Jeff Garcia will start at quarterback for the first time since opening day
Jeff Garcia will be running the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense on Sunday against the arch-rival Carolina Panthers. It's Garcia's first start since the season opener in New Orleans but the Bucs expect it to be more reminiscent of the Pro Bowl passer's 2007 season.
"We've seen him get progressively better on the practice field," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who went to Brian Griese under center when Garcia wasn't himself to open the season. "He's a creative playmaker between the tackles, and we're seeing that once again. There's quickness and velocity on his throws. You see movement, anticipation, velocity. And when he's running, there's that sudden change of direction. He can make one guy miss and make a throw downfield, or make two guys miss and run for a first down."
Griese replaced Garcia after that Week One loss at New Orleans and started the next four games, helping the Bucs go 3-1 in that span. However, a hit by blitzing cornerback Champ Bailey knocked Griese out of last Sunday's game at Denver and left the veteran passer with a sore right elbow. Griese didn't throw at all in the week leading up to Sunday's game against Carolina, so Garcia was the obvious starter.
A free agent signee in the spring of 2007, Garcia quickly won the starting job in his first season in Tampa and helped the Buccaneers grab the '07 NFC South title. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after the season and was certainly expected to produce similar results as the starter in 2008. However, a series of injuries and the lengthy layoff they caused during the summer kept Garcia from being at top form when the season began.
Hard work over the last month may have solved that issue. Garcia will attempt to prove that true today, but it will be a tall task against the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. The Panthers, who have won five straight games at Raymond James Stadium, are a tough team for which to prepare.
"Carolina has seven different defensive fronts," said Gruden. "We had a lot to learn in practice this week. To document every one of Carolina's pressures would take three days and a lot of ink pens. We have to pick up these blitzers when they come, because these are guys who finish the play. If you don't block Jon Beason or Chris Harris, they'll knock your face off. And if you make a mistake against Julius Peppers, it's going to be a short offensive series."
The Panthers also have the league's 14th-ranked offense but will be playing today without two of their five offensive line starters. Both rookie right tackle Jeff Otah and second-year man Ryan Kalil, a pair of first-round draft picks, have ankle injuries that will prevent them from playing. On the right edge, sixth-year veteran Jeremy Bridges will replace Otah for the second straight week, and former starter Geoff Hangartner will take over for Kalil in the middle.
The Buccaneers have three other changes on offense besides the promotion of Garcia, though they are the same moves the team has made in the last few weeks. With B.J. Askew once again out due to a hamstring injury, Byron Storer will start at fullback. WR Joey Galloway will miss his fourth game in a row, meaning Antonio Bryant will move from flanker to split end and Michael Clayton will get the start at flanker.
In addition to Griese, Askew and Galloway, the Buccaneers have deactivated the following five players: LB Matt McCoy, T Anthony Davis, T James Lee, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson.
Conspicuously not on that list is linebacker Barrett Ruud, who practiced sparingly this past week after suffering a knee injury in Denver last weekend. Ruud will start at middle linebacker, meaning the Bucs' starting 11 on that side of the ball is intact for the sixth straight week. Fellow LB Derrick Brooks continues to play through a hamstring ailment that has limited his time on the playing field, too.
The Panthers have declared the following eight inactives: Kalil, Otah, WR D.J. Hackett, S Quinton Teal, LB James Anderson, WR Kenneth Moore, DT Darwin Walker and designated third quarterback Matt Moore. Hackett and Teal were also on Carolina's injury report this week.
The Buccaneers and Panthers will begin their battle for first in the NFC South at 1:00 p.m. ET. You'll find the NFL.com Game Center, complete with live play-by-play and statistical updates, at this location once the game has begun. On the Buccaneers.com home page, we'll post a review of all the action at halftime and an extensive game story, with links for stats, photos, scoring information and more, shortly after the final whistle.