Ask any NFL player or coach about a game two or three weeks down the road and you'll get the same general answer. We don't want to look ahead; we're completely focused on the task at hand.
So the fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the verge of one of their most exciting stretches in recent years – playing the defending Super Bowl champs 10 days from now and then moving immediately on to a Monday Night Football contest against the high-powered Steelers – is a topic for another day. And that makes perfect sense in this instance because that "task at hand" could be one of the key games of the entire season.
The Buccaneers open their 2018 campaign on the road against the 2018 NFC South champions. They'll play the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, a raucous environment that hasn't let the Buccaneers leave with a win since 2010. And they'll be facing a quarterback who is on the verge of becoming the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes.
Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler who has seen it all – including that last Bucs victory in New Orleans in his rookie year – knows the magnitude of this year's opener.
"It's my ninth year, and to be blessed enough to see a ninth year in the NFL is huge," said McCoy on Thursday. "To be blessed enough to be on the same team – especially a team I love, is even bigger. Even more than that I'm competing against one of the greatest players to ever do it – Drew Brees. So, I would have to say opening day is going to be a big one. I look forward to it."
The Buccaneers and Saints split their two meetings last year but obviously only New Orleans got to play on into the postseason. Tampa Bay is trying to make that happen this year, for the first time since 2007, but they'll have to navigate a very demanding division to reach that goal. All three of the Buccaneers' foes in the NFC South made the playoffs last year. That's why a win in this particular season opener would be particularly helpful to the Bucs' cause. If the Buccaneers are indeed in the division title hunt near the end of the season, they'll have the advantage of home games against Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in the last five weeks. Putting a road division win in their pockets would enhance that advantage.
"It's like a double win if you're on the road," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You know, when you're the visiting team, I don't know about a double loss. It's definitely like a double win if you're the visitor."
Koetter led the Buccaneers through a 2018 training that was purposely tougher than the last two in an effort to help the team make a fast start against a tough opening slate. Despite winning each of their last two season openers, the Bucs hit midseason at 3-5 in 2016 and 2-6 last year. Koetter was pleased with how the players responded to this change and there certainly seems to be a sense of urgency as the season prepares to kick off in the Superdome.
"I think when it's all said and done, it's going to come down to who's going to give the most effort," said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has taken on something of a leadership role since arriving in the spring. "When I say the most effort, I'm talking about individually. Every guy's got to fight for themselves. At the same time, we're fighting to get that one goal accomplished. It's going to come down to who's going to beat who. Beat your man in front of you and take care of your job. That's how I've always looked at football."
TURNING UP THE VOLUME: The Buccaneers know they will have to overcome that aforementioned Superdome atmosphere if they are to start the 2018 season with a victory. They do have a new asset this year when it comes to preparing for the incredible volume that stadium can produce…a very large new asset.
The Buccaneers have finished each of their last two practices inside their new indoor facility at the AdventHealth Training Center, and that was in large part an effort get some work under a wall of noise.
"It's absolutely with that in mind," said Koetter of trying to simulate the Superdome crowd. "A combination of the acoustics and then how loud we can blast our sound in there – at least in our minds we feel like we're getting work at it."
That was always one obvious way in which the indoor facility could help in the team's preparations, along with getting work on turf and escaping the elements, but the Bucs also got a reminder of it during training camp when fans were allowed inside.
"You go indoors and you can crank up the noise," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "It happened during camp when we had fans here. You come off the field and it was loud. That's always good to work in those elements, just like if it's working when you're outside and it's raining, you get a chance to work with wet balls. Any time you can simulate what it's going to be like to play on the road is good."
Of course, a couple half-hour sessions under the speakers won't magically insulate a team from the in-game mistakes that can be caused by excessive noise. The Bucs know they have to play in the Superdome every year and spent plenty of time throughout the offseason and in camp preparing for it.
"You obviously have to have a mentally-tough team, a disciplined team," said Monken of meeting that challenge. "You've had to have worked on it throughout the offseason and fall camp. All those things [are necessary] to give yourself a position to be successful. When you look on tape, it's the teams that have been able to function, that haven't had those pre-snap penalties that put you behind the chains, that have given themselves the best chance to win. The bottom line is, we have to do it better, and we have been."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center
MAKING IT COUNT: The Buccaneers' passing attack finished the 2018 preseason with a league-high 284.5 yards per game, and the quarterback trio of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston and Ryan Griffin combined for a 7-0 TD-INT ratio and a 106.5 passer rating.
With Winston at the beginning of a three-game NFL suspension, it's Fitzpatrick who will try to keep that offensive efficiency rolling into the regular season, when it will actually count. He has the advantage of more than 100 NFL starts to help him in that regard, but more than that he has an apparently loaded set of skill-position players around him. Virtually all of his primary targets – Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate – are coming off an excellent month of August.
But Fitzpatrick knows that opposing defenses aren't simply going to lay down in the face of that array of weapons. The Buccaneers appear to have the potential to be one of the NFL's best passing teams, whichever quarterback is at the helm, but they have to begin proving that on Sunday.
"It's yet to be determined," said Fitzpatrick of the success of the offense. "The group that we have this year, we've got to go out there and do it, but the potential is there. The talent is there in all position groups, but potential only goes so far. We've got to go out there and prove it, but so far the way those guys – especially in that receiver room – the way that they've worked this offseason and the attitude they bring to practice every day, the skillsets, the different varying skillsets that we have in that room are really impressive.
"So does that mean a whole lot? No, if we don't produce. We've got to be able to – I've got to be able to spread it out to those guys and let them do what they're good at and hopefully the production comes."