DE Gaines Adams and the rest of the Bucs' defenders know they need to put pressure on QB Jay Cutler on Sunday
The Denver Broncos were 7-4 in the latter part of the 2006 season when they chose to insert rookie quarterback Jay Cutler into the starting lineup, apparently hastening the surprise retirement of Jake Plummer at the end of the year.
The Broncos had lost their previous two games under Plummer, but the move was considered a surprising one for a team solidly in playoff contention. Denver's coaching staff clearly believed it had something special in the former Vanderbilt star.
A month into the 2008 season, and 25 starts into Cutler's NFL career, it appears they were right.
The Broncos didn't make the playoffs in 2006, going 2-3 in those last five games with the rookie at the helm. But Cutler did throw nine touchdown passes in that span, posting the highest touchdown percentage of any rookie passer in league history not named Dan Marino.
In 2007, Cutler started all 16 games and threw for 20 touchdowns, nearly 3,500 yards and a passer rating of 88.1. Those numbers were solid; this year he has been spectacular. Through the first month of his third NFL campaign, Cutler has thrown for 1,275 yards and nine touchdowns. He currently ranks first in the NFL in attempts (157), second in completions (102), second in yards, fourth in touchdown percentage (5.73%) and sixth in average gain per pass attempt (8.12).
Cutler already has three 100-yard passing games this season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, next on the Broncos' list of opponents, hope to keep him from a fourth. Buccaneer defenders have been impressed with what they've seen on tape this week.
"He's doing well," said linebacker Barrett Ruud. "First of all he's got a great coach, Mike Shanahan always does a great job of game planning. He gets open receivers for him and the other thing is that he has a cannon. He has a really strong arm and he's got confidence with it so he tries to put it in tight spaces."
Cutler hasn't wanted for targets this season. Rising star receiver Brandon Marshall is adept at getting open all over the field and already has 31 catches, tied for the NFL lead. Marshall has found an exciting new running mate in Eddie Royal, who has 27 grabs of his own. Brandon Stokley is a proven third receiver, tight end Tony Scheffler is averaging 16.2 yards per catch and the Buccaneers are well aware that running back Michael Pittman can make things happen in the passing game.
"[Cutler] spreads the ball around," said safety Tanard Jackson. "He's hitting tight ends. He's hitting his receivers. He's hitting the backs coming out of the backfield. That's one thing I see he does well is spread the ball around."
Another thing the Bucs have noticed: The sleepy-eyed Cutler always appears calm and in control on the field, rather unlike a player with just one full season of starting under his belt.
"I like his attitude," said defensive end Greg White. "I'm not going to say he doesn't care, he's just a very confident guy, and I like that about him. It's good for him. He's going to compete."
Despite the Broncos' multitude of dropbacks, Cutler has rarely had to take a loss in the backfield. He has been sacked just twice this season, a testament to the Broncos' quick-footed offensive line and Cutler's own impressive mobility. The Buccaneers, who have posted at least three sacks of the opposing quarterback in each of their last three games, believe they'll have to up that pressure on Cutler in order to slow down the Broncos' attack.
"He's a mobile quarterback," said defensive end Gaines Adams. "He's got great speed and a great arm. And you can't forget about the offensive line that he has. So we're going to have our hands full this week and we've got to prepare hard this week and hopefully we can succeed."
Will the Bucs contain Cutler and company and take their second straight road decision? The answer will come Sunday, at some point after the Bucs' and Broncos' 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff. Here's a look back at some of the key issues that have developed in the week leading up to Sunday's showdown between two 3-1 teams:
The Buccaneers' injury report looks quite similar to the one they worked around last week, which isn't necessarily good news. Fullback B.J. Askew (hamstring) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (foot) were inactive last weekend against Green Bay and neither was able to return to the practice field this week. On Friday, both players were pegged as "out" for the game in Denver.
Second-year safety Sabby Piscitelli, who has been working well in a rotation with starters Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips, joined Askew and Galloway on the sideline this week due to an elbow injury. He is considered doubtful for the game.
The Bucs are hopeful that starting right guard Davin Joseph can return to action this weekend; he hasn't played since sustaining a foot injury during the preseason. Joseph practiced for the second straight week and appears to be farther along in his rehab than a week ago, but he is still questionable to play on Sunday.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks had a very light week of practice but he's a good bet to play on Sunday in Denver. Of course, Brooks is always a good bet to play — he has never missed a game since being drafted by the Buccaneers in the first round in 1995, a streak spanning an incredible 212 contests. The 10-time Pro Bowler has been fighting a hamstring strain for the past month but appeared to be much closer to his old self last week against Green Bay. In fact, he performed well enough to be named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
"For the past couple of week I have been out there basically giving them what I have," said Brooks. "I was a lot healthier this past week and the opportunity presented itself for me to make more plays and I did. If I am out there fully healthy, I am going to make plays."
The Bucs have won their past two games despite committing a total of seven turnovers, four in Chicago and three against the Packers.
Is it surprising that the Buccaneers could overcome that level of offensive charity twice in a row? Surprising, in fact, would be an understatement. Only one other time in the team's 33-year history has it won consecutive games in which it turned the ball over at least three times. As part of a five-game winning streak to open the season, the 1979 Buccaneers beat the L.A. Rams and the Bears in back-to-back games in which they committed three turnovers.
Beyond being an interesting nugget of trivia, that fact is also cautionary. The Bucs went 29 years between such occurrences; they shouldn't expect to continue winning games in which they can't hold onto the ball.
"It is huge, it's huge," said center Jeff Faine. "We have something that we need to fix. It is something that we can't live with and it is something that we are really on the edge, and really going back and forth with possibly losing a game because of it. It is something that we have to fix, and we have to fix it quick. If we keeping playing like that through the season it will catch up with us."
Six of the seven turnovers have been interceptions thrown by quarterback Brian Griese, who has nevertheless been good enough to keep the offense rolling. A couple of the interceptions have been the result of unlucky deflections, but Griese still takes credit for the turnover problem and plans to correct it as the Bucs head back to one of his former haunts.
"I understand that you can't turn the football over in this business and be successful over an extended period of time," he said. "We have done some things in the past two weeks to overcome that, but for me going forward, I plan on fixing those mistakes. I really feel that I am playing well in a lot of different situations but there are two or three throws that are here or there that I want to have back. I just have to eliminate those things and I will."
Wide receiver Ike Hilliard said the problem is something that must be addressed team-wide.
"That's a couple weeks in a row now that we've not taken care of the football like we need to," he said. "That's something that we've got to get corrected. We focus on it a lot here, so to have that put on film is not a situation that we want to present. As a man and as a team, I think each and every individual is doing their part to right the situation. We've got to make better decisions, we've got to run better routes and we've got to protect better. We're intent on doing that."
A Mile High
You can bring long johns for a game in the snow or sneakers for a game on artificial turf, but there's not much you can take with you on the field to combat the thin air at Denver's Invesco Field.
The Bucs will surely have oxygen tanks ready on the sideline — as they would for any game — but for the most part the players will have to cope with Denver's mile-high atmosphere by adjusting to it when they get there.
"We've talked about it," said Hilliard. "We just have to go up there and play our game. We can't control the elements in play. It's obviously something that they deal with on a regular basis; we'll have to adjust on the fly."
Denver had a .713 winning percentage at home over the decade prior to 2008, second only to the New England Patriots' .738 mark during that span. The Broncos were a good team overall during that decade (.606 winning percentage) and they certainly get a boost from a passionate home crowd. Still, the Broncos' familiarity with the thinner air is surely an advantage over their opponents, just as the Bucs' conditioning in the Florida heat can be an edge when cold-weather teams come to town in September.
The Bucs hope their own hard work in the cloying humidity of Florida will help them handle a different kind of restrictive atmosphere in Denver.
"They say it's kind of hard to breathe up there, as it is here sometimes when it's muggy down here," said running back Earnest Graham. "That's just something we have to get over. Guys have to come down here and get over the environment down here. It's just an obstacle for us. We'll be able to do it."
The Bucs' former Bronco, Brian Griese, actually downplayed the thin-air factor a bit, saying he doesn't recall it being a huge advantage when he wore the orange and blue.
"I heard that when I played in Denver and I was always expecting to see guys breathing really hard on defense when I was playing there," said Griese. "I don't know how much of an effect it really had. Now I haven't been there in a while so maybe it is going to affect me. I don't know we will see. I think that we are in really good shape here, working out in the heat and the humidity so I think we will be fine."
The Broncos' number-one ranked offense has been balanced by a 30th-ranked defense. Buccaneer players and coaches, however, tend to look at these numbers, instead: 3-1. Denver's defense may have given up a lot of yards during the first month of the season, but the Broncos did enough to win three-quarters of their games. Even though the Denver D has allowed over 130 rushing yards per game so far, including 198 by Kansas City's Larry Johnson last weekend, Graham doesn't expect an easy day on Sunday.
"I am sure they know that everybody in the league is watching that game and thinking that they can go in and run the ball against them," said Graham. "So they are trying to improve just like we are going to try and improve on the things that we need to. That doesn't have anything to do with us. We still have our work cut out for us and we have to go in there and play against a tough team."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
DE Gaines Adams on if he worries about the Broncos' style of blocking up front: "You can't worry about that. You can't go into the game worrying about if they're going to cut you or whatever. The only thing we can do is keep doing what we've been doing, which is playing football and giving it 110 percent and just go from there."
LB Derrick Brooks on facing the number-one ranked offense in the league: "Well we accept the challenge, first and foremost. Going on the road, defensively we know that we have to step up and take the bull by the horns. There is no bigger challenge. Playing Denver, the few times that we played them, their offense has always been ranked very high. So we accept the challenge, and we are just going to go up there and do our best to out execute with our coverage. Gang-tackling will be big — a lot of their yards come after the receivers get the ball. They make a lot of yards after the catch, and the running backs are the same way. Their quarterback has a cannon of an arm, a very athletic kid. They are at home so it will be on us going up and we accept the challenge."
DT Chris Hovan on the Broncos doing so well on offense: "They're just game-planning certain teams. They're finding the weaknesses in the coverage and in the run fronts and they're really capitalizing on it. Give credit to the Denver coaching staff. If the play's out there, they're making it. But, it's up to us this weekend to eliminate that and really shut down their offense."
WR Antonio Bryant on working with Brian Griese: "Brian sees a lot on the field, he sees a lot of things in the plays, a lot of guys running routes that usually don't have opportunities to get the ball so that makes for great options for our team down the line."
LB Barrett Ruud on what Kansas City did last week to earn a win over Denver: "They just played sound defense really. They didn't do anything unreal, they didn't come up with any elaborate schemes, they just were in their gaps and they did what they were supposed to do. They did their jobs and there weren't any breakdowns. They made Denver earn all their points. Denver is a good offense that is going to get some stuff but the key is going to make them earn all their yards."
DE Greg White on what's better about his pass rush this season: "I don't think it has anything to do so much with my pass rush. It's just my conditioning, getting ready and stuff like that. Like I was doing running last year, but I'm doing more running this year because I'm doing it at a linebacker level instead of a D-line level. I'm just trying to get better, constantly, every week, better."