Even with three division opponents looming, the Bucs have to focus on the Vikings and protecting homefield advantage, says LB Derrick Brooks
For the first time since Week Eight, all four teams in the NFC South will be in action on the same afternoon this Sunday. That means the division title chase could be due for another shakeup.
The NFC East and its four plus-.500 squads gets a lot of national attention, and the AFC East looks like a four-team dogfight, too. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division, too, has four clubs that are still very much clinging to playoff aspirations as the stretch run begins.
"Everybody talks about the NFC East, but I think our division is right up there with them," said Buccaneers linebacker Barrett Ruud. "It's really competitive as well. Carolina is obviously playing well. Atlanta and New Orleans played each other this past weekend and you've got to give Atlanta the credit they deserve. They're winning games. After a pretty tough year last year, they've really bounced back."
The Falcons, at 6-3 after a tumultuous 4-12 campaign a year ago, are definitely the surprise of the division…but perhaps they shouldn't be. It is a well-publicized but not necessarily well-understood vagary of the NFC South that every year since 2003 the division's champ has been the team that finished last the year before. Atlanta has played well enough to put that team in contention to keep the streak alive; the Falcons are tied with the Buccaneers, one game behind the Panthers.
"Everybody's winning," noted safety Tanard Jackson. "Atlanta's looking good. Carolina, they only have two losses. It's real competitive this year. Every game is going to count down the stretch and we need to make sure we take care of what we need to take care of."
Beginning a week from Sunday, the four NFC South teams will play five games against each other between Weeks 12 and 15. Obviously, the outcome of those intradivisional contests will go a long way towards determining the South champ. The Bucs will be in the thick of that round robin of games, playing New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta, respectively, in successive weekends from November 30 through December 14.
However, the Bucs must be careful not to look past their two upcoming NFC North foes (Minnesota on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Detroit on the road the next weekend) to their divisional matchups. And they also plan to keep the scoreboard watching to a minimum this Sunday.
"We've just got to worry about the Bucs," said veteran leader Derrick Brooks. "We can't play anybody else's schedule and nobody can play ours. We can't get caught trying to worry what goes on outside this locker room. We've earned the position. If we take each week at a time, take care of our business, we'll get what we deserve, which is where we want to be when it's all said and done."
Will the Bucs and/or the Falcons catch Carolina this weekend? We'll get the answer Sunday afternoon, after Tampa Bay and Minnesota kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Here's a look back at some of the other key issues that have developed in the week leading up to the Buccaneers showdown with their former NFC Central foes:
The Buccaneers' injury report definitely found some relief through the bye week, but there are still several players who are significant question marks for the weekend.
Not in question is the status of safety Jermaine Phillips (forearm), who was ruled out of the game on Friday's official injury report. Two other Buccaneers are considered doubtful to play: tight end Alex Smith (ankle) and quarterback Brian Griese (right elbow).
It is in the offensive backfield where the Bucs head into the weekend with some questions still to be answered. Backs B.J. Askew (hamstring), Warrick Dunn (back) and Earnest Graham (knee) are all listed as questionable on Friday's report, as is wide receiver Ike Hilliard.
The Bucs are hopeful that all three of those ballcarriers can play on Sunday, as it is not terribly likely that the team will keep Cadillac Williams active this weekend. The player returning from the longest absence is Askew, who hasn't been on the field since sustaining a hamstring injury in Week Three.
Dunn missed the Kansas City game in Week Nine and most of the Dallas game seven days earlier but said on Monday of this week that he feels "fine." Graham hasn't missed a game but he's had to fight through several nagging ailments to stay on the field. In Kansas City, for instance, he played about 70% of the game after sustaining a knee injury in the second quarter.
Graham needed most of the last two weeks to recover from that injury and still was limited on the practice field on Friday. Famously stoic, Graham isn't saying much beyond his belief that he will play on Sunday despite all the aches and pains.
"I've had a lot of work this year, at different positions of course – lead blocking, running the ball, everything else you do as a football player," he said. "Most guys around this time of the year…it's pretty common to be beat up a little bit. That off week did us all some good."
Minnesota had only two players on their injury report, both with shoulder injuries: defensive end Jared Allen and safety Madieu Williams. Both played in last Sunday's game against Green Bay and their injuries are not new. However, they were limited on the practice field throughout the week and on Friday Williams was designated as doubtful. Allen is considered questionable.
Williams Ready to Contribute…Eventually
One name that was not on the Buccaneers' injury report was that of Williams, the fourth-year back. That's a bit misleading, however; if Williams isn't injured, it's because he's spent the last 14 months rebuilding his knee.
The 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year was four games into his third season last September when he broke free around right end and ran for 18 yards against the Carolina Panthers' defense. He slipped near the end of the run, however, and sustained a particularly ill-timed hit that bent him awkwardly back over his right knee. The play ended his season and eventually forced him to start the 2008 campaign on the Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform list.
Williams was just activated from that list on Wednesday, at the end of a three-week window in which he was allowed to practice with the team. His last practice before the team chose to add him to the 53-man roster was a fully-padded affair, in which he purposely absorbed some hits for the first time in almost 60 weeks.
Now, Williams could return to live game action on Sunday against the team that was also the opponent in the first regular-season game of his NFL career, though he is more likely to be inactive as the Bucs bring him slowly back up to speed. Williams exploded for 148 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings in that '05 debut, but is not likely to see that level of involvement this Sunday even if he does play.
Williams is preparing himself for any possibility.
"I am sure they will ease me into it but this is the NFL, you never know," he said. "Therefore I am pretty much keeping everything open and just looking forward to the opportunity. I feel good but at the same time we are going to be smart about the whole thing."
Williams practiced without limitations during the week but was often used as the scout-team running back, providing a good simulation of what Minnesota's Adrian Peterson might throw at the Bucs' defense on Sunday. His teammates were impressed and encouraged by how well Williams handled the heavy workload.
"He's looking really good," said fullback B.J. Askew. "I think he's ready to play, but once again, we'll see how everything goes."
Added guard Davin Joseph, who hopes to be opening holes in the line for Williams again soon: "Once you get back out there, there is no half stepping. I'm pretty sure he knows that and with anybody coming off of injury there really is no half stepping, it is either all or nothing. That will be the attitude that he will take this Sunday."
Tampa Bay's offensive backfield has absorbed a variety of injuries this season – Graham, Dunn and Askew are all on the injury report this week, as noted above – so the team knows full well the value of a deep running back corps. Whether or not Williams is a major part of the attack this weekend, he is likely to make an impact at some point before the season is over.
"If he is active, it adds another dimension to our running game," said quarterback Jeff Garcia. "Hopefully we can get him back involved and he can be somebody that produces for this team."
Facing the Best
Chris Hovan compared him to Tony Gonzalez at tight end or Julius Peppers at defensive end. The Vikings' Peterson is one of a handful of players in the NFL who are generally considered the gold standards at their respective positions.
Peterson is also red-hot. He comes into Tampa with four straight 100-yard games under his belt and the NFL's rushing lead as of last Sunday. Tampa Bay is the next group to draw that very difficult assignment.
For Tampa Bay's rush defense, which ranks 11th in the league and has allowed only one 100-yard rusher all season, the challenge may be greater but the mode of preparation remains unchanged.
"Our approach is always the same, stop the run, week-in and week-out," said Jackson. "This week we just have a great opponent, a great running back that we have to stop but we are up to the challenge"
Defensive tackle Jovan Haye says the key is for each player on defense to plug the gap for which he is responsible, to attack aggressively but do so within his specific assignment on any given play. The Bucs are also emphasizing, once again, the need for everybody on the defense to rally to the football. Those two areas of emphasis have helped the Bucs contain their opponents' rushing attack almost every weekend.
"We have just been gap sound and everybody selling out," said Haye. "We struggled two weeks ago in Kansas City but we made corrections. We definitely can't afford to have one of those games again, to allow 300 yards rushing."
The Chiefs got 183 rushing yards on the Bucs just before the bye, following a five-game span in which Tampa Bay had allowed less than 70 a game. They did it first with Kolby Smith, and then after Smith got hurt with Jamaal Charles. The Vikings can bring two different backs at a defense, too, and it's an experienced pair, with Chester Taylor backing up Peterson.
"He is the 1-2 punch, he is a great two," said Haye of Taylor.. "Smaller but quick, he can break your ankles in a heart beat. We definitely have our hands full this week."
Not surprisingly, the Buccaneers' defense is enthused rather than frightened by the challenge.
"We always want to be the best at what we do but we know that to be the best you have to take down the best," said Hovan, "and the best is coming here on Sunday."
From September 28 through October 19, the Buccaneers played three games at home in a 22-day spin, and won them all.
That run of home cooking pushed the Bucs to 4-0, though that makes them just one of three teams in the NFC South that is still undefeated at home (also Carolina, 5-0; Atlanta, 4-0). Now they have a chance to get to 5-0 at home for the first time in history.
More importantly, the Bucs need to protect their home field advantage this weekend because it is the only time they will play at Raymond James Stadium in a span of five weeks, including the bye. Needless to say, after trips to such staggeringly loud and partisan venues as Dallas and Kansas City, Buccaneer players are thrilled about the prospect of playing in front of a partisan crowd again.
"It's great," said Hovan of the home date. "We get to play at 1:00 p.m., the best time to play a game around here. We get to play smash-mouth football and they are going to run the ball. They have confidence in their running game and that's great. It's great to have confidence and we have confidence in our defense. It is going to be a battle. We are really excited right now."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
C Jeff Faine on how the Vikings' defensive line compares to other lines he's played against: "It's very, very comparable to Carolina – the type of players they've got, the quality of play they've got, big guys in the middle, some pretty good pass rushers on the edge. It's definitely going to be a pretty good challenge this week."
S Tanard Jackson on preparing for Minnesota QB Frerotte: "Any time you're dealing with a vet guy like Gus Frerotte who's been around for awhile, who reads defenses well, you've got to approach it and play him honest. They've got a balanced attack, a great running attack. That's our main objective week in and week out – stop the run. We have to do that this week."
FB B.J. Askew on the bye week and where it came) "I think it fell at a very good time, the halfway point of the season really. At 6-3, we have our destiny right where we want it. We've just got to finish hard down the stretch and make the playoffs and from there, it's just game by game. A lot of times you don't want to look too far ahead, especially with a team like Minnesota coming in here with such explosiveness and a very good defense. Really, it's just one day at a time and one game at a time."
QB Jeff Garcia on correcting the mistakes of the offense: "I think that it is a matter of working on execution. We go out every single day and practice and it looks like we execute well and then come game time, unfortunately we are making some mistakes here and there that stop drives, that don't allow us to punch the ball in, in the red zone. It is a work in progress. All I can say is that we are working our tail off to try to better ourselves. We realize that as an offensive team, that we need to be better, we need to be better and more productive. Here is a great challenge this week against a very good football team, a very good defensive team that is not going to make it any easier for us. But we need to really work and focus on ourselves and just try to iron out those issues that we have had over the first eight or nine weeks."
Faine on if it's frustrating that the running game has stalled in recent weeks: "Not necessarily frustrating, because watching the tape it's just one block here and one thing here or one thing there. It's nothing catastrophic that's killing our running game, we've just got to put it together and make some things roll."