LB Derrick Brooks knows the Bucs still have to stop the run first, even with another dangerous tight end loose on the field
Tony Gonzalez recently said he was enjoying the influx of outstanding young tight ends in the NFL these days. They are suitors to his throne as the league's best at the position, and thus they keep the perennial Pro Bowler at the top of his game.
Excuse the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tony, if they don't share your enthusiasm for this development. Recently, the Bucs have been running a tight end gauntlet that has tested their safeties and endangered their end zone, and, sure enough, it continues this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers.
It began with the great Gonzalez himself, who rang up nine catches, 123 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort, as the Bucs beat the Chiefs, 34-31, two weeks ago. Last Sunday, one of the up-and-comers, Atlanta's Alge Crumpler, turned his four catches into 118 yards and the game-clinching touchdown.
And neither Gonzalez nor Crumpler has as many catches this season as San Francisco's Eric Johnson.
"The last couple of weeks we have faced real athletic tight ends," said safety John Howell. "We have another one coming in with Johnson. That adds to the responsibility of the safety. Any time you have a talented tight end, you have to show the athleticism at the safety position and all-around man coverage. It just adds another threat to their offense. It is challenging week to week and we look forward to it."
Howell, the new starter at free safety with Jermaine Phillips sidelined by a forearm fracture, may find himself matched up with Johnson from time to time, but the whole Buccaneer defense bears the responsibility of containing the tight end position. That has been difficult this season against Johnson, who leads the NFC and is second in the NFL with 57 receptions. His 618 receiving yards are also tops on the 49ers' list, and he has scored two touchdowns.
"The tight end is really good," said defensive end Greg Spires. "He is probably one of the top three tight ends in the league."
Johnson, a converted wide receiver out of Yale, stands 6-3, 256 and has the speed to get down the seam in the middle of the field, like Gonzalez and Crumpler. The Bucs haven't let opposing teams run around their secondary at will, but they have surrendered some long plays that are uncharacteristic of the team's tight defense. Shelton Quarles, who sometimes has to cover the deep middle of the field from his middle linebacker position, doesn't think the Bucs have a particular problem with the tight end position.
"I just think that we haven't played particularly well," he said. "We know what those guys can do and we didn't do a good job of stopping them. Of course we want to shut him down, but we're not going to do anything different than we've done in the past."
The Bucs don't often change their defensive philosophy to face any particular offensive style or standout player. Tampa Bay will still begin its list of concerns with the 49ers' running game and, indeed, if the Bucs can shut that down and thus force San Francisco to pass into thicker coverage, Johnson's threat will be at least somewhat diminished.
"It seems like when they are settled and get their running game going, they are a very good football team," said LB Derrick Brooks. "We are going to have our work cut out for us again. That's nothing new. Same strategies this week, stop the run and come up with some big plays."
Johnson's downfield threat was just one topic being discussed in the locker room this week. Below are some additional thoughts from Tampa Bay players on a variety of subjects.
TE Ken Dilger on the mental state of the team: "Right now we're just trying to win games. We're frustrated as a team. We're trying to find ways to lose the game in the third and fourth quarter rather than trying to find ways to win. The penalties and mistakes we had last week you just can't do that when you're 3-5 and trying to make the playoffs."
LB Derrick Brooks on whether the Bucs might be trying too hard: "Maybe at times. You just have to relax and make the plays you are supposed to make and the extraordinary plays will come by doing those little things; making the plays you are supposed to make."
S John Howell on whether some of the Bucs are trying to do too much on the field: "Just do your job. That is the theme this week. Just do your job and not try to do too much. A lot of times I think you can get caught up in that. You try to do too much and it ends up hurting the team worse than anything. You know this is sound fundamental football, which is what this defense is based on. One gap defense; taking care of your job and counting on the guy next to you to do his."
LB Shelton Quarles on how he is approaching the season with six losses: "I think the biggest thing we haven't been doing is playing our fundamentals. So, if we can go back to being fundamentally sound, then we'll be alright as a defense. I'm not down on anything that has happened thus far. We've dug ourselves a major hole that we need to get out of and you can only do it one game at a time and I'm sure that me, along with my teammates, will get the job done."
QB Brian Griese on whether he is surprised to have the opportunity to go to the playoffs at this point: "At the beginning of the year, I think we wanted to be in a different place altogether, but you never know really what is going to happen in the NFL. You know, you see it every year, teams that go on a run in the second half of the season, and put themselves in a position to get into the playoffs. You see teams, like two years ago, the Raiders were 0-4 for a stretch, then they go 4-0, and they end up getting in the playoffs; so we just really have to take it week-by-week. I know it is a cliché, but if you don't take care of your business each and every week, I don't care if you are playing a 1-8 team, or a 7-2 team, you still have a chance to go out and win the football game. You have to take care of your business."
DE Simeon Rice on still being in the running for the playoffs: "Yes. It's an opportunity, an opportunity to do something. It's not a huge window, but it is still a window. You have to play the hand you are dealt; until the fat lady sings."
Brooks on whether the team is motivated by San Francisco's record: "Our motivation is to win this game, period. We have to take it one game at a time, like we have been doing it. It sounds like a broken record, but it is true. We can only win this game, this week."
DE Greg Spires on not overlooking San Francisco: "A lot of guys in the locker room know last week's game was a heartbreaker. We needed that game. This week's is just as equally important. We just have to put that behind us and focus on this week's game. We got to get up to win."
Griese on the situations of the two teams in Sunday's game: "They know what their situation is as well. They are going to do some things to try to counter that as well. We have to be ready for all different kinds of situations with blitzing, trying to get pressure, trying to not let us go back and throw the ball down the field, obviously. We are going to prepare for whatever they might have and continue to just try to execute our offense. I think we don't need to worry so much about what the 49ers do, we just need to be positive about what we are going to do Sunday."
S Dexter Jackson on if he senses the same hunger in Tampa as when he was on the team before "I'm sensing it. There are still a lot of new faces here, I see that. It takes guys a moment to jell together. When [Warren] Sapp and [John] Lynch and all those guys were here, they didn't improve the first year; it took a couple of years. It takes years to get good at what you're trying to do."
Spires on Dexter Jackson being back on the team: "It is good to have him back. He is a Seminole. I love having FSU guys in the locker room. Dexter can come in and help us. He has been in this defense so he knows the in and outs. It is good to have him back."
Howell on Dexter Jackson returning to the team: "It is good to have Dexter back. He always livens up the room. We all missed Dex. It's good to have me him back; this is his home."
Brooks on what Dexter Jackson brings to the team: "Right now, a renewed energy. Obviously, he hasn't played all year. Getting a familiar face back in that helped build this franchise is always good and he's got experience. We need someone to step in and take Jermaine Phillips's place and Dexter is going to be able to do it."
Quarles on whether he is glad to see Dexter Jackson back: "Yes, I'm looking forward to seeing him back out there. He's a fiery kind of guy and he gets everyone excited about playing football. So, maybe that's what we've been missing on defense."
DT Chidi Ahanotu on whether turnovers determine the outcome of a game: "For sure. Usually when you look up and you have a lot of turnovers your chances of winning go way up. But I don't know why they've been down this year. I couldn't tell you why that is."
Quarles on whether turnovers have made the difference between winning and losing for the Bucs: "I think we're just letting up too many big plays. We're not getting enough for us and we're not stopping them from getting big plays against us."
Quarles on why interceptions are down in the NFL this year: "People are not having to throw the ball. They're running the ball. So, when you get down early your team is going to keep pounding the ball. When we put teams behind and make them fight from behind, they're definitely going to have to put the ball in the air and when they do our interception total is going to go up."
Spires on San Francisco QB Tim Rattay: "I have been focusing on the formation and plays. From what I have seen, he buys time in the pocket. He is not Michael Vick. He will sit in there. They do a lot of things to protect him as for as blocking. He is in the NFL. He is here for a reason, so he can play."
Quarles on whether this is a week that the Buccaneers might be more aggressive on defense: "I just think that we have to stay in our gaps. We haven't been doing a good job of that. Us, as a defense, we've been trying to do too much. If we do our jobs individually, then collectively, we'll get a win."
Griese on San Francisco blitzing a lot on defense: "They're going to bring a lot of blitzes. As an offense, you have to really want them to blitz and take advantage of holes in the secondary. That's what we are going to try to do."
Griese on how badly he got beaten up, physically, in the Atlanta game: "I am fine. As a quarterback in the NFL, you come to expect to have bumps and bruises on Monday. It is just part of the job. Those guys were fighting hard up front. We had some tough looks. We are just going to come back. I have total confidence in every guy on our offense that we are going to go out and play together, and execute better than we did on Sunday."
Dilger on why he is more involved in the passing game this year: "I'm healthy this year and last year I was always hurt. Always something was going wrong with my foot, my hamstring, my forearms last year. This year I had the long offseason and I'm finally healthy again. I proved myself to this offense that I can catch the ball when I have an opening. I've proved myself to Griese by getting open."
Howell on starting at free safety: "It is a good opportunity and I'm excited. Anytime you lose a guy like Jermaine [Phillips], nobody wants to see that. He is a great player for us. We are definitely going to miss him. This creates a good opportunity for me and I'm excited about it. I'm excited for the opportunity to help the team in anyway that I can. No better defense in the world to be on than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I'm just excited."
Howell on his role on special teams: "Hopefully I can continue to stay on special teams. I do not want to come off any of those. I feel like every job on there is important. Hopefully I'm in good enough shape, and I think I am, to stay out there the whole time."
Brooks on his thoughts on the Florida-Florida State game this weekend: "Florida State is definitely going to win. That's it. Find a way to win. I don't care how we do it. Find a way to win."
Spires on the Florida-Florida State game: "I think we [FSU] will win by 14."