DT Anthony McFarland, who sacked QB Daunte Culpepper on Sunday, knows the Bucs have to stop the run first
In the start of J.P. Losman's career, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese sees the best of what Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer experienced. In Losman's skill set, scouts see a bit of Jake Plummer's elusiveness and Byron Leftwich's arm strength. In his bushy locks, some female fans might see a bit of David Carr.
The Buccaneers defense? Well, they might see Dave Ragone or Mike McMahon. Or Randy Fasani, Mark Redman, Henry Burris, Joey Harrington, Quincy Carter or Cade McNown. Those are some of the rookie, young and/or just inexperienced quarterbacks who have crashed and burned against the Bucs' ruthless defense in recent years. Losman will be making only his second NFL regular-season start, and his first on the road, when his Buffalo Bills visit the Buccaneers on Sunday.
To be fair, none of the quarterbacks in the above paragraph, with the exception of McNown, had Losman's first-round pedigree and none, except perhaps Harrington, has really established himself since meeting the Buccaneers. Also, Griese's points are valid and important – Losman had a year to develop behind Drew Bledsoe before taking over, as Palmer did in Cincinnati, and he is backed by a strong running game and a very good defense.
"Having the opportunity to sit for a year is big, I think, for a young quarterback," said Griese, who learned at John Elway's knee in Denver in 1998 (winning a Super Bowl ring in the process) before taking over in 1999 and making the Pro Bowl in 2000. "To have the opportunity to watch the speed of the game from the sideline as a rookie is a big plus. The second year, getting out there, you have to prove yourself every week. You don't get any respect from defensive coordinators until you show that you can handle blitzes, you show you can handle fronts and coverages and all those types of things, you can handle managing the game and in the fourth quarter making the decisions to help the team win. From his standpoint, it is helping him that he's had the opportunity the first year rather than coming in like an Eli Manning and playing the first year."
When Griese did get into the Denver backfield, he shared it with Terrell Davis, one of the greatest runners in NFL history. Losman could be getting in on the ground floor of another great career as he hands off repeatedly to running back Willis McGahee.
"I think he has a great running game that allows him to do [make good decisions], much like Ben Roethlisberger did last year," said Griese. "That helps more than you could know."
Still, the Bucs are going to do everything they can to take Losman out of his comfort zone, and that's something they've succeeded at against young quarterbacks in the past. If the front seven can once again control the running game, as they did last Sunday in holding Minnesota to 33 rushing yards, they'll be able to target the inexperienced passer more directly.
"Anytime we can get a team down and force them to throw the ball, I think our pass rush is one of the best in the league, if not the best," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "That helps us out. But definitely the first priority is stopping the run."
That's definitely the Bucs' defensive blueprint, as it pretty much always is, no matter who's taking the snaps from center. It just may work a little bit better against a rookie who has yet to see a defense like the one Tampa Bay plays when things are going right.
"Buffalo is a good team, we're going to go out here and try and stop the run, get to Losman a little bit and go from there," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who had a sack of Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper in the opener.
Losman handled himself well in his first start, last Sunday against Houston, and is reportedly a very confident player. In beating the Texans 22-7, Losman completed 17 of 28 passes for 170 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He took only one sack and scrambled six times for 31 yards. That appears to be a more serious package in a rookie passer than some of the others the Bucs have drawn in recent years. The same might be said of the rest of the offense around Losman.
"He's surrounded by great skill," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Between Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, they have two outstanding receivers, and Josh Reed is a fine player in his own right. They have a balanced attack. McGahee's one of the hotter rushers in football in the last eight or 10 weeks, and this guy's a very athletic guy. [Losman] is a number-one draft pick, he's in his second year in the system and clearly he's a very good prospect."
Buc fans at Raymond James Stadium could help tilt the balance back to the Buccaneers' defense. Hopefully, the crowd noise will make it difficult for Losman to remain as efficient as he was last week. Of course, Buccaneer players know it is ultimately up to them to get the crowd noise elevated in the first place.
"Our fans are usually loud when the defense is on the field," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "The first home game…hopefully our fans will come revved up. A young quarterback and an offense playing in our home is something you have to account for."
Jones, Pittman on Return Short List
Gruden announced after practice on Wednesday that Torrie Cox would not play in Sunday's game against Buffalo. Since Cox is the team's primary kickoff return man, that leaves the team searching for a new option in practice this week.
Apparently, wide receiver Mark Jones and Michael Pittman are the two leading candidates.
Though Pittman hasn't returned a kickoff during his four-plus seasons with the Buccaneers and Jones did it only twice for the New York Giants in his rookie season last fall, neither is an untested option.
Pittman handled the job on occasion for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998-2001. Most recently, he returned six kickoffs for 161 yards in 2001, averaging a strong 26.8 yards per runback. In all, he has returned 12 kickoffs for 276 yards and a 23.0-yard average. In the season opener last Sunday in Minnesota, Pittman was the lead blocker lined up right in front of Cox on kickoff returns.
"He's worked on that throughout his career, really," said Gruden. "Once again, when certain things happen you have to have contingency plans in place. We'll work on our contingency plan throughout this week and we'll find somebody who gives us a chance to hopefully return one for a touchdown."
Jones was a seventh-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2004. The team actually traded up in the round, sending FB Darian Barnes to Dallas, in order to make sure they would get the former Tennessee standout. As a Volunteer, Jones did it all, including returning kicks, playing receiver and lining up at safety. One of his collegiate highlights was an 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 2002.
Jones returned to the Bucs as a waiver claim last week and was immediately handed the punt return job. He could end up doing all the returns against Buffalo.
"He's done primarily punt returns, but if pressed into service we'll trust that he'll do the job if he's the guy we choose to go with," said Gruden.
Playing with Heart
During training camp, when the insular, intense environment adds gravity to every motivational speech, Gruden stressed the concept of accountability to his team over and over again. He wanted each player to feel it was critical to be accountable to each of his teammates, for each player to learn and perform his specific job and work tirelessly for the betterment of the team.
After Sunday's season opener in Minnesota, a rousing 24-13 win over a likely playoff contender, Gruden can feel confident that his message sunk in. The effort on the Metrodome turf was outstanding for the game's full 60 minutes, and that's a major part of players being accountable to one another.
"I'll say this: We've got a team that competes," said Gruden. "This team competes greatly. I'm really proud of that. They left it all on the football field [Sunday]. There were a lot of people who were exhausted. That was very impressive. It means a lot to them. We have talent, we have some young people emerging and we still have a lot of swagger on this team, which I'm really excited about too."