Keeping with company lines, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden stopped short of singling out individual players, particularly on defense, which he thought needed to step up their play following the Buccaneers 24-21 loss at New Orleans Sunday.

While any finger pointing was redirected toward himself and his coaching staff, Gruden did say the Buccaneers’ “impact players” were failing to accomplish just that.

“We’re not making the splash, impact plays,” Gruden said. “That, more than anything, is very disappointing right now. Our inability to get turnovers and disrupt the offense and put them behind in down and distance.

“For us to come out of the ashes [the defense] is going to have to dominate.

Tampa Bay failed to force a turnover or sack Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday. And other than linebacker Derrick Brooks’ theft of quarterback Michael Vick’s pass in Week two against Atlanta, the Buccaneers’ defense has been uncharacteristically quiet. Through four games the defensive line has accounted for only four sacks, three of which were notched by Dewayne White and one by Simeon Rice.

Gruden thinks his defense can play a lot better. They’ll need to as things don’t get any easier when the Cincinnati Bengals and their potentially potent offense play the Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Tampa Bay entered Sunday’s game with the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense against the rush. Judging by its first half performance against the Saints, it wasn’t hard to see why. New Orleans’ bruising running back Deuce McAllister ran through arm tackles throughout the first half, accumulating more than 100 yards before the break. He finished with 123 yards on the day and eclipsed the century mark for the first time since October of 2005 against Buffalo.  

It was not a good sign that cornerbacks Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber led the team in tackles against the Saints with nine and eight takedowns, respectively.

In response to McAllister’s gaudy 8.2 yards per carry average, Gruden made mention of two specific areas in which the defense needs to improve. He feels the push up the middle by the interior defensive line hasn’t been up to the standards he expects and he also pointed to the level of consistency at safety as being a major concern, saying the team needed to find sure tacklers on a game-by-game, snap-by-snap basis.

“We’re struggling,” Gruden said. “Deuce [McAllister] had two carries for 81 yards. Both against eight-man fronts. And you don’t need to know our run defense, but you do know when were in an eight-man front we’ve got an extra defender there. And on both occasions our free hitter, our free tackler, missed a tackle. And those two plays really had a lot to do with their victory yesterday.”

The coach would not rule out making changes in the lineup, particularly at safety, where Kalvin Pearson did see action in place of Jermaine Phillips in the second quarter against New Orleans.

In the locker room Monday, defensive captain Derrick Brooks said the Bucs defense, which has finished nine straight seasons ranked in the top 10, has to “bury the first quarter” of the season.

“We’re not close at all to playing the way we’re capable of,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this situation.”

Brooks added there’s no better way for the defense to show how good it can be than to put together a good showing against their next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, who currently have the 17th-ranked offense in the NFL.

What more can you ask out of a rookie quarterback than to give his team the lead on the road in the fourth quarter?

Not much.

If there was a bright spot in Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s mind on Monday, it had to do with his optimism with young players on offense, mainly QB Bruce Gradkowski, who made his first NFL start at quarterback.

While awaiting his first post-game film session as a starter, Gradkowski felt good about his performance, but said he could’ve done some things better and seemed genuinely disappointed in the fact his debut came in a loss.

“I felt good getting my first game under my belt,” Gradkowski said Monday. “It was a tough loss, but I have a lot to build from, a lot to learn from.”

When it comes to the playbook, Gruden said Gradkowski’s ability allows him to do things the Bucs didn’t do with Chris Simms, Brian Griese or Brad Johnson.

“For a guy that’s been on the job here for almost five months, we realize what we have here and we want to try to see him take it to the grass here Sunday,” Gruden said. “There are things that we want to try and develop around him.”

Also encouraging to the coach was the progress of tight end Alex Smith, who hauled in his first touchdown catch of the season Sunday. Smith’s 11 catches on the season ties him for 8th in the NFC among tight ends.

Gruden praised the debut of rookie offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood against a very good pass rusher in the Saints Charles Grant.  Tampa Bay’s second-round pick out of Boston College said he wasn’t that nervous making his first start and was anxious to get into the team’s film session to evaluate his performance to see how he can improve.

Davin Joseph, the Buccaneers’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, saw his first regular season action on Sunday after sitting out the first three games with an injured knee. He is expected to practice this week and could start against the Bengals. In fact, Gruden said Joseph would make his debut as the team’s starter at right guard as soon as he’s 100 percent back from the knee injury that sidelined him for the first three games of the season.  

It certainly was not the intention of punter Josh Bidwell or anyone on the Buccaneers’ staff to punt to a dangerously fast rookie in Reggie Bush, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.

Bush fielded Bidwell’s punt directly between the hash marks just on the Saints side of the field.

Linebacker Antoine Cash was the first man down and had the not-so-easy task of making an open field tackle on Bush, who scampered 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Bidwell said from his vantage point he could see a wall forming and knew it meant trouble.

“I was trying to get the ball outside to the right a little more than I did,” Bidwell said. “I wanted to make sure I got decent hang time, but the ball ended up in the middle of the field where I really didn’t want it coverage-wise.”

Ironically it was former Buccaneer Aaron Stecker who made the key block on Buccaneer special teams player Wesley Mallard to free Bush’s path down the sideline.

“Really you’re just thinking ‘No way, this can’t be happening now. Of all times in the game to run one back when we’re trying to protect a lead’. But it happened so fast,” Bidwell said.

The Buccaneers squandered good field position too many times Sunday. The Bucs punted from the Saints’ 36-yard line twice during the game. While some may question why Gruden would not opt for a long field goal attempt in the controlled atmosphere of the Superdome, it would have been a risky call in such a tight game.

Kicker Matt Bryant did connect on 21-of-25 field goal attempts last year, but he is 0-for-2 from 40 yards or more this season. Bryant isn’t the strongest in the league, either. In fact, his career long is only 50 yards, which came at Raymond James last December against Atlanta.


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