There was one body part that was in the spotlight during Monday's press conference at One Buc Place and that was the back of Bucs starting quarterback Jeff Garcia. Garcia was injured in the 19-13 victory vs. Washington on Sunday, and even though he returned in the fourth quarter he was ineffective.
The Bucs are classifying the injury as a deep back bruise and it is not known whether Garcia will get the start this weekend on the road vs. New Orleans. His status will be considered day-to-day likely for the rest of the week.
Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski struggled to move the offense down the field during Sunday's victory and proved just how important Garcia is to the offense. Gradkowski finished the game 9-for-19 for 106 yards, but it was what Gradkowski didn't do that received praise from Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on Monday.
"As I said yesterday the No. 1 thing you do as a backup quarterback coming into a game with three months of inactivity is not turn the ball over. That's why we won the game. Washington turned the ball over repeatedly, we didn't and we won the football game," Gruden said. "That's was the No. 1 objective I think when you come in cold and having been inactive for a long period of time. You protect the football and he did make some plays. I though he executed a nice two-minute drive at the end of the first half to get us a key field goal. There were some good signs. He managed the offense; he made some pretty good changes. We didn't protect well and there was some opportunities that maybe we could have had that we didn't get an opportunity to look at."
Even though Gradkowski has been the backup to Garcia for most of the season, Gruden didn't commit to the second-year quarterback as the starter if Garcia can't play. Gradkowski and quarterback Luke McCown will receive reps under center this week and the decision probably won't be made until the end of the week.
McCown saw limited action vs. Seattle in the season opener when filling in for Garcia completing 1-of-4 pass attempts for nine yards. Gradkowski is 13-for-24 for 130 yards with one interception this season.
"We are going to consider all the facts and take a look at the performance that we see from Bruce yesterday, the status of Jeff's health and the fact that McCown is a promising young player," Gruden said. "If you had time to give him repetitions and get him ready to perform maybe that's a different story. So we are going to think about all the facts and hopefully before we go to bed tonight we will have a better direction of where we are going tomorrow."
Gradkowski did start 11 games last season for the Bucs after quarterback Chris Simms was lost for the season with a spleen injury. He also has experience playing on the road in the Superdome as Gradkowski got his first start of his career on the road vs. New Orleans last season. He had a productive performance vs. the Saints going 20-for-31 for 225 yards with two touchdowns in a 24-21 loss.
Gradkowski is preparing this week like he has every week as though he's the starter and believes that a week of preparation will have him ready for the Saints.
"I'm not sure what's up with Jeff, but a week to prepare would help a lot, but I think just playing in games is awesome. I would rather play in a game than practice," Gradkowski said. "Practice is definitely going to help out a little bit and get the tempo going and have guys get used to me calling plays in the huddle and me getting used to those guys again running routes and so forth."
After Garcia left the game with his injury, the Bucs defense forced four turnovers, three of them leaving the ball inside the red zone. The offense was only able to convert one of those turnovers into a touchdown and had to settle for field goals on the other two possessions. The Bucs can't afford to kick field goals in the red zone if they want to get a victory on the road vs. the Saints.
Gruden, however, put the blame on himself as much as the players on the missed opportunities in the red zone vs. the Redskins.
"Well we had a nice drive the first time down there and we knocked it in on the ground. There's probably play selection and plays that I called a couple times," Gruden said. "We missed [running back] Earnest Graham on a key third down play that had a chance to continue the drive and make a first down. We didn't make plays there and maybe my play selection, those two things came into play."
With all the injuries on offense this season, it was known that the one player that needed to stay healthy was Garcia. His importance to the offense was evident on Sunday and the Bucs showed they are a different team with Garcia on the field.
"Quarterbacks are important to their teams. It's fortunate for some of these teams that they haven't had to do without their No. 1 guy," Gruden said. "Your starting quarterback is your starting quarterback because he gives your team the best chance to win. Certainly, Jeff Garcia is a big reason why we have had some success offensively this season. Bruce did some good things and we had 180 yards in the first half and in the second half we clearly struggled. We didn't have the ball that much either."
Even though Gruden's play-calling is different with Garcia in the game, he didn't get too conservative with Gradkowski under center. The Bucs ran a total of 48 plays on Sunday vs. Washington – 23 pass plays and 25 run plays – and Gradkowski had 19 of the 23 pass attempts. Also, four of the running plays were scrambles by Gradkowski or Garcia out of the pocket, which were likely pass plays called in the huddle.
So Gruden's play-calling was fairly balanced even with his backup quarterback in the game. Gruden, however, isn't apologizing for his play-calling on Sunday and would make the same calls if he had the opportunity to.
"He [Gradkowski] has a lot of impact. He's been inactive and he hasn't been playing, hasn't been practicing. The speed of the game is intense and we had a lead," Gruden said. "Our defense was playing well and you take all those things into consideration whether people agree or disagree we were somewhat conservative. If I had to do it all over again I would do it the same way."
BATTLE FOR NFC SOUTH DIVISION TITLE It has been assumed for the past couple of weeks that this weekend's match-up on the road vs. New Orleans would decide the NFC South division title. With the Bucs holding a two-game lead over the Saints at 7-4, Tampa Bay can all but wrap up the division title and a playoff berth with a win on Sunday.
Since joining the NFC South in 2002, the Bucs are 5-6 vs. the Saints, but are 3-2 on the road when facing their division rival. Tampa Bay recorded a dominant victory vs. the Saints early this season at Raymond James Stadium, a 31-14 victory that featured two rushing touchdowns from running back Cadillac Williams and two touchdowns passes from Garcia to wide receiver Joey Galloway.
Gruden believes that the Bucs will need a similar performance to capture a second victory over their division opponent.
"This is a big game and I don't want to underestimate matters, but this is a big game for us and then. This is a rivalry game. These South games now have taken shape," Gruden said. "They understand the magnitude of it I'm sure and so do we. They are a very talented and explosive team on offense and I believe they are pretty darn good on defense, too. So it's going to take all three phases to play at a high level to win in the Superdome."
If the Bucs can capture a victory vs. the Saints on Sunday, Tampa Bay would own the tiebreaker over New Orleans and would have to win just one of its remaining four games either on the road vs. Houston or San Francisco or at home vs. Atlanta or Carolina to clinch the division title and a playoff berth.
DEFENSE FORCING TURNOVERS AGAIN The Bucs defense has always prided themselves in swarming to the ball and causing turnovers. Tampa Bay's defense struggled in 2006 in getting the ball back to the offense with 20 turnovers. This year's defense is flying around the ball and has already forced 24 turnovers in 11 games.
Safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson have combined for five interceptions and 134 tackles this season. However, the surprise of the season for the Bucs defense is the play of defensive end Greg White. White leads the team with five and a half sacks and has four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in the last two weeks.
"Well I thought Greg White, he forced two turnovers yesterday, hustled plays to the pile. Fumbles, striping the ball; blind pursuit was a very big part of the game. Effort plays played a big part in it obviously," Gruden said. "[Cornerback Brian] Kelly and [Ronde] Barber with critical interceptions; those guys made plays and our pass rush in the first half was pretty good. I thought we should have had some more pressure personally in the second half. We capitalized with good hustle I think getting to the ball. Our blind pursuit knocked the ball loose a couple of times which were big plays."
Despite giving up more than 400 yards total offense vs. the Redskins, the six turnovers were enough for the Bucs to hang on to a victory. Gruden wasn't pleased with the amount of yards given up or the lack of pass rush from the defense in the second half. The Bucs are ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense (No. 1 in the NFC) and fifth in pass defense (No. 1 in the NFC).
"In fairness to the offense I think we had one possession to start the third quarter and we dropped the ball on a third down play. Then our next possession we are backed up on our 3-yard line and somewhat conservative there," Gruden said. "That was it for the third quarter and then one of our drives in the fourth quarter was a four-minute drill where basically we are trying to get a first down to end the game. So it's a credit to the Redskins. Coach [Joe] Gibbs and their staff did a great job. They converted some third down and longs to keep some drives alive which we've got to take a look at. We made some great plays defensively and I'm sure those players will look at the tape today and feel like there some plays that we can perform better on."
Defensive tackle Kevin Carter did reach a milestone in his career on Sunday, notching his 100th career sack in this his 13th year in the league. Carter has been a great role model for the younger players on the defensive line like White, rookie defensive end Gaines Adams and defensive tackle Jovan Haye.
"He's still pretty good. He's versatile, he's a great guy, he's upbeat, he's big. He's real big," Gruden said. "He's a leader, I think Gaines Adams, Greg White, and all the guys would tell you, Jovan Haye, that Kevin Carter is in his own way become a real big time leader on this football team. He sets a tempo, he has an image of professionalism that I think our guys can draw from and I think it can help them in their futures."
Even though the younger players have provided some depth and life to the defense, it was the veterans like Barber, Kelly and linebacker Derrick Brooks who provided the plays in the victory vs. Washington. Brooks led the team with 12 tackles and Barber and Kelly had key interceptions in the second half.
"You call these guys elder statesmen. We've got dinosaurs at wide receiver, you got elder statesmen. I wish you would leave these guys alone. Brian Kelly has had a tough go in the last year and a half with the toe and the injuries that he has," Gruden said. "For him to really step in here to make the signature play to end the game is exciting to me. I think he's a great cover guy and a leader on this team. For he and Ronde and Derrick to make big plays at this stage in the season tells you that they got a lot of football left in them. If we are going to hang around here and be a factor in the next five weeks it will be because of them that is for sure."
Barber also set a franchise record with his 32nd interception in his career in the fourth quarter, passing Donnie Abraham for first place.
SPECIAL TEAMS' STANDOUTS IN WASHINGTON VICTORY With Garcia's injury and six defensive turnovers, the special teams' play from punter Josh Bidwell, place kicker Matt Bryant and wide receiver Maurice Stovall got overshadowed just a bit. However, those three players had a big part in helping the Bucs get a big win vs. the Redskins on Sunday.
Bryant was perfect on Sunday booting four field goals in the 19-13 victory which turned out to be the difference in the game. He has made 18 field goals this season and is 18-for-20 this season when kicking field goals between 20 and 49 yards. Bryant nailed 27, 35, 39 and 48-yard field goals vs. the Redskins.
"Huge. I said after the game, we started a cheer in the locker room, it was defense, defense, defense and right after that it was kickers, kickers, kickers. Bidwell is a Pro Bowl punter and he should be a Pro Bowl punter this year," Gruden said. "He's a tremendous down-it punter inside the red zone. He hit some bombs that really helped us win the football game. Matt Bryant making four field goals and his kickoffs against a dangerous return man in [Rock] Cartwright was important in this game. Those two guys helped us win the game no question."
Bidwell had seven punts in Sunday's contest averaging about 50 yards per punt. He had two punts in the fourth quarter – 61 and 52 yards – that forced the Redskins to start their drives from inside the Washington 10-yard line.
"I'm always aware of the situation, like we've got to get out of the back of the end zone, or we need to back them up," Bidwell said. "That one I got up pretty high. A lot of times you kick a 60-yarder, and it's a low, long ball. But that one got up pretty high."
Stovall made two open-field tackles in the fourth quarter that didn't allow Washington's punt return game to give them good field position. Stovall has become an excellent tackler on punts as one of the outside gunners running down field.
"Well he's a great athlete and he has the size and strength advantage most of the time. Most of the time if you look at Maurice he's 6-foot-4 and 215 or 218 pounds. He's uncharacteristically big for a guy that plays that position," Gruden said. "He's relentless and he does have change of direction and the ability to run and I think that combination has worked for him. He's made some splash plays out there and really helped us here in the last few weeks."
GRUDEN: SCRUTINY PART OF THE JOB Bucs head coach Jon Gruden fell under a lot of heat after Tampa Bay's disappointing 4-12 season in 2006. Coming into the season, Gruden was believed to be on the coaching hot seat if he didn't show improvement with the Bucs. Gruden has answered his critics as Tampa Bay sits in first place in the NFC South division at 7-4 and heading toward a possible playoff berth.
Gruden has also been able to keep the team together despite all the injuries to key players and issues off the field with wide receiver David Boston, tight end Jerramy Stevens and linebacker Cato June. Boston, who was released after Week 1, and June were arrested for DUI's this season and Stevens was convicted of a DUI and marijuana possession, which happened while he was with the Seattle Seahawks.
Despite all of those distractions and bringing in Garcia to run his offense, Gruden should get consideration for a contract extension from the Bucs after the season. Gruden is content with the job he has done this season so far with the Bucs.
"Scrutiny is part of the job. You do the best you can. I feel proud about that and I've worked as hard as I can with my coaches and I'm not shy about working," Gruden said. "Whether we get the results or not that is pleasing to people that is their opinion, but I'm real confident in our coaching staff and confident in our young players and our veteran players coming together and fighting and competing here to close out the season."
Gruden has compiled a 46-45 record in this his sixth year as head coach with the Bucs, including a 3-1 record in the postseason. Gruden was responsible for bringing the only Super Bowl championship to Tampa Bay, a 48-21 victory vs. the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. He also has won two NFC South division titles in 2002 and 2005 during his tenure in Tampa Bay.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden on Barber setting the franchise record for interceptions vs. Washington on Sunday.
"I'm very happy for him. I'm very proud of him. I'm proud to have worked with him for the last six years. I love that guy and I'm really happy for his success and I tried to tell him behind the scenes that it's your time of year now, that we're going to need you to step up here in the next few weeks for us to have a chance. His scoop and score in Atlanta, the big turnover yesterday, a couple nice blitzes off the corner, I'm just really excited and happy for him."
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