G Sean Mahan had a lot to learn in a short time after being traded to the Buccaneers on Tuesday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their 2008 regular season on Sunday with a critical intra-division matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The Buccaneers and Saints have combined to win the last three NFC South titles, with Tampa Bay taking the crown in 2005 and 2007 and the Saints prevailing in 2006. Last year, Tampa Bay nearly swept its division games, going 5-0 through mid-December before falling to Carolina in the regular-season finale, a mostly meaningless game in which the Bucs played almost all reserves.
Those five wins against the Saints, Falcons and Panthers amounted for more than half of Tampa Bay's victory total in 2007, and that was enough to put them in the playoffs, and at home for Week One. Though that postseason contest, against the eventual-champion New York Giants, didn't go well for the Buccaneers, its still clear that success against division opponents is the quickest route to the playoffs.
Thus, both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start in a game that some feel counts double in the standings. It's difficult to judge a team's readiness for the season opener — the 2005 Bucs' team, for instance, was not expected to handle Minnesota as well as it did, nor was the 2006 squad counting on being overwhelmed by Baltimore — but this year's Buccaneers insist they are prepared to hit the ground running.
"I feel we're ready to play," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has the perspective of 13 previous season openers. "We've had a great camp and I'm quite sure all of the other 31 teams feel the same way about their chances of winning this Sunday. Again, we have our biggest challenge that we feel so far and that's a division game on the road against New Orleans. They are a tough team and we tend to always play them one of the first two weeks of the season for the past several years. It's going to be fun. Again, I like where we are at as a team."
Though they spent August battling Dolphins and Patriots and Jaguars, the Bucs have had their eyes on the Saints for months. Preseason games are viewed as a necessarily evil by some veterans, but the start of the regular season is a whole different beast.
"This is what it is all about, all of the offseason and the training camp," said quarterback Jeff Garcia. " Some of those things in the offseason can become a little bit of a grind but to look forward to opening day, that's what we prepare for that's what we get excited about. We are starting on the road for the second year in a row against a very good football team in a hostile environment that just creates a great energy and a great enthusiasm for this team to go in and meet that challenge and hopefully make something positive out of it."
Head Coach Jon Gruden can see that kind of enthusiasm up and down the roster, an enthusiasm he shares as Sunday approaches.
"I love opening day, love every game really," said Gruden. "I love football and I've been blessed that way to find something I really love to do. We've got a great group of guys that work very hard. This is important to them and they'll be ready to play."
The Bucs wrap up their practice schedule with a walk-through on Saturday morning and then fly to New Orleans in the afternoon. Here's a look back at some of the key topics leading up to the season-opening tilt between the Buccaneers and Saints:
Tampa Bay went 3-1 during the preseason, but the more important scorecard may have come out of the team's training room. With a handful of key veterans missing large chunks of the August schedule due to injuries, the team's primary concern during Week One was the shape of the starting lineup.
Fortunately, it appears as if the Bucs' precautions in the preseason have led to a mostly healthy roster for the opener. Starting right guard Davin Joseph, clearly one of the Bucs' most valuable players on offense, will miss the game due to a foot injury he sustained in preseason Week Two against New England, but no other players have been ruled out as of Saturday.
The more detailed injury report released on Friday listed Joseph as "out" and also included an eight-man list of players who are "questionable." Most of the players on that list — including wide receiver Joey Galloway (groin), fullback B.J. Askew (foot) and defensive tackle Jovan Haye (groin) — have expressed their hopes to play this weekend and were involved in practice all week, if sometimes limited. Garcia was listed as probable even though he added a jammed right pinky finger to his previous calf injury this week.
Garcia played a little over a quarter against Jacksonville in the Bucs' third preseason contest, comprising all of his game action for August. Nevertheless, he believes he is ready to go as the regular season begins.
"I can't really think about it," said the veteran passer, regarding his time on the sideline. "I just feel like last week I had a good week of practice. I just concentrate on the things that I have to do and not think about how much I didn't practice or how much I didn't play in the preseason. I'm experienced enough at this point to know what I have to do to prepare for this first game."
Garcia's offensive teammates saw a confident, on-point leader during this past week of practice.
"Jeff is good," said running back Warrick Dunn. "You have to have a game to get all the kinks out and he had that. We really know and understand that we were a ways away from where we wanted to be and I think now he has caught up to where all the other guys are. He didn't practice a lot in training camp and now he is comfortable and taking charge."
Garcia's primary target, Galloway, is also itching to play. On Wednesday, Galloway said he has lobbied to be in the lineup but will await Gruden's decision on the matter.
On Tuesday, the Bucs pulled off an impressive pair of trades that, when combined, gave the team a higher level of confidence in its interior-line depth. Shortly after trading guard/center Dan Buenning to the Chicago Bears for a 2009 pick, the Bucs sent another 2009 pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers to re-acquire center/guard Sean Mahan. Both picks were left undisclosed, but since draft choices in these sorts of deals are generally in the lower rounds, its almost certain that the picks were a wash, at worst.
Thus the Bucs essentially traded Buenning for Mahan, and while the team believes Buenning still has a bright future in the league it feels more comfortable with the versatile Mahan providing depth at all three interior-line spots.
"I wish Dan the best," said Gruden the day after the two trades. "He laid it on the line for us and he'll do a good job as a man and as a Bear. I just think Sean Mahan comes in here with plenty of experience at the center position, at the guard position, each guard position. Given our situation at this point in time, a veteran leader and proven signal-caller helps us."
With Joseph out, the Bucs will start rookie third-rounder Jeremy Zuttah at right guard in the opener and ask Mahan to back up the interior-line spots. That's a natural fit for Mahan, who started at all three of those positions during his first stint with the Buccaneers (2003-06), but it's also a tall task for a player who was still running the Steelers' offense less than a week ago.
"It's a lot to handle but it's the nature of the game and you've just got to go with it," said Mahan. "You've got to shut off everything that was going on beforehand open up to a new life. It's exciting, it's new, it's a little bit crazy but I'll just roll with the punches."
Most of the Buccaneers' starting 22 appears to be set, particularly with the injury bug failing to knock out a small subset of that group. However, the coaches do not intend to reveal the starting flanker opposite split end Joey Galloway until game day. Gruden insisted during the week that the decision was still being made, and would be based somewhat on what occurred on the practice field between Wednesday and Friday.
More to the point, however, Gruden expressed a desire to get all of the team's promising receivers involved in the game plan in some way. Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall have all performed well during the preseason and training camp, and the actual "starter" on Sunday may be determined by the specific package that is used on the first snap.
The man charged with distributing the football to all of these potential weapons is Garcia. He thinks the receiving corps can come together as a whole to create a formidable passing attack.
"When you look at training camp I think you saw guys like Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton really stepping up to the challenges that have been placed in front of them as far as how they have raised their level of competition, how they stood out in those type of situations," said Garcia. "I think they brought more competition to the receiver position. A guy like Antonio Bryant has tremendous explosiveness; that is a quality that I believe we added to that group. I think the overall understanding of what this offense is trying to do is better understood by the players who are trying to work it and run it."
Gustav Drives Saints Out of Town
The Bucs are the road team in this year's opener, but they actually had a less taxing travel schedule than the Saints. With Hurricane Gustav bearing down on Louisiana earlier in the week, the Saints took their operations to Indianapolis, where they practiced all week in the Colts' new home field, Lucas Oil Stadium. Most of the rest of New Orleans inhabitants evacuated the city, as well.
Mercifully, Gustav delivered only a glancing blow to the beleaguered city, and the Saints and the rest of New Orleans' citizens were able to return at the end of the week. The game will go on as planned in the Superdome on Sunday, an outcome that made both teams happy.
The evacuation and eventual return — and the tension that was surely felt by every New Orleans resident — could turn Sunday's game into one giant celebration/sigh of relief. Bucs running back Warrick Dunn was a Falcon when Atlanta played New Orleans in the first game in the Superdome in over a year in 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, and he remembers that Monday Night game well.
"There are a lot of things that are happening in Louisiana and I know the Saints are happy that they are going to start their season off in New Orleans," said Dunn, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "The crowd I'm sure is going to be rocking. It's going to be like a big party. It is going to be exciting. I was there a few years ago, while I was with Atlanta, when they reopened up the dome and it was probably one of the greatest atmospheres to be involved in and play in. I know those guys are going to be happy to get back there and have their fans really rally behind them."
Obviously, moving to another city for a week of practice isn't ideal for a team preparing for its season opener, but the Saints aren't likely to let their travels be a distraction.
"I can't comment on the Saints other than I can certainly feel for them," said Gruden. "I can't understand what they went through, really. I'm sure in some ways they may have come closer together. Knowing [Saints Head Coach] Sean Payton like I do, I'm sure they're going to be very well-prepared and ready to roll."
The Saints finished fourth in the league in offense in 2007 but 26th in defense. It was no surprise, then, that New Orleans management focused on improving its defensive personnel during the offseason.
The Saints used every player-acquisition avenue at their disposal to tune up the defense, including trading for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, drafting defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and signing cornerback Randall Gay in free agency. The Bucs are expecting New Orleans' revamped defense to be fast, aggressive and challenging.
"The front seven is very strong, and that's something they addressed in the offseason," said running back Earnest Graham. "We had some success against them last year throwing the ball, especially in New Orleans. I think that's something they knew they had to address, so they brought in some good guys. They brought in Jonathan Vilma, brought in Sedrick Ellis, brought in some good players there and we've gotten better as well. So it's definitely going to be interesting."
Added wide receiver Maurice Stovall: "They have a very physical defense. They are fast out of the perimeter and they're very experienced in the secondary. I think they are very mentally prepared and make fewer mistakes on defense. It's going to be a challenge for us, but we definitely look forward to it."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
Head Coach Jon Gruden on his confidence level in K Matt Bryant, who surprisingly missed five of 12 field goal attempts during the preseason: "I'm very confident in him. Again, I'm not disappointed in his inability to make a few of those kicks, I'm more shocked than anything because I've seen him be dead on for so long. I'm going to be very confident in him, and hopefully a couple misses are good for you. You know you're not perfect and you've got to maintain your stroke and you've got to be focused. I'm sure he'll be ready to go."
(For more on Bryant's mindset, click here.)
Gruden on how potent the Bucs' running game could be in 2008: "I don't know. It was pretty good last year. Statistically speaking, yards per carry, yards per game, we were up there in the upper echelon of football. If Askew is back, there's another guy. If he's the real deal that we think he is, and Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn can work together and the offensive line does what it's capable of, we'll be pretty good. But we've got to throw the football to make our running game go. We've got to be a good passing team. All these things are issues that we've got to play games to find out."
RB Warrick Dunn on his excitement about being used in a variety of ways in the offense: "It gives you an opportunity to go out and have fun playing the game. He doesn't want anything out of the ordinary. He just wants you to go out and play your game and do your best. That's what I look forward to doing."
QB Jeff Garcia on what Dunn will bring to the offense: "He is a very smooth running back. He has tremendous vision, tremendous experience. He is a quality passcatcher out of the back field. I think he brings a change of pace. You have a guy like Earnest Graham who can also catch the ball well out of the back field but is more of a direct, hard-nosed type of runner. Now you bring in a Warrick Dunn who can change up the pace a little bit, a little more shifty, a little bit more elusive."
Garcia on how he has grown within the Bucs' offense since last year: "I just think it's repeating plays on a constant basis, getting more familiar with how we call plays, how we read plays, how we potentially check plays. I have become more comfortable with those things and they have become more natural to me. I think the last think you want to do as a quarterback, and I expressed this a lot last year, was to step on to the field and be thinking about everything that you are trying to do. The main thing for me is to get on the field knowing what I have to do and react and I think that I am in a much better position to do that this year then where I was last year at this time."
Rookie CB Aqib Talib on preparing for his first regular season game in the NFL: "I'm very excited. I can't wait to get out there and make it happen. It's the first time that you're going to play and it really means something. All the other games I've played in were warm-up games. This is finally the real deal and I'm very excited."