K Jay Taylor, new to the Bucs' practice squad, got his first kicks in for the team on Wednesday
There is not much use in asking a football coach to identify the biggest game on a schedule, or even the remainder of a schedule at a season's halfway point. Most any coach, locked in the detailed preparations that go into any game week, is going to simply point to the next contest.
In this case, however, the answers might be one and the same.
By virtue of their big win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and three wins in their last four tries, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have set up Sunday's game in Atlanta as a particularly crucial affair. If the Bucs can stretch their winning streak to three games and go to 2-0 in intra-conference play, they might just change the prevailing analysis from, 'Can the Bucs get back in it?' to 'The Bucs are back in it.'
A 3-1 surge after an 0-4 start has the Bucs at 3-5, three games behind division-leading Atlanta. Tampa Bay has already passed Carolina and caught New Orleans for second place in the division; a win in the Georgia Dome on Sunday would pull the Falcons a game closer.
"The next game's a big game," said Gruden. "We're not going to go too far past this one. We have battled back nicely here in the second quarter of the season and, again, this is an opportunity that we fought to get ourselves into. We realize that Atlanta's a great team, playing at home, coming off a bye. They're very talented. It will be a test for us."
The Bucs played an outstanding game against Kansas City, particularly on offense, and it's likely that the bye week that preceded it helped Tampa Bay put forth its best effort. This week, the Bucs are on the opposite end of that equation, as Atlanta is coming off it's bye week and is sure to be rested and healthy. For instance, defensive tackle Rod Coleman, the key to the Falcons' run defense, is expected to play on Sunday after missing the past three games with a knee injury.
The Bucs have done what they could to stay up, using part of their bye week to look at film on the Falcons. The Chiefs were the main focus, but it never hurts to get a head start on Michael Vick, who seems to operate at a different speed than almost everyone else.
"We obviously took advantage of the bye week and took every opportunity we could to preview the next opponent," said Gruden. "That was productive, we won the game, and as we wound down in our preparations we peeked at Atlanta a little bit. They're a very good team.
"[Vick] is a great player; you better focus every bit of your attention on him. He's made some magical plays again this season. His won-lost record as a starting quarterback – forget about everything else – is very, very impressive. What he's done as a starter there speaks for itself. He's the centerpiece in that attack. They've got [Warrick] Dunn, they've got [T.J.] Duckett, they've got a great tight end, I respect their receivers, Alex Gibbs is doing a nice job with their line. They're a very good team."
The Buccaneers' injury concerns are a bit deeper since they played on Sunday. C John Wade was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday and DT Chidi Ahanotu was signed after starting DT Anthony McFarland went down with a shoulder injury against the Chiefs. McFarland was one of four Buccaneers to begin the week as 'questionable' on the official injury report.
The other three questionable Bucs are kicker Martin Gramatica, WR Joey Galloway and QB Chris Simms. Galloway and Simms practiced on Wednesday but McFarland was held out and Gramatica, suffering from a hip strain, won't try out his kicking leg until Thursday.
Ahanotu practiced as a Buc for the first time since the 2000 season. He returns for a second stint with the team after spending his first eight years in Tampa, the last two after being designated as the 'franchise player' under the free agency system.
"We need help there, obviously, with the injuries that we've had to [Damian] Gregory, [Ellis] Wyms and now McFarland," said Gruden. "We've got our franchise player back, so we're excited about that. He appears to be in good shape. He's an ex-Buccaneer; he understands our defense. We need a lift there right now."
As for help at Gramatica's spot, the team signed K Jay Taylor from the Orlando Predators to their practice squad. Taylor kicked at the beginning of Wednesday's practice. The team will get a better feel for Gramatica's condition later in the week.
"He's going to kick tomorrow," said Gruden of Gramatica. "We'll see where he is and we can update you as the week unfolds."
A Bigger Target
Back home in Hershey, Pennsylvania, as he tried to kick his way into college, Taylor rarely had the luxury of a set of college goal posts. His solution: Kick the football at telephone poles.
Not between the poles. At them.
See, by Taylor's appealingly obvious reasoning, if you could nail the two-foot target of a single post, you certainly could expect to find some of the 18-foot real estate between the posts in a college or NFL game.
The same held true, to a somewhat lesser extent, when Taylor joined the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League last season. See, that indoor sport, among its other innovations, forces kickers to aim between posts set just nine feet apart. Taylor gritted his teeth, aimed for the telephone pole in the middle and ended up as the league's Kicker of the Year.
So on Wednesday, when he walked out behind One Buccaneer Place for his first practice as a Buccaneer, Taylor took one look at the familiar 18-foot expanse between the goal posts and smiled.
Actually, the Bucs' far practice field has the skinnier set of posts, as a valuable practice tool. Seeing both on the same field of grass made Taylor even happier to be back in the NFL.
"It looks amazing," said the first-year kicker, who originally came into the NFL with the Dolphins in 2000. "They have the small goal post out there as well, and I look over at that and say, 'Wow.' You look at both of them and you realize how much nicer it is to kick at the outdoor posts."
Actually, Taylor felt good just seeing the lines on the practice field. While he comes directly from the Predators, he has previously had auditions of varying lengths with Miami, Seattle, Buffalo and Cleveland. His initial prospects with the NFL don't go beyond that practice field – he's currently just signed to the practice squad, which means he is not eligible to play on Sundays.
However, if the hip injury that kept Gramatica from practicing on Wednesday proves more severe than hoped, Taylor could get a late-week call to the active roster. The differing possibilities for the weekend won't change how Taylor approaches the week of practice.
"As a kicker – the job security, jumping around, someone gets hurt, there are no backups – you really never know what to expect," he said. "You've just got to go out and prepare like you're going to play. You take every practice as a game situation, do your best and leave it up to the coaches."
Taylor's head coach in Orlando was Jay Gruden, brother of Jon Gruden and an assistant on the Buccaneers' staff. Both coaches have seen Taylor in action plenty of times, as Jon attends Jay's games when possible. If the team has to call on its new kicker to play this Sunday, they'll do so with confidence.
"I did see Jay kick and was very impressed with him," said Jon Gruden. "That's why he's here. We obviously think he's a real good kicker. The kicker for the Falcons is an ex-Tampa Bay Storm kicker, so sometimes these guys come from different walks of life. Taylor is an all-Arena League kicker and if need be, we'll be ready to use him."
Spreading the Credit Around
Running back Michael Pittman was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, and Gruden said the award was well-deserved. He also quickly made this observation about the individual honor, the first of Pittman's seven-year career:
"I think Mike would be the first to tell you that he benefited from the help of a lot of guys on offense. But I'm proud for him. I'm really happy for him; he deserves it."
Bingo. Those were, indeed, the first words out of Pittman's mouth when he reacted to the award on Wednesday afternoon.
"I've really got to thank my offensive linemen and my tight ends, fullbacks and all the guys blocking for me because, honestly, without them, I wouldn't have gotten any yards and I wouldn't have gotten Offensive Player of the Week," said Pittman. "So they get the majority of the credit. I'm just happy; this is my first time ever getting NFC Offensive Player of the Week. It's a good feeling right now."
Outside of perhaps his star turn in Super Bowl XXXVII, Sunday's win over Kansas City was Pittman's finest game as a Buccaneer. He rushed for 128 yards on 15 carries, posted a team-record 78-yard run and scored three touchdowns, one more than he had scored in his first 36 regular-season games as a Buccaneer, combined.
It was also Pittman's second straight 100-yard game. He appears to be getting stronger and more deeply involved in the offense every week. In part, that's a result of the Bucs losing both Charlie Garner and Mike Alstott to injury; in part, it's an indication that the three-game suspension he was forced to serve at the start of the season have actually helped him handle the midseason grind a little better.
"I'm a little bit fresher than the average person out there on the football field," Pittman agreed. "I'm just out there trying to do what I can to help this team win. If it's catching the ball out of the backfield, if it's running the football, if it's blocking, I'm just going to do whatever Coach Gruden asks me to do. That's my role right now. We lost Charlie early in the season and Mike, he's not here right now. Coach Gruden is asking me to do a little more than I was supposed to do at the beginning of the season. I accept that role and I'm just out there having a good time."