The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traveled all over the Bay area this past week, but it was all so they could end up at home, both literally and figuratively.
The Buccaneers will take to their own turf at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night against the visiting Indianapolis Colts, and it will be their home as they remember it most fondly – packed to the rafters and ready to generate some major decibels.
The Bucs enjoyed a significant home field advantage from the opening of Raymond James Stadium in 1998 through the Super Bowl season of 2002, winning 75% of their home games in that span. Considering how well the current team has played on the road, returning from nine of their last 11 trips with victories, a resumption of that type of home-field dominance would likely put Tampa Bay back among the league's elite.
And that is the figurative home to which the Buccaneers are trying to return. Current team management, in place since early 2009, has sought to replicate the build-from-within method, beginning in the mid-'90s, that led to five playoff appearances in a six-year span, plus the franchise's first championship. That team was obviously considered one of the NFL's best, because it was consistently chosen for prime-time games such as Monday Night Football. This week's contest is MNF's first visit to Tampa since 2003.
Head Coach Raheem Morris, who took over the team along with General Manager Mark Dominik in 2009, believes the Bucs have prepared themselves well for the return of the Monday night spotlight. That included a Thursday trip to Tropicana Field and a Friday night practice under the lights at the University of South Florida.
"It went well," said Morris. "We did a nice job of getting the guys prepared in all aspects of the game. You want to get your work done, and now we have an opportunity to get out there tonight and display our greatness for a national audience. Now you've got to go out there and put forth your best effort, and you've got to trust in your preparation. And I believe our preparation's been pretty good."
The Buccaneers also have to win in order to keep pace in the always-competitive NFC South, as both New Orleans and Atlanta already carved out victories on Sunday (and the upstart Carolina Panthers once again scared a strong team before falling in Chicago). The Saints have improved to 3-1, and the Bucs can match that and stay ahead of the defending division champ Falcons with their own win over Indianapolis.
To do so, they will have to contend with a relatively unknown factor on the Colts' offense. Fourth-year player Curtis Painter will make his first NFL start after serving a lengthy apprenticeship under the great Peyton Manning. Of course, it was not the Colts' plan to have Painter supplant Manning, but the Pro Bowl passer is dealing with the long-term effects of neck surgery and is not available. His initial replacement, Kerry Collins, suffered a concussion a week ago, and thus it is now Painter's chance to lead Indy's still-formidable offense.
Morris says the Buccaneers have to expect to get the same challenge that a Colt offense usually offers, and it is this, not just one player, for which they have to be prepared.
"It's a lot of the same stuff. Obviously, they've been running the system for a long time. Peyton Manning obviously took over a lot of control, as far as the tempo and some of the things he was able to get done on his own as far as the checks. These guys are all getting better and they're all getting into it, so we look forward to seeing Curtis Painter tonight go out there and execute his offense. Hopefully we can stop him.
"He's a young man that's been there for awhile, and now he'll get a chance to go out there and execute. It's his opportunity. Everybody waits for their moment, and this is Curtis Painter's moment. You cannot judge people by what they have done in the past. What he's going to do tonight is going to be the determination of what Curtis Painter is going to be. Nobody knew who Tom Brady was before he got out there. He went out there and played excellent and now he's a legend. So let's go out there and play our best game versus this system and their team."
In the Colts' last game, eight days prior, Painter relieved Collins and led an 80-yard do-or-die touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game before Pittsburgh won on a last-second field goal. The game was still in reach for Painter and the Colts offense at that point in the game because the Indianapolis defense had played very well. In particular, pass-rushing ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis had made life difficult for the Steelers' offensive line.
"They're pains in the neck," said Morris of the dangerous Freeney-Mathis duo. "They're guys that can ruin a game. Those two guys coming off the edge absolutely cause disruption. They try to go out there and beat teams by themselves, and they've been successful a lot of the times. You don't win 10 games by luck or by just having a quarterback. You win it with a firm defense and these guys being able to execute on offense, and they've done that for the last 10 years."
The Buccaneers handled John Abraham and Atlanta's good pass rush well last week in their 16-13 win over the Falcons, not allowing a sack. They played quite well in most phases of that game, in fact, and had to in order to hold on to a tough and important victory. For instance, they got running back LeGarrette Blount's power game going, and that was particularly important at the end of the game when the Bucs were trying to run into the teeth of the Falcon defense and run out the clock. That was an example of succeeding in "situational football," and that might be the message Morris delivers to his team besides his oft-repeated four-part mantra – play hard, play smart, play fast and play consistent.
"I talked about [Blount's] role in the four-minute offense and what he was able to do there," said Morris. "To go out there and average 4.6 yards a carry at the end of the game when everybody knows you're running and they're bearing down on the run to stop it, to win the game for us, to keep the defense off the field, was phenomenal. You can't say enough about that type of effort."
However, the Buccaneers were not particularly strong in one situation, and for that reason the game was closer than it had to be at the end. While the offense moved the ball well, it often ground to a halt inside the 20. Red zone offense is one bit of situational football to which the Bucs paid special attention during this week's preparations.
"A lot of the time when we want to talk about improving something, it's all about the execution," said Morris. "We've got to go out and execute better, and I feel good about our preparation days on Friday and a little bit on Saturday. They went out and executed better on the red zone stuff that we have to get done. I feel good about it. We'll go into this game with the same mentality of getting better, and our young quarterback, he does nothing but get better every week, so I can't wait to see that."
And the Bay area can't wait to see the Bucs back in action on Monday night, especially those 65,000 fans who will be filling Raymond James Stadium and working to provide that home field advantage. Morris thinks his team is ready to put on a show those fans will appreciate.
"For us, it's about going out there and really taking control of the moment, playing your best football in the moment, because that's what we do," he said. "We're all entertainers, we love to go out there in front of the people, and hopefully this week with all the people out there and everybody watching – all eyes on us – we're going to have an opportunity to do that. That's what we're looking forward to these guys doing. It's no different than what they've done their whole lives. It's playing football, but it's on a big stage."
The Buccaneers are at relatively full strength for this moment on the big stage, though starting free safety Cody Grimm is now out due to the season-ending knee injury he suffered last week. Fourth-year man Corey Lynch will start in his place but first-year player Larry Asante is also likely to see playing time on defense. LB Quincy Black, who was questionable on Saturday's injury report, has been cleared to play and will start on the strong side.
The Buccaneers deactivated the following seven players: WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, CB Anthony Gaitor, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee, TE Zach Pianalto and DT Frank Okam. Stroughter, Lee and Pianalto were out due to injuries.
The Colts had quite a few changes to their starting lineup thanks to a rash of injuries that forced S Melvin Bullitt to injured reserve and sidelined guard Ryan Diem and defensive tackle Fili Moala. First-year player David Caldwell will take over for Bullitt at strong safety; fourth-year player Mike Pollack will get the start at right guard in Diem's place; and fourth-year vet Eric Foster will take over for Moala at defensive tackle.
Obviously, the Colts are also without Manning, as discussed above. The veteran QB is one of the visitors' seven inactives, along with Collins, Diem, Moala, WR Anthony Gonzalez, CB Kevin Thomas and LB Ernie Sims.
The Bucs and Falcons kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.