CB Ronde Barber and the Bucs' defense expects to step up its performance to help balance a rookie starter at quarterback
Over the last couple of weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have heard plenty about starts.
There's the surprisingly winless start of the team as a whole; the equally remarkable start of their opponents Sunday, the 3-1 New Orleans Saints; the unexpected first start of rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski; and the still-anticipated start of the Bucs' running game.
Through it all, veteran cornerback Ronde Barber concerns himself with only one start – the beginning of dominating play by the Buccaneers defense, something that hasn't failed to happen in Tampa in a decade.
"We have to step up," said Barber. "We have a young quarterback, and the defense has to play up to its expectations. For a long time, we've been the standard, and we need to be the standard and not worry about what Bruce [Gradkowski] is going to do. He's going to struggle, probably. He's young. We expect it. The defense has got to play."
The number-one-ranked unit last season, the Buccaneers' defense has encountered its share of problems during the team's first three games this year. Chief among them has been the defense's ineffectiveness at stopping the run. Plagued by missed tackles and lack of containment, Buccaneers defenders have found themselves gashed on the ground this season by their opponents, including surrendering a franchise-high 306 rushing yards to the Atlanta Falcons in Week Two. Entering Week Five, the Buccaneers are second-to-last in the league in rush defense, allowing 170 yards per game.
"It happens, it happens," said Barber calmly of the defense's ground-game troubles thus far. "All we can do is worry about next week and again live up to the standards that we set for ourselves."
In just six days, "next week" will be here for the Buccaneers in the form of the Saints at the raucous Superdome. A two-pronged running attack that features running backs Deuce McAllister and second overall selection Reggie Bush has quite literally helped the Saints rush out to a 3-1 start this season. Ranked seventh in the conference in rushing, the Saints are averaging 103.2 yards per game. McAllister appears to again be healthy after missing 11 games last season with a knee injury and is averaging four yards per carry to go along with three rushing touchdowns. He has split carries with Bush, who has proven himself a capable threat out of the backfield, already catching 23 passes in addition to his 45 carries.
"They're a good team," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They were 2-14 last year for a lot of reasons. I don't think any team in football history went through what they went through last year. We beat them barely both times last year. They've got a Pro Bowl quarterback who they've added to their team. They've got my good friend Reggie Bush out there. And Deuce McAllister who didn't suit up for them last year is also back. That alone bolsters them."
It's a potent offense that Gruden knows will have to be quelled if his Buccaneers have a shot at coming away with their first victory of the season. And now more than ever, the defense will be relied upon to set the tone, considering the Buccaneers offense will be under the command of Gradkowski, a sixth-round selection out of the University of Toledo who will be making his first start in the NFL.
That's not to say Gradkowski isn't capable, but rookie quarterbacks rarely experience wild success in their first starts, much less on the road against a quality opponent. However, if Gradkowski can get help in certain aspects of Sunday's game, he has a chance to buck that trend. He'll need good field position, a low-scoring game and the ability to rely on his running game. The Buccaneers' defense can contribute to all three of those elements.
If Buc defenders can suffocate the Saints' running backs and pressure quarterback Drew Brees into some three-and-outs, they'll be able to force some punts from deep in Saints' territory. Not only will that squash scoring opportunities for the Saints, it will most likely set up the Buccaneers' offense in good field position. That means less field to work with for Gradkowski and less opportunities for rookie mistakes. It also means the Buccaneers can be more aggressive with their play-calling if they are lined up on their 40-yard line as opposed to taking over in the shadow of their own goal posts.
A stout defensive performance could also turn the game into a low-scoring affair. It's not likely the Bucs want to get into a shootout behind their rookie hurler. Gradkowski did show a knack for making the necessary play at the necessary time during the preseason, though. Should Sunday's contest be close in the fourth quarter, the two offenses might be more evenly matched than anticipated. Of course, for the Bucs, that starts with containing McAllister and Bush.
"We've got to stop the run better," Gruden said. "That I know. We've got to run the ball better. We've got to stop the run better. To talk about it is to talk about it. We've got to go out and do it."
Finally, a return-to-form for the Bucs' defense will allow Gradkowski to utilize running back Cadillac Williams more than he has been through the first three games. Even though he's had a slow start, Williams is still the Bucs' most dangerous offensive weapon, capable of shouldering the load and taking over a game, especially in the fourth quarter. Falling behind by double digits would take the Buccaneers out of the running game, as it did against the Baltimore Ravens in Week One. The defense knows it can't allow that to happen. Gruden is confident it will get the job done, as it has so often in the past.
"Our defense is going to step up," Gruden said. "They're going to step up, they always step up. I'm confident that we have the firepower to do that. It's going to be a tremendous challenge, given the Saints have added a Pro Bowl quarterback, the return of one of the great backs in Deuce McAllister and the emergence of a great receiver. They have a great rookie receiver to go with Joe Horn and I'm really impressed obviously with [Reggie] Bush and how they use him. Our defense has a challenge to rise to and I'm confident that they will."