (12th rush, 5th pass). Panthers: offense 12th (2nd rush, 29th pass); defense 21st (13th rush, 22nd pass)

This could be the Bucs' final chance to climb back into the NFC South race, and Tampa Bay is 7-0 following a loss under coach Jon Gruden. The problem is an offensive line that has been shuffled to compensate for several injuries and protection for QB Brad Johnson has broken down. That is a dangerous formula against Carolina's strong pass-rushing defensive line. The Panthers have their own injury concerns, with RB Stephen Davis questionable with a sprained ankle. The Bucs fully expect to face Davis, who rumbled for 142 yards rushing in the first meeting. Tampa Bay will have to prove it can stop a power running game before Carolina will attempt to throw the ball significantly.

Bucs: Johnson has thrown four TDs and five INTs in the past three games after throwing 12 TDs and three INTs in the first five games. ... The defense can set an NFL-record with its 68th consecutive game with at least one sack. Panthers: Davis is on pace for a franchise-record 1984 rushing yards. ... DE Mike Rucker has four multiple-sack games this season.

Panthers 15, Buccaneers 13


--DT Warren Sapp was added to the injury report Thursday with a sprained foot. He is listed as probable for Sunday's game at Carolina.

--LB Ryan Nece did not practice Thursday due to a right ankle sprain and he is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Backup Dwayne Rudd will start at strong-side linebacker against the Panthers.

--RT Cornell Green has a left ankle sprain but practiced again Thursday. He is still listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Carolina. Green started against the Saints on Sunday.

--S Jermaine Phillips broke his right forearm Sunday and will miss 4-6 weeks. John Lynch is expected to return against the Panthers, minimizing his injury.

--RB Michael Pittman has a left knee strain and is probable against the Panthers.

--S John Lynch, who has missed the last two games with nerve damage in his right shoulder, says he will start Sunday at Carolina.

--RB Jamal Anderson worked out for the Bucs on Tuesday. Anderson has not played in more than two seasons.


--DE Brady Smith returned to practice Thursday in spite of a sprained ankle, and he will probably be available for Sunday's game against the Giants.

--DT Ed Jasper is the Falcons' starting NT when Atlanta plays the 3-4, which is most likely Sunday against the Giants because of injuries to a couple DL. Jasper, though, also is considered a backup DE, and that is important because the team's top reserve DE Travis Hall did not practice again Thursday because of a sprained neck.

--DL Travis Hall, whose sprained neck is so back he can barely turn his head, missed practice again Thursday and is not likely to play in the Falcons' game Sunday against the Giants.

--S Gerald McBurrows returned to practice Thursday for the Falcons, but after missing practice Wednesday because of a sprained knee, his role - if he has one - is likely to be limited. McBurrows also factors into some of the Falcons' special teams.

--CB Kevin Mathis, the Falcons' nickel back, returned to practice Thursday for the first time in a week-and-a-half. But his strained hamstring, and more important the time he has missed, may conspire to limit his role Sunday against the Giants. Or, he may not play.

--QB Doug Johnson, who was benched as the Falcons' starter a few weeks ago, played OK last Sunday when he handled most of the fourth quarter work in Atlanta's 23-16 loss to the Eagles. Johnson completed five of 10 passes for 86 yards, but he has struggled in practice, which may be part of the reason coach Dan Reeves has opted to give Kurt Kittner his third straight start.


Place-kicker Martin Gramatica is off to the worst start of his career, going 6-for-12 in field-goal attempts, including a missed 36-yarder that was the difference in the Bucs' 17-14 loss to New Orleans Sunday.

Perhaps more disturbing is that Gramatica is just 2-for-8 from over 29 yards. And that does not include the blocked extra point that cost the world champions a win over the Panthers in their home opener.

"The key is getting into a rhythm, something I haven't been able to feel yet, I haven't been able to feel comfortable," Gramatica said. "It's not due to the blocking, snapping or hold, it's myself. I just have not been able to hit the ball solid as I have done in the past. That's where it's kind of frustrating because I haven't been able to see anything I'm drastically doing wrong."

Of course, there are misses and there are misses. Three of Gramatica's field goal attempts were blocked, including two against the Panthers. The other was a 62-yard bomb that he tried to drive too low.

"He's had two 60-yard (field goal attempts), maybe I asked a little much," coach Jon Gruden said. "He missed a 50-yarder against Dallas and he missed a couple that were actually rejected by Shaquille O'Neal, he really didn't have much of a chance.

"Are we stunned that he missed a field goal the other day? Yeah. We thought he had a good look at the goalposts. How many times does he miss inside the 40? I do not know. But it has been that kind of first half of the season.

"How many screen passes do you throw out in the flat, there's no one there, and you make 1-yard There's been some crazy things happen. But I am going to stick by my man. I believe he's the strength of this team and hopefully, before it's all said and done, he'll back me up."

Gruden has several reasons to remain confident in Gramatica. For starters, he needs him this Sunday against Carolina. The Bucs and Panthers have scored only one touchdown in two of the last three games these teams have played.

Secondly, Gramatica might have been the biggest weapon for the Bucs during their Super Bowl run last season when he set club records for field goals (32), attempts (39) and points (128).

For his career, Gramatica is an 82.1 percent field goal kicker. Therefore, he has never had to deal with a slump this bad.

"No, not really, I've never had that bad of a percentage," Gramatica said. "But the thing that I told myself is those kicks are over, whether I made them or missed them, I've just got to start from zero this week and hopefully get on a streak. A lot of it could be mental. Once you hit a couple kicks and your confidence builds up, it makes it a lot easier. It never makes it easy, but it makes it easier than it is now. It is on me because the guys are doing a great job of blocking, snapping and holding. So I just have to kick the ball straight, that's basically all I can tell you about that."


For all the fingers pointing at the Falcons' secondary, and there should be plenty considering Atlanta has the league's worst-rated pass defense while allowing more than 271 passing yards per game, some also should point at the defensive line.

If the Falcons (1-7) are going to have a realistic chance to beat the Giants (4-4) Sunday, they are going to have to muster more of a pass rush than they have recently. Atlanta has just eight sacks in the past six games, and New York quarterback Kerry Collins leads the NFL in passing attempts (333), completions (194) and yardage (2,185).

Actually, reserve tackle Ellis Johnson is second in the NFL among defensive tackles with four sacks, and fellow tackle Ed Jasper has 1.5 sacks. Even the team's top reserve defensive lineman, Travis Hall, has three. So, the line has offered a little rush.

But starting left defensive end Patrick Kerney has just one (actually two half sacks), and right end Brady Smith has two (one coming last Sunday when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb fell down and Smith tapped him to get credit).

Kerney and Smith clearly have missed OLB Sam Rogers, who had 6.5 sacks last season as the most prolific rusher among non-defensive linemen. Rogers played in just a couple games this season before a right knee injury ended his season, and even when he did play, he was limited.

Opposing offenses have found it easier to scheme against Smith and especially Kerney, who had 10.5 sacks last year and 12 in 2001.

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