With a 31-7 victory vs. the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, along with losses by Carolina and New Orleans, the Bucs now have a two-game lead in the NFC South with a 6-4 record. Tampa Bay is also 3-0 in division play this season with two road victories over the Falcons and Panthers and a home win vs. New Orleans.
After going winless in division play last season, the Bucs have been dominant in their first three division contests this season. Tampa Bay has outscored its division opponents 82-28 in those victories and has proven that they are the team to beat in the division. With the Wild Card berth likely going to the NFC East or the NFC North, the Bucs' opportunity to make the playoffs will likely come by winning the division.
However, the Bucs can't afford to look past this Sunday's opponent, the Washington Redskins, and let another potential victory slip through their fingers. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is keeping his team focused on one game – this Sunday's contest at Raymond James Stadium.
"We're just going to take it one at a time and as I said earlier last week, I don't think anybody expected us to be leading our division 10 weeks into it," Gruden said. "I'm sure there are enough people out there that don't expect us to hang on to it. We're going to keep on emphasizing fundamentals, little things, effort, fundamentals, technique, that's what we're going to do, and hitting, that's what we're going to emphasize."
A win vs. the Redskins hasn't come easy for the Bucs in the past three seasons and won't be easy on Sunday. Tampa Bay has faced the Redskins four times in the past three seasons with a 2-2 record. The Bucs lost 16-10 on the road in 2004 and fell 17-10 at home in the playoffs in 2005. Tampa Bay captured a 36-35 victory in the 2005 regular season, a game that was won on a dramatic two-point plunge by fullback Mike Alstott. The Bucs' other victory came at home last season, a 20-17 win in Week 10.
Gruden's message of one game at a time is also being echoed by veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks, who knows all too well about the Bucs' struggles vs. Washington.
"We're going to stay single-minded," Brooks said. "We've got an NFC opponent this week in Washington, and this game could have some serious playoff implications. We've played them every year for the past four or five years. It's always come down to the last possession. We're going to stay single-minded. That's the foundation. For this team, we really can't afford to look ahead. That's been a good formula for us and it's one I'm going to continue to preach as a captain."
The Bucs and Redskins come into this matchup from opposite ends of the spectrum. Tampa Bay has won two consecutive games and is in the driver's seat in the NFC South for the division title. Washington, however, has lost two games in division play and is battling to keep its slim playoff hopes alive. The Redskins have a 5-5 record.
Despite not being in the same division, the Bucs and Redskins have sparked up a little rivalry with their heated battles in the past three seasons.
"I think both teams last year were struggling at the time we played late in the season," Gruden said. "Obviously the playoff game was a huge game and we didn't get it done, but there is some familiarity amongst the players and I think it does breed for a certain sense of rivalry feeling in the locker room, certainly."
Tampa Bay and Washington have played each other enough times that Gruden is beginning to think they are in the same division.
"It feels like we are in the NFC East. This is a common opponent for us; a Hall of Fame coach, a great defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams and a great offensive coordinator in Al Saunders," Gruden said. "A star-studded staff and a star-studded football team; they've got some real talent and we have great respect for them."
The Bucs will face Washington quarterback Jason Campbell for the second time in his career. Last season, Campbell was successful individually vs. the Bucs defense going 19-for-34 for 196 yards and two touchdowns even though the Tampa Bay got the victory. Campbell has thrown for 1,735 yards this season with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Gruden is well aware of Campbell's talents after having the opportunity to coach him in the 2005 Senior Bowl.
"Well he's a coach's son, he's a great kid. He's a great guy and loves football. He has all the intangibles in terms of getting people around him to play for him," Gruden said. "He's a charismatic guy and for a big guy he's very athletic. He has a rifle for an arm and he's tough as hell. I really like Jason Campbell and I'm proud of him and pleased at what he's done. I hope it takes it easy on us on Sunday."
BUCS-SAINTS DEC. 2 GAMETIME CHANGED The Bucs-Saints game, that most likely will determine who will win the NFC South division title, has been moved from 1 p.m. to a national primetime slot at 4:15 p.m., on FOX. The move is part of the NFL's flex schedule that was implemented last season.
Flexible scheduling ensures quality matchups in Weeks 11-17 and gives surprise teams a chance to play their way into primetime. The Bucs finished the season 4-12 last season and wasn't expected to be leading the NFC South division. However, because of its success this season, Tampa Bay will have its Week 13 game vs. the Saints moved.
ADAMS, WHITE MAKE NOISE WITH PASS RUSH Bucs defensive ends Greg White and Gaines Adams made getting to Atlanta quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington a regular occurrence on Sunday en route to Tampa Bay's 31-7 win over Atlanta. White had two sacks on Sunday, which pushed him past defensive tackle Jovan Haye for first on the team in sacks with 4.5.
Gruden has been impressed with the play of White, who played in his 30th game of the year on Sunday including Arena League Football contests, preseason and regular season in the NFL.
"I am impressed. He's got natural bend and pass rush ability and as I said yesterday after the game every time he makes a play I can here my brother [Jay Gruden] up in the press box saying ‘I told you so.'," Gruden said. "He's a good kid, he's a hard worker and he does have natural pass rush ability. He's raw a little bit in terms of the picture, but I give a lot of credit to Greg White. We got him late in training camp and he's made a real impression on all of us."
Adams' improvement could be seen vs. Atlanta as the rookie defensive end had two tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one tipped pass that was intercepted by defensive tackle Chris Hovan. Adams has 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks this season. Gruden is happy with the progress of his first-round draft pick and is looking for more in the coming weeks.
"Gaines is on a schedule. He had some really good plays yesterday. Sometimes the best plays that you make as a defensive end you don't get to the sack, but you force the quarterback to slide to his left and someone else gets it," Gruden said. "He's got a ways to go to become a truly great defensive end, but he's on schedule I think in terms of his work ethic. His pass rush has some flash and he's got some areas that he needs to improve on, but I'm really impressed with his effort and his willingness to come in here and get better."
Adams and White have helped the Bucs defense get back into the top 5 in the NFL and are ranked No. 1 in the NFC in total defense and pass defense.
CLEAR EXPLANATION ON INSTANT REPLAY Gruden was still trying to figure out the rules of instant replay after a bizarre turn of events during the 31-7 victory vs. the Falcons on Sunday. Gruden challenged a play in which cornerback Brian Kelly recovered a fumble, pitched it back to linebacker Cato June, who then was tripped by Falcons wide receiver Roddy White and fumbled the ball which was recovered by the Falcons.
Gruden wanted to challenge the entire play, but was informed by head official Walt Coleman that he couldn't challenge the play. However, Coleman then stated that he could challenge the play, but only a segment of the play. Gruden challenged that Kelly was down, when it was June that was actually down before the fumble, and lost the challenge.
"I was told I couldn't challenge the play and then I was told I could challenge the play," Gruden said. "We had a long discussion and then when he went under the hood, I felt once he went under the hood he was going to look at the whole play for himself. I'm not going to say anymore about it. I was an emotional human being at that time, but I'm over it now."
Gruden still had no sense of clarity about the rules on Monday.
"No, not really. I'm under the assumption that instant replay reviews the whole play, not just a segment of a play," Gruden said. "Not just the snap, a segment of the play, I thought they looked at the whole play. Again, I'm not going to get too far into that. That was a challenge I felt we should have won and I'm sure we will hear from the league at some point during the week in terms of their interpretation."
HEALTHY SMITH MAKING BIG IMPACT Bucs tight end Alex Smith had just come off a two-touchdown performance vs. Indianapolis when he went down with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter the following week vs. the Titans. He made his return two weeks later vs. Arizona, but re-aggravated the injury in the 17-10 victory.
Smith used the bye week to rest the ankle and then came out vs. Atlanta with a three-reception, 51-yard performance, including a 21-yard touchdown catch. He is currently fourth on the team in receptions with 19 and is second behind wide receiver Joey Galloway in touchdown receptions with three.
"I thought he did some good things. Obviously he made a great catch for a touchdown late in the game," Gruden said. "He did some good things on the perimeter as a blocker. It's good to see him with the life in his legs once again. He's a guy we are going to need obviously here in the next six weeks."
Smith has become a sure-handed target for quarterback Jeff Garcia with the injuries to wide receivers Paris Warren (leg) and Michael Clayton (ankle) along with the release of wide receiver David Boston. He has 197 receiving yards (10.4 avg.) this season.
ASKEW, PENN HAVE MADE IMPACT ON OFFENSE Bucs fullback B.J. Askew and left tackle Donald Penn have stepped into the starting lineup and softened the blows of injuries to starters this season. With fullback Mike Alstott being placed on IR during training camp with a neck injury, Askew has had to fill some big shoes in being the lead blocker on running plays and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Askew has been one of the key factors for the Bucs improved running attack this season despite the injuries to Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle). Pittman returned this week after missing four games and Williams was lost for the season. Third-string running back Earnest Graham has an opportunity to rush for 1,000 yards this season and Askew has led the way on many of his carries.
"I liked the film. I liked the film he's putting out their every week. I like the way he leads into the hole. I like the way he instinctively gets to the second level," Gruden said. "I like the way he finishes, picks up blitzes and what he's brought to our team a lot. He's a tough guy. He played hurt yesterday. There was a question whether or not he would be able to go, but he sucked it up yesterday and I tip my hat to him."
Tampa Bay is averaging 116 yards per game running the ball and is ranked 14th in the NFL in that category. The Bucs averaged only 95 yards a game rushing last season and ended 2006 ranked 28th in rushing.
Penn stepped in after starting left tackle Luke Petitgout went down for the season with a knee injury and has held his own guarding Garcia's blindside. He's also had to learn on the fly against some of the top pass rushers in the league including Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch and Atlanta's John Abraham.
Penn did give up a sack to Abraham early in the game, but he made adjustments throughout the game and made sure Abraham never got his hands on Garcia again.
"Well John Abraham is a great player and posed a real threat on every snap," Gruden said. "I thought he got Donald one time, but all-in-all I thought Donald handle himself real well not only against Abraham, but against a team that relies on perimeter pressure and the blitz. I thought he made some real good last second adjustments and played quite well."
BUCS BENEFITING FROM GARCIA'S VETERAN SAVVY Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia has always been known as a player that can improvise when a play breaks down. His mobility in the pocket allows him to move around, keep a play alive and find an open receiver. Garcia, however, showed that he can do damage throwing the ball in the pocket vs. Atlanta.
Garcia used a nice pump fake to fool Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who was locked up in man coverage, and burn him deep for a 44-yard touchdown to wide receiver Joey Galloway. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback also stood tall in the pocket under pressure from a blitz to deliver a 21-yard touchdown strike to Smith that gave the Bucs a commanding 24-0 lead.
"I think the big thing is when we get a guy open particularly deep, he hits him. We miss a couple guys against Jacksonville and it was really the first time all year that his missed a target deep," Gruden said. "Galloway has scored six times beyond 25 yards this season. I believe we had six explosive plays yesterday. Jeff's ability to stand in the pocket and exhaust it and let a route develop is a great trait that he has. His ability to slide to his left, slide to his right and keep his feet in a throwing position is a great trait that he relies on and it's really been good for us."
Garcia has been a stabilizing force for the offense and has the Bucs ranked 15th in the NFL in passing compared to 26th last season. He is completing 64 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Garcia opened the season with seven consecutive games without throwing an interception, a franchise-record 197 pass attempts.
However, since throwing three interceptions vs. Jacksonville in Week 8, Garcia hasn't thrown an interception in the last two games.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden on if the Bucs have created a winning atmosphere this season.
"We won 11 games two years ago. It's not like we've been flushed down the toilet forever. We had a bad year last year for a lot of reasons. We have a lot guys on our football team that know how to win, that expect to win and come in here every day preparing to win, same as the coaches. We realize that we've got six wins and that doesn't guarantee us anything, but we are seeing signs of improvement and for that we are excited to get back to work today."
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