Tampa Bay's offense ranks 7th overall in the National Football League, but that statistic isn't as important as scoring, which is something the Buccaneers offense hasn't done enough of lately.
The 3-2 Bucs have scored just nine offensive touchdowns through five games. And in their two losses, the Bucs scored just one offensive touchdown, including one score vs. Denver's 30th-ranked defense last week.
Part of the problem has been Tampa Bay's red zone offense. Although they've scored just nine offensive touchdowns, the Bucs have successfully kicked 10 field goals, but they know they must find a way to turn those field goals into touchdowns.
While its ground game ranks 8th in the NFL, Tampa Bay's passing game has struggled to pick up big yardage. The exception, of course, was quarterback Brian Griese's 407-yard passing effort vs. Chicago, but he attempted a franchise-high 67 passes en route to accomplishing that feat.
The Bucs' vertical passing game has been sorely lacking, evidenced by their 5.5 yards per completion average, which currently ranks tied for 28th in the NFL.
Tampa Bay has five completions that produced 20-plus yards, which averages out to one per game.
"I'd like to see more big plays," said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. "I'd like every play to be a big play."
The Bucs are quick to point out the reasons why their offense has lacked a vertical passing game. For starters, Tampa Bay has been penalized 37 times through five games, and several of those infractions have put the Bucs offense in some difficult down-and-distance situations.
"[The penalties] took away some big plays for us," Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton said. "One of them was a catch by me. Those penalties hurt us bad. We can't get lackadaisical. It hurt us."
Opposing defenses have had something to do with it as well. Denver spent most of last Sunday's game rushing just three players and dropping eight back into coverage, which made it difficult for throw the football and stretch the field.
"Last week we probably got more respect for our passing game than any point in my career," said Gruden. "When they rush three 23 times it says a lot about what we're doing. It's not like they're loading up the box and saying, ‘Beat me.' Last week we saw a team that was in a maximum zone throughout most of the game. That's not just the coach talking here. It's reality. I'm not worried about averages. I'm worried about winning the game, sustaining drives and capitalizing on opportunities. Those are things we need to do better."
With Tampa Bay's defense likely to keep the Bucs in every contest, the quarterbacks feel they need to be careful with the football and not take any unnecessary chances. However, the players certainly are not opposed to throwing the ball deep if and when the opportunity presents itself.
"I would love to throw the football deep," said Griese, whose longest completion of the season went for 38 yards. "It takes a lot of pressure off of a lot of people. It's difficult in this league to go 15 plays and execute and not have penalties on those 15 plays as opposed to maybe five plays. It's a part of our offense that we need to find and continue to get better at."
Perhaps the biggest problem the Bucs have had in terms of stretching the field has been the absence of wide receiver Joey Galloway, who missed all of training camp and preseason with a groin injury and has been sidelined since Week 2 with a foot ailment.
Gruden doesn't know when Galloway will be ready to return to action, but he hopes it is sooner rather than later.
"I don't know," Gruden said when asked when Galloway would return to action. "I sympathize with him because he had a difficult injury that lingered in camp. He recovered from that and had another injury that has lingered, and he's recovering from that. He missed the last three or four games last season and the entire training camp. There are a lot of concerns, obviously. We miss him, but at the same time our receivers are playing pretty darn good. We'll do the best we can until he gets back."
Galloway, 36, had caught 202 passes for 3,358 yards (16.6 avg.) and 23 touchdowns over the past three seasons heading into 2008. Gruden balked at the notion that Galloway wasn't in a hurry to return to action.
"He's not ready to go," Gruden said of Galloway. "If he could play he would play. It's not that he's not tough or that he doesn't want to go or that he's not trying, he can't go. He just can't let it go and can't run. He's not back from it, and it kills me. It kills me."
Clayton suggested the Bucs offense could get by without Galloway as long as it cleaned up other aspects of its play.
"I don't think our offense has changed the past five years," Clayton said. "Your hat has to go off to the defense that does a good job covering us down the field at times. We lose Joey Galloway, which is a big deep threat for us, and you have to make up for it in other ways. We're using our tight ends. We're using everybody. If we just eliminate the penalties, I think we get out of there with a win. Even with the penalties, we gave ourselves an opportunity to win. If we get the ball back we have a great shot to win that game."
With Griese nursing a sore elbow and held out of practice on Wednesday, there's a good chance Jeff Garcia will start vs. the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Garcia said he and his offensive teammates have to find ways to move the chains and reach the end zone while Galloway works his way back onto the football field.
"Joey was our deep guy last year," said Garcia. "He had many plays plus-20 [yards] or more. He's definitely a factor, but that just forces other guys to step into some sort of role in that way and we have to give them opportunities downfield. You haven't seen a lot of deep throws from this team. Somehow, someway we need to work that into our game plan."
BUCS MUST PROTECT THEIR HOUSE Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium against Carolina is a big one for the 3-2 Buccaneers, who are coming off a loss at Denver. The Panthers are 4-1 thanks to a 34-0 shellacking of the Chiefs at Kansas City last week and should they collect their sixth-straight win over the Bucs in Tampa Bay, they will open up a two-game lead in the division. A victory for the Buccaneers would pull them into a tie with the Panthers in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay can't afford to sulk too much about the loss at Denver, and a heated rivalry game against Carolina could be the perfect tonic to get the Bucs to play sharp and focused football.
"It's a good week," Trueblood said. "We're hungry, but we're always hungry. We really don't like them and they really don't like us. I think it's pretty obvious, especially with the guys that have been here a long time and the games they've played in. They're a good team and I respect them a lot, but I don't really care for them. It's easy to get up for this game. They think they're good, we're good and we'll see who's better."
The last time Tampa Bay has beaten Carolina at Raymond James Stadium was in 2002 and that's a trend that the Bucs know they have to stop.
"We see them twice a year," Bucs right guard Davin Joseph said. "We need to go out there, especially playing at home, and we need a win. That's kind of our fall back. Last season we were strong at home. We look to do the same thing this year. A division win at home is big."
Not only has the return of quarterback Jake Delhomme and a resurgent running game sparked the Panthers' hot start, but defensive end Julius Peppers has also been a big factor in the team's 4-1 record. After a disappointing season in which he only recorded 2.5 sacks in 2007, Peppers has had a hot start to this year, recording three sacks in the first five games. Peppers can play either end position, but he has primarily moved from left end to right end and will face left tackle Donald Penn a majority of the time on Sunday.
"He wasn't making those splash plays like he did the first few seasons," Joseph said. "But the first five games he's really looked sharp. He's back to his old self."
JOSEPH FINALLY FEELING GOOD Bucs right guard Davin Joseph returned to the starting lineup on Sunday at Denver after missing the first four games of the 2008 season and half of the preseason with a broken foot. Joseph was pleased with how he performed in his 2008 debut against the Broncos, despite not being able to help his team come away with a victory.
"I'm back out there playing and I feel good," Joseph said.
After watching the Bucs race off to a 3-1 start from the sidelines, Joseph knows that Tampa Bay's offense and the team in general is capable of playing much better.
"We need to be more consistent," Joseph said. "We need to play better on the road. We need to get ourselves out of third-and-long situations and then we'll be in better position to make a lot more plays."
TRUEBLOOD TRYING TO BOUNCE BACK Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood did not have a stellar game in Denver, collecting a holding penalty that negated a first down, getting flagged for a false start penalty and giving up a sack to defensive end Elvis Dumveril on third down. After being part of an offensive line that had not given up a sack in two straight weeks, Trueblood seems to be shrugging off last week's performance and is focused on Carolina.
"The offsides and stuff like that was inexcusable," Trueblood said. "I want to say it was a lack of concentration, but I was concentrating. It is what it is. As far as the game went, I feel like I only got beat twice the whole game. Unfortunately, one of those was magnified because it was a sack. It was a good move [by Dumervil]. He got my outside hand. If you get that, you get that. All I can do is my technique, and if I get beat, I get beat."
While it looked like he also gave up a costly QB hit by cornerback Champ Bailey that injured Brian Griese's right arm, Trueblood said that he wasn't responsible for picking up the outside blitz.
"I didn't see him at all. It kind of looks like on replay that I noticed him at the very last second, but I really never saw him," Trueblood said. "We made our linebacker call to the linebacker who dropped. We never saw [Bailey]. I don't know whose responsibility that would fall on. In a perfect world – in a very perfect world – I would be able to pick him up, but he's technically not my guy. It would just be icing on the cake. It was a good call by them. It was not something they showed us. When he delays like that …. corners are trying to get there as soon as possible. That's how they play. They want to get there as soon as possible."
QUOTE OF THE DAY "Ask Coach. Ask the trainers. I'm not dealing with that one," Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard said when asked about when fellow wideout Joey Galloway will be back in action.