The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fielded the most productive offense in the entire NFL over the past four weeks, as the team has averaged 476.8 yards and 36.0 points per game during that span. As it turned out, that month-long run exactly queued up the second half of the 2012 season, and Head Coach Greg Schiano is mindful of keeping that momentum going into the playoff stretch drive.
"They've done a good job," said Schiano of the Bucs' offensive players. "As you get into the second half of the season, there are a lot of concerns in addition to execution. You've got to make sure that your guys are going to have enough juice when they get to Sunday. I think we've done a good job of balancing that. When we've asked them to go hard, they've gone hard, and they're focused. Hopefully that will lead to good things today."
Many wonder, of course, if rookie RB Doug Martin can continue the kind of production that made him the first player since Walter Payton in 1977 to rack up 486 yards from scrimmage in a two-week span. But Schiano says the key number in the Bucs' formula for success is 5, as in starting quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman ranks third in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (8.10) and has reduced the Bucs' margin for error by grabbing big chunks of yardage at a clip.
"Our quarterback is throwing the ball down the field accurately, and we have receiving threats that can go up and get it," said Schiano. "We compete for the ball. As soon as you have those 'flyover' plays that fly over six or seven plays that it usually takes to get that yardage, when you do that, you avoid any of the problems you can run into, whether it be a penalty or a lost-yardage play. And as you do that, and you hit some of those big plays, then teams begin to adjust their defense, and that allows you to have a more efficient run game as well. That has led to some good stuff."
Freeman's favorite target has been WR Vincent Jackson, who signed with the Bucs in the first day of the open market and is now leading the NFL with an average of 22.9 yards per reception. Jackson goes up against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, this Sunday but Schiano doesn't think that fact will make a difference in the big receiver's play.
"He only knows one speed," said Schiano of Jackson. "He comes out to practice every day and he's an incredible worker. His work ethic is off the charts. He sets the standard for that whole group, and that group is an incredibly hard-working group, led by their coach, P.J. Fleck. It's a really special group of guys and, without a doubt, Vincent Jackson is the leader of that group."
Jackson won't have one of his fellow Buc receivers on the field Sunday, as third-year man Arrelious Benn has been deactivated due to a shoulder injury. That will primarily effect the team's return game, as Benn has been handling kickoff runbacks since Week Two. Rookie RB Michael Smith, who handled that job in Week One, is inactive, so the job is likely to go to one of the Bucs' other reserve receivers – Roscoe Parrish, Tiquan Underwood or Chris Owusu. Owusu, a rookie, is active for the first time this season.
In addition to Smith and Benn, the Bucs also deactivated S Cody Grimm, CB Danny Gorrer, LB Jacob Cutrera, LB Najee Goode and G Roger Allen. Benn and Grimm are out due to injury.
The Chargers' inactives include their starting left tackle, Jared Gaither, who is struggling with a groin injury. Rookie Mike Harris will start in Gaither's place. San Diego's other six inactives are WR Seyi Ajirotutu, CB Chris Carr, S Brandon Taylor, LB Jonas Mouton, TE Ladarius Green and LB Antwan Barnes.
The Bucs and Chargers will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.