Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Southern Comfort

The Bucs enjoy having a Florida rival on the preseason schedule, especially this season

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The Bucs know that Miami's hard-charging defensive linemen will be a strong challenge for their front wall

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent two days sharing the Florida Citrus Bowl with the Miami Dolphins late last month, and they've got a full day of travel planned for Thursday in order to meet the Dolphins again in Miami.

You might think that the Bucs are sick of their downstate NFL counterparts, but you'd be mistaken. The Bucs very much enjoy what seems like a budding Florida rivalry, and the matchup this year may prove to be particularly useful. As Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy explained, facing the hardworking Dolphins squad is a perfect test for his team.

"They're good for us because their style is so much different than what we are," said Dungy. "Defensively, they're a lot of bump-and-run, a lot of man-to-man coverage, which we don't see a lot of from our people in practice.

"Offensively, they're really two-back, doing some things in the running game differently than what we do. I think it's good for us to see a different style. They play very hard, and they're very physical, so that's good preparation as well."

Those are lessons the Bucs and Dolphins learned about each other in the Citrus Bowl on July 28 and 29. They also learned that neither team is prepared to take a backseat to the other, regardless of their recent successes. Even though none of the four practices of that weekend included a scrimmage, the entire eight hours of work had a very intense, gameday feel to them.

Expect that intensity to ratchet up yet another notch on Thursday.

"I think when you play someone close in proximity to you, it's always a little bigger than normal," said Dungy. "And the fact that they've been a playoff team the last five, six years…I think that adds something to it as well. It's still a preseason game, but it's one we want to go out and play well and we want to win."

The Bucs and Dolphins have actually had little opportunity to test that theory in the regular season, facing each other just two times in the last 10 years. The preseason schedule is a different matter – this is the seventh August meeting between the two teams since 1994 – Dungy wouldn't mind if they were given the opportunity to meet regularly with higher stakes on the line.

"I like the geographic rivalries," said Dungy. "I think they're always good. Obviously, when we do realign, someone's going to have to move somewhere. No one really wants to be the team to move, but I think however it works out, we'll be happy with it. I do like those geographic rivalries.

Dungy indicated that he would welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars into that regular mix, though the teams have not yet slated each other for the preseason. These thoughts of in-state battles for supremacy have only become popular since the Buccaneers have turned around the fortunes of their once-struggling franchise since 1996. At this point, the Bucs, Jaguars and Dolphins are all considered strong playoff contenders; Tampa Bay advanced the furthest of the three last year but the Jaguars had the best regular-season record in 1999 (14-2) and the Dolphins have the richest postseason history.

Not that Dungy will discuss the playoffs at this point. Right now, he's looking forward to the Miami trip in that it gives the Bucs a variety of stiff tests without making them travel too far. "We like the close trips. The fact that it's a short ride and it's on grass is great."

The fact that the Dolphins will be ready to give the Buccaneers all they can handle is a bonus, at least in the preseason. In addition to the aggressive nature of the defensive backs on display in Orlando, the Bucs also witnessed a pass-rush difficult to handle in the Dolphins' 13-10 loss to Pittsburgh last week. The Dolphins won most of the statistical battles in that game, but none more so than net passing. Pittsburgh racked up a surreal net passing yards total of negative five, thanks to six sacks for 33 yards. The Bucs' took notice during film sessions.

"We did," confirmed Dungy. "They've got some speed guys that can come. They bring in their pass-rushing group and Trace Armstrong is very good at coming off the corner on the left side. They've got big guys in the middle; they've got linebackers and DBs that can come in the blitz package. They gave Pittsburgh a lot of problems."

They may do the same to the Bucs, but they also provide Tampa Bay with a good barometer for it's offensive development. And, maybe some day they'll give the Bucs an annual rival as well.

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