QB Brian Griese saw a bit more action on Thursday and is expected to start despite a sore hip
In a 21-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up exactly 300 yards of offense. That was relatively in line with the Bucs' defense numbers heading into the game, as they ranked fifth in the league with an average of 284.4 yards allowed per contest.
The thing is, 144 of those 300 yards, or very nearly half, were surrendered on Carolina's first and last drives of the game. In between, the Bucs rarely let the Panthers offense get into much of a rhythm.
Obviously, Tampa Bay has struggled over the last two seasons in crunch time, allowing many more game-winning drives than they had become accustomed to during their eight years of defensive dominance. It's hard to tell if that's anything more than a fluke, but it certainly hasn't helped the Bucs' playoff chances.
The more persistent problem this season, however, has been slow starts. Tampa Bay's opponents have scored first in seven of 11 games so far, and that's a problem. In games where the Bucs score first, they're 3-1; when the other team is first to dent the scoreboard, the Bucs are 1-6.
"It's been a sore spot for us this year," conceded Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I believe we've given up eight opening-possession scores. We've got to start much faster, without a doubt."
Gruden came very close to the stat just off the top of his head. The Bucs have allowed opening-possession scores to six of their 11 opponents so far, and four of those six scores have been touchdowns. And it isn't getting better as the season goes along – four of the last six Buc opponents have scored on their opening drives.
That includes the team's last two losses, both of which eventually became tense, tight ballgames. Had the Bucs not fallen behind early, they might have been protecting a lead late in Carolina and Atlanta instead of trying to get that one more necessary score. The Falcons opened up a 17-0 lead early in the game at Atlanta three weeks ago before the Bucs shut Michael Vick down for half of the game and crawled back to 17-14 in an eventual 24-14 defeat.
The slow starts are frustrating for Buccaneer players because they know, given the middle-game evidence, that they are capable of taking control of a game. They just need to do so sooner.
"Just looking at some of the tape from when we played [Atlanta] last time, defensively we just did not come out of the tunnel ready to play," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "If we hit the field a little more intensely and a little earlier and get control over the ball again and get some turnover to get our offense in a better position to score, I think we will increase our chance of winning."
After practice on Thursday, the Buccaneers remained hopeful that they would have every player on their 53-man roster except safety Jermaine Phillips available on Sunday against Atlanta.
Actually, the Bucs' injury report grew by one player on Thursday, but Phillips remains the only player listed as worse than 'probable.' The team's starting free safety is still recovering from surgery to repair a right forearm fracture and has been ruled out for the third straight week.
The additional player on the Bucs' injury report on Thursday was the other starting safety, Dwight Smith. Held out of practice due to knee soreness, Smith was added to the list as probable.
The other four Bucs listed as probable are wide receiver Joey Galloway, quarterback Brian Griese, center Sean Mahan and defensive end Dewayne White. Mahan is the only one of those four who did not practice on Thursday.
"Just about everybody returned to practice, although most of those guys [on the report] are still limited," said Gruden.
Galloway and Griese got in more extensive action during Thursday's two-hour session. Galloway has been fighting an opening-day groin injury all season and now he has an ankle sprain to add to his list of aches. Still, Gruden thinks his deep threat will play against the Falcons, both at wide receiver and as the primary punt returner.
"He returned and we're optimistic he'll be ready to go," said Gruden. "Although I'm sure it won't be 100%, hopefully it's close to that."
Griese's current ailment is a hip strain, but he's played the last two games with the lingering effects of shoulder soreness sustained in the last Atlanta game. Griese has proven to be not only prolific in the Bucs' offense, but also quite durable.
"He's still a little bit sore but I think he'll be okay," said Gruden. "He's been up and down physically, but he's a tough guy. He'll find a way. In a lot of ways it's been great for Chris Simms to get a lot of work."
Another Leg Up
All eyes will be on kicker Jay Taylor until he has proven his mettle on game day a few times. The replacement for long-time Buc kicker Martin Gramatica, who was released on Tuesday after two seasons of struggling, Taylor is preparing for his first NFL regular-season game on Sunday.
The former Orlando Predator standout made every one of his field goal tries on Wednesday, an encouraging start. After Thursday's practice, Gruden was again pleased with his new kicker.
"The guy's come in and he kicked the ball good again today," said Gruden. "Hopefully it carries over to game day. He's been knocking them through, he's getting the ball up quickly and he's been very, very good in terms of his get-off times. We need his help."
Taylor hasn't exhibited any outward signs of nervousness since he signed on Tuesday, and he's been cool and professional on the practice field, as well. He doesn't think his first NFL experience will be dramatically different from what he's experienced before in the XFL, the Arena League and the NFL preseason, and in college at West Virginia.
"I have kicked in front of that many fans before, so it is just going to be routine," said Taylor. "I think, maybe, leading up to the game I may be a little excited or whatever, but once the game starts and once I get out there and warm-up, it will just feel natural and like any other day."