Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph believe the Bucs have remained focused on the task at hand despite the upcoming bye week
In the NFL, it's a cardinal sin to "look past" your next opponent, to give the upcoming team less than your full attention because you're thinking of a more glamorous matchup the following weekend.
That shouldn't be a problem for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week as they prepare for Sunday's game in Kansas City. After all, there is no opponent the next weekend.
Here's the thing, though: The only thing an NFL player looks forward to more than the next game is a week without one in the middle of a long and grueling season. In other words, a looming bye week can be every bit as distracting as an upcoming date with the Panthers or Eagles.
That is what the Buccaneers have been trying to guard against this week. In a way, Tampa Bay's bye will begin the minute after the final whistle at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. The Bucs just have to make sure they don't start on their vacation a little early.
Many of the team's players have accomplished that by essentially pretending the bye week isn't right around the corner.
"It's all about how you approach it," said quarterback Jeff Garcia. "My attitude is that I can't even think about the bye. We're coming off of a tough loss, trying to put that one behind us and get ready for another big challenge in a loud environment and a team that has struggled but can step up and bite you in the tail if you're not careful. We have a great challenge ahead of us this week and that's what we need to focus on. I know that there is talk about the bye, it's just natural. Players look at the bye week as an opportunity to go home and see family and get away for a few days, but that's just something that we have to put on the back burner and not worry about it. We need to get back on track with winning a football game."
The focus appeared good in the Buccaneers' locker room this week. Essentially, most of the players agreed that somebody else might be looking ahead to the bye, but not them.
"Yeah, some guys get some long eyes and look for the three day weekend but we have to get our business done," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "We have to go to Kansas City and we have to start fast and finish strong."
Added guard Davin Joseph: "The bye week is probably the biggest distraction right now. Guys of course want to rest and relax a little bit. It could be a major distraction, but the only way we're going to get to where we want to be is taking it one step at a time."
Joseph's linemate, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a true believer. He puts all of his teammates in that category of men who won't be distracted by thoughts of some extra rest and relaxation.
"I think it can be a distraction if you let it be, but I don't think we have any guys on this team that will let it happen," said Trueblood. "It's one more week to get ready and prepare, play a game, and then take week off and recover and come right back at it."
The Buccaneers have proven they can handle the distractions of a looming bye week under Head Coach Jon Gruden. In his six previous seasons at the helm, Gruden has led the Bucs to victory in the week before the bye every year except 2006.
Will the Buccaneers make another successful run into the bye week? We'll know by late Sunday afternoon, after Tampa Bay and Kansas City do battle beginning at 1:00 p.m. ET. Here's a look back at some of the key issues that have developed in the week leading up to the Buccaneers' first trip to Kansas City since 1986:
Three different wide receivers appeared on the Buccaneers' official injury report this week, but for the first time since early September Joey Galloway wasn't one of them.
Galloway missed five games with a foot injury sustained against Atlanta in Week Two but made a limited return to the field last Sunday in Dallas. Galloway didn't start, and he played only about a third of the offensive snaps, but he did pitch in with three receptions for 38 yards. It was an encouraging step forward for the only player in team history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons (2005-07).
Galloway will be on the field again in Kansas City on Sunday, perhaps for a larger share of the snaps.
"It's a process," he said of the recovery of his injured foot. "I was in for maybe 22 plays last week in the process of getting back. Hopefully that increases week by week until I'm 100 percent."
The Bucs' passing attack, though it has been quite proficient on several afternoons this season, could definitely use Galloway's big-play ability. Over the previous three seasons, with Galloway as the top threat, Tampa Bay's offense posted per-year averages of 34.3 completions of 20 or more yards, eight completions of 40 or more yards and 7.3 passing touchdowns of 20 or more yards.
This year, the Bucs are on pace to hit on 26 passes of 20 or more yards, two of 40 or more yards and two TDs of 20 or more yards.
Tampa Bay did try to use Galloway in that manner in his first game back in Dallas, with Garcia throwing a deep post to the speedy receiver from about midfield in the first quarter, but the pass was incomplete. Galloway said that such misses come with the territory when you're trying to strike from long distance.
"I would love to say that that's never going to happen again no matter how long we play together, no matter how long you play the game," he said. "Those are high-risk, high-reward types of plays, and if they were that easy to hit whether you're on time or not on time then everyone would do them. We missed that one, we've got to get better at it and we'll continue to work on it."
The Bucs may need more work from Galloway this Sunday if the rest of the receiving corps remains banged up. Michael Clayton (knee), Ike Hilliard (shoulder) and Maurice Stovall (hamstring) were all on the injury report throughout the week, with Hilliard and Stovall remaining limited on the practice field. Clayton returned to full participation by Thursday. All three were listed as questionable on Friday's more detailed report.
The Bucs also kept a close eye on starting right guard Arron Sears during the week after he banged heads with a defender on Wednesday and came up woozy. Sears didn't practice on Thursday or Friday and is considered questionable, too.
Tampa Bay's staff might be most concerned about its offensive backfield, with both fullback B.J. Askew and tailback Warrick Dunn heading into the weekend as serious question marks. Askew hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in Week Three and isn't a good bet to suit up in Kansas City. Dunn did play in Dallas last Sunday but proved to be quite limited by his sore back. If that is a problem again this weekend, the Bucs will be somewhat shorthanded in the backfield. Reserve running back Michael Bennett, a former Chief, could emerge with a larger role.
The Chiefs had three players who did not practice throughout the week: punter Dustin Colquitt (right groin), linebacker Weston Dacus (groin) and cornerback Patrick Surtain (quad). With Surtain already missing two games this season, the Chiefs are starting a pair of rookies at cornerback in Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr.
Colquitt, Dacus and Surtain were all designated as questionable on Friday. The Chiefs also added Flowers to the report on Friday with a foot injury but he is listed as probable.
Running back Larry Johnson did not participate in practice on Thursday or Friday, but not for injury-related reasons. He is thus not given an official status on Friday's report.
Bucs Expect Challenge from Thigpen
In his second NFL start, Tyler Thigpen threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets last weekend and produced a passer rating of 110.9. After watching tape of that game, in which Brett Favre denied the Chiefs a big road victory with another late game-winning touchdown, most of the Buccaneers' defenders reacted more strongly to Thigpen's running.
Obviously, the scouting report on Kansas City's second-year quarterback is still in its very early stages. Most of the Buccaneers may not have realized that Thigpen has impressive mobility until they saw him run for 20 yards against the Jets and frequently escape pressure to keep pass plays alive.
They know it now.
"I was really surprised to see their quarterback and how well he can run," said safety Sabby Piscitelli. "He took off a couple times. He's a young quarterback and I think he's real competitive. He's going to give us everything he's got. He definitely has an incredible arm. He threw some great passes on the run, which impressed me. But we'll worry about us and execute our game plan."
Thigpen's passing success in New York was an outlier, statistically, compared to what he had done in four previous games this season, including one start. Before Sunday's game, he had produced a passer rating of 44.3 on his first 90 throws of the season. But that scrambling aspect of his game in New York was nothing new.
"He is a great runner," said Hovan. "If he doesn't get his first or second look then he takes off and makes great yardage. He had a run at the end of the Tennessee game that he ran for like 35 or 40 yards into the end zone. The kid is competitive and Kansas City is giving him a chance and he is taking it. We have to be ready for there running game plus his maneuverability in the pocket."
If Thigpen can build on his success from last weekend, then Kansas City's 27th-ranked offense may not be far from turning the corner. As rookie cornerback Aqib Talib points out, the Chiefs have some legitimately worrisome weapons in their passing attack, including tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
"He's a pretty good runner, actually," said Talib. "He's good at running the ball and he utilizes his weapons, gets the ball to Tony Gonzalez. We haven't seen much of him; we just got a real quick glimpse of him. He looked pretty productive, though."
Red Zone Redux
On Monday, following a 13-9 loss in Dallas in which the Bucs repeatedly stalled just shy of the end zone, Gruden conceded that the Bucs' offense needs to be more efficient in taking advantage of its red zone opportunities.
Thanks to a trio of narrow defeats on the road, that topic remained one of the most hotly discussed issues in the Bucs' locker room for the rest of the week, too. The general analysis is that the team's problems near the opposing end zone haven't been specific to that area – insufficiently aggressive play-calling, for instance – but simply instances of failed execution.
"I don't think you can say it comes down to being aggressive or not," said Galloway. "The plays that we have run, we haven't executed in the way we need to execute. I think that they're there. Like I said, there are tough defenses to attack in the red zone so you have to be on top of your game, and we haven't been."
As an example, Galloway points to the Bucs' failed fourth-and-three play on their last offensive snap in the Dallas game last Sunday. On the play, Galloway ran an out-and-up and cornerback Alan Ball slipped to the ground trying to follow the move. The Buc receiver was wide open as he ran into the end zone but Garcia never had a chance to see him thanks to a quickly collapsing pocket.
Execution of plays is more critical, and more difficult, in the red zone, and in this case one bad half of a play rendered the good half moot.
"I think there are a number of different things that have to go right for you in the red zone, more so than the regular field," said Galloway. "Defenses are more compact, they do different things once you get down there, so you have to be exceptionally good offensively to attack those looks. We haven't done that. We haven't been as successful as we want to be. We continue to work on it. I don't know if there's a magic trick or a magic answer that we're searching for. We just have to execute."
On another red zone foray earlier in the Dallas game, Garcia began scrambling for yardage before choosing suddenly to pass; unfortunately he was already a couple yards past the line of scrimmage, drawing an quick flag.
"I think that with how we have played recently in the red zone, we've missed out on a lot of great opportunities and whether that is unfortunate penalties at times or just not converting third-and-shorts or whatever it may be, not being as sharp in the passing game as we need to be," said Garcia. "Those are things, I know for myself, I'm going to continue to harp on and work on and get better at and just have a better understanding of what we need to do when we get down there."
Despite their struggles inside the 20, the Buccaneers haven't lost confidence in what they can do in that area. The offense expects to find more success in the red zone in the second half of the season, beginning immediately.
"We feel like in any given situation, Coach Gruden has an arsenal of plays, especially for the red zone," said Clayton. "We feel like we can take advantage of guys, especially after a great week of preparation and knowing exactly their weaknesses in the red zone. We've struggled a little bit, but we do have it, we can get it done, it's just a matter of getting the play called and executing."
The Buccaneers haven't played a regular season game in Kansas City since 1986, their longest absence from any NFL city other than Buffalo, where the team has never visited. However, Tampa Bay did visit Arrowhead Stadium for a preseason game in 1999, winning 17-7 on August 21.
Moreover, the Bucs' roster features a handful of players who have played in Arrowhead much more recently, as Chiefs. Tampa Bay added defensive tackle Ryan Sims and running back Michael Bennett in separate trades with Kansas City in 2007, then picked up another former Chief in free agency this past offseason in defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson.
Those three easily remember how loud and raucous Arrowhead Stadium can get.
"It can be really tough," said Sims. "Especially when their crowd is into it. It can be really tough. My years there, the crowd was crazy making it very tough on the opposing offense."
Wilkerson remembers that atmosphere fondly.
"For me, it's going to be really exciting. I'm really looking forward to this, just being there for five years and now going back home. I know a lot of guys on the team, both on offense and defense, so I'm going to have a lot of fun with this."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
Head Coach Jon Gruden on recognition for Bucs players: "I've just been very impressed with our team. I don't want to speak out on any individuals, although I think we've had some guys that have really exploded onto the scene as Pro Bowl-caliber players. I really think the center [Jeff Faine] is a great player and I think we're getting better on the line. I think Earnest Graham, what he's done, speaks volumes about the kind of man he is and football player he is. And defensively speaking, our secondary, those guys are for real. And our linebacking corps, those guys are outstanding players. I hope Tanard Jackson, I hope some of these guys get the recognition that they deserve. Barrett Ruud, I hope he gets the recognition. But we've got to win some big games. We've got to play better on the road. But I like this team a lot. They're together, they play hard. We have some young players playing, too. We're building our team just like everybody else is, and there have been some real positive signs. Obviously there are some areas that we'd like to clean up and get better at, and health has a lot to do with that, too. You've got to get your team healthy and your best players have to play for you to play at your best, in my opinion."
T Jeremy Trueblood on being unfamiliar with the Chiefs: "Yeah, we don't play them often so you've got to get in the room, get extra film study, extra work. You've got to make sure you know what's going on. It's not like the Panthers where we play them twice a year. Once every three years is kind of a long time."
S Sabby Piscitelli on how dangerous the Chiefs are: "They've got a lot of offense weapons. They play hard. They have a lot of rookies that really compete. They beat Denver. They play real well at home and they played real well against the Jets last week. We can't overlook anybody. They're a great team. We're going to go in there and take care of our own business."
RB Michael Bennett on playing against a former team: "That is the kind of game that you want to go back and play, and play against some of the guys that you had an opportunity to play with in the past years. I know they are looking forward to this game because I know that Jimmy Wilkerson has played there, I have played there and it kind of like one of those things, this is where I am at, this is where you are now. We just want to go back and hopefully win, have fun and enjoy the game. This will be my first time ever playing in Arrowhead stadium against the Chiefs and it is definitely going to be a great feeling for us to go back."
G Davin Joseph on how the team can stay focused: "The biggest thing that's going to keep us focused is possibly losing a second straight game on the road. Winning a road game is big for us because we haven't been as good on the road as we'd like to be. We can go out and really put on a show if we focus."
DE Jimmy Wilkerson on Kansas City Head Coach Herm Edwards: "He's a real good coach, a real good players' coach. He interacts with the players a lot. I think that's one of the things as a player that we need. We need interaction with coaches. And on the defensive side, you've got [Defensive Line] Coach [Tim] Krumrie and he's also out there, a real hard-nosed coach. He wants you to be real physical. His mentality out there when we got to individual [drills] is real hard, but he also gives you a lot of techniques and you learn a lot from him."
DT Chris Hovan on what has been the problem on the road: "We just lost some tough games. We went to New Orleans and uncharacteristic of our defense we gave up three big plays. Go to Denver, play them tight and go to Dallas and play them tight. It's just a couple of big time players making big time plays at the end of the game. That was the difference in all those games. We just need one more big play and a couple more turnovers to give it to our offense so they can move it."
QB Jeff Garcia on the importance of making splash plays of over 20 yards: "I think those are important, those are definitely important because it creates momentum. It creates a certain sense of excitement within the team. Big plays are something that we were able to capitalize on last year. I think we had a number of big plays and obviously Joey was a big part of that. Having him back now, maybe that's something that becomes more part of our offense. We haven't taken a lot of shots. We need to find ways to take more shots and I think it's important in the sense of finding away to stretch defenses out and not allowing them to just play up in the box, which takes away from our run game, which takes away lanes that open up for the running game and it's just one of those things where coach is going to do a great job of putting us into those positions and it's now time for us to try to take advantage of it."