| Ball-carriers go bust when they meet the Bucs' man in the middle.
|Sam Greenwood/Getty Images|
7 at New Orleans
21 at Chicago
28 GREEN BAY
5 at Denver
26 at Dallas
2 at Kansas City
23 at Detroit
30 NEW ORLEANS
8 at Carolina (M)
14 at Atlanta
21 SAN DIEGO
Gaines Adams, Defensive End: The first defensive end picked in the 2007 draft didn't have a sack in his first six games but rallied for six in his final 11. "I was confused a whole lot," says Adams. "I'm a sack man, and I need to get more pressure." In the off-season the Bucs taught him to be more physical by using his hands to free himself from punching, jersey-grabbing left tackles.
There are a lot of wrinkles -- literally -- on offense, so postseason hopes rest on a young, developing defense.
When will the bloom be off the rose for coach Jon Gruden? Since winning the
Super Bowl after the 2002 season, his first year in Tampa Bay, Gruden has no
playoff wins and his teams are a combined 36-46.
You think of the marquee players on the club now, and you think AARP.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia is 38, favorite targets Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard
are 36 and 32, respectively, and Warrick Dunn, the free-agent former Buc brought
back to breathe life into the running game, is a spry 33. On defense, linebacker
Derrick Brooks (35) and corner Ronde Barber (33) continue to be vital to the
game planning of coordinator Monte Kiffin (who, by the way, is 68).
So why is Gruden looking more smug than usual about his team's future?
Consider how Tampa Bay is building a solid core.
• The average age of the starting offensive line is 25. Guards Arron
Sears and Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood were drafted in the
first or second rounds since 2006. Plus, the Bucs went after free agent Jeff
Faine, 27, and made him the highest-paid center in football.
• Signal-calling middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, 25, is the speedy
sideline-to-sideline playmaker Kiffin's athletic scheme requires.
• The secondary has four long-term starters who are 27 or younger,
including fast-rising free safety Tanard Jackson, 23.
• Gruden expects defensive end Gaines Adams, 25, to prove himself worthy
of the No. 4 pick in the '07 draft and become an edge-rushing force.
"Why are we better?" Gruden said during training camp, with that
I-know-something-you-don't-know smile. "Depth, the best we've had. A young
offensive line that's much better than we've had. A veteran, heady quarterback.
A lively Gaines Adams. We've got a lot of players who haven't gone global yet.
Barrett Ruud -- anybody know who he is? I'll tell you who he is: He's a hell of a
football player and our leading tackler. Two young guards who might be the best
combination in football."
After the Bucs didn't land Brett Favre this summer, they scrapped any plans
for a quick-strike downfield offense. Now they'll use Garcia, their version of
Fran Tarkenton, to be a mobile and accurate short-range passer. He completed 64%
of his attempts last year with only four interceptions. Josh Johnson, a rookie
fifth-round pick and a Jim Harbaugh disciple from the University of San Diego,
could become the heir apparent. He's fast, with a quick release, and Gruden
threw bouquets at him throughout camp.
But this year Tampa Bay will again try to beat teams with its defense, a unit
that ranked second in the NFL in '07, and there's no reason they shouldn't be as
good. "It's not like it's 2002 around here, but we can definitely be a
dominating defense," says Barber. "With the exception of me, Derrick and [backup
defensive end] Kevin Carter, we're very young on defense. We've got some young
DBs with tremendous ball skills."
When the Bucs are in some of their nickel packages this year, Kiffin will use
three young guys -- 2007 draft picks Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli, and this year's
first-rounder, Aqib Talib -- at corner with Barber moving into the slot. Kiffin
says Barber is the best slot corner he's ever seen, the perfect combination of
speed and power to break up passes. If Adams becomes a Dwight Freeney -- like force
from right end, Tampa Bay will have completely overhauled its defense with
quality young players in a span of three years.
Next, Gruden has to similarly develop his offense of tomorrow. With a
league-high $54.6 million in salary-cap room projected to be available in
2009, perhaps he'll start plugging holes by signing a quality young wideout such
as Anquan Boldin or Roy Williams. Until then, the defense will have to keep the
score down. -- Peter King