The Buccaneers believe veteran QB Jeff Garcia can lead them deep into the playoffs
Asked about defensive end Michael Strahan on Wednesday, Jon Gruden raved about the New York Giants' vocal leader, and understandably so. Strahan is not only one of the best defenders of his era but also an experienced veteran who can help prepare his teammates for the intense atmosphere created by the postseason.
"Strahan's upper body strength, the power in the man, is what really impresses me," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach. "I don't know what year this is for him, but he's playing as good know as I remember from playing against him 10 years ago. He is a great physical football player."
Fortunately, Gruden's team has several players with similar qualifications, key performers on the field who happen to be battle-tested in January. Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber immediately come to mind, but where this year's team has improved the most in terms of experience is at quarterback.
Gruden knows how important it is to wade into the postseason with a quarterback as proven as Jeff Garcia.
"He can run around, he can create on his own, he sees looks, he anticipates things and he's a heck of a competitor," said Gruden. "We're looking forward to the future with Jeff Garcia. He's clearly made a big difference on this team."
Gruden first came in contact with Garcia in 1999 when he worked out the former Canadian Football League star for the Oakland Raiders. Garcia eventually signed across the bay and became an instant hit with the 49ers, leading San Francisco to playoff berths in 2001 and 2002.
Garcia's 49ers came to Tampa during the '02 playoffs and lost 31-6 to the eventual Super Bowl champs. To get there, San Francisco had to prevail in one of the most memorable NFL playoff games ever, a wild 39-38 affair that saw New York lose a 24-point lead. Gruden knows what Garcia is capable of on the playoff stage after seeing that contest.
"I remember we were preparing for the Giants, and all of a sudden we were preparing for the 49ers because he got red-hot," said Gruden. "He's capable of playing like that. He's a never-say-die kind of guy and if you give him one more chance he can make you pay. That's the kind of player he is."
Garcia also went to the playoffs with Philadelphia last year, coincidentally leading his team to a win over the Giants again. He agrees that his past postseason success can be an asset to his current team.
"I think one of the things that I am well aware of is how things change in the postseason compared to the regular season," said Garcia, who has six touchdown passes, including two of 75 yards or longer, in his five career playoff outings. "The hitting is harder, the speed seems faster, the excitement is at a new level, the emotions are at a new level, so how you control that or deal with that throughout the week in your preparation is definitely key."
The Bucs also need to figure out how to deal with Strahan and company. New York led the NFL with 53 sacks this season, while Garcia was certainly one of the league's best signal-callers in terms of sensing pressure and avoiding mistakes. He was sacked just 19 times in 13 games – as compared to Luke McCown's 15 sacks in five games – and his 1.2% interception rate was best in the NFC and second in the entire NFL to Jacksonville's David Garrard.
If there is any area in which Garcia's hard-earned experience and steady hand can make a difference during this week's preparation and in the game on Sunday, it will be in handling New York's sack-hungry defenders and avoiding the big mistakes that can turn a game.
"We're aware that they are leading the league in sacks; they've done a great job at getting after the quarterback," said Garcia. "That's the challenge for this weekend that our offensive line and running backs have to prepare for.
"They have a defensive scheme the really presents challenges and problems. John Wade and the offensive line are going to have to do an outstanding job this weekend because they do have their hands full. Our backs are going to have to be aware of where linebackers and defensive backs are coming from and I have to be aware of that, too."
June, Sears Miss Practice
The Buccaneers' injury report for Sunday's Wild Card game isn't long, but it is a "concern," to use Gruden's assessment on Wednesday afternoon.
The team was without a key starter on both sides of the ball during practice on Wednesday, as linebacker Cato June and guard Arron Sears were held out due to foot and ankle injuries, respectively. Both players were hurt in last Sunday's game against Carolina.
June, who was signed away from the Indianapolis Colts this past offseason, has played in every game this season and is about to begin his personal pursuit of a second straight Super Bowl title. During the regular season, he tied for third on the team with 120 tackles and added one sack, one forced fumble and two passes defensed.
"I am concerned," said Gruden regarding June's status. "Again, we'll update his status as the week develops."
Gruden seemed cautiously optimistic about Sears' status on Monday but won't really feel confident that the rookie will be available this weekend until he sees him on the practice field. Sears has started every game this season at right guard and has drawn rave reviews for his quick adjustment to the NFL.
"I would say he's progressing but I don't know at what rate until we see tomorrow," said Gruden. "But he has made a little improvement. Obviously, those two guys didn't practice for a reason."
The only other player on the Bucs' injury report is wide receiver Joey Galloway who, as usual, was kept to a limited role on Wednesday as a team decision.
The Giants' have a slightly longer injury report, including four players who were held out on Wednesday. Three of those four are starters – cornerback Sam Madison (stomach), linebacker Kawika Mitchell (knee) and center Shaun O'Hara (knee). The fourth is reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson (concussion).
Two other New York starters were limited on Wednesday due to injuries – wide receiver Plaxico Burress (ankle) and cornerback Kevin Dockery (hip flexor). Dockery did not play in the Giants' regular-season finale against New England.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (calf) and wide receiver Sinorice Moss (back) were also listed on New York's report, but both practiced on Wednesday.
Donte Nicholson contributed a small piece to the Buccaneers' run to the division title, playing in the team's Week Four win at Carolina and recording one special teams tackle.
Now Nicholson is back to help the Bucs' make the most of that playoff berth.
Tampa Bay re-signed the second-year safety on Wednesday, filling a roster spot opened when rookie defensive tackle Greg Peterson was placed on injured reserve. Peterson suffered a hamstring injury last Sunday against Carolina. Before he was hurt, the fifth-round pick out of North Carolina Central appeared in 10 games and contributed 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
The Buccaneers aren't particularly thin at safety, so it's likely that Nicholson will mostly concentrate on special teams. He is a strong kick-coverage man who has 10 career special teams stops in his 11 regular-season games played. Nine of those 11 games occurred during Nicholson's 2005 rookie season, after the Buccaneers drafted him out of Oklahoma in the fifth round.
The Bucs also made a series of moves on their practice squad on Wednesday. Cornerback Darrell Hunter and tackle Dennis Roland were released, and the Bucs filled those two openings by re-signing guard Ryan Gibbons and adding tackle Alan Reuber.
Roland has been on the Bucs' practice squad all season, except for a short October stretch in which he was promoted to the active roster. Hunter spent four non-consecutive weeks on that unit.
Gibbons, a 6-6, 329-pound lineman out of Northeastern, originally entered the league as a rookie free agent with Jacksonville in April of 2006. He spent 15 weeks on the Jaguars' practice squad as a rookie, then was allocated to NFL Europa for the spring season. After his NFLEL season, Gibbons went back to camp with the Jaguars this season but was waived on September 2 and added to the practice squad again for the first two weeks of the season. The Bucs signed him for the first time on October 3 and he spent six weeks with the team.
At Northeastern, Gibbons was a four-year starter on the offensive line, playing in 46 career game and making 36 starts.
The 6-6, 307-pound Reuber spent the entire 2004 season on Arizona's active roster, appearing in the last three games. He had been claimed by the Cardinals off waivers from the Vikings after Minnesota had originally signed him as an undrafted free agent the previous spring.
Reuber spent most of 2005 on Arizona's practice squad and a good portion of last season on Cincinnati's practice squad. He has not played in the NFL this season after being waived by the Bengals at the end of the preseason.
Reuber played his college ball at Texas A&M, appearing in 47 games and making 21 starts.