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What has been the biggest difference in this year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, which is off to a 3-1 start and in first place in the NFC South division?

Simply put, the Bucs are making – and preventing – big plays on offense and defense, respectively.

The same can be said for pretty much every winning NFL team, but it’s interesting to compare what the Bucs have accomplished through the first quarter of the 2007 season with what they did, or didn’t do, through the first four games of the 2006 regular season when the team started off 0-4.

The Bucs aren’t necessarily known for making big plays on offense, but their production this season is slowly changing that perception.

In 2006, Tampa Bay had just two pass plays that produced 40 or more yards through the first seven games of the season. Through just four contests in 2007, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia has completed passes of 40 or more yards five times.

To help put that stat comparison into perspective, Tampa Bay’s longest play of the 2006 season actually came courtesy of the defense thanks to cornerback Ronde Barber’s 66-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bucs offense has already outdone that stat thanks to Garcia’s 69-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joey Galloway vs. New Orleans in Week 2.

Tampa Bay’s offense, which currently ranks 18th overall, has had 12 plays go for 20 or more yards through four games, and the ground game has contributed. The running game currently ranks 8th overall in the NFL as opposed to where it finished the 2006 season ranked, which was 28th.

One of the main reasons why the Bucs are currently ranked in the top 10 in this category is because of Tampa Bay’s big-play ability on the ground. The Bucs already have four runs that have produced 20 or more yards this season. At first glance, you might not be too impressed, but you probably will be when you consider the fact that it took Tampa Bay’s offense 11 games to accomplish this feat in 2006.

After a rough start in Seattle, where Tampa Bay produced just 284 yards of offense, three turnovers and no touchdowns, the Bucs offense has caught fire, producing 330, 322 and 365 yards of total offense against New Orleans, St. Louis and Carolina, respectively. Not only have the Bucs outscored their last three opponents by a total score of 75-24, they have won the turnover battle in each of those contests and currently rank fourth in the NFL with a plus-4 turnover ratio.

Of course, the Bucs are also scoring touchdowns as opposed to field goals. Last year, Tampa Bay scored just 20 offensive touchdowns through 16 regular season games. Through four games this season, the Bucs have scored nine touchdowns, which puts them on pace to produce 36 offensive touchdowns this year.

While those offensive stats help explain Tampa Bay’s strong start to the 2007 season, perhaps the defense’s numbers are even more impressive.

The Bucs defense, which is back in the top 10 (currently ranks 5th overall) for the first time since 2005, allowed nearly 350 yards of total offense against Seattle and New Orleans. However, it has held two potentially potent offenses in St. Louis and Carolina to under 250 yards of offense and a total of just 10 points.

Tampa Bay is currently ranked 20th against the run, surrendering 118 yards per game. However, this stat is very deceiving when you consider the fact that the longest run the Bucs allowed to St. Louis and Carolina was just 15 yards.

In 2006, the Bucs defense surrendered a whopping eight runs of 20 or more yards through the first four games of the season. Through the first quarter of the 2007 season, Tampa Bay’s defense has allowed just one run of 20-plus yards, which was Seattle RB Shaun Alexander’s 22-yard run in Week 1.

Tampa Bay’s offense is making more big plays while its defense limiting them. Through four games in 2006, the Bucs allowed opposing offenses to gain 20 or more yards on 11 plays. After one quarter of the 2007 season, the Bucs defense has allowed just seven plays of 20 or more yards, and two of those plays – Saints QB Drew Brees’ 58-yard pass to wide receiver David Patten in Week 2 and Panthers QB David Carr’s 24-yard screen pass to RB DeAngelo Williams for a touchdown — came in garbage time.

It’s no secret that teams that make the most plays typically win games, but it’s certainly worth noting that the Buccaneers have outplayed their last three opponents from a big-play standpoint, which is why they’re off to a 3-1 start.

Tampa Bay’s offense will have to continue this big-play trend in terms of making them on offense and limiting them on defense if the Bucs hope to escape Indianapolis with a win over the 4-0 Colts, who have the 3rd-ranked offense, 11th-ranked defense and currently rank first in the NFL in turnover ratio (plus-7).

Here are a few more notes to consider while awaiting the kickoff of the Bucs vs. Colts game on Sunday.

SOMETHING SPECIAL?
Speaking of big plays, Tampa Bay’s special teams has been full of them this season. The Bucs coverage teams gave up a costly 56-yard punt return to Seahawks WR Nate Burleson during the Bucs’ 20-6 loss in Seattle in Week 1. But this unit has been solid since then, evidenced by the fact that Josh Bidwell’s last 13 punts have been returned for a total of just 13 yards, a stat that was astutely mentioned in Pewter Report publisher Scott Reynolds’ most recent SR’s Fab Five column.

The Bucs will be hard pressed to release return specialist Mark Jones again if he continues to perform as well as he has through the first four games of the season. The Bucs have returned three punts for 20 or more yards this year, and Jones was responsible for two of them, a 20-yarder vs. Carolina and a 35-yard vs. St. Louis.

Tampa Bay also has returned three kickoffs for 30 or more yards thanks to Jones’ 36-yard returns vs. New Orleans and St. Louis, respectively and running back Earnest Graham’s 31-yard kickoff return vs. Seattle. Tampa Bay has returned 1,834 kickoffs without scoring a touchdown in the regular season or post-season since 1976. However, this dreadful streak could come to an end this season if Tampa Bay’s special teams units continue to play as well as they have through the first four games.

BUCS IN GOOD HANDS WITH GARCIA
Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia might not make the Pro Bowl in 2007, but he’s proving to be the Bucs’ most important player on offense. Garcia has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 771 yards and tossed two touchdowns while rushing for one score through the first quarter of the season.

Perhaps Garcia’s most impressive stat is the one he’s posted in the interception column, which still sits at zero. To put that number in perspective, Tampa Bay had thrown seven interceptions through the first four games of the 2006 regular season.

But no one should be surprised with how well Garcia is taking care of the football. He currently ranks fourth all-time in NFL history for lowest interception percentage (minimum of 1,500 pass attempts). Garcia has had just 73 of his 3,063 career pass attempts intercepted. Only Neil O’Donnell, Donovan McNabb and Mark Brunell are ranked higher than Garcia and his 2.38 career interception percentage.

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY
Tampa Bay’s next opponent – the 4-0 Indianapolis Colts – have won 11 straight games at home. The Bucs are 10-point underdogs to the defending Super Bowl champion Colts.

Indianapolis’ last loss in the RCA Dome was to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 15, 2006. The Steelers defeated the Colts in that playoff contest, 21-18.

How significant would it be if Tampa Bay found a way to escape Indianapolis with a win over the Colts?

Ironically, Pittsburgh went into its playoff contest with Indianapolis as 10-point underdogs as well. Not only did they defeat the Colts, the Steelers went on to play in – and win – the Super Bowl that year.

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