The always polite Derrick Brooks refused to answer a simple question Monday afternoon:
How good are the 5-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a pair of dominant home victories?
"Our goals are short term, and that's to play better than we did the previous week," said Brooks, a 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker. "It's not a matter of comparing this year to other years. We just compare days.
"At the end of the season, we'll see where we end up."
After losing the season opener 24-20 in New Orleans, the Bucs have been trending upward with four of their five victories over teams with winning records. More recently, after a 16-13 loss in Denver, the Bucs dominated the Panthers and Seahawks at Raymond James Stadium.
Heading into a showdown with the besieged Cowboys, the Bucs feature one of the league's most balanced teams (top 10 yardage-wise on both offense and defense), one of the league's brightest coaches (Jon Gruden) and one of the league's best leaders (Brooks).
Here, though, are five concerns about the Buccaneers:
1. Lack of pass rush
The Bucs defense is highly ranked in numerous categories, including yards per game (ninth), third-down efficiency (second) and points per game (fourth). However, one of the necessities of Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme is a potent pass rush.
Last season, the Bucs were in the middle of the pack (tied for 15th) with 33 sacks, and are currently tied for 22nd with 11. The Bucs have been scrambling to replace Simeon Rice, who racked up 67½ sacks for the club from 2001-05.
The Bucs invested the fourth-overall selection on defensive end in 2007, taking Gaines Adams, yet he has generated just eight sacks thus far. So sad is the state of sacks for the Bucs that former Arena leaguer Greg White has a team-high 11½ sacks since the 2007 season opener.
During the offseason, the Bucs considered trading for Jared Allen, but they ultimately decided that the price of draft picks and a premium contract were too expensive.
And while their defensive tackles (Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye) have played solid, the two have combined for a modest 7½ sacks in their last 23 games. Their other primary defensive end, Kevin Carter, last posted double-digit sacks in 2002.
At their best, like when they featured Rice and perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the Bucs could count almost exclusively on the front four to apply pressure on quarterbacks. But barring a breakthrough from Adams this season, Kiffin may have to deviate from one of the fundamental tenets of the scheme and rely on more blitzes.
Yet even that isn't a given with his personnel.
Brooks hasn't had a sack since 2005; the other two starting linebackers, Barrett Ruud and Cato June, have one career sack each; and Ronde Barber is the only credible pass rusher from the defensive backfield.
2. Mr. January?
Jeff Garcia, 38, was benched after a shaky performance in the season opener. Brian Griese didn't fare much better overall in his four starts before suffering elbow and shoulder injuries against the Broncos. But now that Garcia has regained the starting job, it doesn't look as if he'll be giving Griese his job back anytime soon.
In his last two games, Garcia has completed 42 of 56 passes (75 percent) for 483 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was brilliant Sunday night, completing jump-passes, flips and other unconventional throws against the Seahawks. His counterpart, Seneca Wallace, struggled to complete forward passes (12 of 23 for 73 yards) which made Garcia look like John Elway for at least one night.
"He was hot," Gruden said Monday of Garcia. "He played a great game for us. When you convert 10 third downs against a Seattle defense, your quarterback played really well."
But here's the thing about Garcia: his postseason record isn't so hot. He has the distinction of becoming the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start a playoff game for a division winner for three different franchises. Yet his record is just 2-4, and his passer rating is a subpar 73.8 – nearly 14 points lower than his career regular-season mark.
Last season, after the Bucs won the NFC South with a 9-7 record, Garcia completed 23 of 39 passes for 207 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 24-14 loss to the New York Giants.
3. Ground pounders
The duo of Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn has combined for a respectable 879 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. However, the diminutive Dunn did not finish Sunday's game because of a pinched nerve in his upper back.
"I'm concerned about him," Gruden said Monday.
At 33, Dunn is still effective, but his play is descending. Dunn, though averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season, is on pace for his fewest totes since 2003.
As for Graham, limited to fewer than 2.4 yards per carry the past two weeks, is generally regarded as a plodder, which is why the Bucs reluctantly gave him a below-market contract in July.
Former top-five pick Cadillac Williams is scheduled to practice for the first time in 13 months Wednesday. But Williams could be a long shot to produce like he did as a rookie in 2005, when he topped 1,000 yards in 14 games.
Running the ball is a key that opens up Gruden's offense, a hybrid of the West Coast offense.
4. The other unit
The Bucs "special teams" are predominantly below average.
Rookie Dexter Jackson needs to be replaced as the return specialist, effective immediately. He has been a disaster, averaging 4.9 yards – 4.9 yards! – on 20 punt returns and a modest 23.4 yards on kickoffs (18th in the NFL).
Jackson provided several of the lowlights for the Bucs on Sunday, gaining three yards on two punt returns and gaining just four yards on a kickoff return before fumbling the ball.
Unfortunately, the Bucs aren't faring much better in covering kicks.
Seattle's Josh Wilson had kickoff returns of 61 and 46 yards, the latter setting up the Seahawks' only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter.
For the season, the Bucs are 24th in the league in kickoff coverage. But that ranking probably would have been much lower had Devin Hester been available to handle kicks on Sept. 21 at Soldier Field.
The Bucs will catch a break Sunday with Cowboys rookie Felix Jones not expected to play because of a hamstring injury.
5. A rough December
The Bucs are catching the Cowboys at the right time, with quarterback Tony Romo unlikely to play, before a relatively favorable November. Their away games are in Kansas City and in Detroit – teams that have combined to win a single game – and their home games are against the 3-4 Saints and 3-4 Vikings.
But then comes a brutal December that could punish a team loaded with core players in their 30s.
The Bucs open the month with division games on the road (at Carolina, at Atlanta), and then they return home to face the dangerous San Diego Chargers.
They then close the season against the Raiders at Raymond James Stadium.
Expect the Panthers to play better than they did Oct. 12, when they were embarrassed 27-3. The same goes for Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who he completed just 13 of 33 passes for 158 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions on Sept. 21.
Unless the Buccaneers have somehow clinched a division title and first-round bye at that point, they will likely have something to play for in at least three of their last four games.
But you can be sure that the Bucs aren't looking that far ahead.
Brooks won't let them.
"We force ourselves to stay single-minded," Brooks said. "It's been that way for a long time. Even during the down times, we had the same focus. The down times don't seem as bad when you take them one at a time. We take single steps, so you won't get overly confident or too pessimistic."
Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Jon Gruden