The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't get the result they wanted last Sunday at Lambeau Field, but they did get the formula right.
LeGarrette Blount powered an effective rushing attack, the defense played aggressively and the Bucs played a full 60 minutes, which left the outcome in doubt into the last few minutes of the game, where QB Josh Freeman often does his best work. The Green Bay Packers held on for a 35-26 win and kept their unbeaten season alive, but the visiting team got back to playing what it considers "Buccaneer football."
It was no moral victory, but it at least provided a boost of confidence for a team very much in need of one.
"For us to win football games, we've got to play our brand of football," said Head Coach Raheem Morris a week later, as his team warmed up for its next game at LP Field in Nashville. "And our brand of football is the way we played last week, being able to go out there and run the football, being able to play tough, solid defense. We've got to get off the grass, get the ball back for our team and get the ball back in Freeman's hands in order to win the game."
The loss in Green Bay dropped the Bucs to 4-6 and left them on the edge of the NFC playoff race. It would take a six-game season-ending winning streak for the team to match its 10-6 mark of last year, which might be necessary to grab a spot in the postseason field. The Bucs only need one of those six on Sunday, however, as they take on the Tennessee Titans, and they'll need to be better than they were in Green Bay to get it.
"You've got to go out there and prepare for the next team," said Morris. "The Tennessee Titans will be a tough opponent today. You can't rely on what you did last week. That means absolutely nothing. We've got to go out and prepare ourselves to play our best game, and that's what we did this week. We did a nice job of preparing.
"We're just trying to go one in a row right now. The whole team's focused on that. We're just trying to go 1-0. We're trying to get this game today, the most important game, and we can't wait."
Blount claims no extra motivation from going against the team that originally brought him into the league in 2010, but the Bucs are still hoping for another inspired performance from him. On a day that began with rain and very well see more of it, a reliable rushing attack would certainly give the Bucs an edge. It was Blount's tackle-breaking 54-yard touchdown run against the Packers that got the Bucs' rally started last Sunday at Lambeau.
"It was a great group effort, and on that run in particular it was a great individual effort by him," said Morris of his 250-pound second-year back. "We've got to go out and execute those types of plays all the time. We've got to be more consistent with that type of play in order for us to get wins. That's what we're looking for."
The Bucs found the centerpiece for their rushing attack in September of last year, after Blount was released by the Titans. He had come to Tennessee as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon but the Titans had a crowded backfield led by Pro Bowler Chris Johnson and they hoped to keep the rookie on the practice squad. Tampa Bay swooped in with a waiver claim, which worked out perfectly for Blount. There's no reason for any lingering animosity between him and the Titans, but Morris can hope.
"Hopefully he's angry at the Titans so he can take it out on those guys today," said the coach with a laugh. "But I just want him to get him out there and give him a chance to help his team win. He's been out there being productive, so hopefully we get more production out of him this week and we'll be happy at the end of the day."
Blount hasn't had as many big days in 2011 as he did as a rookie, but that has largely been the result of too many early-game deficits for the team as a whole. When he has had the opportunity to run the ball more than a handful of times, he's done well, such as his 18-carry, 107-yard performance against the Packers. Blount is averaging 4.6 yards per carry this season, and has topped five yards per carry in four of the eight games he's played.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who averaged 1,500 rushing yards over his first three NFL seasons, has struggled to just over 500 yards and 3.2 yards per carry this season. Obviously, the Titans will be looking to establish their running game on a wet afternoon, as well, and the Bucs expect Johnson to be as dangerous as he was from 2008-10.
"Chris is an amazing player," said Morris. "Obviously ,he went out the last couple of years and broke all kinds of records. He's a big-play player and it can happen for him on any given play. We've just got to go out and be sound and fundamental. We've got to play our brand of defense and hopefully we get a win."
The Bucs will face Johnson without one of their better run-stoppers, as starting left end Michael Bennett will sit out due to a lingering groin strain. In his place, Da'Quan Bowers will make his first career start, pairing with right end Adrian Clayborn to give the Bucs a pair of rookies on the edges. Bowers has 15 tackles, five quarterback pressures, a fumble recovery and two passes defensed this season and has seen a very welcome increase in his playing time in recent weeks.
"Mr. Bowers is ready," said Morris. "He's prepared himself this week. He's gone out there and practiced as hard as he possibly can. He's done a nice job of getting better all year and now it's his time. He's got to go out there and play like a starter, or even better. I look forward to him having an opportunity today and it should be fun to watch."
Starting free safety Tanard Jackson will return to the lineup after sitting out last week's game in Green Bay due to a hamstring strain that has plagued him since Week Seven. The Bucs consider Jackson to be one of their top play-makers on defense and are thus thrilled to have him back in action.
"Tanard's got some amazing toughness," said Morris. "He'll go out there and give us his best effort and we look forward to getting it from him today. He's an amazing young individual. If he gives us what he's capable of giving us today, we'll be happy."
In addition to Bennett, the Buccaneers have declared the following six players inactive: CB Anthony Gaitor, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, LB Zac Diles, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and WR Michael Spurlock. LB Dekoda Watson, who has missed the last two games with a groin injury, is expected to play.
The Titans declared these seven inactives: QB Rusty Smith, RB Jamie Harper, LB Barrett Ruud, C Kevin Matthews, DT Zach Clayton, T David Stewart and WR Donnie Avery. Ruud and Stewart, two usual starters, are out due to injuries. Colin McCarthy will start in Ruud's place at middle linebacker and Mike Otto will fill in at right tackle for Stewart.
The Bucs and Titans kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.