Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks is having a renaissance season.
As has been the case the past few weeks, the Texans prepare to face a team with playoff aspirations. This Sunday, the 8-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Reliant Stadium riding a four-game winning streak.
Tampa head coach Jon Gruden has used a familiar formula to recapture his team's previous playoff form: run the football, limit turnovers and play tough, physical defense. With his team in firm control of the NFC South, Gruden and his Bucs are poised to make a run at Dallas and Green Bay for NFC superiority.
After ranking near the bottom of the league in turnover differential last season, the Bucs have made securing the football a priority this year and are currently tied for third in the league in turnover differential at 11.
A large part of this season's success can be attributed to the play of quarterback Jeff Garcia. The nine-year veteran has lived up to expectations, throwing for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. However, Garcia missed last week due to a back injury and his status remains questionable for this weekend's contest.
Should Garcia not play, he will be replaced by Texas native Luke McCown. The four-year veteran started in Garcia's place in last week's victory over New Orleans, passing for 313 yards and two touchdowns.
When starting running back Cadillac Williams was lost earlier this season due to a knee injury, many thought that the Bucs' running game would disappear without him. That has not been the case as former reserve Earnest Graham has secured the starting reins and shown that he can be an every-down back.
Graham has rushed for 737 yards and seven touchdowns this season, surpassing the 100-yard mark three times including last week.
Behind Graham is 10-year veteran Michael Pittman, who has struggled this season with injuries, and Michael Bennett, a former first-round pick who the Bucs acquired from Kansas City in a trade earlier this season. Five-year veteran B.J. Askew starts at fullback.
Leading the group of wide receivers is the ageless wonder, 13-year veteran Joey Galloway. The 36-year old is having one of his finest seasons with 891 receiving yards and six touchdowns, and his 18.2 yard-per-catch average ranks him second in the NFL behind only Houston's own André Davis.
Ike Hilliard starts opposite Galloway. The solid veteran is also having one of his best seasons, hauling in 55 receptions for 635 yards. Youngsters Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton fill out the group of receivers.
With Tampa a predominately running team, the tight ends in Gruden's system do not play a large role in the passing game. Starter Alex Smith only has 23 receptions on the season for 249 yards and three touchdowns. The other two tight ends, veterans Jerramy Stevens and Anthony Becht, have combined for 11 receptions.
The offensive has stayed healthy for the most part this season, except for the loss of starting left tackle Luke Petitgout earlier this year. Second-year veteran Donald Penn has filled in admirably in Petitgout's place in his first opportunity as a starter. The rest of the unit remains unchanged from the start of the season, with veteran John Wade the anchor at center, Davin Joseph and rookie Aaron Sears flanking Wade at guard and Jeremy Trueblood starting opposite Penn at right tackle.
Just as the offense has done its part to limit turnovers, the defense has increased its number of takeaways, already having forced more turnovers than all of last season. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has his defense playing like the Bucs of old, ranking fourth in overall defense and only a second-best 15.6 points per game.
Although the defensive line doesn't have gaudy sack numbers, it pressures the quarterback well and plays well against the run. Starting on the outside are ends Kevin Carter and Gaines Adams, two plays at opposite ends of their careers.
Carter, a 13-year veteran, isn't as relentless a pass-rusher as in his younger days but still must be accounted for on every down. Adams, the fourth overall selection in the 2007 draft, is having a solid rookie season 27 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Pass-rushing specialist Greg White leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
The interior of the defensive line is led by third-year veteran Jovan Haye. The former Vanderbilt standout's five sacks rank him second on the team, while his 55 tackles put him fifth. The other tackle is reliable eight-year veteran Chris Hovan, who excels at plugging run gaps and has a tireless work ethic. Former sixth-overall pick Ryan Sims and Greg Peterson contribute in the tackle rotation.
The strength of the defense lies in its playmaking linebacker corps, led on the weak side by future-Hall-of-Famer and team leader Derrick Brooks, a 10-time Pro Bowler who is tied with middle linebacker Barrett Ruud for the team lead in tackles with 94. Ruud has also picked off two passes and forced three fumbles.
Ex-Colt Cato June plays on the strong side and has had a nice season of his own with 65 tackles (three for loss), one interception and two passes defensed. Key reserves Adam Hayward, Ryan Nece and Quincy Black contribute on special teams.
Four-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber starts at cornerback and provides leadership for the secondary. Barber has had a solid season so far with 47 tackles and an interception. One-time Texan Phillip Buchanon starts opposite Barber. The former first-round pick has rejuvenated his career this season, racking up 53 tackles and two interceptions. Humble, Texas, native Sammy Davis sees action in passing situations.
Starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips is playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level this season. The sixth-year veteran's 72 tackles rank him third on the team, while his three interceptions lead the team.
Rookie Tanard Jackson starts at free safety and has played well in his first year. Jackson has piled up 46 tackles and made two interceptions, while his 12 passes defensed lead the team. Former starter Will Allen provides depth and experience from the bench.
Although kicker Matt Bryant has been relatively accurate on his field goal tries this season (20 for 25), he has not converted on any of his three kicks from over 50 yards this season. His 85 points rank around the middle of the pack for kickers in the NFL.
Punter Josh Bidwell's 44.5 yard per punt average ranks him in the top 10 in the league, and he is landing one out of every three punt attempts inside the 20-yard line.
The return specialist on kickoffs is reserve wide receiver Michael Spurlock, while starting wide receiver Ike Hilliard returns punts.
What to Watch For
- Starting quarterback Jeff Garcia's availability for Sunday is still unknown. Earlier this week, it was discovered that Garcia has a hairline fracture and not a lower back contusion as originally thought. With Texans starting quarterback Matt Schaub possibly unavailable as well, both teams' backups may be forced into action.
- This is only the second regular season matchup between the two teams, with the only other meeting coming in 2003. The Bucs won that home contest 16-3 over the Texans.