RB Shaun Alexander, injured knee permitting, will give the Bucs their second straight tough test on the ground
Things don't get any easier for the Buccaneers in Week Two, as they try to avoid the team's first 0-2 start since 1998.
After joining 90,000 crazed fans in welcoming Washington Head Coach Joe Gibbs back into the league last Sunday, the Bucs have returned home to play the Seattle Seahawks, the in-vogue pick for NFC Champion. And after taking on new Redskin back Clinton Portis in the opener, Tampa Bay now finds itself pitted against Seahawk super-back Shaun Alexander (injured knee permitting). Portis had 148 rushing yards and one touchdown on Sunday in Washington's win; Alexander had 135 rushing yards and all three of Seattle's scores in a 21-7 victory at New Orleans.
"When you see Shaun Alexander you have to be concerned with stopping him," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden.
The Bucs also want to stop any perception that their 2004 season went into the tank in Week One. Tampa Bay lost its opener two years ago, a sluggish but still close game against New Orleans (sound familiar?), but still finished the season as league champs. They lost their opener in 1999 and wound up in the NFC Championship Game. They were famously left for dead by one columnist after a midseason loss at Detroit in 1999, in fact, only to win eight of the next nine games.
As much as the Bucs want to correct from their opening loss, there were also plenty of signals to Gruden that the team is very much in it for the long haul. Most significantly, the team played hard from beginning to end despite adverse conditions and an early deficit.
"A lot of guys deserve an A [for the game]," said Gruden. "I mean they fought their butts off. It was a very physical football game just like most openers are. [It was] 95,000 against 53. We overcame a 10-point deficit where we could put ourselves in a position to come out with a victory. I was pleased with that. I was real pleased with the way we came out in the second half as a football team. But there are some areas obviously where we have to capitalize on to get field position. And when it's time to make the play you have to make the play."
That won't come easy against the Seahawks, who limited New Orleans to 281 yards while rolling up 415 of its own. Even with Deuce McAllister, the Saints were able to rush for only 74 yards, though some of that was due to play selection, as New Orleans spent most of the second half down by two touchdowns.
Seattle's defense could be the key to the team's hopes of fulfilling its playoff promise this year. There is little doubt as to the talent of the offense, with Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, wide receivers Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson and a very strong offensive line leading the way. The Seahawks finished sixth in the league in offense last year and are right back in that position after the first week. The defense, however, was just 19th last year.
During the offseason, Seattle added defensive end Grant Wistrom, the former Ram, and Wistrom had a strong debut, putting constant pressure on Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks. Over the last two offseasons, the Hawks have invested three first or second-round picks in new talent for the secondary: CB Marcus Trufant and safeties Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware. Boulware, a rookie, had his first interception on Sunday in his debut.
Perhaps most importantly, Head Coach Mike Holmgren enticed Ray Rhodes to head to the Northwest and take over as defensive coordinator before last season.
"Ray Rhodes is a great defensive coach," said Gruden. "They have elements of just about everything you want to see on defense. They're talented and they're fast. So, they'll be a real handful for us, but we're looking forward to it."
Tampa Bay's defense gave up a 64-yard touchdown run to Portis on Washington's first run of the game on Sunday, but otherwise had a fairly strong afternoon. Often given little rest due to a struggling Buc offense, the defense held many of Portis's runs to two yards or less and was very stingy through the air. The Bucs broke up six passes, nearly intercepted two and held QB Mark Brunell to 13 completions and 125 yards. The secondary was particularly strong considering the relative lack of pass rush the Bucs put on Brunell. Gruden pointed out that the Washington offense spent much of the afternoon in a 'max protection' alignments, limiting the pressure but allowing Tampa Bay to capitalize in coverage, instead.
Seattle's passing attack is a more robust threat, however. Last year, Hasselbeck made his first Pro Bowl appearance after finishing second in the NFC with 3,841 yards and tied for second (with Brad Johnson) with 26 touchdown passes. A 2001 trade acquisition from Green Bay, he is poised, confident and surrounded with serious skill-position talent.
"They are very explosive offensively," said Gruden. "These wide receivers have been together [for awhile]. Bobby Engram has been together with Willie Jackson for some time. The tight ends have been around. They will be able to throw the football. So you have to defend a two-headed monster this week offensively and defensively we have to prepare for a lot of things as well."
Overall, what the Bucs are preparing for is a re-entry into the NFC South race. Only one team in the division got a win in the opening week (Atlanta), and the Falcons draw a tough assignment in Week Two in the St. Louis Rams. The Bucs could grab a share of the lead with a win and an Atlanta loss. Moreover, given the buzz surrounding this year's Seahawks, Tampa Bay could serve notice that it is, indeed, a true playoff contender.