QB Shaun King will be all smiles on Sunday if the Bucs can get off to a quick start
Let's talk confidence and preparation.
Two admirable traits for any football team they are, but mentally they're on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Confidence tells the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that they can handle anything their opponents have to throw at them. Preparation admits that not all of it is going to be easy.
The Bucs take equal measures of both into their first-place showdown with the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The game is being played on the Lions' home turf, the Pontiac Silverdome, where Tampa Bay has struggled for much of the past decade. Even though they are 2-0 and coming off a 41-0 waxing of the Chicago Bears, the Bucs can see the concern surrounding this game thanks to that Silverdome history.
And they're smart enough to pinpoint the areas that cause that concern. As such, after tuning in to Head Coach Tony Dungy and players Ronde Barber, Shaun King, John Lynch and Frank Middleton at the team hotel on Saturday, allow us to present 10 areas of concern surrounding Sunday's tilt. Some the team admits are potential problem areas; others are dismissed as needless worry.
1. RB James Stewart.
Not only do the Bucs admit that Stewart is a concern, they consider his success, or lack thereof, to be the key to the ballgame. The Bucs' ranking versus the run after two weeks (16th) is deceiving, as most of the damage caused by New England and Chicago were done by receivers or scrambling quarterbacks.
Detroit, by contrast, will be the first 2000 opponent for Tampa Bay that will determinedly try to run the ball down their throats. The 6-1, 226-pound Stewart, who has 143 rushing yards through two games, is just the type of back to execute that plan. Tampa Bay, which is familiar with Stewart from annual summer scrimmages with his former team, Jacksonville, has a healthy amount of respect for the newest Lion weapon.
"He doesn't have a lot of wiggle, but he's got enough wiggle to get by you," said Lynch. "He's a big back who likes to gain yards after the first hit. The success of their running game tomorrow will be determined by what happens after that first hit.
"This is a different game than the first two weeks. This is the first team that we think will really try to run on us. New England and Chicago tried to spread us out, and I just sat back there in cover-two all day. I'll be up there in the box a lot tomorrow."
As in, insane levels of it inside the Pontiac Silverdome. The key disadvantage to playing on the road is magnified in a dome like Detroit's. Offensive linemen lose a little bit of their first step against defensive linemen, who get off the ball at about the same time since team's are forced to go to silent counts. Also, whether there is a scientific basis to it or not, home teams seem to feed off crowd energy, just as the Bucs did last week in blowing open what was once a close game.
"The key is to get started early and get the crowd out of it," said King. "We can't let (Robert) Porcher and (Tracy) Scroggins get sacks early. In past years, we have started the game moving the ball effectively but then they've made a big play on defense and really gotten into it, and then the crowd gets into it."
Still, this same team was spectacular on the road in domes in 1997, won a big game in Seattle's noisy Kingdome last year and weren't swamped by the boisterous crowd in St. Louis' TransWorld Dome in last January's NFC Championship Game.
"I told the team, it's going to be loud," said Dungy, "but not louder than it was in Seattle or St. Louis. We don't have to do anything spectacular or special. We just have to play our game, not fumble, not make mistakes. We have to hear the call, get off on the snap count and make plays."
Middleton knows the antidote, but it's something the Bucs haven't accomplished up here in recent years. "Hopefully, we'll score early," he said. "That's the only way you can beat (the crowd). If we score on our first three drives, we'll be fine."
3. Detroit's Defensive Line.
Did somebody mention Porcher and Scroggins? Don't forget Luther Ellis and James Jones in the middle. New England concerned the Bucs with pressure on the edges and Chicago had some talented inside guys, but Detroit brings the full package up front.
"Their strength is their front seven," said King. "They're real physical. They're like our defensive line. They're not tricky. You know what they're going to do and you've just got to line up and beat them."
Porcher and Scroggins form a dangerous outside duo that may force the Buccaneers to give the tackles a little blocking help, especially if Tampa Bay isn't off to an early lead. "They're very tough when they're ahead," said Dungy. "Porcher and Scroggins just tee off, and then they feed off the crowd."
If the blocking help goes to the outside, that will leave Middleton and LG Randall McDaniel to handle Jones and, especially, Ellis, and that could be a tall task.
"I like Luther Elliss," said Middleton, though the Bucs' ornery guard was probably referring to Elliss' play. "I voted for him for the Pro Bowl. He's a monster, he's definitely in my top five for inside guys. I have a lot of respect for him."
4. Johnnie Morton.
The Lions have an excellent trio of wide receivers in Morton, Germane Crowell and Herman Moore, and the Bucs can't afford to forget them as they key on Stewart.
To the Bucs' way of thinking, Morton is the key on Sunday. "Johnnie's having a great year," said Barber. "To us, it seems like he's the go-to guy and we have to guard against that. He's playing with a lot of confidence.
"They're all big-play type of guys, and (Morton) has always seemed to present us with problems."
Morton is the Lions' leading receiver to this point, having grabbed nine passes for 140 yards through two games.
5. The turf.
Mark this one down in the category of issues that are more of a concern outside the team than inside. The Bucs believe they can be just as effective on turf as they were in 1997, and just as dangerous as the Lions.
"Detroit is good on turf, but we think we are too," said Dungy. "We have the type of team that should be great on turf. We've got some great rushers. We've got speed on the outside. We've got speed receivers. We have a big time running back. As far as the mental side of it, I don't think our guys are worried about it."
6. Charlie Batch.
Obviously, the opposing team's quarterback is always a concern. New England had a classic drop-back passer in Drew Bledsoe that the team thought could be a problem if given too much time. The Bears had scrambler extraordinaire Cade McNown who was a weapon with his legs.
The Lions have Batch, who seems a little harder to peg down on the scouting report but who is three-for-three in games against Tampa Bay. The Bucs have had difficulty sacking or intercepting Batch, two areas the team's defense has routinely excelled in.
"They're so quick," said Barber. "Batch just comes under center and they snap the ball. He'll throw a quick slant…they just want to get the ball off quick. The deep stuff they throw is all off play-action. We won't be playing too much bump-and-run, we'll be reacting to the quarterback."
7. Early difficulties.
The Bucs have a formula for success in a dome road game, but they've had trouble making that add up in recent years in Detroit because they've fallen behind early. As confident as Tampa Bay is in its strengths, the team knows that falling quickly behind diminishes those strengths.
"They're just a team that's played better than us up here," said Lynch. "It's not a mental block, we're not scared to play here. They've just scored in bunches and run it up early on us."
Dungy believes his squad will shake off the early-game doldrums of recent years. "We just haven't played our game," said Dungy of the Bucs' 1998 and '99 trips to Detroit. "We have to play with poise and we haven't done that in the last couple of years."
8. Desmond Howard
For the third straight week, the Bucs are facing an opponent with a dangerous kick return man. New England's Troy Brown gashed the Bucs for a big play in the opener but Tampa Bay mostly contained Chicago's Pro Bowl returner Glyn Milburn last Sunday.
This weekend, it's returner deluxe Desmond Howard back for both punts and kickoffs, and Howard is averaging 25 yards per punt return and 22.2 yards per kickoff runback. His 95-yard TD punt return in the Lions' opener at New Orleans was the winning score in a 14-10 victory.
"We have to do a good job on Desmond Howard and get field position in our favor," said Dungy, singing a familiar refrain. "That's one of the keys to the game. I think our young guys (did better against Chicago) because they got a better feel for how much more intense special teams are in the regular season."
9. David Sloan.
The Lions' tight end might be one of the more underrated players at his position in the league, even if he has grabbed just three passes so far this year. Lynch, who might find himself in Sloan's vicinity on a few occasions, says the sixth-year tight end is faster than most people give him credit for. The Bucs have yet to face a team that has seemed interested in throwing to the tight end.
"He hasn't had big games against us," said Lynch, "but we've seen his ability. He's a long strider, and when he gets going he can really get down the field. With guys like that, you have to get your hands on them early and knock them off their stride."
10. Offensive backtrack.
The Bucs' demolition of Chicago, and certain portions of the opener in New England, were extremely encouraging to offense-starved Buc fans. The team is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. Still, they are only in their third regular season game under new coordinator Les Steckel, and there is a lot of progress still to be made.
"This is our defense's fifth year in the same system," said King. "The first few years, there were some good times, some inconsistency. Now they're dominant every week.
"This is our first year in the offense. I think we're getting closer. Some guys are still getting comfortable with what we're doing. At times, we're still inconsistent."
King wasn't exactly expressing concern. His confidence was obvious, and all of the Bucs were in good spirits on Saturday evening. As Dungy later said, the team is in position to make a very positive statement on Sunday in the Silverdome.
"This is the one that will really tell us where we are," said Dungy. "If we can come up here, play well, do what we want to do and win, we'll have a lot of momentum."