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Buccaneers '07 preview

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Four-plus years after leading the Bucs to their only Super Bowl title, coach Jon Gruden is on the verge of losing his reputation as an offensive mastermind – and maybe his job.

Gruden is under fire largely because of his team's recent offensive failures. Though he came to Tampa, Fla., with a reputation as an offensive genius, his unit has ranked 22nd, 23rd and 29th the past three seasons.

NFC SOUTH PREVIEWS
Bucs | Falcons | Panthers | Saints

Counting last year's 4-12 disaster, the Bucs have missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons. Gruden's predecessor, Tony Dungy, was fired after years of success, so it figures that Gruden needs to produce this year or else.

The good news is that Gruden has found a potential savior in quarterback Jeff Garcia, who resurrected his career by leading the Eagles to the playoffs last season. The bad news is that the offense, aside from the new quarterback, is short on experience. In time, with young players such as running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, wide receiver Michael Clayton and tight end Alex Smith, the Bucs figure to have an effective unit. The question is: Will Gruden be around to see it reach fruition?

GAME PLAN

Offense: The offense is built to run the ball, but Gruden would rather throw it, no matter the conditions. Last season, on a terribly windy day at Giants Stadium, Gruden dialed up 52 pass plays for rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski – and the results were disastrous.

The coach needs to play to his strengths. That means using Williams more as a runner and a receiver, giving more carries to backup Michael Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott and perhaps leaning on Garcia as his starter.

Defense: The hiring of former Broncos coordinator Larry Coyer as line coach should make the Bucs better up front, and up front is where it all starts in coordinator Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 scheme. Kiffin wants most of the pressure on the passer to come from the front four so the back seven can drop into coverage and make it difficult for quarterbacks to find open receivers.

Against the run, the team needs a hammer who can come up from the secondary and make hits. The team is hopeful new secondary coach Raheem Morris can coax such physical play from safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen. One significant concern throughout the defense is age. The projected starting lineup includes six players older than 30.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

QBs Chris Simms and Jeff Garcia: Chris Simms has suffered season-ending injuries twice in the past three seasons. Those health issues – and Simms' slow start in 2006 – are why Garcia was brought in.

Not only do the Bucs need insurance for Simms, they also need someone to push him – and Garcia can do that. Garcia is a perfect fit for Gruden's version of the West Coast scheme. He still can escape the pocket and scramble for yards, and he has pinpoint accuracy. He doesn't have a big arm like Simms', but even Simms admits he doesn't have Garcia's savvy. That experience is why Garcia is a good bet to emerge as the Week 1 starter. With Simms waiting in the wings, the Bucs seem well-positioned for the short and long term.

RB Cadillac Williams: Williams is the type of back who gets stronger as the game progresses and defenses grow weary. But because the team usually was behind in the second half – and because of Gruden's preference to pass – Williams was robbed of late-game carries and yards in 2006.

The slip in production and Williams' late-season foot injury have left some to wonder whether he is indeed the franchise back he was touted to be. The Bucs, however, remain convinced that he is a game-breaker who can handle the pounding. He better be, because the Bucs don't have anyone of consequence in reserve.

Williams and the Bucs agree that he usually doesn't hit his groove until after 10 or 12 carries, so it's imperative that Gruden commit to the running game and roll with Cadillac. Williams, who dropped several balls in critical situations last season, can help by improving his receiving skills. Keeping Williams on the field on third down is a key to success for the Bucs, but he must prove he can be a reliable target.

DEs Simeon Rice and Gaines Adams: Rice still is one of the game's most disruptive pass rushers, but he'll have to earn playing time this season. With his explosive first step and rare athletic ability, first-round draft pick Adams is a legitimate option on the right side and provides much-needed youth to an aging unit. Rice is coming off a shoulder injury that kept him out most of last season.

CBs Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber: Kelly, who missed most of the season with a turf toe injury, returns at left corner. That alone should make it more difficult for teams to throw and run on the Bucs – Kelly is superb in coverage and very active against the run.

Some consider Kelly to be better than right corner Barber, but Barber remains the quintessential Cover 2 corner. He struggles when matched up one-on-one, but he anticipates plays as well as anyone and easily is one of the best blitzing corners in the game. Barber will move inside to cover the slot in the team's nickel package, with Phillip Buchanon, a playmaker who covers well, likely taking over outside.

VINNIE IYER'S TAKE

Kiffin's defense got some much-needed fresh blood in Cato June and the rookie Adams, but Gruden must clean up an injury-riddled offensive mess.
Prediction: 5-11(4th in the NFC South).

FALL FORECAST

Having Garcia automatically puts the Bucs in better position than they were to begin last season. If the mostly young offense progresses, the team will be able to score more regularly. The defense is aging rapidly and won't be the dominant force it once was. Look for the Bucs to keep games close, but an 8-8 finish and a wild-card berth are about the best they can hope for.

Roy Cummings covers the Buccaneers for the Tampa Tribune and Sporting News.