Another big outing by RB Cadillac Williams will help keep the pressure off rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski
Fresh off a bye, the Cincinnati Bengals (3-1) visit Raymond James Stadium Sunday to take on the new look Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-4), led by rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
Gradkowski is coming off one of the best debuts by a rookie signal-caller in franchise history, particularly considering the game was played on the road. Against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday – and in a deafening Louisiana Superdome – Gradkowski completed 20-of-31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Finishing the game with a 107.6 QB rating, Gradkowski consistently found his receivers down the field, completing five passes of 18 yards or more.
After the game, Cadillac Williams lauded Gradkowski's effort: "Wow, the guy played like a vet – the way he controlled the huddle, his play-calling, his decisions on the field. I think we're in good hands with this guy."
Gradkowski's success through the air helped keep the Saints' defense from keying on the Buccaneers running game, and led by Williams' 111 rushing yards, the Buccaneers gashed New Orleans for 187 yards on the ground and a 5.7 yards-per-carry average. Tampa Bay will need to be equally effective on the ground this weekend in order to control the clock and keep the Bengals' high-powered offense on the sidelines. If early season indications hold true, they'll have a prime opportunity to do just that.
Though the Bengals have raced out to three wins, they have been exposed against the rush during their past two games, allowing an average of 203 yards per game. In a 38-13 loss to the New England Patriots, the Bengals surrendered 236 rushing yards. In that game, rookie running back Laurence Maroney gained 125 yards on only 15 attempts while scoring twice. Veteran running back Corey Dillon tacked on another 67 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals gave up 170 yards on the ground, including 133 yards to Willie Parker who also scored twice.
Helping keep the Bengals from stacking the box against Williams will be wide receiver Joey Galloway, who in his 12th year is still beating coverages for big gains. To date, he leads the team in receptions (14), yards (279) and touchdowns (2). Among his 14 receptions, five have gone for 20 or more yards and two have been for 40 yards or longer.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Buccaneers will have their work cut out for them. Quarterback Carson Palmer has shown no lingering effects of a devastating knee injury he suffered in a playoff game last season, already throwing for 917 yards and six touchdowns while completing 62.5 percent of his passes. This season, he's been extremely effective at spreading the ball around to his receivers. Pro Bowl wideout Chad Johnson leads the team with 18 catches for 201 yards, but fellow receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is not far behind with 13 catches for 189 yards. Other Bengals receivers have combined to make 44 catches for 527 yards.
The one chink in the armor of the Bengals' passing game appears to be pass protection. Through four games, Palmer has already been sacked 15 times, a number that has the team tied for eight worst in the league in sacks allowed. And those breakdowns in pass protection have been costly. Under intense pressure, Palmer has fumbled five times this season and thrown four interceptions. The Buccaneers will certainly look to replicate similar pass pressure against Palmer with defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires, as well as Dewayne White who has been particularly disruptive (a team-high three sacks) as a situational pass rusher.
Also high on the Buccaneers defensive priority list will be improving tackling. Missed tackles have vexed Buccaneers defenders through four games, leading to a fifth-worst ranking in terms of rushing yards allowed. Surrendering an average of 163.2 rushing yards per game, the Buccaneers have been beaten along the perimeter and up the middle. Tackling will have to improve against Bengals running back Rudi Johnson if the Buccaneers are to come away with their first win of the season. Johnson, a 5-10, 228-pound bruiser, gains most of his yards between the tackles, putting added emphasis on strong play from defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Anthony McFarland as well as the team's linebacking corps.
If the Buccaneers can limit Johnson's running, pressure Palmer throughout the game and give the Bengals a healthy dose of Williams' running, they could pull off the upset in front of their home crowd Sunday.