DT Ellis Wyms and the Buccaneers hope to get back on their feet by knocking Mark Brunell and the Redskins off theirs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers players will be watching a lot of videotape of the Washington Redskins this week, breaking down Washington's recent games against the Giants and Eagles for scouting purposes. Head Coach Jon Gruden thinks his players could find an additional message within the tapes of those two games.
If Buccaneer players want to know how to respond to their discouraging 34-14 loss to division-rival Carolina on Sunday, they need look no further than the Redskin tapes in front of them. Washington's promising season hit a speed-bump with a lopsided 36-0 loss in New York on October 30, but the Redskins rebounded impressively last Sunday with a 17-10 win over another division rival, Philadelphia.
The end result is a 5-3 record, one game back of the NFC East-leading Giants. The Bucs are in the exact same position in the South (though they trail two teams, Atlanta and Carolina) but they're lacking the momentum that the Redskins can now claim after their bounce-back win on Sunday.
"They're 5-3 and that's a credit to Washington," said Gruden. "They had a difficult loss on the road to New York. They were beaten handily, 36-0 [but] they got rejuvenated, played extremely well [Sunday] night, highly energetic. They got a convincing win against a quality opponent. Hopefully, we can learn from that and do that ourselves."
It won't be easy, as the Buccaneers' mean season has begun. In addition to six intra-division games over the span of nine weeks, Tampa Bay also draws such difficult opponents as Washington, New England and Chicago, all teams in first place or close to it. Carolina played as well as any Buccaneer opponent has this year, but there will be little drop-off to the Redskins, who boast the league's 11th-ranked offense and seventh-ranked defense. They even have their own answer to the Panthers' diminutive, speedy and ultra-productive receiver, Steve Smith. Santana Moss is the newest Smurf for Washington, and the small but explosive receiver is among the league's leaders in receptions and yards.
Moss' big season in Washington is also the product of a rejuvenated Mark Brunell. The 13th-year quarterback is having his best season since 2002, with a 90.3 passer rating and an impressive 12-3 touchdown-interception ratio. The veteran lefty is still a dangerous scrambler, as well, and he has made few mistakes this season. With a strong running game led by former Bronco Clinton Portis, the Redskins have a very balanced attack that proved its shutout loss in New York to be a fluke.
On defense, the Redskins are yet another aggressive, unpredictable and blitz-happy group for the Bucs' offense to contend with. They've only come up with four interceptions so far, but they've sacked opposing quarterbacks 22 times and allowed just 170 passing yards per game, just nine more than the Bucs' own stellar pass defense.
"They're an impressive team," said Gruden. "They have a veteran quarterback, explosive wide receiver and a great running back in [Clinton] Portis. This team will blitz you from all over the place. They don't care what package they do it from. So, it will be a challenge for us, certainly."
As usual, though, the Buccaneers believe the key to Sunday's game is not the strength of their opponent but their own readiness. The Panthers were clearly the better team on the field this past Sunday, but that was due in large part, the Bucs believe, to their own inability to play up to their standards. Tampa Bay has actually struggled for several weeks, dropping two in a row and three of its last four after a 4-0 start. The team has lost its grip on first place in the South, as well as the confidence of many outside analysts. Internally, however, the team's confidence remains strong.
Gruden has taken the pulse of his team since Sunday's defeat and believes it is capable of bouncing back the way Washington did against Philadelphia.
"I met with several of the players yesterday and early [Monday] morning," said Gruden. "We've got a young football team, particularly on offense. I worry a little bit about some of these guys getting a little bit freaked out with the length of the season, the mental grind, the physical grind that they go through, but in some ways, this is a real positive for our football team, for us to be tested in this way. We physically got beaten by a quality football team and you can dwell on the negatives and you can also do something about it and roll your fist up and play a hell of a lot better this coming Sunday, which is what we're looking forward to seeing in our football team."
The Bucs' two-game skid coincides with the loss of quarterback Brian Griese and the elevation of young Chris Simms to the starting lineup. That connection is, of course, too simplistic; as always, the starting quarterback will get too much blame for losses and too much credit for victories. Simms actually played a strong first half against Carolina, but a big deficit and a few key mistakes after halftime allowed the Panthers' hungry defense to tee off on him for the final two quarters. Simms showed obvious improvement from his first start of the season to his second, and Gruden believes that trend can continue. Overall, however, the Bucs have to play better on offense, particularly when it comes to the running game, which has produced just 87 yards over the past two weeks.
"We've got to rally around our young quarterback," said Gruden. "We've got to push some of these players to play a little bit better. We've got to coach harder. We've got to continue to work. We're 5-3. We're done with half the season and we've had some ugly moments. I've also had some awesome things happen here. I do like this team. They practice hard, they prepare hard and they will compete. Hopefully, we can put together a 60-minute show that's a reverse of what we did yesterday."
That's exactly what Washington did last weekend. Now the Bucs hope to follow suit.