According to Head Coach Tony Dungy, Brad Johnson and the Bucs' offense will have to capitalize on some big-play opportunities to upend Tennessee
Winning on the road is a difficult task in the National Football League, but one that is necessary at some point, obviously. Even a team that runs its home slate needs to prevail in three or four road contests to reach the 11 or 12-win plateau usually needed for a first-round playoff bye.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans that are looking down the schedule for the most attractive road matchups might be tempted to focus on this weekend's game. After all, the Bucs' upcoming opponent is 0-3, is ranked 28th in both offense and defense and is winless at home this season, albeit in just one game.
Don't be fooled, say the Buccaneers. The team sporting those troubling numbers is virtually the same ballclub that won 26 regular season games over the past two seasons and was in the Super Bowl 21 months ago. It is the same Tennessee Titans unit that was considered one of the AFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl again this season.
"They've got a good ball club and they're going to want to get back into the race," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "They're playing at home so we're going to see their best."
It is, for the most part, the same team that had the AFC's best record in 2000, was 15-1 at their new Adelphia Coliseum home before this season and had the league's top-ranked defense a year ago. Gone are DE Kenny Holmes, S Marcus Robertson, CB Denard Walker and FB Lorenzo Neal, but in are sack-happy DE Kevin Carter via a trade, CB DeRon Jenkins and K Joe Nedney. That did little to shake up a team core that includes RB Eddie George, QB Steve McNair, T Brad Hopkins, G Bruce Matthews, WR Derrick Mason, TE Frank Wycheck, DE Jevon Kearse, CB Samari Rolle, S Blaine Bishop and others.
What has apparently hurt the Titans in their quest to return to the Super Bowl is a rash of early-season injuries, particularly on offense. Among the players who have missed games are parts of games due to injury so far are McNair, George, Rolle, Wycheck, Mason, T Fred Miller, CB Dainon Sidney, LB Randall Godfrey and DT John Thornton.
Still, Dungy is preparing his team for a dangerous Tennessee attack, one that ranked seventh in the league rushing last season and 14th overall.
"They've had a lot of injuries in their offense," said Dungy. "The receivers haven't been in the lineup a lot and missed some training camp. McNair was out with some shoulder problem for a few weeks. They are dangerous and they have some good people. Eddie George didn't run a lot and he's starting to get full speed. I would think with the weapons they are going to move the ball eventually on people, hopefully two weeks from now."
It is the Titan defense, though, that was particularly dominant last season, even beating out Baltimore for the NFL yardage championship. Though the 2001 Titans have allowed 365.3 yards per game so far this season, under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, they were able to hold their 2000 opponents to 238.3 yards per game. And that was before the addition of Kevin Carter, the only man with more sacks over the past three seasons (39.5) than the Bucs' Warren Sapp, to bookend with Kearse, their own unnaturally speedy end.
Two edge pass rushers who try to pinch the quarterback fit perfectly into the Titans' very aggressive scheme.
"They force you to throw some balls down field," said Dungy. "You get some bump coverage at times, you have to handle their wide rushers, Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse put a lot of pressure on and you have to be ready to handle the blitz. You have to make the big plays when they're available. If we get a couple of shots and we're not able to capitalize on them, then it's going to be a long day."
It will be a much different approach than the Bucs have seen through their first three weeks, as the Cowboys, Vikings and Packers have all dropped back and guarded against the big play.
"This is going to be a totally different look," said Dungy. "They force the line of scrimmage and make you go after big plays, but they're not going to let you run the ball and grind it out that way. They play a lot of man-to-man coverage. It'll be a different kind of coverage."
Of course, the Buccaneers now better than to overlook a winless opponent on the road, as their one loss so far was at the hands of the then 0-2 Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome. The Vikings, like the Titans, have fallen upon some unexpectedly hard times to begin 2001, but both teams defend their home turf zealously. The Vikings at least momentarily staved off a daunting deficit by beating the Bucs and avoiding an 0-3 mark. The Titans, already 2.5 games behind Baltimore and Cleveland (both 3-1), will have the same motivation, if not more so.
"It is very similar," said Dungy. "They had a bye week (after the postponed Week Two games) just like we had when we went up to Minnesota. They had a bye week and were getting ready for a big division rival. They came up a little short and now they're 0-3."
And that, actually, might be the number that should worry the Bucs the most.
Though still not as widespread as the Titans' health woes, the Bucs' injury report has grown in recent weeks as well, particularly with the loss two weeks ago of RB Warrick Dunn.
The Buccaneers released their injury report for the Tennessee game on Wednesday morning, and Dunn, as reported by Buccaneers.com on Monday, has been upgraded to questionable. To view the entire report in the Matchup section, please click here.