A numbers game cost Clayton an active spot last Sunday; will he be in the game against Atlanta?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will welcome the surprising Atlanta Falcons to town for the 2008 home opener on Sunday, setting up a second straight intra-division showdown. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers are coming off a narrow, season-opening loss at New Orleans and, as often happens, the open locker room sessions this week threatened to turn into a support-group meeting.
"How's the team's psyche? Is the confidence level still high? What do you need to do to bounce back from that tough loss? Will you be ready for the Falcons?"
As seriously as Buc players take every game, and as much as the loss in New Orleans stung, they were almost amused by the level of concern.
"It's Week One," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "If you look back to when we won the Super Bowl [in 2002], we lost to the Saints in Week One in that year too. There are still 15 more games to play. We're not worried about that one."
Indeed, the Buccaneers' playoff seasons in 1999, 2002 and 2007 all started with season-opening losses. In each case, the team rebounded to win — at a minimum — the next two games. The 2002 team went from 0-1 to 5-1 and never had to answer questions about confidence again.
The Bucs are fully confident that they can follow the pattern established by those previous playoff squads.
"That's the plan," said rookie cornerback Aqib Talib. "We have to bounce back. We had a bad game last week giving up over 300 yards passing. We don't like doing that. We all have a little chip on our shoulder and we're going to bounce back."
Added fellow young defender Gaines Adams: "A performance like that, it's going to be a wakeup call for all of us. The only thing we can say right now is work hard today, this week in practice, and come back with a better mind frame."
In 2002, the Bucs fell behind quickly in their season opener against the Saints and were losing 20-10 heading into the final quarter. A fierce rally sent the game into overtime, where the visitors eventually won on a botched punt. Similarly, the Bucs rallied from behind twice in New Orleans last weekend and nearly did so a third and final time, with their last drive fizzling out near the Saints' red zone.
The '02 Bucs left their opener disappointed but still as confident as they were going on. The same is true of this year's team.
"You try to build off that [rally]," said tight end Alex Smith. "We know we had a tough one and we didn't start the way we wanted to. We kind of picked it up later in second half, so we're trying to get off to a good start this game and hopefully we'll go from there."
No NFL game is a "must-win" until a loss means elimination. That said, an 0-2 hole within the NFC South would present a major obstacle to the Bucs' efforts to defend their division title. Is this game, even in Week Two, a critical one for the Bucs. Are there any other kind?
"It's urgent every day," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Every week you feel urgency, you know what I mean? Who are we kidding? You've got to win every time you strap it on. We need to win this game; so do they. We need to get some momentum going and we're excited about it."
The Bucs wrap up their practice schedule with a walk-through on Saturday morning and then head to the team hotel in the early evening for a final round of meetings. Here's a look back at some of the key topics leading up to the Week Two contest between the Buccaneers and Falcons:
The Buccaneers' Friday injury report included no real surprises. The only player listed as "out" was guard Davin Joseph, who hasn't played or practiced since incurring a significant foot injury in Week Two of the preseason. Gruden said Joseph is close to returning, but he won't play against the Falcons.
Three Bucs are considered questionable, though the state of quarterback Jeff Garcia's ankle became somewhat less pressing when Gruden pronounced Brian Griese his starting quarterback on Wednesday. Also questionable are linebacker Derrick Brooks (see below) and wide receiver Maurice Stovall.
Stovall is dealing with an upper back strain but was able to practice in a limited fashion this week. The Bucs likely have enough receiver depth to weather his absence, if necessary, but would lose one of their best special teams players if the third-year receiver can't play on Sunday.
The Falcons' injury concerns appear slim, though the addition of kicker Jason Elam (hip) to the report on Thursday could be a concern. Elam wasn't on the report when the week started, but was added with a hip ailment after the first day of practice. On Friday, Elam was listed as questionable. It's worth noting that the Falcons' punter, Michael Koenen, also briefly held the job of placekicker for the team in 2006. In his three-year career, Koenen has attempted 13 field goals, many of them long-range tries, and made four of them.
Streak in Jeopardy
Buccaneers Defensive end Kevin Carter will play in his 210th consecutive game when he takes the field Sunday against Atlanta. His fellow 1995 first-round draftee, linebacker Derrick Brooks, may not be so lucky.
Both Carter and Brooks have appeared in every one of their teams' games since they entered the league in '95, a remarkable feat for both players. However, Brooks could see his streak — as well as a run of 193 consecutive starts — end on Sunday if his hamstring doesn't respond adequately.
Brooks missed much of the second half in New Orleans after sustaining the injury. He did not practice this week, ceding the reps to a collection of young players that includes rookie or first-year linebackers Geno Hayes, Adam Hayward and Quincy Black.
Hayward got many of the snaps in Brooks' absence in New Orleans (Hayes was one of eight game day inactives) but knows that his veteran teammate will do anything in his power to be on the field Sunday.
"I've learned over the last year-and-a-half now that Derrick is a 14-year vet; he's not going to practice all the time," said Hayward. "I've done enough practicing for him to know that he's going to play and he's going to be alright. He knows what he needs to do outside of practice as far as the mental game and watching film and knowing what the offense is going to do versus certain defenses. With that said, he's going to be alright if he doesn't practice and everyone else does. Geno and I go in there and practice for him just to get reps and looks in case something happens or he tweaks it again or something. We'll be prepared."
If Brooks is held out, the Bucs could insert either Hayes or Hayward into the starting lineup. They could also move strongside linebacker Cato June to Brooks' spot on the weak side and insert Quincy Black into the starting 11. When the team goes to its nickel package, June and Barrett Ruud will be the two linebackers, as was the case for most of the season opener.
Taking On the Challenge
Late in 2002, as the Buccaneers were preparing to play the Atlanta Falcons, much of the discussion leading up to the game revolved around Michael Vick. The Falcons were making a serious charge at the Bucs' hold on first in the new NFC South, and the young Vick was leading the way with some sensationally athletic performances.
With NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in town to see the action firsthand, the Buccaneers memorably bottled up Vick in a 34-10 pounding of the Falcons. Afterward, Gruden turned the spotlight towards his defense.
"All the talk all week has been, 'How do you stop Michael Vick?'" said Gruden. "And we've already said time and time again we respect him immensely. But I didn't hear anybody in America say, 'How's he going to go up against this defense?"
Those were heady days for the Buccaneers. They were clearly playoff bound and they just as clearly had the best defense in the NFL, perhaps one of the best the league has ever seen. Gruden seemed to want that group to get the credit it deserved.
There is much less drama to this week, and it's not yet clear how the 2008 Bucs' defense will stack up to its predecessor in 2002. However, the situation may be similar. Michael Turner and Matt Ryan are the talk of the NFC South after their respective Falcon debuts last weekend, and deservedly so. Turner ran for 220 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 10 yards a pop. Ryan made the most of his 13 throws, particularly a 64-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on his first official NFL pass.
The Bucs are in Ryan's talents and were not surprised by Turner's explosive opener as a Falcon. However, they are focusing less on the Falcons' talents and more on their own performance on defense this weekend.
"The onus is going to be on the defense," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "We're going to have to go out there and shut down Atlanta's offense. We need to get turnovers; we need to shorten the field for the offense. Let's give our offense an opportunity and a chance to score out there. Our mindset this week is play tough against the run and get them one-dimensional in their passing game."
The Falcons piled up close to 500 yards of offense against a Detroit defense that was crafted by former Buccaneer coaches Rod Marinelli and Joe Barry. Obviously, Atlanta's approach can work against Tampa Bay's style of defense, if it is not executed properly.
"They ran for about 300-plus yards against fronts I recognize," said Gruden. "So we'd better tighten up our over defense, our under, our fronts and our run fits because it will be a long day if we don't."
After a tumultuous 4-12 season, the elevation of a rookie to lead the offense and a change in coaching, the Falcons were thought to be in rebuilding mode in 2008. The Lions probably did not head into Atlanta expecting an easy win, but if they did, it's a mistake the Bucs won't duplicate.
"They may have been underestimated them, but we won't," said defensive end Greg White."
The Buccaneers have won the NFC South in three of the last three seasons. In each of those years — 2002, 2005 and 2007 — the Bucs went 6-2 in their eight home games.
Overall in their first 10 seasons at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers have posted a 52-28 record for an outstanding home winning percentage of .650. That's the fourth-best home record in the NFC over the last decade.
Coaches and players don't care much about those records, however. They're simply juiced to be playing in front of the home crowd.
"We love playing at home and we're disappointed, obviously, that we don't have a victory to show for our season right now," said Gruden. "But I think our fans are going to like our team. They're going to play hard. We've got some really good players.
"I can't wait to play at home. There's a certain thrill that comes to strapping on your home uniforms and playing in your own stadium. It's going to be awesome. We're looking forward to it."
There are more practical reasons the Bucs are glad to be at home this week, too. The offense showed promise but had an up-and-down outing in the Superdome last weekend. They believe they can sustain their success for 60 minutes this weekend with the crowd behind them.
"That was a hostile crowd last week," said tight end Alex Smith. "We have a lot of things we like to do with no huddle and all that stuff. When you're on the road, when you're not getting that rhythm, when you can barely hear the plays, it's hard to get going like we wanted to. Hopefully we'll be able to take advantage playing at home."
Other topics on the Bucs' minds this week:
Head Coach Jon Gruden on how different the Falcons are from a year ago: "Well, they've added a different scheme. Last year they were four and five-receivers a lot, they were wide open, they were stretch-oriented on offense. Here, this film they just produced was a power, authoritative way of running the ball behind a big back in Michael Turner. They already signed a heck of a fullback [Ovie Mughelli] last year; he really didn't play a lot for them, given their one-back situations. Their offense, structure-wise, is a lot different. They have a heck of a quarterback. This guy's a promising superstar, I think, in the league. And defensively they've always had talent, and that hasn't changed."
Gruden on if Michael Clayton will be active against the Falcons: "We hope so. Again, we had some tough calls last week, we'll have some tough calls this Sunday. Again, we think Dexter Jackson gives us something in the return game. It's hard to get six receivers active. Sometimes last year we only had four. We were afforded five last week. When you work with Monte Kiffin, man, sometimes it's hard to get any offensive players active."
WR Michael Clayton on how the numbers might change in his favor this week: "I don't know. It's a possibility that it won't ever change. If the receivers do a good job, if nobody gets hurt and if that's what they want to do, that's what I have to live by this year. It's a long season; you never know what's going to happen. You have to be prepared to play in all situations. It may be a different situation this week. I know Maurice Stovall is maybe a little bit banged up. We'll go from there."
CB Aqib Talib on if he thinks quarterback will try to throw his way after giving up play last week: "Come on. As a defensive back, you want to get balls. You want to get opportunities to make plays. I had my opportunity to make a play and I missed it. I'm sure that I'm going to have a lot more opportunities to make plays."
C Jeff Faine on rookie Jeremy Zuttah filling in for Davin Joseph at right guard: "It's just something that we've got to keep working on, with a new face up there at right guard. We've got to keep working him in and keep working to get the chemistry back to where I felt we had it at the end of training camp. It's a work in progress but I think it's going good."
LB Barrett Ruud on rookie QB Matt Ryan: "They're not making him do a ton. They don't necessarily want him to win games, they want him to not lose games. From what I know about him he's a smart guy and he can make all the throws. But their first goal is to run the ball."