Forget about the fact Tampa Bay has dropped six of its last seven games against Carolina. If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope on Monday night, look no further than the Bucs’ struggling running game.
The Panthers are giving up more yards on the ground than all but one of the Bucs’ previous opponents this season.
Baltimore, Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York are all more successful at stopping the run than Carolina. Only Cincinnati, which is surrendering 129 rushing yards per game, has a worse run defense than the Panthers, who are giving up an average of 119 yards.
Carolina was the best in the NFC at stuffing the run last season, surrendering a modest 91.6 yards per game. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan and company allowed just five rushes of 20 yards or more. They’ve allowed six already this season.
Morgan is out, placed on injured reserve in October due to lingering effects from a concussion. The sixth of his career. Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon, who some say the Bucs had interest in at one point during the offseason, left Carolina via free agency, signing with St. Louis this past offseason.
The Panthers’ ability to stop the run is in direct correlation with their wins and losses. In each of their four losses, the defense has surrendered 100 or more rushing yards. In four victories, they’ve held opponents under the century mark.
Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn torched them in the season opener for 132 of the team’s 252 rushing yards. Minnesota’s Chester Taylor got off for 113 and the Bengals’ Rudi Johnson hit 101. Julius Jones came up 8 yards shy, but the Cowboys as a team rushed for 156 yards against Carolina two weeks ago, thanks to Marion Barber’s 49-yard, two-touchdown performance.
“Statistics are for ESPN and all that stuff in my opinion,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “[Carolina] has Kris Jenkins, they have Julius Peppers, they have Mike Rucker, and they have Damione Lewis playing great. They gave up some big yardage [against Dallas] versus the run, which is very uncharacteristic.
“But they got the makings of being a great run defense. I know statistics say certain things but you have to watch the tape.”
The 100-yard tendency holds true for the Bucs’ last two meetings with the Panthers as well, though. Cadillac Williams carried 11 times for 29 yards in a November loss at home last season and then a month later he went for 112 at Carolina in a 20-10 win.
The Bucs’ workhorse has just one 100-yard performance to speak of this season, Week 5 at New Orleans. But the good news is, he says his body has felt great and his legs are fresh.
PRIDE AND CONSEQUENCE
When a season has started as disappointing as the Bucs’ has, the locker room can take on a somber aura.
At 2-6 through the midway point of the year, playoffs can be an obnoxious term. Pride, on the other hand, is a word some players look straight in the eye and acknowledge while others find irreverent.
“I always play for pride,” Ronde Barber said. “ It’s part of what good players do. What good players embrace. Being prideful, playing proud, no matter what the circumstances.
“This is our job. You have to be proud of what you put on film and if you’re not, you deserve to be criticized by people.”
“Obviously, I want it to be the other way around but I accept the responsibility of being where were at because we deserve to be where were at,” defensive captain Derrick Brooks said.”
Right now the circumstances are about as gloomy as either player has seen since joining the team, although a 1-5 start in 2004 ranked pretty low as well. That season the team finished 5-11, last in the NFC South.
With so many young players on this year’s team, Brooks says it’s important for him to lead by example, serving as a constant reminder to his teammates to come hard every game regardless of records.
“That’s one thing about me, I’m a realist,” Brooks said. “I’m not making excuses for being 2-6. I accept that. Hopefully I get more opportunities to make more plays to pull us out of this.”
What better proving ground to show this team is not as bad as their record says than to come up big in front of a national audience.
“I like this situation, when all eyes are on me,” Brooks said. “We can step up and use this stage to make a statement about our football team.
“Hopefully I lead by example and [young players] won’t be intimidated. That’s one of the things that being a veteran, I constantly remind them of, then go out them show them. You know, when the ball is snapped and all the cameras are going off, it’s still football, you still have to block, tackle and make your plays.”
Tampa Bay is 9-7 all time on Monday night. One of the most memorable wins came during the Bucs Super Bowl season when Brooks intercepted Rams quarterback Kurt Warner with 59 seconds left in the game, returning the ball 39 yards for a touchdown to give Tampa Bay a 26-14 win. It was also head coach Jon Gruden’s first win at Raymond James Stadium.
“I kind of like playing early in the day,” he said. “That adult time kind of makes me stir crazy. But I think it’s a great opportunity for our players, they are excited about it. I prefer keeping the schedule as close to normal as possible but it’s exciting indeed.”
Gruden is 3-3 in six Monday Night Football games with Tampa Bay and says he’s not a big fan of night games.
The optimism surrounding that 2002 season, in which Bucs beat the Rams and the excitement that game generated, undoubtedly outweigh Monday’s date in Carolina, but as far as statements go, there may not be that great of leap from one to another.
“Perception is that were not a good football team,” Barber said. “At 2-6, I would look at that and say, ‘Yea, that’s a bad football team’, you just do, you cant help it. But our effort is there, were a team that plays hard we have just been making critical errors at bad times in football games and its causing us to lose. It’s not characteristic of this team and Monday night is a good opportunity to prove that were not what everybody thinks we are.”
Brooks are Barber have been stalwarts of a Bucs defense accustomed to being among the elite in the NFL. The architect behind the muscle, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, has just as much pride and resolve as they do. And when faced with adversity such as this, it may be even harder for him to absolve.
According to Brooks, Kiffin’s demeanor has remained steadfast throughout the stretch, demanding and always teaching. However, Barber believes times like these are particularly hard on the 24-year veteran coach because he is “somewhat of a perfectionist.”
“When things don’t go right, he doesn’t pass the blame,” Barber said of Kiffin. “He carries a lot of it on his shoulders.”
Running back Michael Pittman (shoulder) did return to practice Friday, but is still questionable for Monday’s game.
Linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee), defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder), defensive tackle Ellis Wyms (ankle) and cornerback Juran Bolden (hips) all missed practice Friday and are listed as questionable.