Gruden: Bucs can't blame .500 record on injuries.

Originally Published: October 20, 2003
ESPN

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden's message was clear: Anybody who blames the Buccaneers' slow start on injuries is wrong.

"It affects you when you see your team captains and some of the men that have delivered huge critical keys plays here unable to play," Gruden said Monday. And it does not send a ringing, positive bell when you see that.

"But, I look at the New England Patriots and what they did (Sunday), with eight or nine members of their team out, going to Miami -- a place they hadn't won -- rounding their fists up and fighting themselves back into the game and winning it in overtime. It's just a testament that you can indeed get things done if you continue to play and play hard."

Cornerback Brian Kelly (strained chest muscle) and safety John Lynch (shoulder, neck) top a lengthy injury report in the aftermath of Sunday's 24-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Kelly and Lynch are listed as doubtful for this week's game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Through six games, the Super Bowl champions (3-3) have lost four starters -- Kelly, linebacker Shelton Quarles, fullback Mike Alstott and guard Jason Whittle -- who have combined to miss nine games because of injury.

By comparison, two starters missed a combined three games during the first six games of last season.

Compounding this year's situation are injuries that have kept key reserves such as receiver Joe Jurevicius on the sideline. When Lynch left Sunday's game with a neck stinger, backup John Howell suffered a concussion and was taken to a San Francisco hospital for tests.

Mounting injuries have affected preparation for games, too. For example, receiver Keyshawn Johnson hasn't practiced much the past two weeks because of a thigh bruise, although he did play against Washington and San Francisco.

"When you go out and practice and your top two tight ends and top two receivers and your All-Pro fullback aren't there ... it's obviously not what you worked on throughout training camp or in the first three or four weeks in the season," Gruden said. "But we were able to overcome that in Washington now, weren't we? And we were able to overcome that in previous situations. We have to overcome it again, and we've got to prove we can do that."

The health of the team is hardly Gruden's only concern.

Shoddy run defense and turnovers on offense had as much to do with Sunday's loss as anything else.

The Bucs allowed 458 yards, the most they've yielded since a 33-14 loss to Miami in 1991. Brad Johnson threw three interceptions and reserve running back Thomas Jones stopped a promising drive when he fumbled deep in 49ers territory.

Subpar performances on defense have been a major factor in two of Tampa Bay's three losses. The 49ers rushed for 212 yards, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said the Bucs can expect more teams to try to beat them that way until the run defense stiffens.

"It's a copycat league," Kiffin said. "They're going to study that tape hard. They're not going to study the tape of teams that didn't have any success against you. They're going to study people who did have success."

Gruden shrugged off a question about the state of the defense, which was the key to Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run last season.

"We're concerned any time someone has that kind of success against us. But at the same time, we've been good -- very good," Gruden said. "We've just got to somehow, someway, get back to the defensive standards that have been established here. We're confident we can do that."

The season is an endurance contest, he said, and there's still a long way to go.

"Not an easy business," Gruden said. "Personally, I look forward to seeing how well we respond to this kind of adversity."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index