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A new starting quarterback has helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers solidify their place in the standings. Now, the NFC South co-leaders are looking to develop a consistent ground game as well.
Both teams are playing at a much higher level than last season, though the Lions (3-2) are struggling to find consistency. The game also is a reunion of sorts. Rod Marinelli spent 10 years with Tampa Bay as a defensive coach before becoming the Lions head coach last year, and Buccaneers starting quarterback Jeff Garcia was 1-4 in five starts for Detroit in 2005.
Garcia has triggered Tampa Bay’s turnaround this season. After beating Tennessee 13-10 last week on Matt Bryant’s 43-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining, the Bucs (4-2) are tied with Carolina atop the NFC South and have already matched last season’s win total.
“I try not to compare this team to last year. … It’s not fair to these guys,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “We’ve got some key injuries right now that are troublesome and we have to overcome. But we do have enough grit, enough stuff inside our building to rise up, and I know we’ll be there (every) Sunday and compete.”
Garcia has yet to throw an interception this season and ranks second in the NFC with a 103.6 passer rating behind Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who’s out for the season.
“He is a much better quarterback, no disrespect to anyone else we have had here, than we have played with,” Gruden said of Garcia, whose current streak of 164 consecutive pass attempts without an interception is the NFL’s longest. “He is more athletic, more instinctive, he’s quicker, he plays fast, and he has tremendous experience.”
The three-time Pro Bowler is the eighth different starting quarterback during Gruden’s six seasons in Tampa Bay, but Garcia has flashed the ability that helped him rally the Eagles to the NFC East title last season.
Tampa Bay now needs to develop a ground game and hope Bennett and Crockett will help. The Bucs have rushed for just 47 yards combined in the last two weeks and traded undisclosed draft picks to Kansas City to acquire Bennett before Tuesday’s trade deadline. Crockett was signed on Oct. 10 after being cut by Oakland.
Detroit had last week off after a disappointing 34-3 loss to Washington on Oct. 7. The Lions also have matched their win total from last season, but have two blowout losses as well - they were routed 56-21 by Philadelphia on Sept. 23
“We haven’t leapfrogged to another level because you can’t play good one week and get throttled the next,” Detroit kicker Jason Hanson said. “But we have put ourselves in a position where we’re playing for something, so that should be an incentive.
“Getting throttled two times should tell us: ‘You thought you were good? Take another look.’ We’re still a team that is scratching and clawing.”
After scoring an NFL record 34 points in the fourth quarter to rally past Chicago 37-27 on Sept. 30, the Lions fell flat against Washington, managing just 144 yards.
“When you lose before the bye, it seems like you sit around and ponder,” Detroit guard Edwin Mulitalo said. “I’m itching to get back and try to get this taste out of our mouth.”
The Lions are striving to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. Jon Kitna has thrown for 1,333 yards and Detroit ranks fifth in the NFL in passing. But the ground game has struggled incorporating Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell.
Bell started the first five games, but Jones has been named the starter for Sunday’s contest. Jones missed the first two games with a foot injury and had been taking carries away from Bell since returning. Bell downplayed reports of a trade demand, but isn’t happy about his reduced role. After rushing for 87 yards and a touchdown in the first game, he hasn’t had more than 46 yards in any of the last four games.
Detroit’s defense is allowing 31.0 points and 378.6 yards per game, both NFC highs.
Tampa Bay has won four straight and six of the last seven between the teams.