Warren Sapp and his Buc co-defenders think the Lions' offensive ranking will go up as the season progresses
If you're looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive ranking (second) and the Detroit Lions' offensive standing (31st) and getting excited, let us offer up a few additional numbers.
Two. That's how many weeks have passed so far in this long NFL season, not nearly enough for the teams to sort themselves out properly.
- That's Charlie Batch's uniform number. The Bucs have played against Charlie Batch three times and lost all three times. Batch wasn't available for the Lions' season opener a 14-10 squeaker against the New Orleans Saints, and he may have still been rusty in last Sunday's 15-10 win over the Washington Redskins.
Zero. That's how many Buccaneer defenders are taking this game for granted. A stroll through the Tampa Bay locker room on Wednesday unearthed universal, and very real, respect for the Lions' defense, 31st ranking or not.
"That's a little deceiving," said S John Lynch. "They're ranked last in offense, but you turn on the tape and they look like a good offensive team. They played the first game without Batch. They've got a good runner in James Stewart, good weapons throughout that offense and a good, solid offensive line. It's a formidable opponent and we'll have to play our best.
"We liken them a lot to ourselves. They're a well-coached football team, very fundamentally sound, and they have good players throughout their team. They're a good football team, that's the way we see them."
Okay, fine. But what about those two slim wins in which the Detroit offense has yet to score a touchdown? Doesn't that say something?
"That let's you know you're playing against a good ballclub," said DT Warren Sapp. "Good ballclubs find a way to win games, even if you're not scoring points. We went into some games and won 6-3 and that just let's you know what kind of ballclub you're facing. We might not score the points, but we're going to eliminate your scoring so we can win this game. Detroit is that type of ballclub."
Perhaps at the center of the Bucs' respect is Batch, who missed all of the preseason and the opening week with a knee injury. It was suggested to Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy that the Bucs are lucky to be hitting Batch before he is fully back in the groove, but Dungy had a different perspective.
"We'd be better off if we catch them right before he came back," joked Dungy. "They're a much different team when he's in there. They have a lot more confidence offensively, I think they have a little more spark in their passing game. We expect him to be even better than he was last week."
The Bucs' defense, which has made life miserable for quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Cade McNown so far this year, have previously had trouble containing Batch, particularly when he scrambled.
"The guy's good," said Sapp. "He has a good pocket presence. He doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but he does a whole bunch of things real good. Most quarterbacks can throw the ball but they can't run. This guy has a pocket presence almost like Shaun King, uncanny for a young guy to have. That being said, he has some good people around him that he knows, if he puts the ball up, they'll go up and get it."
Preventing that last bit from happening is the job of the Bucs' stellar cornerbacks, Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber. Those two aren't fooled by the Lions' ranking, either.
"I won't write them off that easy," said Barber. "Johnnie Morton and the running back, James Stewart, Germane Crowell…and they've always got Herman Moore. Those guys are playmakers. Charlie Batch is a great quarterback – we haven't beaten him yet. He's got a week under his belt and I'm sure they're clicking a little bit better this week."
Added Abraham: "They have a team that matches with us very well. They play aggressive, they have speed. The offense is looking good and Charlie's back now. He's playing pretty good and they have a good group of receivers. Johnnie Morton is off to maybe his best start ever."
Despite all of that, the Bucs are not expecting the game to rest on Batch's shoulders. The common thinking in the Tampa Bay locker room is that Detroit will endeavor to establish the power running game first. That, in turn, would put Batch in a position to hurt the Buccaneers again.
"He's played very well against us, and we've had trouble stopping the run when we've played them," explained Dungy. "That's what we've got to do first of all and see if we can put them into a throwing situation where we can put pressure on them. But he's a good quarterback and we have had our trouble with him."
Stopping the run first means dealing with an offensive line that averages 325 pounds per player. "We've got to get around this massive offensive line first and get our running game under control," said Sapp. "That's our first concern, not letting this guy run downhill because they've got a massive offensive line and a big back in James Stewart. So we have to be sound in our gaps, get up the field and penetrate and do the things that we know how to do. We have to attack this offense the way we know how and then we'll be fine when they drop to pass."
The Bucs are familiar with Stewart from his days as a Jaguar. It's certainly a different situation for Tampa Bay, not trying to devise a way to stop the incomparable Barry Sanders. Stewart poses a separate set of problems.
"James Stewart is a good back," said Lynch. "He's a big, big, strong runner who has the possibility to also break some big runs. We played against him in Jacksonville and scrimmaged against him for years. I have a lot of respect for him; I think he does give them a big-time back. We're going up there knowing that they're going to try to pound the football on us, and a large part of our success will be determined by how effective we are stopping that."
The Bucs haven't allowed a running back to hurt them yet, but they've faced two teams that are somewhat in transition in their running games. Stewart is clearly going to be the Lions' workhorse, and the Bucs have a healthy respect for him and the Detroit attack. That respect, however, should not be misinterpreted as fear.
"They're a good ballclub," said Sapp. "Whenever you face a good ballclub in its home stadium, it's going to be difficult for you to beat them. But we feel like, if we go out and play our game, it's going to be tough for you to beat us. It doesn't matter where the game is being played."