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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Denver Broncos

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

SPREAD: Broncos by

WHERE THE BRONCOS STAND: The Broncos are 2-1 and tied with the Oakland Raiders for first place in the AFC West Division.

BRONCOS HEAD COACH: Mike Shanahan

BRONCOS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gary Kubiak

BRONCOS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Larry Coyer

BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Ronnie Bradford

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 26th (276.3 ypg)
RUSHING: 30th (71.3 ypg)
PASSING: 18th (205 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 10th (290.7 ypg)
RUSHING: 26th (111 ypg)
PASSING: 4th (132.3 ypg)

DENVER BRONCOS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 9th (365.7 ypg)
RUSHING: 15th (111.7 ypg)
PASSING: 9th (254 ypg)

DENVER BRONCOS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 1st (236 ypg)
RUSHING: 14th (106 ypg)
PASSING: 2nd (129.7 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is 1-7 all-time vs. Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan?

BRONCOS OFFENSE:
Under the playcalling and scheming of head coach Mike Shanahan, the Broncos once again have one of the league’s most potent offenses, evidenced by their 9th overall ranking in that category.

Denver has several contributors and weapons on offense, but everything starts up front for the Broncos, who have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. This group, which doesn’t have a lot of big names, is made up of left tackle Matt Lepsis, left guard Ben Hamilton, center Tom Nalen, right guard Dan Neil and right tackle George Foster.

Denver’s offensive line is at its best in the running game, where it consistently opens up big holes for running back Quentin Griffin, who has rushed 60 times for 229 yards (3.8 avg.) and two touchdowns through three games this season. Griffin also has nine catches for 53 yards and one receiving touchdown. The Broncos will also mix in some other backs, including Tatum Bell and Garrison Hearst.

Quarterback Jake Plummer is also a running threat. His mobility allows Shanahan to be quite creative from a playcalling standpoint. Plummer has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 774 yards and tossed four touchdowns and two interceptions this season. He’s also added 48 yards rushing on 16 attempts. The Bucs’ front four must get pressure on Plummer, who has been sacked twice this season and was sacked just 14 times in 2003. Look for Shanahan to call plenty of bootlegs and rollouts for Plummer in this contest in an effort to buy the quarterback some time to throw or run.

Plummer lost his favorite target in the passing game when tight end Shannon Sharpe retired during the offseason. Sharpe was replaced by TE Jeb Putzier, who has nine catches for 103 yards. Denver’s wide receiving corps are not considered a team strength, but they’re certainly serviceable. Rod Smith has 18 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown, and Ashley Lelie has hauled in 11 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown. Darius Watts has caught six passes for 75 yards as the team’s No. 3 receiver.

If Tampa Bay’s defense can contain Griffin via the ground game, it will force Plummer to convert third downs in the passing game. The Broncos have had a tough time converting long down-and-distance plays, evidenced by their 32.5 percent third down conversion rate.

BRONCOS DEFENSE:
Denver’s defense finished the 2003 season ranked 4th overall, but the Indianapolis Colts exposed some of the Broncos’ defensive weaknesses in the playoffs en route to a 41-10 win.

Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan spent the offseason searching for a shutdown cornerback and found one in Washington CB Champ Bailey. In order to acquire Bailey via a trade, the Broncos sent All-Pro running back Clinton Portis to the Redskins. The team also signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety John Lynch in free agency. Both of those moves are paying off for the Broncos, who currently have the No. 1 ranked defense in the league. Bailey and Lynch are the team’s leading tacklers, and Bailey has even recorded an interception. Bailey, Lynch and CB Kelly Herndon, who leads the team in passes defensed with seven, are big reasons why the Broncos are only allowing offenses to produce 129.7 yards passing per game and convert 28.9 percent of their third down attempts this season.

Denver’s defensive line has done a better job of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. Right defensive end Reggie Hayward leads the team in sacks with 2.5 and will line up against Bucs left tackle Derrick Deese, who has been inconsistent in pass protection.

Stopping the run has been a challenge for the Broncos, who are allowing an average of 106.3 yards via the ground game this season. Of course, the Bucs have had their own rushing problems and are producing just 70 yards rushing per game. To make matters worse, the Bucs lost RB Charlie Garner for the season. Even if the Bucs are able to move the chains on the ground, the Broncos probably won’t hesitate to move Lynch and/or Herndon up into the box since they’re not afraid of Tampa Bay’s receivers.

Denver has some speed at linebacker. Rookie D.J. Williams starts at weakside linebacker for the Broncos and has notched 13 tackles and one sack this season. Middle LB Al Wilson has recorded 13 tackles. Strongside LB Donnie Spragam has notched 14 tackles and one forced fumble. Look for Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer to blitz Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson since the receivers will have a tough time getting off the line of scrimmage and RB Michael Pittman, who will arguably be the team’s biggest receiving threat, will be forced to stay in and help pick those blitzes up more often than not.

BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Denver has one of the NFL’s best kickers in Jason Elam, who has connected on 7-of-8 field goal attempts this season. His only miss came in the 50-yard range. Elam also has a strong leg on kickoffs, which could make it tough for Bucs WR Frank Murphy to have success on kickoff returns.

Denver punter Michah Knorr is averaging a whopping 47.3 yards per attempt and is a big reason why the Broncos’ defense is playing so well — he’s giving opposing offenses poor starting field position.

Reuben Droughns, who also serves s the team’s starting fullback, is a dangerous kick returner. He’s averaging 30.5 yards per return and has a long of 48 this season. Wide receiver Rod Smith handles punts for the Broncos and is averaging 12.4 yards per return. Tampa Bay’s coverage units can’t afford to give Denver’s offense a short field to work with in this game.

FLYNN’S FINAL:
Tampa Bay’s offense, which has obviously struggled this season, will have a tough time moving the ball against Denver’s defense. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey will likely take Bucs wide receiver Tim Brown out of this game due to Brown’s inability to get off of press coverage on a consistent basis. Brad Johnson’s favorite target in this contest could be the split end receiver (Charles Lee or Bill Schroeder), but he’ll have to be careful because Broncos CB Kelly Herndon leads the team in passes defensed. The Bucs could even elect to go with some three-receiver sets in an effort to get rookie WR Michael Clayton in some one-on-one matchups.

Denver will likely come with some blitzes, which will make it tough for Johnson to get the ball to RB Michael Pittman, who will have to stay in the backfield and help pick up some of those blitzes. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden should call some screen plays to force the Broncos to back off, but it doesn’t seem like he trusts his offensive line and receivers to block on those particular plays.

Converting third downs will be huge in this game. The Broncos are allowing opponents to convert just 28 percent of their third down tries. The Bucs, on the other hand, are converting just 24.4 percent of those attempts. It will be a long day for Gruden’s offense if they’re stuck in long down-and-distance situations. If the Bucs can get themselves in third-and-short situations, fullback Mike Alstott will become an asset. Ironically, it will be Broncos safety John Lynch in the box attempting to stop the A-Train on those plays.

The fact that this game is in Tampa should help the Bucs to some degree, but they haven’t done enough to make me think they can beat a team that’s as balanced as the Broncos.

FLYNN’S PICK: Broncos 17 Buccaneers 10
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