The Bucs expect it to take one of their best defensive efforts to stifle the Redskins on Saturday
Quick – name the only team in the NFC playoff field that is ranked in the top 11 in both offense and defense.
Did you say the Washington Redskins? Then you've been paying attention over the last five weeks, as a team that was treading water in late November suddenly put it all together for the best stretch run in the NFL. Washington comes in having won five in a row, outscoring its opponents 142-69 in that span. The Redskins are getting it done on both sides of the ball and the worst part is – at least for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are in the middle of preparations for Saturday's playoff game against Washington – they're doing it every way imaginable.
"They never stay the same," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That's one of the great things that they do. Defensively, they mix it up as well as anybody in football. Offensively, Coach [Joe] Gibbs and his offensive staff do a great job of changing looks on a weekly basis. But you still see a lot of Santana Moss, a lot of Clinton Portis, [Mark] Brunell's making a lot of plays. They're very balanced on offense and defensively they're as multiple as anyone we'll see."
The Bucs have already had a close-up look at Washington's strengths this year, of course. The Redskins came to Tampa on November 13 and went home with the most narrow of losses, a 36-35 decision that turned on an extremely gutsy two-point conversion call by Gruden. After that game, the Redskins lost a three-point game on the road at Oakland and dropped an overtime decision to the San Diego Chargers before embarking on their current winning streak, the longest in the NFL heading into the playoffs.
In other words, they've been playing very good football for the last two months, and that includes their last visit to Raymond James Stadium. Washington rang up 389 yards in that contest, second-most against the Bucs' top-ranked defense all year, and Portis led a 185-yard rushing day. Tampa Bay's defense did manage three takeaways, which helped balance a kickoff return for a touchdown by Ladell Betts and a fumble recovery that set up another Washington TD. That kept the game close and allowed the Bucs to win it in the final minute.
"They did a nice job mixing personnel groupings, from three-tight ends to two-tight ends," said Gruden of the last meeting. "They spread the field. Portis hurt us. He's a great back, and with that comes the sting of the play-action pass. Obviously, the more committed you are to stop the run, the better things get for Santana Moss. So they've got some really explosive playmakers. I think they're very talented on the offensive line with [Jon] Jansen and [Chris] Samuels. And Brunell's a heady, play-making quarterback; he's had a good season, and he's been great at times. Chris Cooley, another young tight end, has really come in as a jack-of-all-trades who can make a lot of plays for them."
If anything, those varied offensive elements have been even more dependable since their big day in Tampa, and the Redskins finished 11th in the NFL in total offense at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the defense rose to ninth over the last five weeks on a steady stream of turnovers caused by its multiple pressure packages.
"We saw they're running game has picked up the last few weeks, watching a little tape," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "They're just playing with confidence right now, making a lot of big plays on defense. If you can run the ball and get turnovers, you're a tough team to beat. That's what they've been doing in the fourth quarter of the season."
Every team wants to be running the ball well when it hits the playoffs, and it's no coincidence that the 12-team postseason field includes so many premier backs, from Portis to Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander to Tiki Barber. And if running the ball doesn't get you over the top, turnovers certainly will. Washington finished just plus-one in turnover ratio this year, but the defense has been hot of late and the Bucs know they have to stay out of the dangerous situations the Washington pass-rushers will try to create. They did that in November, allowing no sacks of QB Chris Simms, and they'll need to do it again on Sunday.
"Washington was blitzing, getting sacks and causing pressure," said Brooks. "Our offensive line stepped up to the challenge. I don't think Chris got sacked that day, so they did a good job protecting. Obviously, we're going to need more of the same this week."
In effect, the Bucs need to do more of everything that got them to 11-5 and the top of the NFC South. Now is not a time for innovation, says Brooks. It is a time to build on your strength and stay the course.
"We know what we need to do to keep playing, and it's the same things we've been doing all year," said Brooks. "It's not complicated. It's always about us and not them. We just have to play our game and we'll get what we deserve."