By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet the New England Patriots on Sunday across the pond at Wembley Stadium in London, 3,340 days will have passed since the the two teams met on September 3, 2000. Why is that date significant? It was the first game for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in New England and Tampa Bay was the opponent. Of course, the Patriots lost that day to the then Super Bowl contending Buccaneers 21-16. In the 288,576,000 seconds, 4,809,600 minutes, 80,160 hours and 477 weeks that have since passed under the bridge, a lot has changed between the two teams. Except Belichick. He’s still there.
Back then, few would have predicted Belichick would win a Super Bowl before Tampa Bay did. They were thought to be NFC favorites, while the Patriots were in complete rebuilding mode. Tampa Bay did go to the NFC Championship Game in 2000, losing to St. Louis. But New England won their first of three Super Bowls the following year, beating St. Louis. Tampa did finally win their long expected championship in 2002, but by then coach Tony Dungy had moved on to Indianapolis and Jon Gruden had taken over. Dungy won his own Super Bowl in 2006 in Indianapolis. Gruden has since moved on from Tampa and first year Head Coach Raheem Morris will be at the helm facing the Patriots Sunday.
Now, each team comes into this game in some sort of transition and, in some ways, rebuilding. The difference is Belichick remains, and the Patriots remain an elite team while undergoing a reconstruction. It remains to be seen, but the dynasty may continue in New England. There just might be more glory to add on to the three previous championships. In Tampa Bay, things largely fell apart after their one Super Bowl in 2002. They only made the playoffs twice since, losing in the first round both times. Gruden was let go after last season and they now sit at 0-6 with Morris still searching for his first NFL coaching win. They jettisoned many old stars from their glory days, such as Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn, in the offseason, and are back at the bottom starting over.
Meanwhile, Belichick has overhauled the Patriots remarkably in a couple seasons, adding young players in recent years who appear to be poised to contribute for years to come such as starting defensive backs Jonathan Wilhite and Brandon Meriweather, as well as linebackers Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. This year’s rookie crop is off to a banner start, on defense just last week rookies Darius Butler and Pat Chung played major roles in the secondary and contributed big interceptions, defensive lineman Myron Pryor played extensively and well, causing a fumble to boot. On offense, tackle Sebastian Vollmer was dominant in his first NFL start and rookie receiver Julian Edelman made major contributions on offense and in the return game. Even rookie QB Brian Hoyer continued to show he could be a find with an impressive second half performance during a blowout win.
Yet despite the look of the team, the Patriots remain a dominant team capable of embarrassing an opponent 59-0 as they did last week and a prime championship contender for this season. Tampa Bay is just hoping to get a win. With the influx of young players, the Patriots future looks bright while the Bucs is uncertain. But who knows, look back 3,340 days ago and who could have foreseen what has gone on these past 9 years. And while the Patriots will be a decided favorite on Sunday and the future looks bright while Tampa’s looks uncertain, one just never know for sure in the NFL, not even for this coming game.
So, lets take a look at some of the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Quarterback Josh Johnson
(#11): Johnson is a very gifted and athletic quarterback, drafted by the Bucs in the 5th round in 2008. He’ll be making just his fourth NFL start against the Patriots. At times, Johnson shows very special ability and breathtaking skills. He is fast, elusive, has a strong arm and can make plays. Containing him from running will be a key for the Patriots as when he gets outside of the pockets is where they could have some difficulty stopping him. Johnson played lower level college football at the University of San Diego, so he is truly very green in terms of pure passing ability. Despite his skills, Johnson is not considered the Bucs’ quarterback of the future as they drafted another one, Josh Freeman, in the first round this year. Johnson does have skills and a lot of ability. He actually could develop into a great quarterback with good coaching and lots of time. But it’ll probably come somewhere else as the Bucs build up his value and eventually trade him sometime down the road next season or the next after that when its time to go to Freeman.
Running Back Carnell Williams
(#24): Williams, known as “Cadillac”, has a lot of ability and has played pretty well this year. However, he has been very injury prone and has only played 16 games in 3 seasons including this one. He hasn’t had a great season since his rookie year of 2005. During that season, the Patriots bottled Williams up incredibly well, holding him to 23 yards on 14 carries with a long run of 3 yards in a 28-0 Patriots win. Williams was at one time the 5th pick in the draft out of Auburn but has suffered a multitude of serious injuries the last few seasons. He does lead the Bucs in rushing this year with 276 and a solid 4.3 yards per carry average and he is still a good and sometimes dangerous runner.
Tight End Kellen Winslow
(#82): The supremely talented Winslow leads the Bucs both in receptions (29) and receiving yards (286). The Bucs lack a lot of real threats in the passing game, so you’d think the Patriots would focus on taking away Winslow and forcing others to beat them up top. Winslow is still dangerous and difficult to cover. Just two weeks ago he had an 102 yard game with two touchdowns against Philadelphia. Winslow did face the Patriots back in 2007 when he was with Cleveland and had 4 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
Head Coach Raheem Morris
: Morris, named head coach of the Bucs on January 17, 2009 when Jon Gruden was let go, is still searching for his first win. His hiring was surprising as he’d never been a coordinator in the NFL before and had no head coaching experience on any level. His only experience as a coordinator came in 2006 when he spent one season in the NCAA coordinating Kansas State’s defense. He’d only been Tampa’s defensive backs coach for two seasons (2007-2008), though Tampa did show good improvement against the pass during those years from a down year in 2006. Morris is a disciple of the Herm Edwards/Monte Kiffin Tampa 2 defensive theory. In fact, Morris’ first NFL job came in 2001 with the Jets when he was hired by Edwards, another former Tampa secondary coach who ascended to the position of head coach without having been a coordinator. Against a Tampa 2 defense, the safeties play deep and it becomes difficult to hit a lot of deep plays. An offense needs to show patience and play error free working the ball down the field as things are open underneath. The lack of coverage underneath is made up with quicker, speedier players, particularly linebackers and that is the approach Tampa continues to go with. The Patriots probably will look to attack Tampa Bay with a mix of short passing and a powerful running game. So far this year, Tampa has given up the second most rushing yards in the NFL and a huge average of 171.7 yards per game. Teams are rushing for an average of 4.9 per carry. The smallish Tampa defense is likely to be overpowered by the strong Patriots offensive line, especially as the day wears on and look for big days from Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis if both stay healthy for the whole game.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud
(#51): Probably the best current player on the Bucs defense is middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. He is on pace for his third straight 100+ tackle year and leads the Bucs in tackles. A smart, instinctive, tough player, Ruud also is a good athlete with good strength and speed. He is decent in coverage as well and has 5 interceptions over the last 3 seasons. Ruud’s younger brother Bo was drafted and was with the Patriots for a short time. Ruud isn’t a huge linebacker at 240 lbs., but he does a good job making up for that with good athleticism, quickness and smarts but unfortunately for him his surrounding cast isn’t quite as good as he is and there is only so much he can do. Despite the solid player in Ruud, running on Tampa Bay hasn’t proven to be much of a problem, nor is it likely to be on Sunday.