With the loss vs. San Francisco on Sunday paired with a victory by Seattle, the Bucs are now locked into the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoff picture and will face the New York Giants in the first round. Despite having one more regular season game to play vs. Carolina this Sunday, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden at least knows who the postseason opponent will be.
Gruden didn't want to talk too much about the Giants and the playoffs and reflected away multiple questions about the postseason on Monday. He wanted to remain focused on the Panthers and getting a victory in the final regular season game at Raymond James Stadium
"I know that they are a very talented team and they can get after the passer, but I don't want to get into the New York Giants today," Gruden said. "I will be happy to talk about Carolina and we have plenty of time to get ready for the Giants."
One issue that the Bucs must worry about when they are able to turn their attention to New York is stopping the run. Tampa Bay is ranked 13th in the NFL in that category while the Giants boast the fourth ranked rushing attack in the league. The key for the Bucs will be to contain New York running back Brandon Jacobs, who has 944 yards rushing (5.1 avg.) on 186 carries and four touchdowns, and forcing quarterback Eli Manning to carry the offense.
Tampa Bay's pass defense is ranked second in the NFL and has done a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback with 32 sacks this season. The Giants will be looking to rest their starters in their regular season finale vs. the New England Patriots, especially wide receiver Plaxico Burress who has been nursing an injured ankle for the past couple of weeks.
"No, I don't have enough time in my day to do that," Gruden said of getting a chance to look at the Giants. "I have a hard enough time one by one and as I said we will do the best we can to work hard this week to prepare for Carolina and try to budget a little time to look at the Giants."
Even though the talk was all about the playoffs and facing the Giants on Monday, the Bucs still have to take care of business vs. Carolina. Despite the thought that there is nothing to play for, Tampa Bay still has an opportunity to go undefeated in the NFC South after failing to record a victory in the division last season.
Several starters including wide receiver Joey Galloway, quarterback Jeff Garcia and running back Earnest Graham will see limited action, if any at all, but the accomplishment of going 6-0 in the division is enough motivation for the Bucs this week. Gruden pulled several starters late in the second quarter in the 21-19 loss vs. the 49ers.
"We wanted to win yesterday and even though we pulled several of our starters, we felt we had every opportunity to win that game," Gruden said. "Looking at the tape this morning we should have won the game in my opinion. It's a credit to the 49ers certainly, but yeah we would like to win and get to 10 victories and go 6-0 in our division. That would be quite an accomplishment."
RED ZONE STRUGGLES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL The Bucs have a growing issue that needs to be addressed in a hurry with the regular season coming to end this weekend and the playoffs on the horizon. The red zone success of the offense has been a roller coaster ride and the lack of forcing field goals in the red zone for the defense is not a good sign either.
In the last two road games – losses at San Francisco and Houston – the defense has allowed five touchdowns inside the 25-yard line instead of forcing opposing teams to settle for field goals. For the season, the defense has allowed 19 touchdowns in 32 possessions inside the 20-yard line, which is a 59.4 percent average. The Bucs are allowing opposing teams to score points on 84.4 percent of their trips into the red zone this season.
"Scoring zone is big and you have to score touchdowns when you are down there offensively and get off the field if you can without giving them a touchdown defensively," Gruden said. "We have to take a good look at that and tighten in up on both sides."
The offense, on the other hand, has 19 field goals and 19 touchdowns on 43 trips into the red zone this season. The Bucs are averaging a touchdown in 44.2 percent of the times they get inside the 20-yard line. Garcia expressed his displeasure with the lack of scoring touchdowns after the victory vs. Atlanta and was visibly upset on Sunday vs. San Francisco after the Bucs struggled to get into the end zone.
Despite getting a blowout victory vs. Atlanta to clinch the NFC South division title, the Bucs offense couldn't capitalize with the ball inside the 25-yard line. On six trips vs. the Falcons, Tampa Bay only got in the end zone twice, kicked three field goals and had one turnover. The Bucs had five trips inside the 25-yard line vs. San Francisco and had two touchdowns, two field goals and a turnover on downs.
STEVENS SHINES, SMITH PLAGUED WITH DROPS The tight end position for the Bucs has been a revolving door this season despite being a major weapon for Gruden in the offense. With the injuries sustained at the wide receiver position, Gruden has had to lean on tight ends Alex Smith, Jerramy Stevens and Anthony Becht for production.
Stevens and Becht filled in for Smith when he went down with an ankle injury early in the season. Becht caught touchdown passes vs. New Orleans and Atlanta and Stevens is beginning to make some noise in the offense.
While Stevens has taken advantage of his opportunities late in the season, Smith is struggling to hold on to the ball, which is something that Gruden will not tolerate in his wide receivers. Stevens has three touchdown receptions in the last two games he played in – he was suspended vs. Atlanta for violating the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy.
Smith, however, had two crucial drops vs. San Francisco that impacted the outcome of Sunday's loss. One drop was a sure first down that would have put the Bucs inside the 5-yard line and the second resulted in an interception by 49ers cornerback Nate Clements. That turnover resulted in a touchdown for San Francisco that turned out to be the difference in the 21-19 loss. Gruden wasn't hesitant in letting it be known that drops in the passing game will not be tolerated.
"Well, we lose receivers, we lean on tight ends and he did have a couple uncharacteristic drops. We had six dropped passes yesterday, and that's inexcusable," Gruden said. "That's not winning football. A couple of those were big drops, one of those was deflected and returned 66 yards by [Nate] Clements, and was a big time play in the football game. He has to catch the ball, he's capable of that, he knows that, but he did do some big things. Dropping the football is not part of the program in pro football and we have to do a better job."
Gruden, however, has been impressed with the performance of Stevens in the offense heading into the playoffs. He knows that Stevens can be a weapon in the postseason and should see some more opportunities come his way.
"He won us the game in New Orleans and was on the cusp of winning the game yesterday. He's a great receiver and he's improving as a run blocker," Gruden said. "We are going to need him certainly in the playoffs and this week to have a chance to win given the injuries that we've had in the backfield and at wide receiver. He gives us a big target that can move and run a variety of routes. He can mismatch people and he's that kind of talent. We need to look into ways of using him."
Another player who got some action on Sunday and is stepping up his game is wide receiver Michael Clayton. Clayton had five receptions for 71 yards vs. San Francisco on Sunday and made some plays in the second half. With the injury to wide receiver Maurice Stovall, number 80 will need to continue his success in the passing game with the focus of opposing defenses remaining on wide receiver Joey Galloway.
"We wanted to try to get him a game where he can make some plays. He mishandled a couple balls that we expect him to play," Gruden said. "I thought he was physical after the catch, I thought he did an excellent job running hard, showed some stamina, quickness and we're going to need Mike Clayton as we enter the playoffs."
STRUGGLES IN PUNT RETURN CONTINUE The talk of Tampa Bay last week was all about kick return specialist Micheal Spurlock and his 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that ended a 32-year franchise drought. The talk this week, however, is about the issues that continue to plague the Bucs' punt return team. Tampa Bay had six returns for two yards on Sunday vs. San Francisco and fumbled three of them as well.
With the loss of return specialist Mark Jones to a season-ending knee injury, the Bucs have had to use several players in returning punts. Wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard and cornerback Phillip Buchanon have seen some time fielding punts and Spurlock was inserted vs. San Francisco.
None of those four are averaging more than seven yards per punt return and the Bucs as a team are only averaging 6.5 yards per punt, which is ranked 29th in the NFL. Jones averaged 11.9 yards per punt before sustaining a patellar tendon injury vs. Detroit.
"Obviously Ike Hilliard did not return yesterday and we lost our punt returner, Mark Jones, and we've done by committee. We didn't want Galloway to touch the ball yesterday as a returner and didn't want Ike to touch it as a returner," Gruden said. "Spurlock got hurt and Phillip Buchanon is a guy that, to be honest with you is capable of doing it. We have to look hard at whom the returner is going to be and we have to take care of the football. We had some balls that were misjudged or misplayed that have killed us in field position in games and it's an area that we have to scrutinize very carefully and get a result in a hurry because that wasn't good enough yesterday."
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden on his assessment of quarterback Luke McCown's performance vs. San Francisco on Sunday.
"I thought he made some really good plays. He took a safety in New Orleans when he was backed up, I thought he should have thrown it away, we had a shotgun fumble backed up against Houston and we had a turnover yesterday. You can't turn the ball over, that's been our winning edge this year is taking care of the football. You don't turn the ball over deep in your territory ever. Those were three plays in three consecutive games that need to be eliminated. I thought his mobility; his overall talent again was pretty obvious to us. It was sluggish at the beginning. When you're the backup quarterback, you're not always going to get a full week of work. You're going to have to come off the bench and rally the football team, and I thought he did do that late, but there was some sluggishness early in his stint there and we need to get better."
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