Close calls haunt Bucs

The Bucs and Jags come into their Sunday Night Football matchup with similar personalities (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

Updated: November 28, 2003, 11:06 AM ET
By Joe Theismann | Special to ESPN.com

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars come into their Sunday Night Football matchup with similar personalities (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). They thrive with adequate offenses that manage a game and good defenses that can dominate a game. With that philosophy, you're never going to blow teams out, so their contests are usually close.

Leftwich
QB Leftwich

Johnson
QB Johnson
In close games, it's even more important to limit costly turnovers. Every team has its own intricacies in their formula for winning, but the most telling stat is giveaways/takeaways. If you don't turn the ball over, your chances of winning increase tremendously. If you do, with each turnover, the outlook becomes more bleak.

Four of the Bucs' six losses have been by three points (two were in overtime). Another loss came by seven points. Only one loss was not close (24-7 to the Niners). Meanwhile, five of the Jags' nine losses have been by seven points or less. These teams have been close in many games, but often mistakes and turnovers have been their demise.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How good are the Bucs? At 5-6, the Bucs are still alive in the playoff hunt. And if they get there, opposing teams better watch out, because they're still hungry. Without deactivated WR Keyshawn Johnson, they proved Monday night that their team isn't all that different. Keenan McCardell is the Tampa Bay receiver who's scoring touchdowns, anyway.

Remember, last season Tampa Bay's offense didn't start to take off until the playoffs. This year, I thought the Bucs would build on that, especially after they shut out the Philadelphia Eagles 17-0 in Week 1. But the next week, they lost to Carolina 12-9 in overtime, which surprised many and took the wind out of their sails.

But what hurt them more than anything was their 38-35 OT loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4 on Monday Night Football. The Bucs' reputation has been predicated on defense, and everyone felt that if they could get a lead, the defense was good enough to dominate. Against the Colts, they had a 21-point lead with four minutes to go -- and they lost. QB Peyton Manning lit them up. That was like a haymaker slamming into this defensive football team.

All of that swagger and bravado about being tough and dominating flew out the window in one crushing lost. After five years of having a reputation of being dominating and stifling on defense, the Bucs were humanized in one game.

Opponents gained the confidence that if they could keep the Bucs' D on the field long enough, in the fourth quarter they would wear down and become susceptible. In all of the Bucs' losses, their fourth quarter has been poor. And Tampa Bay's offense is not built to come from behind. The personality of the Bucs has been a high-percentage short passing game, a good running game and a great defense.

With the Bucs' defense, they should never be out of a game. The D isn't big, but its strength is pressuring the quarterback (not necessarily stopping the run). Going into Sunday night, they're giving up close to 110 yards rushing per game (only 13th-best in the NFL). But in the past, they've gotten ahead and forced teams to throw, and that's where their strength lies (third-best in NFL vs. pass). The Bucs are ranked fourth in the league in overall yards allowed per game.

One thing people can't forget is that coach Jon Gruden is only in his second year in Tampa. Because he won the world championship last year, the expectations are so great, and some expected a dynasty in the making. In today's NFL, it doesn't work that way anymore.

By winning the Super Bowl, he created some lofty expectations for his team. But I don't believe that Gruden thinks he has a complete football team. The Bucs have lots of holes. But their offense has great upside, with receivers who can get down the field, though the offensive line must play better. Their money is all tied up on defense; now they've got to spend some money on offense.

KEYS for the BUCS
1. Throw the Ball Effectively
QB Brad Johnson has not protected the football this year as well as he did last year on the way to the Super Bowl. Johnson has to protect the ball and avoid the big interceptions.

The Bucs don't have the offensive firepower to make up for mistakes, so they can't afford to make them. The Bucs' offense is short on personnel (the departure of FB Mike Alstott hurt the passing game as well as the running game).

2. Stop RB Fred Taylor
With the Jags starting rookie QB Byron Leftwich, you've got to focus on stopping the run and making the rookie beat you. When teams are able to run the ball against the Bucs, it creates problems.

Anyone who has success running the ball against the Bucs plays them tough. This isn't an aberration. Four of the Bucs' six losses have featured an opposing 100-yard back. This is a great opportunity for Jacksonville's offensive line, because the Bucs' Achilles heel is run defense. When you play that "Tampa 2" defense, the safeties are removed from the line of scrimmage.

Besides, the strength of Tampa Bay's D lies in the secondary. Concentrate on jamming the run and let your Pro Bowl-caliber, Super Bowl-winning secondary win the game.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Coach Jack Del Rio took over a team that Tom Coughlin built over a nine-year period. Jacksonville has had one quarterback since the franchise's beginning, Mark Brunell, and there's been a change at that position this year. Other than Kyle Boller in Baltimore, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich is the only rookie QB starter (due to Brunell's injury). The ideal situation would have been for Brunell to stay healthy and then work Leftwich in slowly.

Leftwich has gotten some valuable playing time. With the quarterback position, the only way you get better is by playing and making mistakes. So it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't Catch 22. As a team, you have to go through the growing pains with a rookie QB. If you want to be a good team, you've got to have someone with experience at QB, and the only way to get that is by playing. You have to live with the misfortunes of playing a rookie quarterback.

The NFL can be so overwhelming. Learning to play in the NFL is a process, and part of the process is being exposed, stepping back, catching your breath and going back and seeing what you've learned. It's tough when a rookie QB tries to make too many plays.

Go back through history and consider the rookie years of some of the great NFL quarterbacks: John Elway, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman. Leftwich is no different. There are few exceptions to the rule. If you're a really good football team, you're probably not going to play a rookie QB. When you're a team in transition with a new coaching staff and you're not a threat for the playoffs, that's the perfect time to play a rookie QB.

In Jacksonville, the running game can protect Leftwich and help him grow. RB Fred Taylor has finally been healthy for consecutive seasons. And defensively, they've got a bit of a change in personality, but they've been solid. Look at some of their losses: 24-23 at Carolina, 24-20 at Houston, 24-17 at Baltimore, 10-3 at Tennessee. They've been close in lots games but mistakes have proven fatal. Leftwich has lost eight fumbles and thrown 12 interceptions.

The Jaguars' defense and their ability to run the ball have kept them in games. Remember, Del Rio knows how to coach defense. He was Carolina's defensive coordinator and also coached at Baltimore (another good defense).

KEYS for the JAGS
1. Control the Ball on Offense
I don't think the Bucs will be able to score a lot of points; this isn't the kind of contest for which you set up a game plan to score points. So for Jacksonville, it becomes as simple as you can make it. Run the ball, punt the ball and play a field-position game. Protect the football.

That's the key for the Jags' offense. When you throw, an incompletion is OK. An incomplete pass or throwing it away is better than a turnover (via QB fumble or interception). Having to punt is OK, too -- this will not be a score-a-thon. Avoid critical mistakes and maintain enough offense to win.

As a bonus, if the Jags can establish the run, they might be able to get WRs Jimmy Smith and Troy Edwards one-on-one. And with WR Kevin Johnson, a newcomer this year (from the Browns), the Jags have three receivers who can make plays.

2. Shut Down the Bucs' Running Game
Make QB Brad Johnson throw the football. On the defensive line, the Jags have two big guys in the middle (DTs Marcus Stroud and John Henderson) as well as DEs Hugh Douglas and Tony Brackens on the outside. They've got to shut down the run and make the Bucs throw.

And when Johnson throws, the D-line must get a push and get their hands up, because the Bucs don't throw the ball downfield often. The Jags' linemen should be able to knock down some passes (even up to a half dozen).

A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.

Joe Theismann

Football analyst
Former college and pro football star Joe Theismann has served as an analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football since 1988. He also is frequently heard on ESPN Radio, regularly contributes to ESPN.com and has contributed to the NFL Draft.

ALSO SEE