There have been three shutouts in the NFL this season, the most recent one turned in by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a week ago in San Francisco. There have been another 160 victories by NFL teams this season in which the losing team was not shut out.
Coming off their best defensive effort of the season – and their fullest all-around performance – the Buccaneers know they don't have to pitch a shutout against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in order to leave M&T Bank Stadium with another victory. They simply need to maintain the progression that, week by week, is strengthening their resume as true playoff contenders.
"To go out and get a shutout says a lot about our team, says a lot about how we're growing," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It was a great lesson for us, to go out to the West Coast, handle that travel and do everything we need to do.
"Now it's all about their focus. They play hard, they play fast, they play smart and they play consistent, and when they do that they can play with anybody in this league. I've been telling these guys that the whole year, and they believe me and they go out and execute."
The very brief Bucs-Ravens series has actually seen its share of shutouts – two-thirds of all the games played, as a matter of fact. After a 22-10 Tampa Bay win in their first meeting in 2001, the Bucs got a shutout in Baltimore in '02 and the Ravens did the same in Tampa in '06. Of course, those results have even less to do about this Sunday's game than does last week's win in San Francisco. At least that latter effort could have some psychological carryover in terms of team confidence, as does four wins in their last five games and four wins in five road trips this season.
"I don't ever want to say it's getting easier to get any win in the National Football League, but it does help," said Morris of stringing together some wins. "It creates a little momentum for your team and how you practice, and the demeanor in the building. We've got a fun team, a young and talented team, and we're going to go out there and compete with everybody.
The Buccaneers' defensive line, perhaps the one unit that started the season a little more slowly than expected, is starting to build some momentum of its own. Tampa Bay has eight sacks in the last two weeks, most of them by the linemen up front. In San Francisco, D-Linemen Gerald McCoy, Al Woods, Michael Bennett and Stylez G. White all got in on the six-sack party. This week the Bucs added another young talent to that group, promoting third-year defensive tackle Frank Okam from the practice squad.
"It was great to get those guys out there and get them going, especially with the kind of success they had last week, getting the six sacks," said Morris. "To get guys like Al Woods and Alex Magee acclimated to our system as fast as we can is always a good thing. Now we have another young talent on our football team that we value in Frank Okam, someone who's going to give us something here in the future. All our players value their opportunities and now we have one more young man with an opportunity.
Most of the Bucs' young defenders are just starting to see their NFL careers take off, from CB Aqib Talib in the secondary to LB Geno Hayes in the middle to McCoy and company up front. On Sunday, they'll have an up-close view at a defender who has spent the last decade and a half dominating the NFL. Ravens LB Ray Lewis remains one of the fiercest competitors in the NFL, and his 15th roster of teammates is dotted with talent on both sides of the ball.
Morris, who admits to owning a Lewis jersey in college, is impressed by what he has seen on videotape this week, and not just from Baltimore's legendary defense.
"It's always impressive to play a team of this caliber," he said. "You're talking about arguably one of the greatest defensive players to every play this game in Ray Lewis, and his crew and what they bring. They have another one in Ed Reed. They've been a defensive-driven team, but now they've picked up some offensive guys. They drafted Flacco and brought in Boldin and they're a really talented team.
"That's arguably one of the best wideout corps we'll face this year, with Anquan Boldin, Houshmandzadeh, Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth and all the other guys they can bring in to create problems for you. We look forward to that challenge as well. We've got a fine secondary here and we're looking forward to sending those guys out there to match up. It should be a lot of fun. They're a challenge for us but we're looking forward to it. It's just another lesson for us, another trial."
The Buccaneers hope to test the Ravens just as thoroughly. Chances aren't high that they'll be able to duplicate their shutout feat of a week ago, but that's hardly the goal. The top priority according to Morris is to have his team to match the Ravens in terms of toughness and intensity.
"We've just got to go out and play a physical game," he said. "The most physical team is going to win this football game, and we want to be that team. We're young, we're built for this, and here's another chance for us to prove ourselves – not for anyone else but for ourselves. Let's go out and follow our formula – play hard, play smart, play fast and play consistent, and that should get us through it."
The Bucs' efforts won't be affected much by injury today. Defensive end Kyle Moore will miss his third straight game due to a shoulder ailment, giving Tim Crowder another start at left end, but the rest of the Buccaneers' inactive decisions were strategic rather than injury-based. Tampa Bay's eight inactives are Moore, CB Elbert Mack, FB Erik Lorig, T Will Barker, T Derek Hardman, DT Frank Okam, WR Preston Parker and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Ravens will be without one starter, as right guard Chris Chester will be unable to play due to illness. Fifth-year player Tony Moll will start in Chester's place. Baltimore's other seven inactives are WR Marcus Smith, S Tom Zbikowski, CB Fabian Washington, LB Dannell Ellerbe, TE Ed Dickson, DT Brandon McKinney and DT Lamar Divens.
The Bucs and Ravens kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.