C Jeff Faine believes the Bucs can throw it when they need to throw it and run it when they need to run it
After dropping their season opener in New Orleans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rebounded with a win over Atlanta in Week Two, riding a potent running game (164 yards, 5.1 yards per carry) to an easy 24-9 decision.
The following weekend, the Buccaneers made it a two-game winning streak by prevailing in Chicago, 27-24 in overtime. This time, however, the running game was shut down (47 yards, 2.8 per carry) by Chicago's ultra-aggressive gap-filling defense, forcing quarterback Brian Griese to throw a team-record 67 passes.
So, which style of victory will be the Bucs' preferred approach going forward? Perhaps both.
For the Buccaneers, the most encouraging thing to take out of those two very disparate wins is that their rapidly-developing offense is capable of winning games under a variety of circumstances. If the Green Bay Packers focus notably on one aspect of Tampa Bay's offense this weekend — perhaps keying on Earnest Graham and the backs like Chicago, or perhaps keeping as many players as possible in coverage — the Bucs believe they can adjust to what is available.
"I don't want to throw the ball sixty-seven times again," said Griese, who likened the Chicago game to throwing both halves of a baseball doubleheader. "It was a necessity; I really believe that. We had to find a way to win and I think that was the way to do it. Now this week will be different. We do need to find that balance to be successful week-in and week-out. That's the recipe for success in this league."
The Bucs actually displayed a balanced attack, at least in terms of yardage, in their loss at New Orleans, rushing for 146 yards and adding 206 yards through the air. In a way, the Atlanta and Chicago games then balanced each other; in other words, some days won't allow for that sort of double-sided production, but at least the Bucs have proved they can succeed with either approach.
"Balance is important, but we do have to really go after what the defense presents," said center Jeff Faine. "It is something that we are going to have to be able to change in a situation where they might take away the pass and we are going to have to depend on the run. I think that is a good quality of our offense is that we have the ability to adapt to the situation, and that is what we are going to have to do."
Faine's crew, the offensive line, may be the key component in the Bucs' offensive versatility. They allowed Griese to drop back 67 times without getting sacked in Chicago, and they've helped Buccaneer backs rush for 5.5 yards per carry so far. Tampa Bay currently ranks seventh in the NFL in total offense, a good start after the team finished 18th last year and 29th in 2006.
Stronger play up front has helped the Bucs take advantage of the group of skill-position weapons it has put together over the last few years.
"I think we're pretty good; I think we've got some pretty good players," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Our offensive line is playing well. We've got some good runners. We've got some very creative players at the running back position, Earnest and Warrick [Dunn]. I think Antonio Bryant has come in here and helped us. He runs all the routes, he's a finisher, he's a good football player. Jerramy Stevens has given us some deception now and some things that we can do. And Brian Griese is a good quarterback and he's played really well here for us."
What direction will the Bucs' offense take on Sunday? That answer is almost upon us. Kickoff on Sunday is at 1:00 p.m. ET. Here's a look back at some of the key topics leading up to the Week Four showdown between former NFC Central foes Tampa Bay and Green Bay:
Bryant Gets Bucs' Support, Patience
Tryson Bryant, the infant son of kicker Matt Bryant and his wife Melissa, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Wednesday morning. Obviously, Bryant has been absent from the Bucs' facility since; his teammates and coaches have reached out with whatever support they could offer.
The Bryants' tragedy made any football concerns insignificant, though they still exist. The Buccaneers left the decision of whether or not to play this Sunday in Bryant's hands. What Bryant chooses to do, and when he comes to a final decision, will determine if the team needs to sign another kicker for the weekend.
If Bryant chooses to play on Sunday, his teammates and coaches will welcome him with open arms. They will also remain as confident as ever in their veteran kicker's abilities, even after a week spent away from the field.
"Guys have missed practice at other positions," said Gruden. "Unfortunately, that's just part of the business. I don't worry about that right now. I'm more concerned with Matt Bryant the person. I'll just leave it at that. We're going to do the best we can. We're going to do everything we can to help him out."
Neither the Buccaneers nor the Packers will come into Sunday's showdown between 2-1 teams at full strength. Lengthy injury lists for both teams mean that several key starters will be on the sideline Sunday.
The Bucs will be without wide receiver Joey Galloway (foot) and likely without fullback B.J. Askew (hamstring) and guard Davin Joseph (foot), both of whom are considered doubtful. Joseph practiced almost without limitations to start the week on Wednesday but by Friday was on the sideline watching again. Neither Askew nor Galloway saw the practice field this week.
The Bucs will head into game day still awaiting conclusions on the status of Bryant, linebacker Derrick Brooks (hamstring), defensive tackle Ryan Sims (groin) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring). Talib practiced all week without limitations. Sims improved somewhat during the week; after not participating in Wednesday's practice he was at least on the field on Thursday and Friday.
The Packers' injury list isn't much longer that the Bucs' report, but it is more concentrated in a single area. Of the 11 players listed on the report on Friday, five were members of the secondary. That included all four of the usual starters in the defensive backfield: corners Al Harris (spleen) and Charles Woodson (toe) and safeties Nick Collins (back) and Atari Bigby (hamstring). Reserve safety Aaron Rouse (knee) is also on the list.
Harris is the most significant issue for the Packers; he will likely miss quite a bit of time due to his spleen injury and he definitely won't play this Sunday. Bigby and Woodson did not practice all week but Bigby is considered doubtful while Woodson is probable. Collins was limited until Friday but then practiced fully at the end of the week and is considered probable, as well.
Two other Packers are doubtful to play on Sunday: starting fullback Korey Hall (knee) and reserve receiver James Jones (knee).
A New Threat
Before this season, the last game the Packers had played without Brett Favre as the starting quarterback had taken place in Tampaâ€¦16 years ago.
In 1992, Favre's first season in Green Bay, he relieved injured starter Don Majkowski in a lopsided Buccaneers win in old Tampa Stadium. That was Week Two of the season; in Week Three, Favre was starting and he then opened every single Packers game through the 2007 season.
Favre retired in March and the Packers moved forward with fourth-year man Aaron Rodgers as their new starting quarterback. When Favre chose to come out of retirement over the summer, the Packers eventually traded him to the New York Jets and kept Rodgers in the starting role.
Just four games into his first season at the helm, Rodgers finds himself in Tampa. And the Buccaneers believe he can be a handful, just like Favre was, particularly considering how well he has handled the pressure of replacing a legend.
"It's a lot to chew off, there's no question," said Gruden. "But I think there was a mentality that they've had all along. This guy's a first-round draft choice. They selected him, I think, with the intent that when he's ready he's going to be our future quarterback. They've been very fortunate in Green Bay, they've had tremendous play at that position for some time. I don't believe they would have made this decision if they didn't have complete confidence in Rodgers."
Gruden, who was on that Green Bay staff in 1992 when Favre began his ascension sees some similar traits in the Packers' new starter.
"He has all the wiring to be great, he really does, and he's had a phenomenal mentor in Brett Favre," said Gruden. "Some of his mannerisms remind me of Brett as a young quarterback. It's the way he carries himself. I look at him and I see some of the same mannerisms. He's exciting to watch, he's got a flair about him, he's got a charisma about him. He's fearless. He looks like he's very confident in himself and he's talented. Does he have a tough spot? Sure, but who doesn't have a tough spot as a starting quarterback in the NFL. You've got to put it in perspective that way. But this guy was brought in here for a reason. They had a plan. They're executing their plan. Not everybody's agreed with them, but I certainly compliment them on their confidence in their young quarterback and the way they've prepared him to play."
Rodgers has led the Packers to a 2-1 start and has kept his own passer rating over 100 so far. He has thrown four touchdown passes in three games and, most impressively, no interceptions yet. Buccaneer defenders aren't particularly surprised.
"He's a first-round draft pick," said defensive end Greg White. "They brought him in to play good football and he's playing good ball. He's got a nice supporting cast with the wide receivers and he's doing what he's supposed to."
There is perhaps one small surprise in Rodgers' stats so far. He's proving to be a threat on the ground, with 70 rushing yards and two touchdowns already this season. A quarterback with that in his bag of tricks forces a defense to play him a little more cautiously.
"He is a great quarterback," said defensive end Gaines Adams. "He has great feet and he can run. We are going to have to keep the four down lineman in their lanes so we can keep them contained."
Added defensive tackle Chris Hovan: "We need to get a pass rush. The previous teams, Dallas and Detroit have got some good rush on these guys. They haven't wrapped up on Aaron Rodgers. He is elusive. He's going to find the hole and he is going to run with the ball. I think he has something like 74 yards rushing right now. When we have opportunities to sack this guy we have to take him down. If not, he finds a second or third option and all of a sudden it's first down in our territory."
The Packers will counter Tampa Bay's improving offense with a defense that ranks 27th in the league through three weeks. Green Bay has allowed 366 yards of offense per game so far, and now must deal with some newly-ailing starting defenders, including cornerback Al Harris, who is out after suffering a spleen injury last Sunday evening.
However, as Gruden stressed earlier this week, yardage statistics are essentially meaningless as compared to the two that really count: Wins and losses. Green Bay is 2-1, just like Tampa Bay, and as far as the Bucs are concerned they are loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball.
"I know their personnel well, and they have a great defense," said Griese, who was a fellow NFC North player the past two years in Chicago. "They have guys up front that push the pocket and they have three linebackers who are solid. They have a secondary that is maybe second to none. I expect their best shot coming off a tough loss to Dallas. I expect their best shot here in Tampa."
Added right tackle Jeremy Trueblood: "I think they have a very physical D-line and they've got very physical and athletic linebackers. We're going to come out here and bring our A game. If we're going to run the ball we have to make sure we're physical. There's no other way to be if you're going to run the ball, so that's our goal. That's what we're going to try to do."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
WR Galloway on if Antonio Bryant's performance in his absence makes him want to come back quicker: "I don't think there is such a thing as desire to get back quicker. I sort of joked with Griese and I joked with Coach, the week that I was out they throw the ball 60, 70 times. There is no such thing as desire to get back quicker. It's tough when you don't get a chance to play. I'm trying to get there as quickly as possible."
QB Brian Griese on recovering from three interception: "Like we talked about Sunday night you have to remain confident and you have to continue to go out and play your game. You have to forget about those negative plays because you still have the opportunity to go out and make up for those things. I just try to do that to the best of my ability and take one play at a time and get the most out of each and every play. Thankfully, guys helped me out and caught some balls and broke some tackles and we ended up winning."
LB Cato June on defending the Packers' offense: "First of all, we need to get great pressure up front, getting them in passing situations, and I think we'll do a great job. Even if they go five-wide, six-wide, however many receivers they want to put out there, it doesn't matter. We still have our scheme. Our linebackers will do a great job, our back seven will do a great job matching up and once that pressure up front is established, I think on the back end we'll handle ourselves very nicely."
S Jermaine Phillips on the defense giving up over 400 yards against Chicago: "I think that we are starting off fast as a defense, playing well, but it is something in the second half, where we have a lapse here and there and if we want to be a championship team that is something that w have to get better but if we are getting off the field on third downs and we are creating turnovers so you have to be excited about that. We judge ourselves on â€˜W's' not but the stats and the numbers we give up so as long as we continue to get this victories we are going to be satisfied."
TE Alex Smith on the use of tight ends against the Packers: "Just seeing last week, Dallas used a lot of tight end sets as well, so we might take a look at that, see how that worked for them. But like I said, we're always going to try to get our guys on the field and create as many different matchups as we can."
DE Greg White on if the defense will continue to improve as it builds more cohesiveness: "I would hope so. I would hope that it'll tighten up real soon. We're just trying to get together right now and we're doing pretty well. With a home game this week it should be pretty good."
Head Coach Jon Gruden on the Bucs' struggles in the punt return game: "We want to see a lot more, I'll be honest with you. We work at it. We had some excitement in the preseason. We had a potential game-breaking play in New Orleans; I think Dexter just got tackled right there at the end to start our final drive. But it's been kind of quiet a little bit. Then again, we've got to keep working. There are a lot of areas we'd like to pick up and that's one of them."