The Lions' mammoth offensive line couldn't stop the Bucs from sacking QB Charlie Batch seven times in September
As the head coach of a National Football League team, you have to concern yourself with virtually every detail of your team's day-to-day and game-to-game preparation. Did we practice for all probable game situations? Can we keep all the players that we need for special teams on the active list? Do we have adequate meeting space at the team hotel?
As an NFL fan, you have the luxury of focusing on just the few items that seem crucial to the game ahead. Can we stop the run? Can we get pressure on the quarterback? Is one of our star players injured?
Let us fall into that latter category. With a quick examination of the statistics, situations and stories surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Detroit Lions on Thursday night, we've identified nine issues that seem like potential concerns. With the game just over a day away, we confronted Head Coach Tony Dungy with those nine items to gauge which ones should be at the top of our worry list.
Dungy, after leading his team through a morning walk-through and before using the afternoon to work on a backlogged list of errands, listened to our list. As is his nature, Dungy gave a thoughtful answer to each item and consistently praised the opponent's strengths. Still, it seemed clear which items were of greater concern, at least by our judgment of his responses.
Here were the big nine on our list:
1. Detroit return man extraordinaire Desmond Howard Perceived level of concern: Very high.
Howard is no stranger to the Buccaneers. He turned in two long returns in the first meeting between these two teams, in the Silverdome on September 17, one for 70 yards and another for 63. It was virtually the only blemish on the Bucs' dominating 31-10 win that day. Howard ranks 10th in the NFC with a 23.9-yard average on kickoff returns.
He didn't hurt the Bucs running back punts in September, but he certainly is capable of doing so. In fact, Howard's 15.8-yard average on punt returns this season is first in the NFC and second in the NFL and a good example of how large of an impact he can have on field position.
In the last Bucs-Lions game, Howard broke free by running counter to the side Detroit had set up its supposed 'wedge'. Chances are, Detroit will have a new strategy to spring their speedy return man this week.
"Yes, that's definitely an issue for us," said Dungy. "He hit two long returns against us last time and he's been a big part of their ability to get field position. We really feel like we've got to put the clamps on him, on punts and kickoff returns."
2. Tampa Bay's injuries at linebacker Perceived level of concern: Not too high
Dungy constantly prescribes to the theory that his team has enough depth to weather injuries almost anywhere, as long as the players down on the depth chart are prepared to step up. In this case, those players could be Al Singleton, Don Davis and Nate Webster.
The Buccaneers have excellent depth at linebacker behind starters Derrick Brooks, Jamie Duncan and Shelton Quarles. That could come into play on Thursday with both Quarles and valuable reserve Jeff Gooch on the injury report. Quarles practiced on Tuesday but wasn't 100 percent; he's listed as probable with a groin strain. Gooch is questionable for the game thanks to a shoulder strain suffered in practice on Monday. Duncan will return to the lineup at middle linebacker after missing one game due to a concussion.
There is a lot of shuffling going on within the linebacker corps in recent weeks, and a potential for a shortage on Thursday.
"We could be a little thin," said Dungy. "We don't know for sure on Jeff or Shelton, if they're going to play. We'll probably know that after the warmup tomorrow night. But we have five other backers, and if we do have to go with five, we'll just have to keep the rotation going between Don Davis, Nate Webster…those would be the guys that have to help us."
3. A recently resurgent James Stewart Perceived level of concern: High
The general belief around One Buc Place is that there is no way Detroit will abandon the run as quickly as it did last month in the Bucs' victory. The Lions ran only 10 times for 17 yards in that contest, including two quarterback scrambles. The team's big offseason acquisition, RB James Stewart, carried the ball just eight times for 13 yards, but he has been much more of a presence in recent weeks.
"Yes, the last two weeks, against Minnesota and Green Bay, they've really moved the ball much better on offense," said Dungy. "I think they're more solidified with their offensive line. Any time Detroit's beaten us, they've always had a good day running the ball. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen."
Good point, coach.
Detroit has won six of the last nine regular-season games between the Lions and Bucs, averaging a whopping 153.9 rushing yards per game in those six contests. In the other three, all Tampa Bay wins, Detroit has rushed for an average of 32 yards per game. That's a gigantic disparity and a solid clue as to why the Buccaneers always claim stopping the Lions' running game as their number-one task.
4. The possibility of Herman Moore reclaiming his Pro Bowl magic Perceived level of concern: Moderate
Dungy, a long time resident of the NFC Central (he spent four seasons as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator before heading to Tampa in 1996) has a very healthy respect for Moore, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver. Moore's role through the first six games of the season has been reduced by the emergence of Germane Crowell, but Crowell is now sidelined by a foot fracture and Moore is back in the starting lineup. He caught 82 passes as recently as 1998.
Moore has five career 100-yard receiving games against the Buccaneers and is always a concern when he's on the field. If Dungy is confident against Moore, it's in a big-picture sense; that is, Tampa Bay hopes to shut down the Lions' offense as a whole.
"I think he'll definitely get more chances to catch the ball and be a bigger part of the offense," said Dungy. "Losing Crowell, they lose a real speed guy and a guy who's made a lot of big plays for them, but they've replaced them with a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Moore. So we can't think that they're going to be any worse off."
5. The recent trend of fourth-quarter letdowns Perceived level of concern: Moderate
Tampa Bay's three-game losing streak consists of one game in which they led by 11 entering the fourth quarter, one in which they went into overtime and one in which they took a brief lead in the final period after initially falling behind. That was a shocking series of developments for a team that, as much as any in the NFL, had learned how to win in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs, in fact, are still 27-3 under Dungy when they have taken a lead into the final period. The lapses in the previous three games have been brief, but just enough to doom the team to defeat. That has to be a concern for a team that generally keeps games close going into the final minutes, but Dungy believes the team has, during the bye week, recaptured the grasp on fundamentals that it had lost.
"We hope to eliminate the breakdowns," said Dungy, "but when you're playing good teams, a lot of times it is decided in the fourth quarter."
6. Detroit's strong outside pass-rush Perceived level of concern: Very high
DE Tracy Scroggins leads the Lions with 4.5 sacks. Fellow end Robert Porcher is lagging a bit behind with 2.0, but Porcher has had big days against the Buccaneers in the past. Detroit, as a whole, has posted 13 sacks in six games, but none against Tampa Bay in September.
That was one of the Bucs' great successes in that 31-10 pasting. Even with the overwhelming crowd noise in the Silverdome, Tampa Bay's protection game, which involved giving various types of help to tackles Jerry Wunsch and Pete Pierson, gave QB Shaun King time to complete 18 of 30 passes for 211 yards.
It may be difficult to pitch a shutout again, but the Bucs are going to stick with a similar game plan as they continue to believe that taking away that outside pressure is crucial.
"That was a big part of our game plan the second time around, just making sure that we didn't give big plays to Scroggins and Porcher," said Dungy. "They're the guys that can create the sacks, fumbles and turnovers. The last time we played them down here, Porcher had three sacks, so we're going to give those guys a lot of attention."
7. Safety Kurt Schulz's six interceptions Perceived level of concern: Not too high
Schulz, a safety signed by the Lions away from Buffalo this past offseason, has made a big impact on Detroit's defense. He leads the league with six interceptions, already equaling his own single-season career high.
On the other hand, Schulz did not pick off King during the teams' September meeting, and he did not pick off Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper two weeks ago in a close win by Minnesota. Detroit's defense has nine interceptions in its four wins and zero in its two losses and a total of 15 takeaways in its victories, zero in its losses.
With QB Shaun King protecting the ball to a degree that is delighting Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, Dungy feels good about the Bucs' ability to avoid the interception, even with a player of Schulz' caliber patrolling the secondary.
"He's had six interceptions, really off two big days, three off Brad Johnson and two more the other day, I believe," said Dungy. "We know that he's a ballhawk, and we know that we can't be under pressure and just put the ball up for grabs. Part of his success, I think, will hinge on us negating Scroggins and Porcher."
8. The Lions' massive offensive line Perceived level of concern: Moderate
This was a hot topic of discussion when the Bucs visited Detroit last month. The Lions' starting five weighs in at an average of 317 pounds, and that appeared to be part of Detroit's offseason plan to resurrect its passing game.
The effectiveness of that approach in the first Bucs-Lions game is noted above, but Detroit was also struggling with several offensive line injuries at the time and had yet to gel as an offense. The Lions did rush for 125 yards against Minnesota, averaging 5.2 yards per tote, but they have also surrendered 19 sacks this season.
And that illustrates the nature of the battle that will be waged in the trenches on Thursday. The Buccaneers tend towards smaller, quicker players on their defensive line, meaning this will be another battle of size versus speed. In the last game, the Bucs managed seven sacks of the sometimes-elusive Batch.
"They are big guys, and they can maul you if you let the game turn into that type of game," said Dungy. "Hopefully, we can control the line of scrimmage early, get ahead, and not turn it into a big power running game."
9. QB Charlie Batch's mastery of the Buccaneers Perceived level of concern: Moderate
Until last month, the Bucs hadn't cracked Batch's code in his short time in the NFL. Tampa Bay won just one of four games against Detroit since Batch was drafted and almost immediately inserted into the lineup in 1998, taking a late 1999 ballgame in Tampa in which Batch did not play. The other three games were all Detroit victories, and Batch displayed an ability to escape Tampa Bay's rush and make the big play when needed.
Again, Dungy falls into the category of respectful but confident. Tampa Bay's defense showed an ability to shut down the Lions in September, and he believes they can do so again, even with a confident and poised signal-caller like Batch. He does, however, expect to see an better game from the third-year hurler than last month's, in which he managed to throw for 277 yards despite the Bucs' constant pressure.
"He was really just coming back into form (last month)," said Dungy. "I think that was his second game back playing. We'll expect him to be sharper and be better, but hopefully we can get some pressure on him and keep him in the pocket."