The Bucs' secondary is familiar with Oakland QB Rich Gannon and has plenty of experience against big receivers
Rich Gannon is 38 years old, is coming off a season in which injuries limited him to seven games and has a new, highly-paid backup who threw for over 3,000 yards last year.
Those would seem to be all the ingredients needed to brew up a quarterback controversy in Oakland. However, Gannon, himself less than two years from the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, has quashed such talk the best way any passer can. He's left no doubt who's in charge on the field.
Through two games, Gannon has completed nearly 61% of his passes, thrown three touchdown passes, compiled a passer rating of 88.9 and led Oakland to the league's seventh-ranked passing attack. The Raiders are tied for the AFC West lead and Gannon is showing signs of returning to his 4,700-yard, 26-touchdown form of 2002.
Which means the Tampa Bay Buccaneer defense, which is concurrently showing signs of returning to its top-ranked form of 2002, will get another crack at Gannon 20 months after their last meeting, in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Buccaneers intercepted Gannon a Super Bowl-record five times in that contest, returning three of them for touchdowns in a 48-21 victory. It was, at least on that afternoon, a validation of the time-worn dictum, 'Defense wins championships,' as the Bucs prevailed in the first-ever Super Bowl matchup between the league's top-ranked offense and defense.
The Bucs played Gannon perfectly on that day, particularly in the first half. That did not mean, however, that they had any less respect for what the long-time veteran could do. And according to Buc corner Brian Kelly, Gannon still has all the same tools.
"Definitely there are similarities there," said Kelly of Gannon today and circa-2002. "He's great with the pump-fakes. He's great with trying to get guys rocking this way, coming back this way, reads the field well, similar to the guy last week. So, we can take some of those things because we watched him out on the field."
The Bucs now have one of Gannon's former Raider targets, Hall-of-Fame bound receiver Tim Brown, and another future Cooperstown resident, Jerry Rice, has just two catches for 22 yards. But Oakland has racked up 250 passing yards per game so far with Gannon throwing to such up-and-coming targets as Jerry Porter, Ronald Curry and tight end Doug Jolley.
Those receivers have one thing in common: They're big. Porter, who leads the team with seven receptions, stands 6-2, 220; Curry, whose 101 yards on six grabs is a team high, has the exact same vitals. Jolley can get downfield quickly despite standing in at 6-4, 250.
Of course, it's the rare NFL team that doesn't come at you with big receivers these days. Kelly and the Bucs just finished battling Seattle big man Koren Robinson and Washington's Rod Gardner. It's almost a given that a team's cornerbacks will be facing a size mismatch every Sunday.
"It doesn't change [what you do] much," said Kelly of the prospect of covering big receivers. "You might see different balls that you wouldn't see with smaller players. They might try to throw the ball up a little bit. We've seen these guys before. If you look around the league that's what the league is right now. You see that week in and week out."
Tampa Bay's pass defense has been stopping such players for the better part of a decade, ever since adopting the system in 1996 that is still being run by Monte Kiffin today. The Bucs have finished in the league's top 10 in pass defense seven of the past eight years and is currently ranked second after two weeks of this campaign. Matt Hasselbeck and the very dangerous Seattle air assault managed just 124 net passing yards last week.
Still, Gannon and his receivers are a serious threat, and the Bucs know it. They only hope to be half as smothering as they were 20 months ago in San Diego.
With the exception of wide receiver Joey Galloway, who is in the early stages of recovery from a groin injury that could cost him six weeks, there are few injury concerns for the Buccaneers as they prepare for the Raiders.
The only other player to appear on the Bucs' official injury report this week is tight end Dave Moore, the team's long-snapper, and Moore is listed as probable with a strained elbow. It is Moore's right, or snapping, elbow that was bothering him, but Head Coach Jon Gruden said on Thursday that the injury is not a concern.
Moore is expected to play and handle the long-snapping duties without problem.
The Raiders' injury report hasn't changed since it was first posted on Wednesday either, but it is a little more lengthy than the Bucs' list. There are four players on the report, all of them listed as questionable or worse. However, the only starter in the group is inside linebacker Napoleon Harris, who missed most of the preseason and both regular season games so far with a knee injury. His designation as questionable – which officially means the player has a 50% chance of playing in the game – actually represents an upgrade over his previous status.
The other players on Oakland's list are linebacker Sam Williams (doubtful, shoulder), running back Justin Fargas (questionable, toe) and tight end Roland Williams (questionable, knee). While Fargas isn't listed as a starter, he is expected to be a significant weapon in Oakland's attack this year. So far, Fargas has seven carries for 17 yards and two receptions for 19 yards.
Each team will file one more injury report update on Friday, if necessary.
Cornerback Ronde Barber will play in his 100th NFL game on Sunday, all of them as a Buccaneer.
Barber, a third-round pick in 1997 out of Virginia, got off to a slow start in the league when he played in only one regular-season game in his rookie campaign. However, Barber won the team's nickel back job in time for the playoffs that year and emerged as a big-play maker the following season. He has been making big plays ever since, earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2001 after tying for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions and scoring a total of six defensive and special teams touchdowns. Barber, who has the Bucs' only touchdown so far this year on a nine-yard fumble return against Washington, is tied with linebacker Derrick Brooks for the most touchdowns by a defensive player in franchise history.
Brooks and Barber are also tied on the franchise's all-time interception list, with 20 apiece to share the number-five spot. Both are in pursuit of safety John Lynch, who finished his Buc career with 23 picks.