The youth of Bucs offensive tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn will be on display against the veteran experience of New York Giants' defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. This match-up will be under the microscope and will determine the success or lack thereof of the Bucs passing game in the postseason contest on Sunday.
The Giants led the league in sacks this season with 53 while Tampa Bay was tied for 16th in allowing 36 sacks. The Bucs have allowed 14 sacks in the last four games, but those statistics must be looked at in a different light. Tampa Bay backup quarterback Luke McCown got the majority of the snaps in the last four games and gained a reputation for holding on to the ball too long.
In three and a half games, McCown was sacked 15 times while starting quarterback Jeff Garcia was sacked 19 times in just over 11 games. The tandem of Umenyiora and Strahan have combined for 22 of the Giants sacks this season even though Umenyiora is the only player off New York's defense that is going to the Pro Bowl.
"Strahan's upper body strength, the power in the man, is what really impresses me. I don't know what year this for him [15th season], but he's playing as good now as I remember from playing against him 10 years ago," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "He is a great physical football player. And Umenyiora is a creative player. They line him up everywhere in the nickel and he's got the electricity to just burn you with speed, he's got the power to run over you and he's got great stamina."
Trueblood had the opportunity to face Strahan last season when the Bucs made the trip to New York in a 17-3 loss vs. the Giants. He did a good job of containing the savvy veteran holding him without a sack and just four tackles. Trueblood understands the task that is in front of him on Sunday.
"He's a good player and there is a reason that he's going to be in the Hall of Fame one of these days," Trueblood said. "He get's after and goes 100 percent and there's no question about that."
Penn, however, hasn't face Umenyiora, one of the best pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL, and has the most important job of keeping him away from Garcia. Penn has faced some talented pass rushers during the regular season including Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, Tennessee's Travis LaBoy and Atlanta's John Abraham.
Against Abraham, Freeney and LaBoy, who combined for 19.5 sacks this season, Penn gave up 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. Abraham had a sack apiece in two games against Penn and LaBoy was held without a sack. Freeney, who was lost for the season with a foot injury, had just half a sack when facing Penn.
"You just go in there with a game plan and try to execute that game plan and play my game," Penn said of facing Umenyiora. "He's a great player and I can't say too much more about him. He's just a great player."
Penn and Trueblood do have a secret weapon on their side which isn't so secret anymore with the presence of former Giants offensive tackle Luke Petitgout. Even though Petitgout was lost for the season with a knee injury, he has been helping with the mental side of playing the offensive tackle position in the NFL.
Petitgout also has a lot of experience in facing Strahan and Umenyiora in practice for several seasons in New York after spending eight seasons with the Giants before signing with the Bucs in the off-season. He is assisting Penn and Trueblood on what to expect from the two talented New York pass rushers and what their favorite moves are in different situations.
"I'm going to tell him just what I think he's going to do," Petitgout said of Penn. "Tell him the three or four little moves he likes to do. I'm going to tell him what he's going to try and what I think he's going to try.
"Same thing with ‘Blood just tell him that I played against Stra for a few years in practice – the same with Osi – basically what they are going to try to do, what they would like to do. We have to be ready for it. We'll be fine," Petitgout said. "I gave them a list of things that they are likely to try on them – their best moves. Basically, I said just go and get after it. Don't hold back."
Despite being injured on the sideline, Petitgout is willing to do anything he can to help the Bucs get a win on Sunday.
"I would certainly like to contribute as much as I can, and that's about the only way I can right now," Petitgout said. "I think they are doing a good job. You have to get better each week. You just can't stay still. You either climb or decline. With Penn, we knew he was a good pass blocker. It was just a matter of him doing it in a game, really. You could see him doing it in practice. With Jeremy, it's just a matter of him having confidence every week. His second year has been a huge confidence-builder. He's been through the fire as a rookie and that's never easy, because you just don't know what to expect."
Petitgout believes he knows how the Giants plan to attack Tampa Bay with their pass rush.
"They'll probably start out straight up and see what they can do," Petitgout said. "They'll feel each other out and start straight up and if they can't get any pressure then they will try other things. It starts up front. Usually the most physical group wins and wins the game."
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH IN POSTSEASON The playoff atmosphere that will be evident on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium is something that can't be simulated in practice or during the regular season. There's a different feeling in the locker room, from the crowd and on the field. Everything is magnified and one play can make or break the outcome of the game.
Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard knows that this isn't the time to curb the enthusiasm of playing in the playoffs. He's ready to let his emotions go and lay it all on the line to reach the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
"There's no even keel emotionally here because you are definitely excited about going into the playoffs," Hilliard said. "You are one of very few games in the weekend and the 20 teams who aren't fortunate enough to play; our peers are going to be watching and will be envious because they want to be where we are with this opportunity. So you don't have to worry controlling your emotions now. This is when you let them go and you try to channel them in the right direction as far as playing smart, winning-caliber football. Hopefully that's what we do."
Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens, who is participating in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, isn't treating this game any differently.
"I think that we just have to go about it as business as usual. Definitely we feel like we are set for this situation because we have been planning toward it," Stevens said. "So we are happy to be here, but we're not surprised. We just have to go about as business as usual and focus in on this game."
Stevens, however, is not hesitant in letting the younger players like defensive ends Gaines Adams and Greg White and safety Tanard Jackson know that the feeling on the field is different even though the preparation isn't.
"I think you just tell them the reality that it's going to be a faster game, more physical and more intense and more pressure," Stevens said. "I don't think you have to change a lot about your preparation or how you approach the game. You just have to go out there knowing that it's going to be a little bit quicker tempo."
Bucs running back Michael Bennett has already noticed a change in the team out on the practice field. There is no tomorrow for the losing team and the sense of urgency is heightened in the playoffs.
"Everything intensifies," Bennett said. "They're going to be intense. We'll be intense. You look at guys like [linebackers] Derrick Brooks and Jeremiah Trotter, and [quarterback] Jeff Garcia have been around a long time and they know the intensity. It all started with this morning [in the morning walk-thru]. You could see it in everyone's step and guys were just moving. Everything was faster."
PLAYOFF TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE The fact that there are still playoff tickets available for Sunday's contest vs. the New York Giants is a little puzzling for a football-crazed city as Tampa Bay. Limited tickets went on sale on Dec. 22 and as of Monday there were less than an estimated 1,000 tickets remaining for the playoff contest.
However, there is a note on Ticketmaster that sales to Sunday's game will be limited to Florida residents. The note also states that residency will be based on credit card billing and that orders placed by residents outside of Florida will be cancelled without notice and refunds given.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud on what he remembers about the 2005 playoff game vs. the Washington Redskins at Raymond James Stadium.
"You could sense it was a different atmosphere. The intensity picked up a bit. You could sense that it was a little more important. It was kind of like the NCAA tournament or something like that. Everybody has the do-or-die mentality."
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