FB Mike Alstott has recovered quickly from an MCL sprain in his right knee and should start on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished their week of practice just after noon on Friday, and a few minutes later Head Coach Jon Gruden assessed his probable lineups heading into the weekend and Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
For once, it's the offense that appears to be intact while the defense is dipping into its reserves.
Through the first eight games of the 2004 season, the Buccaneers started the same 11 defensive players (technically, nickel back Mario Edwards started two games in place of strongside linebacker Ian Gold, but that was simply a function of the opposing offense's first-play personnel). Last week, however, Anthony McFarland sat out due to a triceps injury. Now, McFarland has had surgery to correct that ailment and is finished for the year, while starting free safety Jermaine Phillips is out due to a forearm fracture.
John Howell will start in Phillips's place. Chidi Ahanotu could get the start on the interior line again, but the Bucs will rotate their defensive tackles liberally throughout the game.
Tampa Bay's offense has already used many substitutes. Four different players have started at split end. Three have opened games at quarterback. There have been two left tackles, two centers, two flankers, two running backs and two fullbacks. The only constant in the Bucs' starting offense has been change, almost all of it due to injury.
This week, however, the end-week injury information is encouraging. Starting quarterback Brian Griese appears ready to start despite battling a sore right (throwing) shoulder. And fullback Mike Alstott, who missed the last two games due to a knee sprain, should be back in the lineup.
"[Griese] did pretty good today," said Gruden. "He's still a little bit sore but he did practice and threw the ball well.
[Alstott] has looked good on the practice field. We'll see how the game goes, but he'll start at fullback and hopefully he feels very good and can become a big part of this game."
Griese, for one, is glad to have his fellow starter back in the backfield.
"Mike is an emotional leader on this team, not just the offense," he said. "He has been a leader here for quite some time. We all love to have Mike back. He brings another element of tough-nose football to our offense."
Griese is the third of those three QB starters, and he has been superb in his five games and four starts. His passer rating of 105.8 ranks second in the NFC. Griese might not have received the opportunity to re-establish himself as an NFL starter, however, had second-year man Chris Simms avoided injury in his first start. Simms got the call in the season's fifth game, at New Orleans, and looked sharp for a quarter before he was knocked out with an injury to his left (throwing) shoulder.
Simms' injury has kept him off the playing field since that October 10 game, but he has practiced the last two weeks and is ready to shake off the rust.
"Yeah, he took some more reps this week, and Brad [Johnson] took some turns," said Gruden. "Chris is coming off a serious injury and with Brian's situation obviously we've got to get three guys ready to play. But he is making some progress. He needs the work. When you're inactive for a period of five or six weeks, it's not a real good thing for a quarterback in midseason."
Gruden said the team would not announce it's number-two quarterback until Sunday morning.
Looking for a Fast Start
For 30 minutes on Sunday in Atlanta – from the 10-minute mark of the second quarter to the same spot in the fourth period – the Buccaneers' defense allowed no first downs and only one play that gained more than six yards. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense scored two touchdowns and held the ball for more than 20 of those 30 minutes.
And the Bucs were still down, 17-14.
When a critical fourth-down play failed for the visitors and the Falcons followed up with one quick-strike touchdown, the game belonged to Atlanta. Had the Bucs rallied from their original 17-0 deficit in that game to win, it would have matched the biggest comeback in team history. But they didn't, and in the end, that wasn't an enormous surprise. It is exceedingly difficult to pull off such a comeback in the NFL.
That's why it's important to score first.
"There's a healthy statistic out there that teams that score first win, I believe, 70% of the time," said Gruden. "At least that was the case coming into the season. And if you score twice first, that percentage goes very, very high. Statistics, if you're into those, say if you score first your chances of winning are better. You obviously establish momentum. You get the crowd in or out of the game, depending upon where you're playing. And you build confidence. So, yeah, I'd say it's a proven fact. Statistics say that."
They certainly do in the Bucs' case. Over the last five seasons, Tampa Bay opponents have scored first in the game 34 times and are 22-12 in those games. That's a 64.5% winning percentage. In the other 39 games, the Bucs have scored first and are 29-10 in those games. That's a winning percentage of 74.4%. Combined, the team that has scored first in the 73 regular season Buccaneer games from 2000-04 have a winning percentage of 69.9%. Gruden's statistical memory is right on target, at least in regards to the Buccaneers.
"We've got to start quicker in all phases," he said. "I believe we've given up opening-drive scores, defensively, in several of these games, for whatever reason. We'd like to get a three-and-out, get good field position and capitalize. What can we do? We've got to coach better, we've got to play better, we've got to get better, quicker, earlier in games."
Still In It
Despite a 3-6 record and the obvious trouble that spells for the Bucs' playoff hopes, the team is still a factor in the NFC playoff race. At the moment, the leaders for the two wild-card spots in the conference (Green Bay/Minnesota, Seattle/St. Louis and the New York Giants) have 5-4 records, two games better than Tampa Bay.
As Gruden has pointed out appreciatively on several occasions, his team has countered its struggles by continuing to play hard and continuing to believe the season is still alive. As usual, defensive end Simeon Rice has a particularly colorful way to describe that approach.
"It's one of those things, you still have to show faith," said Rice. "You still have to be a man and a professional about it. Right now, we are on the hunt still, so you really can't surmise how tough it is until it is all over with. Right now, it is bittersweet sometimes, because you win some, you lose some, but in the end, you want to always win more than you lose. We are still in this fight, so at this point I am not trying to lick the pain and the wounds, I am trying to immerse myself in it, so I can continue to play on. If you have hindsight at this point, you are just about cooked."