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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:

FAB 1.
Why are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-1 right now when the team was a pitiful 0-3 last year? Two things come to mind – better players and a better turnover margin. Let’s look at the turnover margin first.

Through the first three games of the 2006 season, Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms had thrown seven interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown by Baltimore) and the Bucs had lost one fumble on offense. On defense, the Bucs had produced just one interception and recovered three fumbles. That’s a negative 4:8 turnover ratio with Tampa Bay giving the ball away twice as many times as they were taking it away.

The Bucs have done a much better job of taking care of the football in 2007. New Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia hasn’t thrown an interception yet, while throwing two touchdown passes. The Bucs have fumbled the ball five times on offense, losing three of those fumbles. On defense, Tampa Bay has recorded four interceptions and forced six fumbles, with two of those resulting in turnovers. That translates to a positive 6:3 turnover ratio.

After three games, Tampa Bay is averaging only one turnover per game, compared to 2006 when it was averaging almost three per game. The Bucs defense has recorded one more takeaway than it had last year at this juncture, too.

Part of the reason for a better turnover ratio is that this is a better football team. St. Petersburg Times columnist Gary Shelton did an interesting comparison of the 2007 Buccaneers and the 2002 Bucs, highlighting how the Super Bowl team had so much star power and experience over the present day Tampa Bay team.

While the 2007 version of the Bucs has a ways to go before being mentioned in the class of the Super Bowl champions, the talent upgrade over last year’s Tampa Bay team has been obvious through the first three weeks of the season.

QUARTERBACK
Jeff Garcia is clearly a better quarterback than Chris Simms or Bruce Gradkowski for several reasons. His experience is unmatched, his leadership is unparalleled and his mobility and playmaking ability is unrivaled. Garcia has done a great job of getting the ball to Bucs receivers and he doesn’t throw many dangerous passes. His scrambling ability has allowed him to keep plays alive and move the chains. Garcia has quickly grasped the offense and his experience has led to the right audibles in the running and passing game.

RUNNING BACK
As lackluster as Cadillac Williams has been through three games this year, his 167 yards rushing is actually 60 yards better than his 107 yards was a year ago after Week 3. Plus, Williams has scored three touchdowns, after finding the end zone just once a year ago. In fact, Tampa Bay posted six total rushing scores a year ago. In 2007, the Bucs already have five. Through the first three games in 2006, the Bucs rushed for 130 yards – total. In 2007, the Bucs have rushed for 359 yards. B.J. Askew has been a lead blocking dynamo for the Buccaneers this year and has played better than Mike Alstott did a year ago. Askew has helped power the Bucs to a rushing average of 119 yards per game. Earnest Graham has taken advantage of opportunities he wasn’t given last year, and Michael Pittman is also having more success on the ground than he did a year ago.

WIDE RECEIVER
Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall return. Galloway is as fast and productive as ever. Hilliard has taken on a more prominent role in the offense because of his experience, intellect and penchant for not making mistakes. Clayton and Stovall haven’t done much in the way of showing improvement through three games. There hasn’t been any upgrading to this unit in terms of talent. Any upgrade that may have taken place has been a result of the improved play at quarterback.

TIGHT END
Alex Smith is off to just as good a start statistically in 2007 (seven catches for 95 yards) than he did a year ago (six catches for 90 yards). He is becoming a better blocker, which is something that Anthony Becht has always been good at. Jerramy Stevens is a much better option as the third tight end than Doug Jolley was last year, and that’s where this unit has upgraded the most.

OFFENSIVE LINE
The offensive line has given up just six sacks through three games, and only one over the past two weeks. Last year, Tampa Bay’s offensive line surrendered five sacks through three games, but it couldn’t get near enough push in the running game as it is getting in 2007. Luke Petitgout is an upgrade at left tackle from a pass protection and an experience standpoint. Rookie Arron Sears has played really good football over the past two weeks and had his best game as a pro against St. Louis. Already he is an upgrade over the undersized Sean Mahan, who was out of position at guard. John Wade’s play has been steady this year, and he held off a challenge from Matt Lehr and Dan Buenning. At right guard, Davin Joseph’s play has slipped from where it was a year ago during his rookie campaign, but the second half against St. Louis was the best half of football he’s played as a pro. He seems to be on the upswing and is certainly an upgrade over Jeb Terry and Mahan, who started at right guard until the fifth game of the season while Joseph recovered from a knee injury. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has shown the most improvement. He is a huge upgrade over penalty-prone Kenyatta Walker, and is playing much better than he played last year as a rookie. Trueblood might be the most consistent offensive lineman on the team through three games and has been a real force in Tampa Bay’s rushing attack.

DEFENSIVE LINE
This unit has fared much better against the run in 2007. After giving up 103 yards on the ground to Baltimore, 306 yards to Atlanta and 101 to Carolina in 2006, the Bucs defense has surrendered just 374 yards this year. That’s a difference of 136 yards rushing. The one thing the defensive line isn’t doing well enough is getting after the quarterback. Dewayne White had three sacks through three games as a situational pass rusher last year, while starting defensive ends Greg Spires and Simeon Rice each had a sack. The Bucs have five sacks through three games with defensive tackles Jovan Haye getting one and Greg Peterson and Kevin Carter splitting a sack. The quintet of Haye, Peterson, Chris Hovan and nickel rushers Carter and Greg White are playing better than the mix of Hovan, Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Jon Bradley did, and the upside of players like Peterson and White could conceivably make them upgrades over reserve players like Wyms and Bradley. Time will tell. What the Bucs lose in terms of pass rushing from players like White and Rice, who has yet to return to his dominant ways in Denver, they have made up for with improved play against the run from Carter, White and rookie Gaines Adams.

LINEBACKERS
Derrick Brooks has played better than he did at the start of the 2006 season and is second on the team with 35 tackles and two forced fumbles, but the two significant upgrades have come at the other two linebacker spots. Barrett Ruud may not be at the level Shelton Quarles was at in 2002, but he is already playing much better than both he and Quarles played a year ago when they split time due to Quarles’ injuries. Ruud leads the Bucs with 43 tackles and has forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and picked off a pass. At the strongside linebacker, Cato June is a huge upgrade over Ryan Nece from a talent and production standpoint. The former Pro Bowl linebacker is fourth on the team in tackles with 23 and has one interception.

SECONDARY
Brian Kelly is back at left cornerback, and that is a huge plus for the Bucs. Cornerback Ronde Barber is as solid as ever at the right cornerback position. The playmaking Phillip Buchanon is a huge addition over the aging Juran Bolden as the team’s nickel cornerback. Rookie Tanard Jackson has been sound in coverage and in run support and has not made the mental and physical mistakes that Will Allen did a year ago at free safety. Starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips has played exceptionally well during the first three games in 2007, recording 27 tackles, breaking up two passes, and notching one sack and one interception. He’s playing much better than he did in 2006, thanks largely to the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris.

Now that you’ve read my reasoning, and it should be noted too that Mark Jones has really impacted the Bucs’ kick and punt return game and that Josh Bidwell and Matt Bryant have played as good as they did a year ago, let’s go to the scorecard and see how this team’s starters stack up with its 2006 counterpart in terms of production and talent.

QB Jeff Garcia – UPGRADE (limits mistakes and is a better leader)
RB Cadillac Williams – UPGRADE (better production)
FB B.J. Askew – UPGRADE (better lead blocker)
TE Alex Smith – EVEN (production about the same)
LT Luke Petitgout – UPGRADE (better pass protection)
LG Arron Sears – UPGRADE (more physical vs. run and pass)
C John Wade – EVEN (production about the same)
RG Davin Joseph – EVEN (needs to step up his play)
RT Jeremy Trueblood – UPGRADE (better production)
WR Joey Galloway – EVEN (production about the same)
WR Ike Hilliard – EVEN (production about the same)

LE Kevin Carter – EVEN (stout vs. run, lacks pass rush)
UT Jovan Haye – EVEN (needs a better pass rush)
NT Chris Hovan – EVEN (needs to match or better 2006 effort)
RE Greg Spires – EVEN (much better vs. run, lacks pass rush)
WLB Derrick Brooks – UPGRADE (better production vs. run)
MLB Barrett Ruud – UPGRADE (overall playmaker)
SLB Cato June – UPGRADE (better athleticism and production)
FS Tanard Jackson – UPGRADE (sound in his assignments)
SS Jermaine Phillips – UPGRADE (most improved Buc thus far)
CB Ronde Barber – EVEN (same stellar play)
CB Brian Kelly – UPGRADE (now healthy)

It’s early, and a lot can happen over the next 13 games, but it appears that the Bucs have six upgrades on offense and six on defense – either from new players or from returning starters who are playing better.

“I think the difference is we have a lot of new players,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “I look at the cutups of us playing Carolina last year and a lot of the guys playing in that game aren’t here. And that’s a good thing because we’re a better football team now. We’ve got better players playing.

“The turnovers certainly [help]. We had seven or eight interceptions in the first three games; we’ve got zero right now. That’s clearly the winning edge. And we’ve got new players playing, too. As I said, if you turn the ball over you’re going to have a hard time playing and being successful. That goes for just about every team in the league that I’m aware of.”

FAB 2. Don’t think that I glossed over Tampa Bay’s special teams in Fab 1. I was saving the special teams praise for Fab 2. Kicker Matt Bryant is off to another great start, going 4-of-5 on the season, with his only miss being a forgivable 54-yarder against St. Louis last week.

Punter Josh Bidwell has been Tampa Bay’s unheralded hero through three games. Not only has he averaged 45.1 yards per punt with a net of 38.4, Bidwell has punted the ball 14 times and has only allowed six of those punts to be returned. Granted one of those was a key, 56-yarder by Nate Burleson in Week 1, but take away that return and the Bucs have only surrendered 19 yards on five returns, which is outstanding.

“Bidwell is a special weapon for us,” said Bucs special teams captain Ryan Nece, who leads the team with five tackles. “That’s a position that’s not highly touted and not a lot of people truly understand what he does for us. But when you have a weapon like Josh that can kick the ball with hang time and can directionally punt it, it makes it very tough for returners. These past three weeks, we’ve faced some pretty good returners. It’s amazing what we’ve done and a lot of that is Josh.”

In Bidwell’s last eight punts, the Bucs have only allowed an impressive 10 return yards, which came on one runback by Dante Hall last week. Think about that for a second and you’ll realize what an impressive feat that is.

Tampa Bay’s kickoff coverage unit has been even better. The top-ranked unit in the NFL is allowing an unbelievable 13.5 yards per kick return. The longest return against Tampa Bay has been only 21 yards.

“Matt is kicking the ball off well,” Nece said. “Look at the speed of our team. It shows up on our kickoffs and we don’t even have our secret weapon – Torrie Cox. He’ll be back in a few games and that will be an even greater addition for us.”

Cox, who was a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams last year, led Tampa Bay in preseason special teams tackles with five stops, and is currently serving a four-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league’s banned substance policy. Cox has been unable to practice with the Bucs for the past month, but will be eligible to return to One Buc Place on Monday following the Carolina game.

The loss of rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli to a broken foot will be a damaging blow as he was a key special teams player, but the return of Cox and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, who was a kick and punt coverage stud in Denver, should more than make up for it.

Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia has taken his share of heat from Tampa Bay fans and some in the media over the years. In my opinion, the criticism has been largely unjust. Bisaccia is a very good coach who always has his units well prepared to play and is well liked and respected by his players. Overall, the Bucs special teams were a team strength last year in most areas, except for the return game. That earned Bisaccia the Assistant Coach of the Year honors from Pewter Report.

This year, Bisaccia’s return game has posted better results. Not even counting two 40-plus-yard punt returns that were called back against Seattle due to penalties, Tampa Bay has averaged 11.1 yards per return, led by Mark Jones, who has four returns for 60 yards (15-yard avg.). Last year, the Bucs averaged only 6.5 yards per punt return with the longest runback being just 18 yards. Through three games in 2007, Ike Hilliard has a 20-yard punt return and Jones has a 35-yarder.

The Bucs have even improved on last year’s 21.4-yard kick return average in 2006 by returning eight kicks for a 23.5-yard average.

The season isn’t even a quarter of the way over yet, but Tampa Bay’s special teams are already off to a hot start and have played a big role in the team’s 2-1 record.

FAB 3. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed about this year’s Buccaneers team is the fact that defensive line coach Larry Coyer likes to substitute his defensive linemen. A lot.

Whereas former defensive line coaches Rod Marinelli and Jethro Franklin liked to stick with four starters on a somewhat regular basis, Coyer, who is in his first year with Tampa Bay, will substitute his linemen on almost an every down basis. It is not uncommon to see at least one defensive lineman come off the field after every snap as Coyer likes constantly give opposing offensives different looks.

Defensive ends Greg Spires, Kevin Carter and Gaines Adams have downs at both left and right end. Carter and defensive end Greg White have also moved inside to play defensive tackle in Tampa Bay’s nickel rush defense. Jovan Haye and Greg Peterson have played both under tackle and nose tackle inside, too.

Aside from creating different match-ups by moving his defensive linemen around, Coyer’s rotation has paid early dividends this year in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back wins in the hot and humid conditions at Raymond James Stadium. Because Tampa Bay’s defensive line is undersized with only two players tipping the scales at 300 pounds (Carter and nose tackle Chris Hovan), it is important the Bucs don’t wear down as the game goes on. By rotating his linemen with great regularity, Coyer keeps all seven players in the rotation effective throughout the entire game.

“We want to keep our guys fresh for the fourth quarter,” Hovan said. “That’s when a lot of games come down to the wire. If there is a two-minute drive at the end of a game, you want your four freshest linemen going in there to rush. There’s no time to be tired out there, especially in those key moments of the game.

“As the game goes a long in the fourth quarter, we have a great rotation going on where we have defensive ends like Kevin Carter and Greg White playing inside in the nickel defense. It gives us a lot of different looks on defense. It also gives guys three or four plays to come off the field and get a blow and then return feeling fresh.”

Hovan said that the return of defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, who is coming off a torn MCL, will add some speed and depth to the defensive line rotation.

“We’re going to get Patrick Chukwurah back, too,” Hovan said. “He not only helps on special teams, he’s going to help us on the defensive line. Once we get Patrick back, we’re going to have a great front eight or front seven going out there on game day. It gives us a lot of versatility against our opponents. Resting guys throughout the game will pay off big for us as the season goes on, too.”

By reducing the amount of plays for each defensive starter by just six plays per game adds up over the season and is the equivalent of taking a game and a half off. Coyer’s heavy rotational style should produce less wear and tear on his defensive regulars as the season progresses and help the defensive linemen remain effective down the stretch if Tampa Bay is in position for a playoff push.

The other added benefit to a heavy rotation is that it greatly speeds up the development of younger, less experienced players like Adams and Peterson, who are rookies, and Haye and White.

Cornerback Ronde Barber has noticed improvement in Adams, but says that he can’t force the action.

“He has to let it come to him,” Barber said of Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick. “He needs to go to work every day in order to get better. That’s all he has to do. He’s immensely talented. He’s big and fast. He’s pretty dominating when he wants to be. He just has to work on it.”

While Adams has seven tackles (one for a loss) and two passes defensed on his initial NFL stats sheet, the best rookie defensive lineman has been Peterson. The North Carolina Central product is no Larry Brackins, if you catch my drift.

At 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, Peterson brings great size, athleticism and speed to the under tackle position. Film study revealed that Peterson had a career-high six tackles and posted half a sack against St. Louis. He showed an improving pass rush and the ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage on several running plays.

“Greg has great physical attributes,” Hovan said. “He goes out there and plays the three-technique. He has some great pass rush moves. I think he got five or six tackles in this game. He’s real consistent. He’s a young player and he’s striving to get better every day. As long as he keeps putting it on tape he will get better.”

If Peterson can keep improving this year and earn more playing time, the Bucs may have found a steal in the fifth round that can one day be the starting under tackle. He is outplaying Adams and the early returns on promising, especially due to Coyer’s rotational methods.

FAB 4. I’m going to try to make a regular habit of incorporating some X’s and O’s from the previous Bucs game into my SR’s Fab Five columns. Here are some random thoughts I had after watching film of the Bucs-Rams game:

• Defensive tackle Greg Peterson had his best game as a pro and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a better rookie season than defensive end Gaines Adams. The reason is because the Bucs lack playmakers inside and I think Peterson will receive more opportunities throughout the year. Right now, Greg Spires and Kevin Carter start at the defensive end spots, and deservedly so. When Patrick Chukwurah returns from his MCL injury that might take a couple of plays away from Adams, who has already fallen behind Greg White in the rotation. Peterson did a great job of maintaining gap integrity on defense, and had a monstrous special teams tackle on the Bucs’ final kickoff in the fourth quarter. It’s hard to believe that a 290-pound defensive tackle can run that fast. Adams will eventually be a good pro, but I think he’s a work in progress.

• Jon Gruden should live up to his word and find ways to get the ball into Phillip Buchanon’s hands on offense or special teams. My suggestion is a wide receiver slip screen on offense and to put Buchanon back there on kickoffs. Buchanon has some real jets and they were clearly on display on his 28-yard fumble return for a touchdown that was negated due to Kevin Carter’s offsides penalty and his interception return out of the end zone in the fourth quarter. I would bet that Buchanon is the fastest Buccaneer not named Joey Galloway.

• For a rookie, left guard Arron Sears shows great technique in run blocking. On Michael Pittman’s 12-yard draw, Sears posted up Rams defensive tackle Adam Carriker on a combo block with center John Wade, who finished the block while Sears advanced to the second level and blocked a linebacker. The identical blocking scheme was deployed on Earnest Graham’s 28-yard touchdown run (although it wasn’t a draw) in the fourth quarter. Sears posted Carriker at the line of scrimmage, then stalked linebacker Chris Draft and paved the way for Graham, who ran right up the middle past Sears. Sears also did a great job of pulling to his right and lead blocking for Cadillac Williams and Graham.

• Tampa Bay’s running backs need to do a better job of pass protecting. Cadillac Williams failed to pick up defensive end Leonard Little on a twist in which he came up the middle and nearly sacked Jeff Garcia in the end zone. Williams went low to cut block Little, but the athletic pass rusher hurdled Williams with ease. Halfback Michael Pittman gave up a sack in the second half by attempting to cut block defensive lineman Trevor Johnson, but Johnson kept his feet and dropped Garcia.

• Speaking of great blocks, not only did right tackle Jeremy Trueblood do a great job on Leonard Little all day, wide receiver Michael Clayton and quarterback Jeff Garcia got in on the fun, too. Garcia pulled back and nailed Little, who was chasing Cadillac Williams in the backfield as Williams was cutting back to the left. Garcia is one tough son-of-a-gun and his physical, head-first style of play is infectious and has brought some real energy to the offense. In the third quarter on Williams’ 13-yard run off right tackle, Clayton cracked back and blasted Little while Trueblood pulled and took out cornerback Ron Bartell on the sweep play. Williams got a first down as a result. Michael Pittman also had success on a similar play in which Trueblood pulled around the right side.

• Right guard Davin Joseph had his best half of football in 2007 in the second half of the Rams game. After two sub-par games against Seattle and New Orleans, and a lackluster first half against St. Louis, especially in pass protection, Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood helped key the Buccaneers ground game. After rushing for 38 yards by halftime, Tampa Bay rushed for 144 yards in the second half with a lot of those yards coming off the right side behind Joseph and Trueblood.

• Running back Earnest Graham ran with power and determination. On his 20-yard run in the fourth quarter, he broke through three Rams defenders at the same point of attack. He also fought through safety Corey Chavous’ facemask on his 8-yard touchdown run. Sources tell me that while Cadillac Williams may be the best all-around runner, Graham is the best north-south running back on the Buccaneers. Graham benefited greatly from Luke Petitgout’s holding a Rams defender on his 28-yard touchdown run. No flag was thrown on the play, but replay showed that it was an obvious takedown.

• Through my binoculars from the press box, I saw Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and wide receiver Michael Clayton really get into on the sidelines after a wide open Clayton dropped an easy pass and then fumbled after his only catch of the day two plays later right before halftime. Clayton was trying to plead his case to Gruden and even grabbed the head coach by the shirt, but Gruden had his Chucky face on and really let Clayton have it. What was interesting about the situation was that defensive backs coach Raheem Morris stepped in between Gruden and Clayton and demonstratively clapped his hands several times trying to get both guys to knock it off and focus on the next play. Despite his youth, the 31-year old is a seasoned coach and has enough clout and gravitas to butt his nose into the business of the offensive side of the football team without catching heat from Gruden or losing the respect of players like Clayton. The presence of an energetic person like Morris on the sidelines helps in other ways by creating enthusiasm. After Jermaine Phillips picked off Marc Bulger in the first half, Morris nearly mugged Phillips as he came off the field. Morris was seen hugging and nearly jumping on the back of the Bucs safety. When Phillip Buchanon recorded his pick in the third quarter, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia beat Morris to him and hugged and celebrated with “P-Buc.” Morris then piled on and joined the celebration.

• The team chemistry on this year’s version of the Bucs is outstanding. Obviously, winning two games helps, but you can tell that the players get along great and genuinely like each other. New players like linebacker Cato June and quarterback Jeff Garcia have done a great job of bringing a lot of on-field and sideline enthusiasm, but do you know which player may be the biggest cheerleader? New middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. Trotter is by far the most active “inactive” Buccaneer on the sidelines and is always around defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and linebackers coach Gus Bradley. He wants to be in the middle of the action even though he is in street clothes, and is often seen giving linebackers Barrett Ruud and Derrick Brooks some pointers between series and during timeouts.

• Two final noteworthy items to mention – gang-tackling and fullback B.J. Askew. The gang-tackling that is going on right now reminds me of the 2005 season in which Tampa Bay had the number one-ranked defense, largely due to getting as many hats near the ball as possible. Askew is a real force as a lead blocker. His crushing block on Cadillac Williams’ 7-yard touchdown run was a thing of beauty.

FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab Five:

• One of the reasons why the Buccaneers are 2-1 is the fact that they have gotten off to quick starts. Tampa Bay is playing with a sense of urgency this season after getting outscored 82-30 in the first quarter and 171-83 by halftime in 2006. This year, the Bucs have outscored opponents 13-0 in the first quarter and 30-10 by halftime. In my Reasons For Hope article prior to the start of the season, I said that Tampa Bay’s offense wouldn’t have any problem scoring points.

• There are some in the local media who have agendas against head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen and are actually rooting against the Bucs this year because another losing season would likely force regime change. They have invested so much venom and negativity into bashing Gruden, Allen and the Bucs that they can’t stomach the thought of their predictions of doom and gloom not coming true. So when the Bucs start off 2-1, are there any stories about how the new Buccaneers players that Allen and Gruden brought in are helping Tampa Bay win? Nope. Instead of giving the Bucs some credit for early success, some (but not all) in the local media have tried to create some controversy. Two recent examples were the “Derrick Brooks is pissed about coming off the field so he blew off the media after the Saints game.” This is such a laughable non-story. Anybody who covers this team professionally should know not to assume anything (I learned that the hard way when I was a little heavy-handed in speculating that he might be contemplating retirement this past offseason and received a stern phone call from an unhappy Mr. Brooks) about Brooks without hearing it from Brooks himself. The second silly storyline the media manufactured was the fact that there was a rift brewing between Jon Gruden and Jeff Garcia over the audibles Garcia called during the Saints game. Uh, I know Gruden didn’t mind when Garcia audibled because he told a gaggle of the other beat writers, including myself, that after his press conference. Not only that, but why would Gruden object if Garcia audibled from his play call to … another one of the plays in Gruden’s own playbook? They are all Gruden’s plays to begin with! I will be shocked if another controversy isn’t drummed up this week (try Earnest Graham vs. Cadillac Williams) leading up to the Panthers game. Anything to distract Tampa Bay fans and avoid praising the Bucs’ success over the past two weeks.

• Here’s a newsflash. The 0-3 Falcons and the 0-3 Saints are done. D-o-n-e. The NFC South is officially a two-team race between Tampa Bay and Carolina with the winner of Sunday’s game emerging as the clear-cut favorite.

• If I’m Monte Kiffin, I’m preparing my players to face David Carr this week. I’m barely studying any Jake Delhomme footage. What’s the point? He’s 7-1 against the Bucs and Tampa Bay has seen just about everything the guy can do. Why bring out some heartbreaking film (unfortunately, there’s tons of it) and put any doubt into the players’ minds?

• The Panthers player the Bucs need to stop is wide receiver Steve Smith, and Tampa Bay knows it. “You need 12 when you play Steve Smith,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “You need to use 12 guys and we are going to try to do that. Try to play 12.” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who has battled Smith twice per year since 2002, echoes Gruden’s sentiments. “A lot of [Tampa Bay’s losses] goes on Jake, but a lot of it also goes on the type of athlete Steve Smith is,” Barber said. “He is stronger – not bigger – but stronger and faster and more willing to outwork anybody he plays against. It shows up every week on film. You give him credit and you pat him on the back for being a great player. That’s our challenge. If we have a challenge as a team this week, it is stopping Steve Smith.” Barber said that the Bucs can still draw some confidence from their 20-10 victory in Carolina during the 2005 season as they head to Bank of America Stadium this Sunday. “In 2005 up there, that was probably the only dominating performance in our history against Carolina [in the NFC South],” Barber said. “We were very stout on defense and we kept them out of the end zone for the most part, except for the very end of the game. I don’t think we had a turnover and we just pounded them from start to finish. That’s a game plan that worked for us and I don’t necessarily know why it hasn’t worked since then, but it’s definitely something we have to rely on. It’s a tough place to play – Carolina. They are definitely one of our rivals – one of our main ones for a lot of reasons.”

• Barber also sounded off about the improvement of strong safety Jermaine Phillips, who is third on the team with 27 tackles, one sack and one interception on the season. “He wasn’t focused on the details,” Barber said. “He’s got more of an emphasis on his job this year.” Barber credits the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for the biggest reason for Phillips’ turnaround after a disappointing 2006 showing. “Immensely – I would say that Raheem is a big part of it,” Barber said. “Obviously, Jermaine had a lot to prove in the offseason. [The media] was on him, we were on him. He still wants to prove himself. Raheem coming a long and helping him get back to where he needs to be, it helped him a lot. He gave up some plays last year. That wasn’t in his character. If your peers and the leaders of your team can’t criticize you, who can?” So what did Morris do differently than former Bucs secondary coach Greg Burns didn’t? “He showed up,” Barber said with a smile. “He showed up. That’s all he had to do. We missed him. We missed his leadership in our room. It helped a lot of guys, particularly him. Tanard [Jackson], a guy like Phillip [Buchanon], and a guy like Sammy [Davis]. You saw it in training camp. He pays attention to their weaknesses and trying to find a way to make them into their strengths. Raheem’s a master at that.”

• One final shot from Barber, who I always enjoy talking to. When asked if he has thought about his next interception, which will give him 32 for his Buccaneers career and move him ahead of Donnie Abraham and into sole possession of first place in franchise history, a grinning Barber said, “Nah, I haven’t thought about it at all. Not one time.” Yeah, right. Barber can’t wait to break that record. The only problem is that he has rarely been tested this year and has only 15 tackles and three pass breakups through three games.

• Pewter Report has set up another Tampa Bay player autograph signing at the Sports Fan-Attic at Westshore Mall. Meet Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud on Saturday, October 27 from 1:00-3:00 p.m. Ruud is doing a charity autograph signing and for just $15 you can get up to two autographs. That's the day before the Bucs' home game against the Jaguars, so it's a great day to stock up on some new Bucs gear, too. If you want to avoid waiting in line on the day of the signing to purchase an autograph ticket, you can stop by any Tampa Bay area Sports Fan-Attic store and purchase a $15 autograph ticket in advance.

• And finally, if you are reading this while using a friend of family member’s PI password, I ask you to support our efforts and order your own Pewter Insider subscription. Everyone likes to get something for free, but just know that password sharing is harmful to our business. We at PewterReport.com have gone to a great expense to fund and grow this website, which many of you enjoy on a daily basis for our Bucs coverage, inside scoop and our message boards. As you are well aware, websites aren’t free to own or operate, especially sites like ours that support over 250,000 unique visitors per month. You might think, “Oh, Pewter Report won’t miss my $39.99,” but if there are hundreds of Bucs fans who are thinking the same thing, it certainly adds up. We are close to unveiling a video element on PewterReport.com and will continue to invest heavily to make our website the best place for Bucs news, inside scoop and conversation on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Subscribing to the Pewter Insider costs only $3.33 per month (billed $39.99 per year), which is affordable to all Bucs fans. We appreciate the support of die-hard Bucs fans like yourself, and the best way you can show your support is to subscribe or give a gift subscription to someone who shares your PI password. Call us at 1-800-881-BUCS(2827) or subscribe by clicking here. Thanks, Bucs fans.

Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2007 season and 2008 offseason plans? Want to find out who the Bucs are targeting in free agency and the NFL Draft next year? Subscribe to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.

Looking for the best selection of Tampa Bay Buccaneers merchandise? Pewter Report endorses Sports Fan-Attic, with 9 Tampa Bay area locations in most major malls. To shop for Bucs merchandise on the Internet, as well as the largest selection of NFL, NCAA, NBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR, visit SportsFanAtticShop.com.

WATCH Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds and Jim Flynn each Sunday night at 11:30 p.m. on Sports Zone with Al Keck and Tom Korun on ABC Action News in Tampa Bay for Bucs game highlights and the latest Bucs news. And for the best local coverage of Tampa Bay sports and Tampa Bay news, check out ABCActionNews.com.

LISTEN to Pewter Report's Jim Flynn each Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. on the Pewter Pulse with Dan Sileo on WDAE 620 AM The Sports Animal, and catch Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds each Wednesday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. on the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz with Steve Duemig on WDAE 620 AM The Sports Animal.

 

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Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]