The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have risen to the top of the NFC South on the strength of the league’s best defense and an effective running game.
With starting quarterback Brian Griese out for the year and top rusher Cadillac Williams at less than full strength, the Bucs will start to find out whether they have the depth to stay there.
With Chris Simms set to make his first start of the season, Tampa Bay comes off its bye looking to maintain its hold on sole possession of first place when its faces the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park.
The Buccaneers continued to frustrate opposing offenses two weeks ago, as their top-ranked defense held the Miami Dolphins to 64 yards rushing and sacked Gus Frerotte four times in a 27-13 victory at Raymond James Stadium.
The win, though, could prove to be costly for Tampa Bay, which saw Griese’s season end in the second quarter when he suffered torn knee ligaments.
Simms, who has made two career starts and is 48-for-83 for 536 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in six games, thinks he’s equal to the task of keeping the Bucs’ season afloat.
“I feel like I’ve been around the block at least a few times now and I’ll be ready to go,” said Simms, a third-year pro who was 6-of-10 for 69 yards against the Dolphins in relief of Griese. “There’s not really much I feel like a defense can throw at me. … There’s nothing I haven’t seen to this point.”
Simms has the advantage of having had two weeks to prepare for this game, but what would really help his cause would be a healthy Williams. The rookie averaged 111.8 rushing yards per game, second in the league, before missing the last two games with a foot sprain.
Williams returned to practice Wednesday and participated in all of the drills. Head coach Jon Gruden said the team is “optimistic” that Williams will see his first action since Oct. 2 on Sunday.
“He looked OK to me today,” Gruden said Wednesday. “He’s got to get back into his rhythm as a football player. We expect him to play, but I can’t say anymore than that.”
The Bucs should be much better prepared to handle another week without Williams than the loss of Griese. That’s because of the presence of Michael Pittman, who has rushed for 252 yards and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He ran for 127 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown, against Miami.
Tampa Bay’s defense, led by Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, might have to carry the Bucs for the rest of the season. This week’s opponent, though, should allow the Bucs to more easily deal with the personnel losses on offense as Tampa Bay shoots for the first 6-1 start in franchise history.
Smith has two strained ligaments in his right knee, and he struggled last week as the Niners were routed 52-17 by Washington. He went 8-for-16 for 92 yards, with a fumble, an interception and five sacks by Washington’s fourth-ranked defense.
Dorsey was recently a third-stringer. Tim Rattay, the 49ers’ early season starter and recent backup, will be on the opposite sideline as a backup for the Buccaneers, who acquired him in a trade last week.
“It’s an opportunity for me to go out and play and do some good things,” Dorsey said. “You just never know what kind of opportunity is going to arise. I didn’t have any idea two weeks ago, being the third-string quarterback, that I’d be starting today.”
Smith’s injury means that he’ll avoid facing an elite defense for the second straight week. That task will fall to Dorsey, who will be trying to solve the league’s No. 1 defensive unit. The Bucs are allowing only 171.3 yards per game through the air.
San Francisco has lost five straight since a season-opening win over St. Louis.