WR Reidel Anthony is likely to hold on to the punt return duties in Karl Williams' absence, Head Coach Tony Dungy said on Sunday
While most of the NFL was at play on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were traveling to St. Louis for their Monday night matchup with the Rams. Some of the games that were contested while the Bucs flew to the Midwest might eventually affect the team's playoff position, but being 40,000 feet in the air generally discouraged any scoreboard watching for Tampa Bay players.
And that was fine with Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy, who would prefer to have his players concentrating on their own challenge this weekend. Still, even if the jockeying in the standings was to be ignored, the manner in which several teams won on Sunday was very relevant to the Bucs' cause.
In two notable early-afternoon games, the Pittsburgh Steelers won 34-24 at Tennessee and the San Francisco 49ers prevailed 40-21 at Indianapolis.
The Steelers' had the game's only two takeaways, including an interception return for a touchdown that iced a very close game. The 49ers were even more opportunistic, picking off Colts QB Peyton Manning four times and snaring a total of five takeaways.
In both cases, the teams appeared to be fairly evenly matched and the home fields were notoriously noisy places, but the visitors turned the tide by forcing turnovers. The Bucs may have to follow the same pattern to leave St. Louis' Dome at America's Center with a much needed win.
"That's what happens this time of year," said Dungy. "You're playing hard, but the teams that can play with that intensity but not make mistakes are the teams that are going to win. A lot of times, it's one big turnover that kind of turns a game."
The Bucs need look no further than last Sunday in Raymond James Stadium to find supporting evidence for that thought. Tampa Bay rang up 414 yards of offense and almost completely controlled the flow of the game in three of the four quarters against the visiting Chicago Bears, but lost the turnover battle, 4-1, and lost the game, 27-24.
And so it was that Dungy, upon reaching the team's visiting hotel in St. Louis, was more than willing to speak of the importance of turnovers. His Bucs are a very satisfying plus-eight in that category this season, and Dungy is hopeful that another jump in that ratio could mean a move back to .500 for the 4-5 Buccaneers.
Dungy sat down with Buccaneers.com at the team's St. Louis headquarters and discussed a variety of issues on the eve of the team's most important game in a long time. With the long, Monday Night Football preparation week about over and a Thanksgiving-interrupted work week just behind, Dungy assessed his the state of the Buccaneers' health, preparation and more.
Buccaneers.com: How is the team's overall health, given the Friday injury to rookie safety John Howell and the long week of practice?
Dungy: "Actually, injury-wise we're in pretty good shape. (Wide receiver) Karl Williams will not play. John Howell we're going to have to run in the pregame warmup. He's probably questionable right now, but other than that we should have everyone else available. Most of the guys practiced this week so we're in a pretty healthy condition."
Buccaneers.com: Jacquez Green hasn't played in over a month but he's listed as probable and the team is already down a receiver with Williams out. Will Green be able to contribute?
Dungy: "I think when he gets the adrenaline going and gets out there he's going to feel good. He went through the whole week of practice and did well."
Buccaneers.com: Warrick Dunn had a big day against the Rams last November, but he has been hampered by several injuries this year, including a lingering turf toe problem. Is he ready to run full speed on Monday?
Dungy: "Warrick is running okay. We gave him yesterday off just to rest him but he practiced Wednesday and Friday and did well."
Buccaneers.com: The team's return game is suddenly in flux. Frank Murphy handled the kickoff return job for the first time last week and Reidel Anthony filled in on punts when Karl Williams left the game. Will we see more of those two or will you go with experienced players like Aaron Stecker on kickoffs and Green on punts.
Dungy: "It will probably be Frank Murphy on kickoffs and Reidel Anthony on punts."
Whoever returns kicks and punts, has there been a premium placed on catching the ball first, given the recent glitches in that area?
Dungy: "That's going to be big for us, securing it. They can all run with it and they can all make big plays, but we've got to make sure that we do handle the ball well. It's going to be a big thing in this game. We cannot afford turnovers."
Buccaneers.com: What's your impression of the mood of the team during this long week of preparation for a big game?
Dungy: "I think the mood is very focused. We know the job we put in front of ourselves. Then, when you play a very good football team on the road, you know you have to be extra sharp. You can't afford mistakes, and that's kind of the way we practiced."
Buccaneers.com: Leading up to this game, some former Bucs who currently play for St. Louis have made it clear that they are gaining extra motivation from playing Tampa Bay. Is there motivation for Buc players in competing against these former teammates?
Dungy: "I think our motivation is, we're 4-5 and we definitely need a win. We're coming to play the team that has the best record in football. That's our motivation, but we're sure those guys are going to be fired up and ready to play."
Buccaneers.com: You've had some defensive backs banged up during recent weeks, and the Rams seem likely to confront you with three and four-wide receiver sets. Will the Bucs have to make any personnel decisions based on the Rams' likely offensive approach?
Dungy: "They play multiple personnel sets. They're just as likely on one second down to have two tight ends and two backs in, then the next second down to have four wide receivers in. They just really try to mix it up on you. Fortunately, all our DBs are pretty healthy."
Buccaneers.com: Finally, did you enjoy Thanksgiving this week?
Dungy: "We had it completely off. We didn't go in the office at all, and that was a first for most of our guys. It made Thanksgiving that much more enjoyable."