WR Ike Hilliard and the Bucs know they need to continue improving in order to move forward with their playoff hopes
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 4-0 and about to face a 1-3 team that is missing its first and second-string quarterbacks. It will be the league's top-ranked defense against its 28th-ranked offense when the Bucs head to New York to play the Jets this weekend. Add up all those numbers and you get…
If any team should serve as a reminder to the Bucs that a loss is just a few plays away, it's the Jets.
In 1997, the Bucs were finishing off a 10-6 season, their first playoff-bound campaign in 15 years, when they traveled to New York to face the Jets. The Bucs' defense allowed only 234 yards of offense that Dec. 14 afternoon, but somehow the visitors lost 31-0. Two interception returns and one kickoff return for touchdowns will do that to you.
In 2000, the Jets came to town for a matchup of two 3-0 teams, but found themselves in a 17-6 hole as the two-minute warning arrived in the fourth quarter. Somehow, the Jets scored two touchdowns in two minutes, the second on a halfback pass by RB Curtis Martin, and the final result was a 21-17 loss for the Buccaneers.
Actually, the Bucs have last Sunday as a reminder of what can happen. After allowing Detroit's offense just 140 yards of offense through the game's first 55 minutes, Tampa Bay's defense let Joey Harrington drive the Lions 80 yards on the last drive. Instant replay overturned what could have been a game-winning touchdown pass by Harrington and the Bucs remained undefeated.
It was an impressive last-minute stand by the Buccaneers' defense, and that kind of event can improve the team's confidence for the rest of the season. Still, it didn't have to be that close – four turnovers kept Detroit in the game and led directly to all of the Lions' points – and the Bucs know they have to get better to stay in the thick of the playoff race.
"Our whole team has a real respect for what needs to be done," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "If we don't improve our play we'll be hard-pressed to win another game. That's how this league is right now. We have got to improve our play in all three phases. I don't think anybody is satisfied other than we have won four games on a row this season."
The Kansas City Chiefs beat these Jets on opening weekend, 27-7, and looked very good after going to 2-0 with a win over Oakland. However, the Chiefs have surrendered 67 points in two losses over the last two weekends and are now back in the middle of the pack. Kansas City lost to Denver in Week Three, 30-10.
The Jets rebounded from that loss to handle Miami, 17-7, one week after the Dolphins stunned Denver, 34-10. Now the Broncos are red-hot, beating San Diego, Kansas City and Jacksonville in succession. Yes, things can change quickly in this league, and no victory guarantees the next one.
Neither can one extrapolate a victory out of such factors as the Jets' problems in the running game (68 yards per game) or their injury problems at quarterback. The Jets will be without Chad Pennington or Jay Fiedler, but they won't be assuming the worst behind either first-time starter Brooks Bollinger or re-signed vet Vinny Testaverde. Jets Head Coach Herm Edwards, the sharp former Buccaneer assistant, is planning to make significant changes to an attack that has produced just 245.3 yards per game this far.
Whatever changes are made, the Jets will still have Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae leading the push up front and last year's rushing champion, Curtis Martin, shooting out of the backfield. It is, in other words, another serious test for the Bucs' suddenly stout run defense, which is first in the league with an average of 61.5 yards allowed per game.
That number and the Bucs' success running the ball on offense have been the two most significant differences between this year's 4-0 team and the one that started last year 0-4. It's the formula they will try to stick to this week against the Jets.
"That's what we emphasized this so much in the offseason program, running the ball on offense and stopping the run on defense," said Gruden. "We had some real physical days in training camp to try to make that an area, on both sides, that can make good improvement."
In the long run, the Buccaneers will probably need a return to health by rookie sensation Cadillac Williams in order to maintain their 141.8 yards of rushing per game. Williams' status will be one of the week's main story lines, as the Bucs wait to see if the sore foot and tweaked hamstring that are bothering the electric runner make significant improvement.
Despite such defensive stars as LB Jonathan Vilma, LB/DE John Abraham, DE Shaun Ellis and CB Ty Law, the Jets rank 28th in the league in stopping the run, having allowed 129.5 yards per game through the first quarter of the season. Overall, however, the Jets rank 12th on defense and have been able to force seven turnovers already. Vilma, with 48 tackles already, looks every bit the star in the middle of the defense that he appeared to be as a rookie last year. It's a good bet the Bucs will have to fight for every yard they get in New York.
But every season is a struggle in some way. For a team that has started off well and is looking at hanging around in the playoff chase, it's a weekly struggle to get better, on offense, on defense and on special teams.
"I think you have to play well in three areas to win a championship," said Gruden. "You can play really well in one phase or be down in one phase and still find ways to win, but in what? Half a dozen games? Seven or eight? Five? We have to improve on special teams in terms of penalties that have really hurt us in field position for the fourth week in a row. Turnovers on offense need to eliminated. Defensively, [it has been] one of our better showings."