LB Ryan Nece and the Bucs' defense will be determined to stop the run when they visit the Meadowlands this Sunday
Just a week after playing against the number-one ranked offense in the NFL and somehow finding a way to pull out a win, the 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be tested by another offensive juggernaut. The 4-2 New York Giants, the Bucs' opponent in the Meadowlands this coming Sunday, are ranked second in the league in total offense.
The Bucs helped the Giants take over first place in the NFC East by defeating the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles, but they didn't do New York any favors in terms of the rankings. While last weekend's miraculous win over the Eagles was one of the most thrilling games in franchise history, the Buccaneers would just as soon not surrender another 500 yards of offense this week against the Giants, as was the case against Philadelphia, which is most definitely still ranked first in the NFL.
That begins with the Buccaneers finding a way to do something they struggled to do all season: stop the run. Last week the Buccaneers were gashed for 208 rushing yards by the likes of Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Donovan McNabb. That success on the ground against the Buccaneers defense was not an aberration. So far this season, the Buccaneers are allowing a whopping 152.3 rushing yards per game – a mark that has them ranked 30th in the league.
Against the Giants and the league's leading rusher, Tiki Barber, the Buccaneers defense will need an immediate turnaround. Through six games, Barber has run at a torrid pace, gaining 647 yards while averaging five yards per carry. Barber's performance has helped the Giants rank second in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging, coincidently, 152.3 yards per game. Containing Barber will be the first step in neutralizing the Giants' offense.
Another key aspect to holding the Giants' offense in check will be limiting their red zone opportunities. Inside the 20-yard line, the Giants have been especially dangerous this year, scoring a touchdown on 10 of their 18 opportunities. That mark is good for sixth in the conference. The Giants' receivers are a big reason for that success. The 6-5 Plaxico Burress consistently creates mismatches against smaller defensive backs and makes the fade pass a high-percentage throw for quarterback Eli Manning. Tight end Jeremy Shockey thrives in the red zone and has the ability to freeze a safety as he demonstrated Monday night against Roy Williams and the Dallas Cowboys, losing the All-Pro safety on a move that freed him up for a touchdown reception.
On defense, the Giants are not invulnerable. Despite tallying 13 sacks over the past two weeks, the Giants defense ranks 21st in the league in total defense, allowing 330.5 yards per game. Their run defense has been better than the Bucs' but not impenetrable, surrendering 106.3 yards per game. And when the Buccaneers cross the Giants' 20-yard line, they have the chance to do some damage of their own. This season, the New York defense is ranked 23rd out of 32 teams when it comes to keeping an opponent out of the end zone after it has entered the red zone.
The real Achilles' heel of the Giants this season has been its 23rd-ranked pass defense, which has had particular trouble on third down. No defense in the NFL has been worse than the Giants when it comes to allowing opponents to convert on third down – something they do 51.8 percent of the time when in that situation. It's a weakness the Buccaneers will look to exploit Sunday and may have the personnel to do so with tight end Alex Smith, big-bodied receiver Michael Clayton and veteran wide out Ike Hilliard. Hilliard, the former Giant has 12 receptions this year and eight have produced first downs.
To do so, the Buccaneers will have to get more out of their passing game – an area Head Coach Jon Gruden acknowledged as needing improvement. Against the Eagles, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski totaled 104 yards passing, using an admittedly conservative game plan against Philly's aggressive blitzing. A week earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals, Gradkowski threw for 184 yards. However, his refusal to make the critical error – as evidenced by his one interception in 70 attempts during that span – played a big part in the Buccaneers winning those two games. Still, it may take a more prolific performance to come away with a win against the Giants Sunday.
"We just have to keep working at it," Gruden said. "We have a young quarterback, a lot of plays we are calling, and [it is] the first time he has ever run them. A lot of the blitzes, and a lot of the things he is seeing, is the first time he has ever seen them. We will get better. Bruce is doing a great job. I just think as time moves on we need to get a couple of more big plays from our passing game and I am confident that we will. We just have to keep working."
Stopping Tiki, limiting the Giants' red zone opportunities and getting more on offense out of the passing game – if all the elements come together, "Big Blue" might be feeling the blues by the time the Buccaneers roll out of town Sunday evening.