’08 Preview: Tampa Bay’s rays of repeat hope

In Tampa Bay, the Jon Gruden era has enjoyed the consistency of a seesaw. Every time the team makes its way up, it drops right back down.

If that trend continues following last season’s NFC South title – and there’s reason to believe it could – 2008 will be another downer for the Buccaneers.

To stay on top, the team again will rest its hopes on several aging players, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber, who have yet to let the years catch up to them.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

Brooks and Barber in particular continue to lead one of the league’s stingiest defenses. If the offense can keep pace, the Bucs could become the first team in the division’s seven-year history to claim back-to-back crowns.

Garcia needs to produce, but his supporting cast must also step up its game – particularly in the red zone, where the unit sputtered on a regular basis last year.

Offense

The offense is built to run the ball, but Gruden prefers to throw it. He proved that again last year by refusing to move away from a struggling passing attack during a first-round playoff loss to the Giants, who were having a hard time stopping the run.

The plan might have worked had the team put more faith in its spare wideouts. Instead, the offense often treats wide receiver Joey Galloway as its only weapon. Galloway can still make big plays, but the Bucs need to add another dimension to their attack.

That means making generous use of running backs Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett, and pounding the ball behind a physical and aggressive offensive line.

Defense

The Bucs are a fast-improving team up front, and that’s where it all begins in coordinator Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme.

Kiffin wants the bulk of the pressure on the passer to come from his four down linemen. That allows the team to leave seven defenders in coverage, which makes it harder for quarterbacks to find open receivers.

Against the run, the team wants a hammer coming up from the deep secondary, and the Bucs appear to have one now that strong safety Jermaine Phillips is playing with reckless abandon again.

The team plays mostly zone schemes in coverage, but corners Phillip Buchanon, Eugene Wilson and rookie Aqib Talib and free safety Tanard Jackson are all tough to beat on their own. That will allow the Bucs to continue playing some Cover 3 and man-to-man, but Cover 2 remains the base scheme.

Breakout candidate

Tight end Alex Smith has spent the last three years adjusting to the NFL and mastering coach Jon Gruden’s scheme. With the situation at wide receiver a little shaky, look for Smith to become a go-to guy in the offense, particularly in the red zone.

Bottom line

The Bucs have the talent to become the first repeat champion in the NFC South, but too many key players such as Garcia, Galloway and Brooks have their best years behind them.

SN prediction: 7-9, second in NFC South.

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


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008