When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed the Indianapolis Colts to Raymond James Stadium on October 3 of this year, it marked the first time in just under three years that the Buccaneers had been part of a prime-time, nationally-televised game. Now, less than three months later, Tampa Bay is going to run out under the lights once again.
The Buccaneers will try to run their prime-time record to 2-0 this Saturday with their Week 15 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, which will be shown on the NFL Network as a special edition of what is usually T Thursday Night Football. In Week Four, Tampa Bay defeated Indianapolis, 24-17, in the first Monday Night Football Game played at its stadium since 2003.
That win pushed the Bucs record to 3-1 during the first month of play and increased the expectations that the team was going to use its 10-6 season in 2010 as a springboard back to the playoffs in 2011. Unfortunately, the season has not gone as expected since, and Tampa Bay will take a 4-9 record into their game with the Cowboys. They have the opportunity to play spoiler, of course, as Dallas is right in the thick of the NFC and NFC East races with their 7-6 record, but one shouldn't underestimate the motivational force of those lights being turned on.
"It helps when it's the Dallas Cowboys," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's a night game. You've got all the atmosphere and stuff that you're looking forward to having to get those guys out there and playing underneath the lights. It's always a bunch of fun, always a time to play fast."
Earlier this week, left tackle Donald Penn said the perfect way to put his less-than-satisfactory performance in Jacksonville behind him was to go up against the NFL's premier sack artist, DeMarcus Ware, this Saturday. In a similar vein, the return to prime time, against a foe that desperately needs a win, is an opportunity for the entire Bucs team to get its season back on track.
"It's tough right now," said Penn. "We want to get that taste out of our mouths and we want to put on a show for the fans. You don't want to get embarrassed on national TV. That's when you've got to play your best. You've got a lot of people watching and there will be a lot of media at the game. It's Dallas, and we haven't been successful against them since I've been here so it will good to go out there and try to get a W."
Added rookie linebacker Mason Foster, who had seven tackles and a quarterback pressure in his first prime time NFL game back in October: "Playing on a national stage, we've got a chance to show that we are getting better and we can compete and we can play. It's an opportunity to just get out there and have fun."
The Bucs are headed back to Saturday night football, specifically, for the first time in a decade. They last played a prime-time nationally-televised game on Saturday back in 2001, as they took down the defending-champion Baltimore Ravens, 22-10 in Week 15. Overall, the Bucs are 17-20 in prime time games, including Monday night, Sunday night and Thursday night contests, dating back to 1980. Clearly, the prime-time lights have been good to the Bucs in the past. The franchise is 10-8 all-time on the Monday Night series (including that Saturday Baltimore game in 2001, which was a special edition of MNF), and 1-1 in Thursday night games. This weekend will give the team a chance not only to build on those numbers but to make a statement about the immediate future of the ballclub.
"It's a big prime-time game against Tony Romo and the Cowboys," said defensive end Michael Bennett. "It's a game to show what the Bucs can do and it's going to be a good platform for us to start the next season."
Perhaps lost a little bit amid the Cowboys' up-and-down season – a 3-4 start followed by a four-game winning streak and now two consecutive heartbreaking losses – is the fact that quarterback Tony Romo is putting together yet another superb season.
Throwing for roughly 275 yards per game, Romo has completed 65% of his throws and tossed 26 touchdown passes versus just nine interceptions. His 100.6 passer rating isn't quite in Aaron Rodgers' stratosphere – who's is? – but it does make him one of only four passers still in triple digits this far into the season. The others are Rodgers (123.3), Tom Brady (106.0) and Drew Brees (105.9) and Buccaneers coaches recently compared Romo to two of those three prolific passers.
"[I see] Aaron Rodgers," said Morris of Romo. "He's got all the ability in the world. I said Aaron because that's one of the more recent great quarterbacks that we've played against, but I see all of those great quarterback qualities that you look for. Obviously, being the quarterback, no different than our own, you get all the credit when you win, you get all of the criticism when you lose, so when you talk about playing in a place like Dallas or playing the quarterback position, that's where the most heat comes. The head coach and the quarterback usually get the most and that's just what goes on in this league, but Romo, he's a really good football player and he find receivers. He keeps plays alive. He's a great improviser. He's great within this system. He puts the ball where it's supposed to be. He's deadly accurate. He's got all of the things that you want in a quarterback."
The Buccaneers have already played Rodgers and Brees (twice) this season, and they fared reasonably well against both, though it's a are day when the Packers or Saints don't at least pile up the passing yardage. That work against Brees, in particular, might be useful to the Bucs on Saturday as he and Romo are both adept at misleading defensive backs with the slightest of movements.
"[Romo] is a very, very good quarterback," said Buccaneers Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "He is one of the best. We always say Drew Brees is good with his eyes at moving defenders, which he is. Tony Romo is excellent at moving his shoulders. [He] moves his head [and] takes his hand off the football and actually can fully move a whole defense and then reload and still have enough energy behind his arm to make the throw. So that is something we will have to deal with all game."
Romo's 100.6 rating, if maintained, would be his career high for a single season, but it's not far out of line from his previous numbers. Since he took over as the Cowboys' starter in 2006, Romo has posted a passer rating between 91.4 and 97.6 every year, and his 2011 performance has nudged his career mark up to 96.4. This is also the fourth time in the last five years that he has thrown at least 26 touchdown passes; he missed the mark in 2010 when injuries limited him to six starts. Even his interceptions have dropped, as he threw 46 picks in 39 starts from 2006-08 but just 25 in 35 starts since.
If there is a critical perception of Romo, it's that his career has been dotted by key errors at a few very inopportune times. True or not, he hasn't given his opponents too many chances to take the ball away this season – he is sixth in the NFL in lowest interception percentage and he's lost just one fumble this year. The Bucs hope to make those numbers look at least a little worse by the end of Saturday night.
"Yes that is what we are always hoping for," said Lake. "We are always hoping to try to score to get the ball back for the offense [and] get the ball back to [Josh Freeman]. Romo is playing really good right now. I hope he throws it up to us, but the tape I am watching right now he is being pretty efficient with the football. So we have to disguise probably more than we have done in the past and play tight coverage like we have been doing for most of the year and we will see what happens."
Talib Rests, Bennett Returns
Aqib Talib rested his sore hamstring on Thursday, sitting out the 90-minute review practice the Bucs usually holds on Friday. Given that he participated fully in the extra-long practices Morris conducted on both Tuesday and Wednesday, however, it was definitely a successful week for Tampa Bay's playmaking left cornerback.
Talib injured his hamstring about five plays into the Bucs' Week 13 game against Carolina and wasn't even a consideration to play the next Sunday in Jacksonville. He clearly made serious progress over that inactive weekend, however, as he now appears to be on track to return against the Cowboys on Saturday. Holding Talib out on Thursday was just Morris' way of increasing the odds that he makes it to game day.
The Bucs don't have to put out an injury report that includes game-status designations until Friday. Assuming that Talib is cleared to play, however, there's a good bet he'll spend much of the day trying to keep explosive Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in check.
"I had two hard days of work out there, got them going, got them running," said Morris of the Tuesday/Wednesday practice pace. "He looked really good and I didn't want to push the envelope too much. We'll give him a little bit of rest, give him two days of rest, then he'll go back to the game and get ready to go against a premier receiver in this league, or [a receiver that's] about to become one if he's not already know as one. That's a pretty good player that he's going to match up against his weekend."
The Bucs' defensive line got a few reinforcements on Thursday, as Bennett came back to full participation after sitting out on Wednesday with a toe injury and defensive tackle Brian Price got in some limited action despite his injured ankle.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth continued to sit out with his knee injury, but that made Bennett's return particularly helpful. While Bennett has started 10 games this season at left end, he's capable of taking snaps at under tackle as well, as he did to some extent last Sunday in Jacksonville. The Buccaneers recently promoted rookie Da'Quan Bowers to the starting left end spot, which actually frees Bennett to help the defense in multiple ways, as he can fill in at essentially any spot on the line.
The Bucs' injury report has actually stretched to nine players this week, as it also includes safety Larry Asante (hamstring), wide receiver Arrelious Benn (concussion), quarterback Josh Freeman (shoulder), linebacker Adam Hayward (foot) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (knee). Of those additional five, only Benn and Stroughter did not practice on Thursday.
Benn sustained his injury in Jacksonville on Sunday. Morris reiterated on Thursday that it is considered a mild concussion but that does not mean he will definitely return to action on Saturday against Dallas.
"He felt great today," said Morris. "It's just going to be taking a bunch of precautions with that. It's been a big emphasis with the league. It's been a big emphasis with us. Our doctors do a great job of handling it. Todd [Toriscelli], the trainer, does a great job of executing all of the tests that he has to do with everybody and he keeps me informed. For me, I'm going to listen to Todd and all of those types of guys on when we get guys back out there."