After opening the season with a 20-6 loss on the road against the Seattle Seahawks, the Bucs faced the challenge of capturing their first victory of the season against a divisional rival and the defending NFC South champions in the New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay met the challenge head on with a convincing 31-14 victory at home.

The next challenge was to win consecutive games at home with the St. Louis Rams coming into town. The challenge for the defense was to contain quarterback Marc Bulger, running back Steven Jackson and the powerful Rams offense. The defense held the Rams to three points and the team won consecutive games for the first time since Week 6 (14-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals) and Week 7 (23-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles) of last season.

The Bucs face the next challenge of this young season in the form of getting a road victory – its first of the 2007 season – against a divisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers. Tampa Bay has already proven that it can win at home, but to prove that it is a playoff-caliber team, this squad must show it can win away from Raymond James Stadium.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead of us and winning on the road is certainly a challenge that we need to address here and we need to accomplish that feat, we need to get it done,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.

Tampa Bay’s style of play and demeanor on and off the field has drastically changed since its season-opening loss to the Seahawks. The defense has been flying around the field and swarming to the ball, not allowing St. Louis or New Orleans to hit the big play. The offense has been putting points on the scoreboard and showing balance with the run and the pass.

The Bucs defense is also winning the turnover battle, forcing six turnovers so far this season while the offense has only turned the ball over three times. Linebacker Derrick Brooks likes what he has seen from the defense, but knows that their play on the road must be equal to their success at home.

“We’ve just got to keep executing and running to the football, gang-tackling and winning the turnover battle,” Brooks said. “Our last road win last season, that’s something that we did – we won the turnover battle and we won the ballgame. A very simple winning formula for us is, when we get on the road and win the turnover battle we tend to win ballgames. So we want to try to continue with that and, again, accept the challenge of going to Carolina to play. We know it’s going to be a tough game. Most of our games against them have gone all the way down to the end. So we shouldn’t and will not expect anything less than a hard-fought ballgame. Hopefully we execute and find a way to win.”

The key for the Bucs in the last two victories has been getting a lead and letting the defense play with their aggressive, attacking style. They also have been able to run the ball with the lead, controlling the clock and wearing down opposing defenses. Tampa Bay’s running game has had more success in the second half than in the first half in the two victories and it’s no coincidence that they had a lead in both games.

Against the Saints, the Bucs compiled 72 of their 87 yards rushing in the second half. In the 24-3 victory against the Rams, Tampa Bay rushed for 144 yards in the second half on its way to 182 total yards rushing. The offense has combined for 216 yards rushing in the second half in the last two victories, which spells out the recipe for victory on the road in Carolina.

That recipe is getting an early lead, taking the crowd out of the game and running the ball in the second half in order to keep wide receiver Steve Smith off the field so that he can’t get an opportunity to make a big play.

“We want to be balanced to a degree. We’ve come out in the first half of the last two games throwing the ball quite frequently,” Gruden said. “We had a lead, a 21-point lead, and we came out in the second half against New Orleans and wanted to really run the ball and defeat the clock a little bit. [Sunday] we had tremendous success running the ball. To start the second half, we tried to stay with it. When you’re getting something done, you have to stay with the hot hand, so to speak. We do feel like we’re a pretty balanced offensive team right now and hopefully that helps us.”

The Bucs secondary play has been stellar in the first three games of the season holding teams to an average of 185 yards per game and only allowing two passing touchdowns. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon has stepped up to give the Bucs one of the league’s most formidable secondaries.

Safety Jermaine Phillips is reaping the benefits of the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris in the passing game and is a force as the eighth man in the box on running plays. Phillips got his first interception of the season against the Rams after dropping a potential interception against the Saints. Cornerback Brian Kelly has battled through a groin injury early this season and cornerback Ronde Barber remains consistent with his coverage skills.

However, the Bucs defense faces a team in the Panthers and a wide receiver in Smith that have done plenty of damage in past seasons. Smith has recorded four consecutive 100-yard receiving games against the Bucs in the past two seasons resulting in the three Panthers victories.

Last season, Smith had seven receptions for 112 yards in a 26-24 victory in Tampa in Week 3, a game made famous because of the injury to quarterback Chris Simms and the emergency splenectomy that followed. The seven-year veteran matched that performance by torching the Bucs in Carolina to the tune of eight receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown in a 24-10 victory on Monday night in Week 10.

“You need 12 when you play Steve Smith,” Gruden said. “You need to use 12 guys and we are going to try to do that. Try to play 12.”

Gruden did a good job of using comedy to describe how the Bucs are going to play Smith on Sunday. The truth is that no matter how you cover Smith – with man-to-man coverage or double-teaming – he still seems to get open and make plays down the field. Buchanon, who could be called on the cover Smith, has already gotten a crash course on what Smith can do.

“He’s a strong runner; he breaks a lot of tackles, he’s kind of aggressive,” Buchanon said. “He’s definitely one of those special receivers. From the film I’ve seen he’s really strong in the lower body.”

Smith has 16 receptions for 281 yards and four touchdowns this season. He’s averaging 17.6 yards per catch.

Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (knee) practiced for the second consecutive day on Thursday, which gives more ammunition to the idea that he will play in his first regular season game since signing as a free agent with the Bucs. He could be available for special teams, but it’s not known whether he will see any action on the defensive line. Cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) practiced as well.

Wide receiver Ike Hilliard (ankle) and defensive end Greg Spires (ankle) were limited in practice. Wide receiver Joey Galloway and left tackle Luke Petitgout returned to practice after their team-mandated day off on Wednesday.

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