Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Tony Dungy thinks the Patriots are going to force his team to the air, where they can’t afford to fail


WR Jacquez Green flashed his big-play ability two weeks ago in Foxboro

Les Steckel, in his first year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator, is expected to be the doctor that cures what has ailed the team's attack. Just don't expect any radical treatments. Steckel's philosophy fits that of Head Coach Tony Dungy like a glove, meaning the Bucs will still strive to run the ball down their opponents' throats.

"We believe in a hard-nosed running game and being physical," said Steckel at the team's hotel near Boston on Saturday. "And we believe in balance in the passing game."

Yes, but do the Patriots believe? Less than a day before the Bucs' 2000 season opener, Dungy feels strongly that New England will endeavor to take away the Bucs' running game. That means, even in a sometimes windy Foxboro Stadium, the visitors will need to make some headway through the air.

"I think they will do some things to take our running game away," said Dungy. "What that will be, I'm not sure yet…maybe safety blitzes or bringing Lawyer Milloy into the box. Early in the season, I think people will want to force Shaun to beat them.

"I think we're going to have to make some plays in the passing game. I'd be surprised if they let us run for 175 yards without really working for it."

So much of the offensive onus, at least early on, may fall on second-year quarterback Shaun King. In the Bucs' third preseason game on August 20, also against the Patriots in Foxboro Stadium, King threw for 191 yards and a touchdown and was not intercepted or sacked. The significance of those stats, being August generated, are debatable, but Steckel believes King is capable of duplicating them under more serious circumstances.

"He is without a doubt one of the brightest young quarterbacks I've ever worked with," said Steckel. "He's terribly poised, he's got a great personality, he's very upbeat. He has grasped this thing as well as anybody."

'This thing,' of course, is the Buccaneers new offense, which has been force-fed to King and his mates over the last five months. Steckel estimates that over 90% of the system has been installed by now, though the Bucs won't use all of it tomorrow, obviously. Very little of that attack was displayed during the preseason, though, making King's 61.5% completion percentage all that much more impressive.

"He's a good young quarterback and he'll develop," said Keyshawn Johnson, who could be King's primary target on Sunday. "With young guys like that, things will happen. But, to me, he did very well in the preseason, even though we didn't show much."

What might we see, now that the regular season has arrived and the game of hide-and-seek is mostly over? Certainly a different approach than Buc fans are used to.

"Last year," said King, "we were more of a quick-gain passing team. Most of our passes were ball-control…move the chains. This year, when we do throw it, I think we're going to open it up a little more."

What Buc fans are certainly expecting is for the ball to end up in Johnson's hands on several occasions. In the Bucs' game in Foxboro two weeks ago, Johnson was basically ignored during the first quarter but was repeatedly on the receiving end of key third down passes in the second period. The Bucs don't necessarily want King to be overly reliant on his new Pro Bowl target, and they believe Johnson will be patient depending on the flow of the game.

"He knows we're going to try to get the ball to him," said Dungy. "The important thing is that we win the game. When we get the ball to him is the most important thing. We may go away from him early some games, but if he makes the big play in the fourth quarter, I get the impression that that's what he wants."

In the meantime, the Bucs' other receivers will have to prove they can get open for the Bucs' young quarterback. That's something that doesn't concern King terribly. He actually has a very high opinion of the Bucs' next two receivers, Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony, and he hit the two of them a combined three times for 120 yards.

"They're playmakers; they're very talented," said King of the pair of former Florida Gators. "I think they've been handcuffed and haven't had a chance to show what they can do. I think they will tomorrow because the Patriots are going to be double-teaming Key."

Dungy, King, Steckel and Johnson were all in agreement on that point Saturday night. Johnson is expecting a 'bracket' on third downs, with one Patriot covering him outside and one inside. On other plays, he may see single coverage, but it will likely be Pro Bowl CB Ty Law. The two are very familiar with each other, having been AFC East foes for years.

"We've played against each other for four years," said Johnson. "He's won some battles in certain downs and distances, and so have I. He's one of the better cornerbacks in the (AFC East) division, in the league. He's a real aggressive guy. You have to come with your A-Game against him to have any success. But I approach the game the same way against the top guys. As long as I do my job, it doesn't matter what they do."

The same, hopefully, is true of King. A strong preseason has built team confidence in the Bucs' still developing starter, and that confidence should allow the team to open up the attack when necessary. Dungy pretty much says so when he repeats his offensive philosophy, with a little twist at the end.

"We really want to be sound fundamentally," he said. "We're still a running team. But we have some things in now to take advantage of what Shaun can do."

The Patriots may force the Bucs to use them.

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