The Bucs successfully used FB Mike Alstott at the goal against Washington in November; would it work again?
So you're playing the same team you played two months ago, and this time it's win-or-go-home-for-the-winter. The first game was a doozy, with both teams pulling out all the stops in a wild, high-scoring shootout that went down to the final minute.
You have a dilemma of sorts. Do you use the same strategies, at least on offense, that helped you pile up the points last time? Or do you expect your opponent to be ready for those and choose to go a different route? Or, maybe, do you think your opponent will expect that and instead return to your original plays?
These are the kinds of things that Jon Gruden thinks about as he's driving home from One Buccaneer Place.
Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Washington Redskins, 36-35, on November 13. It was a back-and-forth game filled with long plays and dramatic moments, none more dramatic than fullback Mike Alstott's two-point conversion run in the final minute to provide the winning points.
On Saturday, the Bucs and Redskins will meet again in the first NFC Wild Card game. The Bucs, champs of the NFC South, will once again be the host team, as Washington earned the second Wild Card spot with a five-win flurry to finish the season. The two teams have a short week to prepare, having finished their respective regular seasons on Sunday. Given the reduced time, should the Bucs rely much on what they already know from the last game or should they wipe the slate clean?
"I sometimes wrestle with that on the way home," he said Thursday, after his team finished its final full-scale practice of the week. "'Should we call this thing again? They've seen this.' You sometimes go through that a little bit, but there is some familiarity. With this opponent, with the volume of football that they have – they have a myriad of fronts and alignments and coverages and blitzes – that's helped us somewhat. We also respect that they're going to have the same philosophy we have, that once we've shown it maybe we don't show that again."
So what's the final answer? In the end, says Gruden, "I try to just concentrate on our football team, the finality of our attack and do the best we can to perfect it."
Had one team blown the other one out, you might be able to predict the patterns a bit better. The winning team would be inclined to stick with what led to its overwhelming success, while the losing time would probably be looking for new answers. But this was a strong outing for both sides, not to mention a diverse one in terms of play-calling, that could have gone either way.
And you must add this to the discussion: Both of these teams are coming off seasons in which they did much better than most analysts predicted they would. There are very concrete reasons why the Bucs won 11 games and the Redskins 10. To deviate from the formulas for success now would not be wise.
"This time of the year it's hard to make drastic changes," said Gruden. "We're going to be who we are. We're going to come out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully we can play a lot better than we did the last time we saw them."
In addition, game plans change over the course of 60 minutes. Teams adjust to what the opponent is doing and what is working. Things often don't unfold as either team expected. The November game, for instance, was touted as a slugfest between two high-powered defenses, but it was the offenses that shined on a 71-point afternoon.
"You get out there, the first few series, and you just get a feel for what the game is going to be," said quarterback Chris Simms. "You never know in this league. That's the one thing I've learned. We are just going to play our style of football. We are definitely prepared for a good defense. We realize they are very talented. We just want to win, anyway possible. We don't care if it's 6-3, 3-0, or 45-20, whatever it is, we'll be happy."
Defensive end Simeon Rice returned to practice on Thursday after being sent home Wednesday afternoon due to an illness. Rice is feeling well again and has been removed from the injury report.
That's the only change to either team's report on Thursday. The lone question mark for the Buccaneers heading into Saturday's game is safety Jermaine Phillips, who is trying to recover from a knee injury suffered against Atlanta on December 24. Phillip missed the season finale on Sunday and is considered questionable for the Washington game; Gruden said on Thursday that the safety's status would be a game-time decision. If unavailable, Phillips will again be replaced in the starting lineup by Will Allen.
Teammates Laud Wade's Courage
Eighth-year center John Wade was chosen as the Buccaneers' 2005 Ed Block Courage Award winner, it was announced Thursday. Each team in the NFL chooses one winner each year, honoring the winner for courage in the face of adversity.
The award is chosen by the vote of teammates. Wade's fellow Buccaneers appreciated the lineman's tireless work in returning from an uncommonly serious knee injury suffered midway through the 2004 season. Not necessarily expected to be recovered by the start of this year's training camp, Wade opened camp ready to go and proceeded to start all 16 games this season.
Recipients of the Ed Block Courage Award, named for respected humanitarian who was the longtime head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Colts, are recognized for displaying commitments to the principles of courage and sportsmanship and for serving as inspirations in their locker rooms. Recipients are often players who have overcome devastating injuries or tragedies in their personal lives to return to the peak of competition.
For more than 27 years, the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation has celebrated the courageous efforts of players in the NFL while raising the nation's awareness of the plight of abused children in NFL communities. Through the Foundation's Courage House National Support Network for Kids, the organization has helped Courage Houses improve the lives of abused children across America. Named after the NFL team in a respective city, a Courage House is a facility that provides support/quality care for abused children in that community. Currently, more than 50-percent of the teams in the NFL support a Courage House. That group includes: Oakland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Dallas, Baltimore, New York (Giants), Seattle, Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Buffalo, San Francisco and Minnesota.
The winners from the 32 teams will attend the 28th Annual Ed Block Courage Awards on Tuesday, March 7th at Martin's West in Baltimore, Maryland. In an unprecedented move, the Courage Award in New Orleans has been awarded to the entire team, including coaches and staff. The Saints endured a season's worth of difficulties after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The Saints will be represented at the banquet by team captain Wayne Gandy.
Gruden touched on several other topics after the team's last full practice of the Wild Card week, including Michael Pittman taking on the kickoff return job and Ike Hilliard stepping into a larger role in Michael Clayton's absence.
On if the team had a good week of practice: "Yeah, I think so. It was short week, obviously, and we got a lot of work done. I was pleased with it."
On why the Redskins' run defense has been so good recently: "They have good players and they have a diverse scheme. You couple that together, that's tough to run the ball against. They're a disciplined team, they're very physical and they present a lot of different looks – a three-man line, a four-man line, full pressure, full zone. That's a challenge. But we're going to do the best we can. We feel like we have gotten better running the ball. Certainly this will be a great challenge."
On Ike Hilliard playing a bigger role: "He's been playing a big role all year. This is no new deal. He went wire-to-wire against Washington the last time. He's been a guy who's stepped up for us and he's a guy we hope does the same on Saturday."
On how much of a benefit it is to have a veteran replacement like Hilliard when a player goes down: "I don't think it matters who you call on as long as you've got a guy who's able to play. We called on Edell Shepherd – he was a young guy. He stepped up against the Redskins the last time, too. You've got to call on the best players that you have available and you expect them to play well."
On if Chris Simms is ready for his first playoff game: "Well, I think he's ready. He's as ready as he's going to be. He's done a good job. I'm pleased with him. We've been hard on him at times. We've had some high-fives and some great times. I'm really proud of what he's done and I see progress in his play. He's got great character and he's got the intangibles that help our team on game day and during the week. So we'll see. It will be a great test for him."
On if he sees any major differences in the Redskins now from what he saw in November: "We didn't see Sean Taylor the last time; he's a great player. [Cornelius] Griffin didn't play either. They've got some really fine players. No, I thought they were an outstanding team when we saw them a couple months ago…or a couple years ago, it seems like forever ago. We've got a lot of respect for them and we realize we've got to play great to win."
On Michael Pittman's role on kickoff return: "He's had some experience doing that in the past. We just want to get a lift back there. We want to let Edell Shepherd concentrate on being a wide receiver; he's moved up on the chart. He's the first guy to go in in our three-receiver sets, and if [Joey] Galloway or Ike Hilliard gets tired he goes in for them. So we wanted to take the return thing off his plate and let Michael Pittman, a guy we count on, go back there and do a good job for us."
On if there is one main thing about Washington that worries him: "Yeah, there are a lot of things that you concern yourself with. They've got a lot of great players. They have a tremendous ability to run the football with an explosive back. They've got a very explosive wide receiver, a veteran quarterback, a Hall of Fame coach…should I continue? They've got enough to really keep you on your heels and I think we've got some very good players, too. So let's go play."