The talk of the town is still Tampa Bay’s 24-13 upset win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. But Bucs head coach Jon Gruden spent a good portion of his Monday morning press conference discussing his team’s next opponent – the 1-0 Buffalo Bills.
“Buffalo is a unique challenge,” Gruden said Monday. “They are a great team, particularly defensively. They have a hot, young quarterback, that’s a great prospect, dangerous wide receivers. I think the blend we have of veteran players and young players is a good thing. There is some genuine youthful enthusiasm. There is some swagger and confidence from our veteran players who have done good things. I think it’s a real good combination right now. It’s just the beginning, but it does give you some idea of what we are capable of doing.”
Buffalo’s defense held Houston to nine points and sacked Texans QB David Carr five times while creating five turnovers. The Bills defense currently ranks tied for No. 1 in total defense. According to Gruden, the pressure the Bills defense puts on opposing quarterbacks is impressive.
“Their pressure package is tremendous,” Gruden said of the Buffalo defense. “They dominated yesterday. Most of the films I’ve seen from last year, they completely dominate the opposition. I think they are the number one defense in football. Takeo Spikes is as good a linebacker that I’ve seen since I’ve been in coaching. He doesn’t hit you, he clobbers you. He’s a great blitzer. Their linebacking corps is extremely quick. Their nose tackle (Sam Adams) is mammoth. He’s a big, physical presence. And Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent, two veteran safeties are capable of making some splash plays. This is a very unorthodox scheme and they are blessed with great talent and impact players.”
In fact, Gruden said Buffalo’s defense, which held Houston to just 120 yards of total offense, could be the toughest one Tampa Bay’s offense faces all season long.
“It might be,” Gruden said. “It’s very like the Redskins. Chicago’s going to have a great defense, Carolina, Miami proved they are for real. We are going to see some good defenses. I always just think about the next opponent, but these guys are very special.”
The Bucs and Bills will clash on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium.
ROOKIES IMPRESSIVE IN DEBUT First-day draft picks are usually expected to make an immediate impact, especially when the team that drafted them has posted two consecutive losing seasons.
But some were still surprised to see the plays made by 2005 draft picks Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Alex Smith, who scored all three of Tampa Bay’s touchdowns en route to a 24-13 win over Minnesota.
“Those two guys made big plays, scoring plays, which we are excited about,” Gruden said of Williams and Smith. “I don’t want to discount guard Dan Buenning, he started and played every snap at left guard. Tackle Anthony Davis got his first start at left tackle. Wide receiver Mark Jones did a good job returning punts. And G Sean Mahan started his first NFL game at right guard. There were a lot of young guys that stepped up and made plays. What a great beginning for those guys. Hopefully, it’s a start of something big for them.”
Williams rushed the ball 27 times for 148 yards and one touchdown in his rookie debut. Many believed Gruden would use more of a running-back-by-committee approach this season, but Williams has shown enough to be labeled Tampa Bay’s true “feature” back.
“We used all the backs,” Gruden said. “I think Earnest Graham was the only one who didn’t get in. Years ago when Ricky Watters was in Philadelphia, I think he broke a franchise record for carries. As long as Carnell feels good, he’s going. He’s the front running back here, and no offense to anyone else, he’s a guy that we are going to feature. I’m really pleased with what he is doing, not only as a runner, but in the passing game. He fit quite well in the pick-up game, and I think all-in-all it’s a great start for him.”
Williams saved the best carry for last when he broke off a 71-yard run late in the fourth quarter to score his first touchdown and put the Bucs up for good. But Gruden was quick to point out the fact that Williams had some help on his way to the end zone.
“I liked the two runs before (the touchdown run) that set us up at a third-and-one,” Gruden said of Williams. “We hammered the ball, left and right, off tackle behind (Todd) Steussie both times. We went to an extra offensive lineman in that situation, and then on the third down play we used a counter scheme, with a zone block play and Dan Buenning made a great finish on the second level. Todd Steussie made a super block at the point of attack. Like I said, if you are going to full blitz and you don’t get there, there’s a lot of green grass, and (Williams) is capable of finishing plays and he did that. On his 27th carry, to go 71 yards, that’s quite a feat.”
Tampa Bay’s rushing attack, which ranked 29th last season, convinced the Bucs to spend a good portion of the offseason working on improving this particular aspect of Gruden’s offense. The Bucs, who have currently have the 7th-ranked running game, took a big step in the right direction on Sunday in terms of accomplishing that feat.
“It was pretty good,” Gruden said of his running game. “In my history, with giving the ball to a guy 25-to-30 times, if they are going to get 140 or 150 yards, there is going to be a long run in there somewhere. That’s one of the reasons we keep giving the ball to the same guy, because we think he is special and it’s just a matter of time before he finds a way to get through there. (Williams) made a lot of good, solid runs. We did have some zeros and plus-ones on the perimeter. But I think our perimeter eight-and-nine hole running game opened up our inside game, which was very good yesterday.”
OFFENSIVE LINE SET FOR NOW Another aspect Gruden came away impressed with was the play of Tampa Bay’s offensive line, which featured three new starters in Anthony Davis, Dan Buenning and Sean Mahan.
“I thought those guys battled and did some good things,” said Gruden. “Minnesota has a very good front. They’ve added a very good nose tackle (Pat Williams) from Buffalo. We have a lot of respect for (Minnesota). We handled the noise, at times, pretty good. I thought we had some careless errors, a couple of penalties, particularly in the second half. But (the offensive line) deserve a lot of credit.”
The Bucs had 13 penalties for 99 yards, and members of the team’s offensive line committed several of those infractions. The penalty department is an area the Bucs must clean up quickly if they plan to compete for a playoff spot this season.
“We had a real good look on the second play of the second half, but we had a penalty,” Gruden said when explaining his offense’s sluggish second half vs. Minnesota. “We had penalties in four consecutive series in the third quarter. We felt we had a pretty good look for the quarterback. We had big naked to (fullback) Jameel Cook called back for a penalty. I think Anthony Davis had a holding call on a second-and-10 on another series. If you get behind in a down-and-distance, way behind, like we were in the third quarter, we obviously got a little conservative. We were willing to punt the ball with the lead that we had. We played to our strengths at that time, which was a very good punter, good coverage and a heck of a defense. But (the offense) is concerning. You don’t like to come out of the locker room after a really good second quarter with penalties.”
With Matt Stinchcomb listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a lower back strain, Buenning will get his second consecutive start at left guard for the Bucs.
“He’ll be starting this week,” Gruden said of Buenning. “Once again, Stinchcomb is a valuable guy because he can play either guard, he can play center, and he’s a guy that we miss from a depth standpoint. He was having a heck of a camp himself and before it is all said and done, we would like to have him back.”
Although he was encouraged by what he saw from the offensive line on Sunday, Gruden suggested this unit had a lot of room to improve, which is something he expects to see happen as the 2005 regular season progresses.
“We hope it can grown,” said Gruden “We got our first glimpse of what these guys can do, wire-to-wire. We have had so many of them injured. Buenning and Anthony Davis have missed starts in the preseason, and John Wade has been somewhat limited. We hope to grow offensively, starting up front. If we don’t, it will be a situation where we will have to address it again in the offseason.”
DEFENSIVE DOMINATION Tampa Bay’s ability to limit Minnesota’s offense to just 248 yards of total offense and 33 yards rushing on Sunday was one of the most dominating defensive performances Gruden has ever seen.
“They played very good,” Gruden said of the Bucs defense, which currently ranks No. 2 in the NFL against the run. “Obviously, shutting down the run was a primary goal of ours. We wanted to improve our run defense. We wanted to improve our rushing offense. I thought that was a big plus for us yesterday in the game. I thought all along our defense played very well against the run. (They) put Minnesota behind in down-and-distance and we were able to rush the passer, and we do that extremely well.”
The Bucs sacked Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper twice and caused him to fumble twice and throw three interceptions on Sunday. In fact, Tampa Bay held a potentially potent Minnesota offense to just 66 yards in the first half.
“We dominated them in the first half,” said Gruden. “Anytime you give up 15 or 16 yards rushing, that’s a brilliant performance, despite how many carries they had. I thought our contain of Culpepper was good. We mixed our looks, mixed our coverages, we were opportunistic and we made plays, big plays. That was a great start. I was unhappy, as was our defense, with us letting Minnesota get out of some holes. We had a second-and-long a couple of times, third-and-long a few times, and they were able to convert. But at the end of the day, we were able to get off of the field for the most part.”
BUCS OFF TO FAST START Tampa Bay is over .500 for the first time since October of 2003. Starting the season off 1-0 is positive, especially when you consider the fact that the Bucs produced just a 1-7 record on the road last season.
“It’s a great start,” said Gruden. “We expected to win the game. We think we have the makings of a good football team. We realize that we have some guys that are inexperienced to a degree. We have a couple other guys that are coming off of season ending injuries. I thought (defensive tackle Anthony) McFarland, Ellis Wyms and John Wade did some good things. Our kicker stepped up when we needed him. It’s obvious it’s fun to win.”
But the Bucs don’t have time to get too excited about their road win in Minnesota on Sunday. They have six days to prepare to play the Buffalo Bills, a team most pundits consider a legitimate playoff contender, at Raymond James Stadium.
Winning on the road was a great start, but this week’s challenge for the Bucs will be recapturing homefield advantage at Ray-Jay, where Tampa Bay has produced just a 7-9 record over the past two seasons.
“It’s certainly a momentum boost for us,” Gruden said of the 24-13 win over the Vikings. “A couple of years ago we beat Philadelphia on the road on a Monday night and had a very physical Carolina team come in and beat us in overtime. A win in Week 1 guarantees you nothing, but it does give your team a sense of confidence. We are injury free, for the most part, right now. We really want to play much better football at home in front of our fans. That’s the challenge this week, not only playing better at home, but when you look at the Buffalo Bills these guys will grab your attention. These guys are really good. On the defensive side, they are nasty, they are all over the place. And I think on offense they have some explosive receivers.”
JONES SOLIDIFIES PUNT RETURN POSITION After averaging just 6.5 yards per punt return in 2004 and 1.9 yards per attempt in preseason, Tampa Bay appears to have found a player who can solidify its punt return position.
Wide receiver Mark Jones, who was re-signed last week after being released by the Bucs in August of 2004, returned three punts for 27 yards (9.0 avg.) vs. Minnesota. According to Gruden, the Bucs expect some great things from Jones this season.
“I think he will be an asset for us,” Gruden said of Jones. “He has 4.4 speed. I think we all see that he has open field elusiveness. He has the traits you look for back there that can create a play. He is going to be a real good positive asset to this team, something that we’ve needed here the past couple of seasons.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Gruden on getting off to a better start this year as opposed to the team’s 0-4 start to the 2004 regular season;
“Last year is over, man. Three years ago we won the damn Super Bowl. Last year is over. I’m so tired of addressing last year. This is a new year, let’s talk about this year.”
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