LB Shelton Quarles (53), added to the injury report on Friday, is part of a Buc defense that has closed out games well in 2005
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2004 season is receding into faded memories, pushed their by the team's strong start to 2005 and renewed playoff hopes. That's as it should be, as the '04 season had a few more downs than ups for the Bucs, and there's no sense in dwelling on them.
Still, there was one second-half stretch in 2004 that could have defined the Buccaneers' season in a completely different way. On November 21, Tampa Bay shellacked San Francisco, 35-3. Two weeks later, on the fifth of December, the Bucs blanked the eventual NFC South champs, Atlanta, by a 27-0 score.
In between, the team took a trip to Charlotte.
The Carolina Panthers were struggling at that point, but still dangerous. They had swept the Bucs in 2003 on the way to the Super Bowl. The Bucs had swept the Panthers in 2002 on the way to the Super Bowl. The two teams would play on November 28 and then again less than a month later.
And, with seven minutes left in the game in Charlotte, the Bucs rallied for a 14-14 tie, then forced a three-and-out and drove again in Carolina's red zone. Just past the two-minute warning, Martin Gramatica lined up for a go-ahead, 37-yard field goal try. And missed it. The Bucs missed three field goals that day, in fact.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme then drove Carolina 73 yards in 90 seconds for the game-winning touchdown.
What could have been.
The Bucs got tired of thinking about what could have been in 2003 and 2004, the two non-playoff seasons that followed their Super Bowl XXXVII championships. During the 2005 offseason, they shored up certain areas and emphasized others, seeking to avoid being done in by kicking-game failures, running-game inadequacies and late-game defensive struggles.
The results have shown in several close games this season. Matt Bryant has made 10 of his 12 field goal tries, the Bucs have controlled the clock with a rejuvenated running attack and the defense has repeatedly made the big play at the end of the game to secure victories.
That is, at least, what has happened so far. The big test: Can it happen against the arch-rival Panthers, in an intra-division battle for first place? There's a good chance we'll find out, because Bucs-Panthers games almost always go down to the wire.
"That's probably why this game is labeled a rivalry, because we always come down to the fourth quarter and one team making a play," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Right now, they've defeated us four straight times so we really don't have a lot to say. We've got to show up and win on Sunday and obviously end that streak."
The Bucs and Panthers have met six times since the NFC South was formed in 2002. A 23-10 Tampa Bay victory in 2002 and a 37-20 Panther win last December were actually much closer than the final score would indicate, but they still were blowouts compared to the other four contests.
In Charlotte in '02, four long Gramatica field goals and a big turnover on special teams led to a 12-9 comeback win for the Bucs. In 2003, the Bucs-Panthers game in Tampa also ended in a 12-9 score, after the potential game-winning extra point by the Buccaneers was blocked at the end of regulation, setting up Carolina's victory in overtime. Later that season, the Bucs rallied for 17 points in the fourth quarter at Carolina to take a 24-20 lead, only to have Delhomme lead a crazy, last-minute drive for the game-winning score in a 27-24 decision. Then there was last year's nail-biter.
As is the case in most close games of these types, the losing team generally feels less like they were beaten and more like they let the game slip away. That's the case for the Buccaneers, who certainly left some big points on the board last year. That being said, several Panthers, Delhomme in particular, have been very good in crunch time.
"I think we missed several field goals and an extra point, missed opportunities in the kicking game," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We've had some bad things happen to us, very much like a lot of the losses that we've had. Usually when you do lose, there's a maddening effect. But Delhomme's beaten us twice in the closing minutes, maybe three times."
In 2002, and in the four playoff seasons that came in the preceding five years, the Bucs' defense was almost always good at closing out games. That made the events of the last two seasons particularly difficult to fathom. This year, defensive stands against the Vikings, Packers and Lions were instrumental in getting the Bucs off to a 4-0 start.
Now, Tampa Bay's defense once again feels confident in its ability to close the door, should yet another Bucs-Panthers game find itself hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter.
"We are confident," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. "We think we've corrected that a little bit, being able to win close games. So, hopefully we can continue to do that throughout the year, and especially this next game, because it's probably going to be a close game. When you look at two teams with pretty good defenses, both teams like to run the football, and all the components add up to a pretty close game."
Quarles Added to Injury Report
Two of the Buccaneers' three starting linebackers are on the team's injury report for Sunday's game. Fortunately, it appears likely that both will play.
Brooks, the starter on the weak side, has been on the report all week with a hamstring injury, and he was held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. However, Brooks returned to the field on Friday and has insisted all along that he will suit up for the Carolina game. After Friday's practice, it appears that Gruden agrees.
"He looked okay to me," said the coach. "You'd have to ask him but he looked pretty good today. I'm optimistic after seeing what I saw today."
Starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, like Brooks a former Pro Bowler having a strong season, was added to the injury report due to a bruised thigh. Quarles did not practice Friday, but he is also considered probable for the game.
There were no other changes to the Bucs' official injury report on Friday. Gruden did indicate that rookie running back Cadillac Williams, who appeared to take a significant step forward on the practice field on Thursday, was once again sharp during the week's final full-speed workout. Williams has spent the better part of a month recovering from a left foot sprain, but his cuts were noticeably sharper on the practice field this week, building optimism for Sunday's game.
More Thoughts from Coach Gruden
Gruden touched on several other topics relevant to Sunday's game following practices this week, such as his sense of the Buccaneers' resolve during this critical week.
"I think there's a lot of resolve," said Gruden. "We had a bad game, we had a bad offensive football game. You can talk about it all you want, I'm not going to talk about it anymore. We've yelled and screamed and watched the tape and done some cursing and made some corrections and pointed out the errors that we did make. But we're moving on."
On how long it would take QB Tim Rattay to be ready to play in a game: "He could play in the game. The question is, how well could he play in the game? How much could he get to? How much do you really know about the offense. Ten days, two weeks on the job…you've got to be realistic. There are a lot of things for him to learn, things that we've been doing that we want to continue to do and grow in. We've already adjusted the one quarterback and Tim Rattay is in the adjusting mode as another. He's a work in progress but he's a quick study. He can go out and play for us Sunday, but comfort-wise I don't know that he'd be as comfortable as he would two or three weeks from now."
On areas that will decide Sunday's game: "We're going to have to play a great game, okay? We're going to have to play a great football game. We've got to get some field position and we've got to take advantage of the field position that we do get. We've got to be balanced on offense. We've got to find some way to run the football again. And we can't turn the ball over and have multiple sacks. So Chris Simms has to play much better and certainly our ability to run the ball offensively is critical. Defensively we've got to shut down the run and make some plays obviously in the turnover game. We've got to return to that. Special teams, we've got to get some return yards of our own. We've got to play a great game to beat the Carolina Panthers, I'll say that."
On if the game is a battle of defenses: "These defensive guys…I could care less about the defensive stats. I realize they're great and we have a great defense. I want to win the game. If it's 2-0 or 3-2, I could give a rat's you-know-what. I just want to win the game. I realize it's a defensive showdown, but both offenses have got to show up and play. You've got to meet the challenge, okay? And special teams are going to factor into this, as well."
On if it's harder to read defenses these days than it used to be: "Yeah, it's hard. It's very amusing sometimes to see some of these blitzes. It's really exciting to go out there and have that challenge put against you. It's an area that we take a lot of pride in, our blitz control and our presentation offensively. We've got to take it to another level. We've got to clearly play better than we did last week."