The practice-field leadership of such veterans as LB Derrick Brooks helps the Bucs stay even-keeled during a season's ups and downs
Chris Hovan wasn't with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002; he was a third-year standout with the Vikings having his second straight big year.
Hovan's Vikings played in Tampa that fall, on November 3. Minnesota was off to a 2-5 start and Hovan probably wasn't too tuned in to or too concerned with the Bucs' back-story at the time. Tampa Bay, the eventual Super Bowl champs, had some troubles of its own that time, having lost at Philadelphia on October 20 and paid the price for a tight win at Carolina with a slew of injuries.
The Buccaneers got through that bit of adversity just fine, beating the Vikings 38-24 to help ignite a four-game winning streak. Now that he has switched sides, Hovan can see what kept that team afloat in tough times, and still does.
"The character of this team, the leadership with Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles and Ronde Barber…the leadership is what carries this team," he said. "All the guys have to do is accept it and just follow. We lost the game, but true champions come back and win the next one."
The Bucs' current adversity isn't that enormous. Last Sunday, the Bucs took their first loss after a 4-0 start to the season, falling 14-12 to the Jets in New York. Tampa Bay is still in first in the NFC South, and the NFC as a whole, and the injury situation (Cadillac Williams, Jermaine Phillips) is troublesome without being overwhelming. Still, every game in the NFL is huge, and a two-game losing streak with Atlanta and Carolina on the Bucs' heels and showing up on the schedule next month would lead to some mounting pressure.
The Bucs want to head off any such negativity and keep the path to the playoffs as clear as possible.
"It's a matter of how we respond to adversity," said Brooks. "This is an opportunity for us to grow as a football team, by getting a win after coming off a tough loss. We have to put last Sunday behind us and really focus in on Miami."
Brooks' leadership is definitely important to the team. He has a Super Bowl ring, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and a secure place in Buccaneer history, but he still cares deeply about every game and every season. That leads him to work hard on a daily basis, and expect the same out of his teammates.
That's the way everyone in the team's veteran core approaches each week of the season.
"I expect everybody to come to work and work hard and prepare like we prepare every week," said center John Wade. "I don't think we practiced badly last week, I just don't think we executed well enough on Sunday [to win]. We scored three less points than we had to; that's the bottom line."
In other words, there's no lingering doubt that Sunday's loss was a better indication of the team's strength than its 4-0 start. The Bucs have seen their formula for success work repeatedly this season, so they plan to stay true to that formula.
"All we have to do is come out, start fast and stick to our game plan and I think we'll be fine," said tackle Anthony Davis. "If we do the things we know how to do and the things we've been taught to do, we'll be fine."
The team's ability to bounce back from its first loss wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game against Miami. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
TE Anthony Becht on lost scoring opportunities: "Penalties have cost us big yards. I mean double digit each week. We can't be doing it. Guys have to be accountable in their actions. We can't be getting personal fouls and holding calls in situations where it takes us away from being successful. This is a big week for us too, before the bye, to really sell out and play as hard as we can."
CB Juran Bolden on a lot of penalties coming from emotion and adrenaline: "You're out there competing. There's a lot of testosterone going on. Guys are out there trying to compete and the refs sometimes get too much involved with it, and something that shouldn't be called is called and the next thing you know you've got a flag and you're hurting your team. So you've just got to be smart, hold those emotions down and wait until the next play to get them."
T Anthony Davis on if he can put his finger on what's causing all the penalties: "It's all about us. I know personally, myself, I can't false-start. The holding calls and stuff like that, some of those are picky calls, but we just can't have that, especially myself. I want to do whatever I can to help this team win and getting a penalty is not doing what I can do to help this team win. So we're going to clean it up and try to go out Sunday and play a good game."
C John Wade on helping the younger guys with penalties: "We need to just work on it in practice. You're going to do what you do in practice, in a game. I think if you're working on it, false starts, if that's your deal, you need to concentrate in practice. When we go on a hard count or whatever it may be, we just need to work on it in practice and it will carry over to game day. Not that people aren't working on it in practice, we just need to be more focused."
Davis on the contributing factors to committing penalties: "Not being disciplined. You've just got to be more disciplined, that's all. Moving and flinching when you're not supposed to…I've been here for a long time and things like that you just don't do. You can't do things like that and expect to stay in this league. I've just got to clean stuff like that up."
Wade on penalties on the offensive line: "There's no question that penalties disrupt your momentum. We just have to eliminate it. There's no magic wand to wave to make it go away. There's nothing really left to talk about. It's just got to be done."
Wade on what factor is causing the penalties: "I don't think it's one, every play is a different situation. We just have to eliminate it. There isn't any reason for it. We just have to clear it up. There's nothing else, we just can't do it. Whatever has got to be done as a group or individually, I think we just have to focus more."
QB Brian Griese on if he considers Miami a blitzing team: "I think that each defense that we play every week has the capability of blitzing. We played Buffalo and last year that had a propensity to blitz an inordinate amount of time. So, last week we played the Jets and they has every blitz in the book. I think Miami has the ability to blitz and I think when you do that, you kind of make your secondary a little bit more vulnerable. They definitely have the ability and they've shown that they will do that, against Carolina they did it. Against us, I'm not sure, but we'll be ready for it if they do."
FB Jameel Cook on why opposing teams seem to blitz so often: "Sometimes it can be a sign of respect. They know they can't stop you. So they blitz and hope that we get rid of it. Like I said, it can go either-or, but we have to be prepared for it. Be prepared for whatever a team can bring. The Dolphins are very talented. They have a lot of veterans. But we just have to get together and know the game plan, and do what we have to do."
Becht on frequent blitzing by opponents affecting the pass-catchers' routes: "I think we just have to do a better job of picking things up. When there is a blitz it's good for us in the passing game. It should open up some big plays. We just have to be better poised and make the plays when they present themselves."
RB Michael Pittman on helping block for QB Brian Griese: "I'll be helping a lot. Jason Taylor is a guy that presents a threat to us. We're not scared of him but, have a lot of respect for him. So, I'll be helping a lot on Jason Taylor this week."
Griese on Jason Taylor and his role in the Dolphins' new defense: "He's in tremendous condition. In their scheme of things, they've asked him to do more this year than they ever have, being a linebacker in some situations and being a defensive end, dropping into coverage. So, he hasn't done that, I don't think, as much in the past as he has this year."
Pittman on what makes Jason Taylor a great player: "He's just good, period. He's quick, but not a very big guy. He's quick, he's fast and he has a lot of talent. He gets to the ball quick. He's off the ball fast. He presents a big threat. We see a guy who's out there who we need to get to, like [John] Abraham last week. We're going to try and do our thing and just eliminate Jason Taylor's play this week. They have a lot of other weapons, like Zach Thomas and Junior Seau. They have a tough defense and we just have to do what we have to do to make a path for our quarterback."
Griese on how much of an impact being sacked has on a quarterback's rhythm: "Obviously, you want to come out and you want to get into your rhythm. Offensively, you want to throw the ball and throw it effectively and throw it on time. You want to run the ball and we didn't do that last week. I got sacked a couple times. A couple times there was really nothing I could do to prevent, other times they're were. So, it takes you out of your rhythm, but the mark of a good offense and a good quarterback is coming back from those things and continuing to work and find a way to disarm the defense."
Griese on what he can do better: "I can make better decisions. I need to stop turning the ball over in situations. I've put our defense in difficult situations and then start to make more plays. Those three things are what the quarterback position is responsible for and that's what I'm working on."
Griese on what has limited the Bucs' scoring the most this year: "We can play a lot better offensively. I can play a lot better and I plan on doing that. As we get into a rhythm, we have a lot of new guys on our offense that continue to get better each week. But, we need to score more points. There's no doubt about it. We need to take pressure off of our defense. Hopefully, we'll start that this week."
Griese on if he's seen something in the tape that tells him why he's turning balls over: "No. I just need to continue to work, continue to understand our offense. We put in new plays that I need to understand better. I need to not take so many things for granted with defenses and continue to read and play the game, rather than trying to outsmart everybody or overanalyze at some point. I just need to go out and play and have fun and this thing will be on the right path."
Griese on the fine line better making smart decisions and the desire to make a play: "No, it doesn't conflict. I think you have to, in your experience playing in the league, playing the position, you know when and when not to try to make plays. Last week was a bad throw on my part. It wasn't a bad decision, the guy was open. It was just a bad throw and that happens. I'm trying to limit those turnovers the best that I can."
Becht on what is important to the offense: "Running is important. Every game we play, we always want to establish a good running game. Last week we began to do that, and situations arose where we couldn't continue that flow. You want to have a balanced attack. That's your ultimate goal going into every game, but sometimes those situations don't help themselves."
Pittman on having fewer rushing attempts in New York and how much of a difference the running game makes: "It allows us to get into the flow of the game. The biggest reason why we didn't have that many rushing attempts was probably in the third quarter when we really weren't on the field all that much. Then during the fourth quarter, the New York Jets went up and Coach [Jon Gruden] is going to try to do what he can to get us some points as fast as he can, and that's throwing the ball. That's probably the biggest reason why we didn't run the ball that much. Earlier in the game, we were moving the ball pretty well on their defense. Once they go up [on the scoreboard] and they control the whole third quarter it's hard to run the ball and try to catch up real fast."
Becht on Carnell Williams: "Obviously, he is a big boost to our offense. But we have other guys that are filling in that role. When he comes back it'll be a nice jump start in the backfield for us. But I think we're fully capable with what we have to do, what we want to do with Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott."
Pittman on how much Carnell Williams will play: "That's totally up to 'Cadillac' and up to Coach [Jon Gruden]. 'Cadillac' wants to play, but it's still up to coach and totally up to 'Cadillac'. If 'Cadillac' is ready to play, he'll play. We definitely need him out there, all the time on the field is better. We're facing a tough defense, so if 'Cadillac' plays, it's all for the best for this team."
RB Carnell Williams on if he has gotten any advice from Michael Pittman on dealing with a lingering foot injury: "He has. Basically he's let me understand not to come back too soon because we want to have what you do on the field. I got a little insight from him and other players how to handle this."
Williams on if he thinks he'll be dealing with foot soreness all year: "Yeah, pretty much. I'm the kind of person who's going to think the worst at times, especially with injuries. I know it's going to be sore practically all year, but once I get over that hump I'll be ready to go."
LB Derrick Brooks on Ronnie Brown: "He seems to be taking what the defense gives him. And then he has the speed to hit you for the big plays. If he finds the crease my run defense is definitely going to be challenged."
Williams on how much it pushes him to want to play against Ronnie Brown: "No, I definitely wouldn't say that's a factor. For me, just watching from the sidelines last week has pushed me even more to want to play on Sunday. That's pushing me more than Ronnie's playing. Hey, we've got a lot of football to play."
WR Michael Clayton on having a connection with QB Brian Griese last year: "Well, a lot of guys were banged up last season and I was just one of the healthy guys. I really feel like Coach Gruden knew that, and that was just the way to go. It's not always going to be like that. I'm a professional and I understand that. You take it in stride. Anything that I can do to help this club, whatever Coach Gruden wants to do then that's what we're going to do."
Griese on if he has the same chemistry with Michael Clayton that he has with Joey Galloway: "Last year, I had a great relationship with Michael and he made a bunch of plays for us. Now, he's been hurt a little bit this year. That's kind of kept him from – I don't now you're going to have to ask him – but I think that it's kept him a little bit from being the type of player he was last year. I fully expect him to get healthier and to get back to the form that he was last year. Ike Hilliard I have a great relationship with. I think he's a tremendous receiver. Now, he doesn't have quite the speed that Joey does or the size that Mike does, but he's a very heady football player and he's very trustworthy. You can trust him in certain situations to make the right reads and to make the catch."
Clayton on if he's been satisfied with any game this season: "No. I mean, satisfied because we're winning, yes, but personally as a player, no. You can't be satisfied with what I've done this year, but I know that it can get better. I'm just trying to do what I can to stay focused, stay positive and continue this season and help this team get some more victories."
Clayton on Head Coach Jon Gruden saying he was going to "double" his workload, not decrease it and if Gruden expressed that to him: "In some cases. As a player, I already do what I can to push myself to the limit. If Coach sees other ways that I can be a better player, than we'll do that. When we speak on that, it will be done. I basically know exactly what he's talking about, and we'll do it, we'll take care of it this week."
WR Mark Jones on if he feels pressure to succeed on special teams: "You take every opportunity as it comes. The coaches don't like dropped balls back there, so they want somebody back there who can catch the ball and try to make something happen. I'm very confident, just because this is what I'm here for. I'm a special teams guy. I return punts and if a kickoff comes my way I can return kickoffs as well."
Bolden on frustrations on special teams: "It gets frustrating when you know you have the potential to make big plays on special teams and you keep leaving them out there on the field. The emphasis this week is focusing on what your job is on special teams, whether you're a returner, whether you're a blocker for the returner, and cut some of these penalties down. Hold your emotions in. You can wait until you get to the sideline and rant and rave and use profane language toward the other team on your sideline, so we've just got to make sure we stay focused and just fight through all this negativity on special teams."
Jones on if he thinks about being the first player to return a kickoff for a touchdown for the Buccaneers: "Yes, it's something I always think about when I'm back deep on kickoff return. That's always in the back of my mind. But first and foremost is to try to catch the ball and do something positive with it."
Jones on if getting some previous opportunities at kickoff return could help him in that job: "Every time you get back there, it always makes the next time that much better. If I'm back there this week I'll definitely feel more comfortable than the first time I was back there."
Brooks on getting to the ball faster: "We definitely have to get faster to the football. It's something that we didn't do a lot of last Sunday. We had less guys around the football and making tackles. It is very important that we get two or three guys around the ball carrier."
Griese on if playing against one of his former teams inspires him: "Well, it used to be the Broncos against the Dolphins, then I was the Dolphins. Now it's the Bucs against the Dolphins. Make of it what you will. It's not a big deal in my mind. Maybe if we were still undefeated and they'd have to ask my dad whether he was rooting for the Dolphins or the Bucs on Sunday."