Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Showdown

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Baltimore Ravens meet Sunday in a battle of two of the NFL’s stingiest defenses

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The last time these two great defenses met, Bucs LB Derrick Brooks had the biggest play, a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown

Points will be at a premium Sunday at Raymond James Stadium when two of the NFL's traditionally toughest defenses square off. In a game that could feature more three-and-outs than red zone visits if those two proud defenses get there way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their number-one ranked defense from a year ago will trade shots with the Baltimore Ravens, whose defense was fifth best last season.

"The Baltimore Ravens are coming in here with one of the stingiest run defenses in football," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Throw in Trevor Pryce and the big nose guard [Haloti Ngata] they drafted in the first round, that will be challenging indeed, with Ray Lewis making his comeback."

On the other hand, both teams enter the game with high hopes for their respective offenses, and Sunday's contest will be an immediate test for each of those units.

Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms has a year of seasoning as a starter, as does 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams. Wide receiver Michael Clayton is healthy and looking to regain his form of two seasons ago when he set team rookie records with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. If he can do so, opposing defenses won't be as ready to roll coverage over the top of fellow wideout and perennial deep threat Joey Galloway, who is coming off a career-best year. The tight end position is also a team strength, with second-year man Alex Smith expected to build on his 41-catch rookie year. Fellow tight ends Anthony Becht and newly acquired Doug Jolley will contribute to the running and passing games as well.

For the Ravens, their offensive expectations rest on a revamped passing game that figures to be more potent than at any other time in Head Coach Brian Billick's tenure, thanks to quarterback Steve McNair. McNair, who was acquired in a trade this offseason, should help wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton as well as tight end Todd Heap reach their full potential this season and thereby balance the team's power running game, led by Jamal Lewis and longtime Denver Bronco Mike Anderson.

"They have a new quarterback who's going to change a lot of things," Gruden said. "I think McNair is going to change matters tremendously.

"Heap's a great tight end. He's one of the premier tight ends in football. He can run and catch. He's a good blocker. They've got some guys surrounding him. I think Clayton and Derrick Mason are very good as well. They've got a huge back who slams it inside, and McNair can create plays a lot of different ways. This is as talented a team as you'll see all season, and it will be a great challenge for us."

Still, this game, on paper at least, will be about defense, and the names of the defensive players who will be patrolling the field Sunday read like a who's who of NFL stars: Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis, Simeon Rice, Terrell Suggs, Ronde Barber, Samari Rolle, Shelton Quarles, Ed Reed. These are men who can bring any offensive drive to a thundering halt. And that's exactly what they did last season, nearly mirroring each other's performance.

In 2005, the Ravens allowed 18.7 points per game while the Bucs only allowed 17.1 points per game. The Ravens allowed 99.4 rushing yards per game, and the Bucs held their opponents to 94.7 yards. Opposing offenses only passed for 185.2 yards per game against the Ravens and slightly less (183.1) against the Bucs. Similar numbers are again expected as both defenses remain intact this season and are healthy.

"Obviously, they're a very difficult opponent to open up with," Gruden said. "They're a very unorthodox defensive scheme. They're talented and they have a unique scheme.

"They do a great job. You watch them against the Steelers, you watch them against anybody, they do a hell of a job playing team defense. They've got two great corners in Rolle and [Chris] McAlister. I think Ed Reed is as good as there is at safety. You throw in Trevor Pryce to go with the guys we've already talked about, and we haven't even brought up Ray Lewis, for crying out loud. They've got a lot of very good players, and they have a real diverse scheme, and they're not afraid to call it either. They're not going to shy away from calling anything."

The Buccaneers defense will present its fair share of problems for the Ravens offense as well, most notably the push created by a quick yet physical front four that features defensive ends Rice and Greg Spires and tackles Chris Hovan and Anthony McFarland. Rice will be engaged in an epic battle with nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden. The matchup should be fun to watch as it pits arguably two of the best players in the game today at their respective positions. While much of the attention will be focused on Rice, who has never had less than double-digit sack totals in his career as a Buccaneer, his fellow defensive linemen should have opportunities to collapse the pocket and penetrate the backfield.

The Bucs hope to take the air out of McNair, limit Lewis and help win the field position battle – three things that could prove essential to securing a Buccaneers victory this first weekend of the NFL season.

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