No matter how many times Michael Pittman carries the ball on Sunday, his most important task may be helping QB Bruce Gradkowski pick up blitzes
On paper, the Philadelphia Eagles of the first six weeks of this season look unbalanced, what with their top-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense. Then again, it would be pretty hard for a defense to "balance" what Donovan McNabb and the Eagle attack is doing right now. Gaining 402 yards of offense a game and putting up historic passing-game numbers will tend to grab the spotlight.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will welcome these high-flying Eagles to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, aren't buying into this one-dimensional talk. They know this (and perhaps you've heard it before, too): The game isn't played on paper.
On grass, the Eagles' defense looks as formidable as ever.
"We don't look at numbers; it's about athletes," said wide receiver Michael Clayton. "They have some great athletes back there. They've been able to make some plays and pull it together down there. They have a couple of losses. But what we're going to do is just try to come out and be ourselves."
The Eagles are 4-2, and it should be noted that their scoring defense is a more middle-of-the-pack 17th, which includes two fumble-return touchdowns that the Philly D had no chance to stop. And if you want to talk numbers that the Bucs do pay some attention to, note that the Eagles have a league-high 23 sacks – essentially four per game – and are ranked fourth in sacks recorded per pass play. Philadelphia puts the quarterback on the ground roughly once every 11 times he drops back, and they accomplish this by bringing pass-rushers from anywhere at anytime.
"They apply extraordinary pressure, especially in passing situations," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They're a challenge for us. We're looking forward to playing them."
Now, take Jim Johnson's ultra-aggressive defensive scheme and add this into the equation: The Buccaneers' offense is currently led by rookie Bruce Gradkowski, who is heading into the third start of his NFL career this weekend. Raise your hand if you think Johnson, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, is going to dial down the pressure on a rookie passer. No takers? Didn't think so.
Gradkowski says he expects to see bodies "flying around" out there and that the Bucs are preparing him as best they can for the intricate looks he'll have to recognize before and just after the snap. In some cases, if the Bucs want to turn that blitz-happy approach in their favor, Gradkowski's going to have to make some quick decisions.
"That's one of the key points in every game, is try not to hold the ball back in the pocket, get rid of it fast," said Gradkowski. "The more I do that the better we'll be and the more of a chance we'll have to win the football game."
Fortunately, the job of countering the blitz doesn't fall only on the rookie's shoulders. Running backs are often critical in stopping extra rushers and thus opening up big-play opportunities, and the Bucs have several experienced veterans in that role, such as Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott. They now it's their job to escort Gradkowski through the mess.
"We'll just try to take the pressure off him," said Pittman. "He's a young guy but he's playing great. I think Bruce is ready to go. What we can help him with is just picking up the blitzes and he's making all the great calls. So we just have to do our part and he'll do his part."
Of course, part of what has made Gradkowski an instant hit as the necessary starter since Chris Simms spleen injury has been his almost serene confidence on the field. So far, he's handled most of what's been thrown at him with a strangely veteran aplomb. That will receive a stiff test this weekend, but Gradkowski knows he can handle it.
"We're just worried about ourselves right now, going out and executing the plays that are called and being prepared for whatever the Eagles throw at us," he said. "If we do that and we control what we can control – and that's turnovers and not making mistakes – we'll be okay."
Handling Philadelphia's aggressive defense wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for the team's showdown with the Eagles. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
LB Derrick Brooks on what the win did for the team: "Stopped a losing streak, got us 1-0 in the second quarter. Now, we're looking at going 2-0 in the second quarter."
Bruce Gradkowski on if he feels a difference in the locker room after the win: "You definitely can tell the difference around this locker room with the players. Just the attitude – it's about time. People are like, 'It's about time we get a win,' because we deserved that. We've been working hard and we're going to continue to work hard, work even harder and things will start to come together."
DT/DE Ellis Wyms on the difference in the defense this past game than from previous weeks: "It's just making a lot more plays. Guys are just flying around making a few more tackles, and guys are getting their hands on the ball, getting after the quarterback. There is a lot more energy on the field. We've just got to keep that up and roll it into the next week and into the next week and into the next week until we get the ball rolling and we start to creep back up the ladder in total defense."
WR Michael Clayton on how confident the offense is after their last performance: "We're more confident than the first three or four games because it was tough for us trying to get things started. Everybody's pretty settled right now. We've got a good quarterback in there who can move in the pocket and he's helped us out a whole lot. With everybody healthy we just take it from there, where we can just relax and go out there and play football."
Gradkowski on if he disliked the Eagles growing up near Pittsburgh: "No. I was a big fan of Donovan McNabb growing up. I loved the way he played. He's doing a great job now and he's a great leader on that football team. This is going to be a tough game for us but we're looking forward to it. We have to try to get on track."
Brooks on playing the Eagles: "Again, this is a fun team to play. We've played them in the past. As usual, the stakes are high because this is two football teams that are very good. Things don't change this coming Sunday. It's been awhile since we've played them here at home, and hopefully we can use the home crowd to our advantage."
DE Simeon Rice on if this game is one he has circled on his calendar: "I have every game circled, to be honest. This is a situation where we can do big things. For myself, this is always a moment of clarity playing against a friend, like I've said, like a younger brother, Donovan [McNabb]. To see what he has done in this league from an offensive side of the ball, and to see how he impacted this league, it's a beautiful moment for our community. The community we grew up in, our high school, it's always one of those things. It's always like a fantasy game for those kids and those individuals that we grew up with. You want to see what plays out better, from a philosophy standpoint and an individual standpoint. Myself and Donovan, the who's who of Chicago, will be watching this game, so it will be an interesting affair."
Gradkowski on the Eagles looking intimidating: "They're a great football team, both sides of the ball and on special teams. We're going to be faced with a great challenge this week and we're looking forward to it. Whatever they throw at us, we're going to try to be prepared the best we can, and just to try to play hard and keep this thing rolling."
Brooks on the Eagles' offense: "They are making a lot of big plays, a lot of them downfield. [Donovan] McNabb is doing a good job of creating time in the pocket and the receivers are doing a good job of getting open downfield. The long balls are definitely a big part of their offense so far this season."
DE Dewayne White on if playing the number-one ranked offense Sunday is a good test: "You could say that. It presents a challenge for us, and hopefully we step up to that challenge. They've got an explosive offense. I think I heard this morning that they've got 36 plays over 20 yards and 10 touchdowns. Hopefully on all those pass plays we get a good rush and maybe put some pressure and maybe they won't throw those deep balls. For the most part, we need to just go out and play a mistake-free game and do our assignments, and we'll be okay."
Wyms on the challenge of playing against Donovan McNabb: "Donovan is always a challenge. He's one of the strongest, quickest, fastest, smartest guys in the NFL – one of the best quarterbacks I think probably ever to play because he does no matter if T.O. is there, or Reggie Brown is there or [Donte] Stallworth is there. No matter who is out there catching the ball for them, he makes plays and he makes that offense go. It's definitely a challenge having that guy coming in here, but like I said, as a defense, we look forward to that challenge."
Gradkowski on if he feels any added pressure going up against a quarterback like Donovan McNabb: "I really don't feel any pressure going against [Donovan] McNabb. It's what I can control, and that's knowing our game plan, trying to execute the plays that are called the best I can. It's going to be a tough ballgame. They have a great offense and their defense is so tough. It's going to be a tough game for us but we're up for the challenge. We're going to prepare hard this week and we'll be ready to go."
WR Michael Clayton on playing another home game: "We have a little momentum going. We're coming back to our home stadium. I think that's a big thing for us. And just go down there to our home stadium and do what we do."
Gradkowski on if his comfort level continues to rise: "I feel good. It's just a day-by-day thing. You just have to work hard in practice. Coach [Jon] Gruden, he helps you be well-prepared for games. I feel like I could have put a better performance on last week, so that's something to strive for this week. Always trying to get better each and every week. We were fortunate enough to get away with a win but there's a lot I could have learned from that game. Just try to get better and just build on it."
RB Michael Pittman on how long it takes to adjust to a new quarterback: "The spin on the ball is different from Chris [Simms]. The release is different. Chris almost had a sidearm release. Chris' ball was very hard to catch for me. But I had to get used to it because he was our quarterback. But now Bruce [Gradkowski], the way he throws the ball is totally different. He's a right-handed quarterback, and he throws it more over the top. And I'm more used to catching a ball from a right-handed quarterback anyways. So I was really quick to adjust to it."
Gradkowski on Michael Clayton having a big game: "Well, Clayton's been working his tail off all year. The way he's been practicing, 100 percent each and every day and going full speed, he deserves to have a game like that. He's been doing a great job. It's great to see him get in the end zone. Have a couple big catches there at the end. But you'll see a lot more of him this season."
Gradkowski on Clayton really getting into the offense: "Oh, definitely. Any time you have a fiery guy like the way 'Cadillac' [Williams] runs and the way he is in the huddle, you feed off of that. That's awesome to have guys around like that. When they're making big plays and they're into the game, the other teammates feed off of that."
CB Phillip Buchanon on if he thinks he will be able to play on Sunday against Philadelphia: "If coach needs me. If he calls my number, I will be ready."
Buchanon on his knowledge of how the Tampa Bay defense works: "This defense is kind of similar to when I was playing in Oakland. So, it's kind of similar. And Houston is a whole lot different, it was a little different. Right now I think I can just take it in, soak it in, and go out and make plays like I am used to doing."
CB Brian Kelly on CB Phillip Buchanon: "I know they have some history with him back in Oakland. He's a good football player. He's the first pick for the Raiders back in the day. Talented guy, hopefully he can come in here and help us out."
Buchanon on if one of his roles will be punt returns: "Most definitely returning punts. As people know, I love returning punts. So, I look forward to returning punts. I am just looking forward. If [Jon] Gruden wants me to play this week, or however they call it, I am looking forward to playing this week."
Kelly on what he has done to get back on the field: "I've tried pretty much everything at this point. But you know, right now it's just time to see how it feels, see how it goes. I've got to be able to perform like I want to perform out there on the field to feel comfortable."
Kelly on if he has talked to other players that have gone through this injury: "No, I haven't, but I have researched it and it's not anything crazy. Once you go in there and have the surgery, you come back and you're healthy. I've been checked already, and anything that could be critical to me in the future is cleared up as far as something permanent."
Kelly on if the surgery has a long recovery time: "Not really. It's a weight-bearing injury, so I've got to be off my feet. Other than that, it's nothing major."
Brooks on the trade of Anthony McFarland: "Obviously, you don't want to see that happen to a person that is a good friend of yours. At the same time, you understand that this is a business and you know you accept it for what it is and move on."
DT Chris Hovan on not having Anthony McFarland around: "First and foremost, I want to thank Anthony for everything he did for me. When I came down here, he helped me make the transition down here. Coming from up north, I didn't know anybody, and they paired me up right next to his locker. And I thank him for helping me become a part of this team. That's the NFL. Certain decisions have to be made for the best of the organization. It may not always be a popular one, but they are made in the best interests of the organization. We must all remember that during something like this."
Wyms on missing Anthony McFarland: "Definitely. I'm going to miss my friend. I'm going to miss my boy, but at the same time this is a business and one day you can be here and one day you can be gone. He'll do well in Indy. I know he'll do great in Indy. He's a great player. It just unfortunately didn't work out here for him. I'm just looking forward to getting my opportunity and going out on the field and making some plays on Sunday."
Rice on players switching teams: "It's the nature of the business. It's just how the game goes. Such as myself, I didn't start out here, I started in Arizona. It happens like that. It was different circumstances, but it's still the nature of the business and you respect that."
Brooks on if management is retooling the defense for the future: "I don't know. You would have to ask them. All I know is [Anthony] McFarland was traded and now Ellis [Wyms] has the opportunity to step up and play the position and that's the way we look at it."
Rice on helping Wyms: "That's young Anakin [Skywalker]. He's been training with me since day one."
White on what makes Wyms special: "I don't know. Obviously, he had two sacks last game, so he's doing something good on third downs. That was the start of it, and then it was more playing time, more big plays come. He can do it all. He can play the run and get a great rush on the quarterback, and that's the key – pressure, cause turnovers, cause sack-fumbles and help us get this thing turned around."
Hovan on Wyms' improvement: "He's just putting it all together now – a nice pass rush, his run-stopping. It's just showing on a daily basis, and it's showing most importantly on game day."
Wyms on if he'll have to adjust physically to the greater amount of reps: "Maybe. It may be something that I have to adjust to, but I'm just going to take it how it comes. I trust my coaches to put me in a situation where they know I can perform. And they're not going to play me too much, and I know they're not going to play me too little either. I know we've got a big game coming up, and we need all our guns firing on all cylinders. I'll be fine – nothing I'm not used to."
Hovan on the most difficult thing about playing the under tackle spot: "It goes from anything. There's more space on the end. There's a little more space than the three-technique. When you get to the nose, you don't have as much space, and that was something I had to learn how to get acclimated to when I came down here. The three-technique, you want more of your well-rounded defensive tackle – the guy can pass-rush, play the run. I think those are some of the qualities and characteristics Ellis brings."
White on the standard left by the Buccaneers who played before him: "Those are big shoes to fill. Everybody's shoes get big and bigger to fill, so the standards keep moving up every year. They never go down. Whoever steps in knows that, and it's a lot of responsibility on them to step up and fill those shoes."
White on being part of the next generation of Buccaneers defenders and on having to wait his turn: "That's the nature of the beast. You don't have a choice. You can cry about it. It's not going to do any good. You can complain. It's not going to do any good. You've just got to accept the challenge and go in and make plays when the opportunity is given."
Wyms on if he is working to improve his run defense: "Definitely. I know it starts with us, and it starts with stopping the run. I know that's something as a defensive tackle, I'm definitely going to have to do. It's something I've been doing for years. I've been Booger's back up. We pretty much split the reps. I know people in the media probably don't see that, but we've been pretty much splitting the reps since 99 [Warren Sapp] left. It's nothing different for me. I just do my job, play my role and go out there and make plays."
Wyms on if he expects to stay in on third down: "Yeah. I expect to be out there almost every play this weekend. I'm going in with that mindset."
White on if it is important for him to prove he is not just a situational player: "Yes. People who don't know assume that you only come in on third downs and that you can't play the run. So that's kind of important – 'Hey we can play both, it's just not our time right now.' When your time does come, you have to step up to the plate and continue doing what you've been doing and on top, stop the run."
Gradkowski on if people in the community are reacting to him differently now: "Well, I'm not out too much, but when I do see people it's awesome. They say, 'Congratulations. Good luck. Good game.' It's just awesome. The fans in Tampa Bay are amazing. Especially when I got announced the other night it was just unspeakable about how the emotions were going through me. My mom told me that she started crying when they announced me. So it was amazing."
Gradkowski on if it's difficult to separate that type of emotion from his play: "I just take it in one ear and let it go out the other. I just really appreciate what people say and just know that I'm very blessed to be where I'm at today and the opportunity that I have."
Gradkowski on being helped by the coaching he got at Toledo: "Definitely. I was very well-coached in college. I tried to bring it to this level. Now that I'm working with great coaches here – Coach Gruden and Coach [Paul] Hackett – I just try to build on that each week-in and week-out and just try to keep getting better."