T Donald Penn (left) says the offensive players can see the effort being put forth by the defense
They are not numbers that one has often – or perhaps ever – associated with the NFL's 27th franchise.
Fourth in the league in offense; 31st in defense.
That simply hasn't been the way of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' world. In the first 33 seasons of the Buccaneers' existence, the team finished higher in the NFL's offensive rankings than it did in the defensive rankings just six times. If one considers only seasons in which the "O" out-ranked the "D" and finished in the top half of the standings, there has been only one such season: 1984 (10th in offense, 20th in defense).
Obviously, the Bucs have been defense-driven since their revival in the mid-'90s. The team came within five points of the Super Bowl in 1999 despite ranking 28th in offense. The 2002 squad did win the championship with the league's best defense and an offense that ranked 24th before hitting its stride in the postseason.
But fourth-and-31st, that's the Buccaneers of 2009.
To be clear, the current rankings after just two games are almost certain to change significantly, and the Bucs have had hot offensive starts and/or bad defensive starts in the past. The Bucs were 21st in defense after two weeks in 2007 but climbed all the way to second by the end of the year.
Still, this year's team does appear to have a different tilt than usual, and it doesn't look like it's going away. The Buccaneers' offensive output through two weeks (401.5 yards per game) has looked anything but fluky, and it has been achieved through a healthy run-pass balance. The Bucs think their ground attack will be the strength of the team over the course of 16 games, but they've also racked up the sixth-most passing yards in the game so far.
Simply put, the Bucs believe the offense is for real. Now, if they can find the improvement they expect to find on defense – maybe restore a good percentage of that defensive pride that has carried the team for so long – the overall result could be very good.
"We've been trying to win football games around here the hard way for a long time," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, remembering when Warren Sapp used to claim they only needed 16 points from the offense. "That's hard winning. Right now we're trying to figure out a new way to win and maybe it's a little bit on offense. We've got this offense rolling. You bring in a guy like Kellen Winslow; Derrick Ward; Cadillac [Williams] is up and running; you get Byron Leftwich here to lead the troops; you get this offensive line that was built [for this]; some of the receivers are stepping up. You're building the offense to where you want it to be."
Even in the lopsided defense/offense years such as 1999, the Bucs' locker room almost never became divisive between the two sides of the line of scrimmage. Now that the roles have reversed, at least for now, the same is still true.
"Our defense is playing hard," said left tackle Donald Penn. "The effort's there. We're just not making plays; the effort's there. I have nothing bad to say about these guys. They're playing their butts off. If we need to score more and start doing more, then that's what we're going to have to do. That's a team. We're ready to do it. I think we just want to build on the good things we've done. We've got to get some wins."
Morris isn't shocked to see some of the struggles the team has had on the defensive side of the ball, given the massive amount of turnover in a short time. The team has seven new primary starters on defense at this point compared to its most common lineup from 2008, though injuries (Jermaine Phillips) and a suspension (Tanard Jackson) have played a part in that, too. Morris believes in the new talent, though, and expects them to advance steeply up the learning curve.
"Now on defense we're young," he said. "We've got a bunch of guys in the draft, a bunch of guys with limited experience, there's no doubt about that. You're going to go out there and have some growing pains. They've got to get out there and learn quickly. They have to catch up. If they can do that, we'll have a chance to compete in this league.
The Buccaneers had one very notable addition to their injury report on Thursday, but it shouldn't be a cause for concern.
Running back Cadillac Williams was held out of the second practice of the week due to soreness in the knee he spent the 2009 offseason rehabilitating. Given that Earnest Graham (hamstring) and Clifton Smith (quad) have both been limited in practice this week, that potentially left the Bucs' usually deep backfield very shallow.
However, Williams has no new injury and is expected to return to practice on Friday and play against the Giants on Sunday.
"He's sore after the turf game with the knee," referring to the surface at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. "It's nothing to do with [his 2008] surgery. That's just the first time on the turf and he's a little sore. He's expected to play."
Derrick Ward is the only one of the Bucs' four active tailbacks who was running without issue in practice on Thursday. However, Morris doesn't foresee having to change the team's approach in the running game, despite the various aches and pains.
"We're going to envision hopefully using the same plan," said Morris. "Our plan has been in place for that exact reason. You talk about people getting nicks. We may lean on somebody else in each game, depending on how they feel on Sunday."
The Bucs actually had two additions to their injury report, and the second one will impact the depth chart on game day. Rookie defensive end Kyle Moore will have surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on Friday and definitely will miss Sunday's game against the Giants. The injury is not season-ending.
Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who underwent a similar procedure in early August, also did not practice on Thursday after taking part in Wednesday's workout in a limited fashion. At this point, Bryant is following a similar pattern to last week, and that one ended with the team traveling to Buffalo without him. With wide receiver Maurice Stovall missing his second straight practice due to a knee injury sustained in Buffalo, the Bucs are getting a little thin at receiver. Given their pass-catching threats at tight end and running back, the cupboard is far from bare, but Sunday's game could be a golden opportunity for reserve receiver Brian Clark.
"Here we go, Brian Clark," said Morris. "Ready, up and riding. It started in the preseason. We've talked about this. He's got to be mentally tough and ready to go."
Rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller did return to a limited role in practice on Thursday, which Morris considered a good sign. Miller is attempting to recover from an ankle injury sustained in Buffalo. The rest of the Buccaneers' injury report was unchanged, as center Jeff Faine (triceps) again was held out of practice. Faine sustained a triceps injury on opening weekend that is expected to keep him out for at least a couple weeks. Tight end John Gilmore (ankle), cornerback Elbert Mack (shoulder) and linebacker Matt McCoy (back) were all able to practice without limits.
The Giants' injury report was unchanged on Thursday. The eight Giants who did not practice on Wednesday – defensive tackle Chris Canty (calf), cornerback Kevin Dockery (hamstring), wide receiver Domenik Hixon (knee), wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (foot), safety Kenny Phillips (knee), cornerback Aaron Ross (hamstring), defensive end Justin Tuck (shoulder) and running back Danny Ware (elbow) – were all held out again on Day Two of the team's preparations for the Bucs.
From HBO to the Big Show
Corey Lynch has two jobs on the practice field with his new team this week.
The first job is to serve as one of the safeties on the scout-team defense. That's an every-down task during offensive periods, because he is the only backup at safety to the two starters, Sabby Piscitelli and Will Allen. In fact, he has to be joined by one of the team's cornerbacks playing out of position to field the back end of the scout defense.
The second job is to be Joe Baker's shadow.
Baker is the Buccaneer's defensive backs coach, which means he is tasked with getting his newly-acquired safety depth as conversant with the defensive scheme as possible before the weekend arrives. Morris said there is a very good chance that Lynch will be among the 45 active players on game day against the Giants, and if so he could be one mishap away from providing run support on Brandon Jacobs and keeping Mario Manningham from getting deep.
Just last week, Lynch was doing scout-team work for the Cincinnati Bengals as a member of their practice squad. Because the Bengals' training camp was featured on the popular HBO "Hard Knocks" program this summer, Lynch's battle to make the team was well-documented. He thus arrived in Tampa with some built-in fans, so to speak.
"We call him 'HBO,'" said Morris with a laugh. "[Elbert] Mack was excited to see him. He sat him down next to him and told him he was 'his dog' and he's been watching him the whole training camp. So we've had a lot of fun with him."
Morris admits that he didn't know much about Lynch beyond what was portrayed on "Hard Knocks," though obviously the Buccaneers' personnel department had scouted him thoroughly. Lynch was a three-time FCS All-American at Appalachian State before the Bengals drafted him in the sixth round in 2008. Morris has appreciated what he's seen from the second-year player during his first two days on the Bucs' practice field.
" I'm not going to kid you that I knew a lot about him coming of out college," said the coach. "He was not in my offseason study. But what he did out there in camp, what he did coming in here you like. He's a competitive guy; just watch him on HBO. Now he's in here and he's competing the same way, he's playing the same way and he's bonding with his teammates.
"I see a guy who's really intense, a guy coming in here to prove his worth and prove his makeup. He's one of those guys that's naturally locked-in. He's learning the playbook and he sees some similarities [with the Bengals' system]. He's really intense."