Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2003 season preview

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. 
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