DEFENDING CHAMPS:It was a glorious 2002 season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With arguably the NFL's best defensive unit and a steady offense that began the season with numerous question marks, new head coach Jon Gruden guided the Bucs to their first Super Bowl title in the team's 27-year history.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders has been at least partially overshadowed by a turbulent offseason. Gone are starting safety Dexter Jackson, last year's Super Bowl MVP, and starting linebacker Al Singleton, to the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. Also, Michael Pittman, who disappointed many Bucs fans with just one touchdown last season, was caught up in legal problems during the summer. On top of everything, star defensive tackle Warren Sapp has voiced concerns over his status with the Bucs entering the last year of his contract.
If the Bucs can clear their heads of any and all distractions, they are still the team to beat in the NFL. All of their top players, including Sapp, defensive end Simeon Rice, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and quarterback Brad Johnson return this season, and Gruden is excited to embark on an even bigger challenge than winning a Super Bowl: winning two consecutive Super Bowls.
**THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH:** Usually, when sports commentators use the "bend-but-don't-break" cliché, they are describing a solid-executing defense. However, in the Bucs' case, it refers to their offense.
With the NFL's top-ranked defense last year, the Bucs were not forced to take many big risks offensively to stay in football games. With fairly conservative play calling and generally solid execution, the Bucs ranked 24th in the league in total offense and finished seventh in the league committing just 21 turnovers in 2002. That performance was good enough to tie for the NFL's best regular-season record in 2002 with 12 victories and four defeats.
Much remains the same in 2003. The Bucs' offense likely will not force many passes deep and focus on ball possession and their running attack, which was nothing to get excited about last season.
Since their 2002 offseason acquisition of running back Michael Pittman did not live up to expectations, the Bucs brought in running back Thomas Jones, another former Arizona Cardinals player. Joining Pittman and Jones in the backfield is six-time Pro-Bowl fullback Mike Alstott, who led the Bucs with five rushing touchdowns last year. Known for his smash-mouth style
of running, Alstott will provide a stable presence in the Bucs backfield.
Leading the Bucs' offensive unit last year was 34-year old journeyman quarterback Brad Johnson, who threw 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions to gain a trip to Hawaii as an injury replacement. His backup is four-year veteran Shaun King, but former Texas Longhorns' quarterback Chris Simms, who was drafted by the Bucs in the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft, has played well during the preseason and may have a chance to move up on the depth chart.
Sticking with the veteran offensive theme are wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, who have a combined 19 years of NFL experience. Together, they accounted for almost 40 percent of the team's total receptions in 2002. The Bucs also have Joe Jurevicius, who opens up the field with his height and speed.
**THE WRECKING CREW:** In it's history, the NFL has seen few defenses as fast, tenacious and outright deadly as the 2002 Bucs unit was. Under the direction of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Bucs wreaked havoc across the NFL last year, picking off 31 passes and accumulating 43 quarterback sacks.
In 2003, the Bucs' defensive cupboard is as full as ever despite the loss of Jackson and Singleton. Returning are 2002 Pro Bowlers Sapp, Rice, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. Also, linebacker Dwayne Rudd, notorious for his helmet-tossing incident with the Cleveland Browns last season, joins the Bucs to replace Singleton.
Rice led the team with 15.5 sacks last season, followed by Sapp with 7.5. Together with defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland, who has a much bigger smile on his face after recently signing a lucrative multi-year contract, they form a defensive wall up front. When they control the line of scrimmage and put pressure on the quarterback, which is more often than not, it makes the rest of the defense's job a lot easier.
Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly have been Buccaneers staples for the past five years together. Both Kelly, who led the team with eight interceptions last year, and Barber, who led the Bucs' secondary with three sacks, have a league-wide reputation as being shut-down cornerbacks.
Also in the secondary is Lynch. If you've watched any television football highlights, chances are you've seen Lynch blindside his fair share of unsuspecting wide receivers and tight ends running crossing routes. The fear factor that he provides over the middle of the defense is a huge part of Kiffin's defense.
With Lynch watching the center of the field, Barber and Kelly manning the sidelines, and the linebackers and defensive front controlling the box, there are no weaknesses that opposing offenses can exploit. They just have to hope the Bucs make a mistake.
**AUTOMATICA:** While some people joke about Martin Gramatica's remote resemblance to the small cartoon character, Marvin the Martian, there is nothing small about Gramatica's kicking game. Throughout his career, he has come up huge when games are on the line and has established himself as one of the NFL's most dependable kicking weapons. Last season, he was five of six from over 50 yards and he hit every PAT attempt.
Reserve running back Aaron Stecker will return kickoffs for the Bucs, while second-string wide receiver Karl Williams currently handles punt-return duties. Veteran Tom Tupa will bring his 15 years of NFL experience to the Bucs' special teams unit as their starting punter.
**THE ROAD TO HISTORY:** For Tampa to repeat as Super-Bowl Champs this season, it is going to be extremely difficult with eight of their 16 regular-season games against 2002 playoff teams. Half of those games will be difficult road tests at Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco and Tennessee. They also play Atlanta, Green Bay, Indianapolis and the New York Giants
at home. The combined 2002 record of these teams was 74-37.
The other half of their schedule is a bit easier with home and away games against the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, as well as home contests versus the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans and games at Jacksonville and Washington. Together, these teams had a record of 38-58 in 2002.