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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Washington Redskins

WHERE: FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland

SPREAD: Redskins by 2

WHERE THE REDSKINS STAND: The Redskins finished the 2003 season with a 5-11 record and in third place in the NFC East Division.









…Washington head coach Joe Gibbs compiled a 124-60 regular season record and a 16-5 post-season record, including three Super Bowl wins, during his first coaching tenure with the Redskins, which lasted 12 years?

Washington’s offense has plenty of room to improve from last season, evidenced by its 23rd overall ranking. Pundits believe the Redskins offense, under the guidance of head coach Joe Gibbs and offensive coordinator Don Breaux, will indeed improve, but how much time will this unit need to come together?

Like the Buccaneers, the Redskins added a plethora of new players during the offseason. Two big names — quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Clinton Portis — came to Washington via trades with Jacksonville and Denver, respectively.

Brunell, a left-handed signal caller, has posted impressive stats during his 11-year career. He’s completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 25,793 yards and tossed 144 touchdowns and 86 interceptions. Brunell’s go-to guy will likely be wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who hauled in a team-high 82 passes for 1,204 yards (14.7 avg.) and six touchdowns in 2003. Coles is a playmaker with impressive speed. Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly will spend most of the day covering Coles, who has moved over to the X (split-end) receiver spot, where he’ll be in a position to be on the receiving end of some of the fade passes Gibbs likes to have his quarterbacks throw.

While Kelly will line up vs. Coles, Bucs CB Ronde Barber will go up against WR Rod Gardner (59 catches for 600 yards and six TDs), who had a sub-par outing in ’03. However, in nickel situations, Barber will likely cover Redskins slot receiver James Thrash, which would then leave Bucs nickel CB Mario Edwards on Gardner.

Containing Portis will be key for the Bucs, who have a renewed sense of urgency to stop the run this season after dropping from 5th to 13th in run defense rankings last year. Portis, who spent his first two seasons in Denver, has rushed for 3,099 yards (5.5 avg.) and 29 touchdowns. With Tampa Bay’s run defense being deemed “suspect” by many pundits, look for Gibbs to give the Bucs a heavy dose of Portis.

A matchup to keep an eye is one that will take place in the trenches. Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels is Washington’s best offensive lineman, but he’ll face Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, who notched a whopping four sacks vs. the ‘Skins last season. Samuels has been banged up in preseason and could have a tough time containing the crafty and speedy Rice.

Washington’s defense finished the 2003 season ranked 25th overall, which prompted the Redskins to hire former Buffalo Bills head coach Greg Williams to serve as the team’s defensive coordinator. Williams brings a more aggressive style of defense to Washington, but the Redskins’ lack of pass rushers on the defensive line will likely lead to more linebacker blitzes. Washington recorded just 27 sacks last year.

LaVar Arrington has great size, speed and athleticism for a 247-pound weakside linebacker. He recorded 90 tackles, six sacks, six forced fumbles and 11 passes defensed in ’03. Still Arrington has been accused of being undisciplined at times and no one is quite sure if he’ll buy into Williams’ new system. The Bucs need to recognize linebacker blitzes that will come from Arrington, strongside LB Marcus Washington and/or middle linebacker Mike Barrow, who is listed as questionable on the injury report with a sprained knee.

Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson and center John Wade will play a big part in recognizing those blitzes, but tailback Charlie Garner will likely play the biggest role in terms of picking up those blitzes in the backfield and possibly taking advantage of some of those blitzes by hauling in passes on screen plays. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden could also choose to call some draw plays for Garner, who is one of the league’s most elusive backs.

You didn’t see much of him in preseason, but look for Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway to get a lot of passes thrown his way on Sunday. Galloway has the speed to stretch the field and test Washington’s secondary, which is without Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who was traded to Denver in exchange for RB Clinton Portis during the offseason. Galloway will be matched up against Redskins CB Fred Smoot for much of this contest, and the Bucs feel this is a favorable matchup since Smoot, who is still looking for that breakout-type season, has lacked consistency, especially vs. big-name receivers.

The Redskins added former Seahawks CB Shawn Springs via free agency and drafted safety Sean Taylor in April. While both players are big names, Springs appears to be on his last leg and Taylor is a talented, but inexperienced free safety. That said, don’t be surprised if the Bucs decide to attack the Redskins defense through the air on Sunday.

Washington special teams coach Donny Smith has some talented players to work with, including former Bucs punter Tom Tupa, who signed with the Redskins as a free agent during the offseason. Tupa averaged 43.3 yards per punt in his last season with the Bucs and was able to place kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line on a consistent basis. Tupa will be punting to Bucs WR/punt returner Joey Galloway, who has averaged 10.3 yards per attempt and scored four touchdowns as a return specialist in the NFL.

Kicker John Hall is a reliable kicker for the Redskins. He made 25-of-33 (75.8 percent) of his attempts last season. Hall has a strong and fairly accurate leg, evidenced by his 4-of-7 mark on attempts from beyond 50 yards in 2003. Hall also has a strong enough leg to place kickoffs deep in the end zone, which might not allow Bucs kicker returner Frank Murphy to get out of the end zone too often.

Redskins running back Chad Morton handles punt and kickoff return duties for the second straight year. In 2003, Morton averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return and returned one 94 yards for a touchdown. He averaged 9.9 yards per punt return and had a long of 28 yards.

With Sunday’s game being the regular-season opener and marking the first time head coach Joe Gibbs returns to Washington’s sideline to coach a regular season game since 1992, the atmosphere in FedEx Field will be raucous. That said, Tampa Bay must survive the first quarter of this game. That in itself would be a victory, and the Bucs have shown they can win games in hostile environments before. Tampa Bay opened the 2003 regular season in Philadelphia, where the Eagles opened their brand new stadium and had Sylvester Stallone on hand to get the Philly fans fired up. As Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said, “Apollo Creed came into town and beat Rocky.” The Bucs defeated the Eagles, 17-0.

It may sound cliche, but Tampa Bay must contain Washington’s ground attack if it’s going to escape FedEx Field Sunday with a win. Some believe Portis isn’t as talented as his numbers suggest and claim he reaped the benefits of one of the league’s best offensive lines in Denver. The Bucs, however, are not buying it and spent all week studying film on Portis and Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs’ notorious Counter Trey plays, which call for misdirection by the tailback and the guards and tackles. Keep an eye on the number of times Portis carries the ball. Why? Since 2000, he Bucs are 8-23 when feature backs carry the ball 20 or more times against them and are 0-15 when the primary tailback carries the ball 24 or more times in a contest. That said, the Bucs must contain Portis early and make the Redskins abandon the ground game by getting an early lead.

The Bucs could be catching the Redskins, who added a lot of new players and a new coaching staff this offseason, at the right time. That, along with the fact that Tampa Bay can’t afford to come home 0-1 with Seattle coming into town the following week, should be enough to get the Bucs past the Redskins on Sunday.

FLYNN’S PICK: Buccaneers 20 Redskins 10
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