TAMPA — One year ago, DE Gaines Adams wasn't sure what he had gotten himself into.
The then-rookie was being bullied by offensive linemen with years of experience. Coaches were expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. And there was the pressure of being the No. 4 overall draft pick.
So, how are things on the eve of his second season?
"I would say (the difference is) night and day," Adams said, smiling confidently.
Yes, things are different for Adams, who enters this season with a firm grasp on the starting job at right defensive end. He will bear much of the burden as the Bucs try to intensify a pass rush that was surprisingly average last season (33 sacks, 16th in the league) given their finish as the league's No. 2 defense.
One of the most noticeable differences, Adams said, is in the way his elder teammates and coaches view him. He can feel a respect that was not shown early last season, when he routinely would read critical quotes about his play and practice habits.
"That gives me tremendous confidence, just having that vibe from the veteran players saying, 'He's coming on. He's doing a better job,' " Adams, 25, said.
"Last year I know I had a lot of expectations. And I started off slow. As the season went on, things started getting better. I can see a change right now. (Coaches) are having a few more smiles and not those frowning faces. They were behind me last year. They just wanted to see me do good."
Adams had six sacks and a pair of forced fumbles last year. He likely won't consider that adequate in 2008. He wants to be dominant, he said, which pretty much describes his hopes for the defense as a whole.
"This defense," Adams said, "has a chance to be great."
LITTLE FINGER PROBLEM: QB Jeff Garcia appeared on the injury report the past couple of days because of a jammed pinkie finger on his throwing hand that is causing soreness. Garcia is listed as probable for Sunday's season opener at New Orleans. Coach Jon Gruden said the injury isn't a concern but it could affect Garcia's ability to handle the ball. "I don't foresee it being serious," he said.
The rest of the injured: FB B.J. Askew (foot), WR Antonio Bryant (knee), WR Michael Clayton (chest), WR Joey Galloway (groin), DT Jovan Haye (groin), LB Matt McCoy (groin), S Sabby Piscitelli (knee) and DT Ryan Sims (thigh) are questionable but expected to play. CB Aqib Talib (illness) and TE Ben Troupe (foot) are probable.
BIG MATCHUP: For as much as the health of Garcia and Galloway has been a frequent topic of discussion, RB Earnest Graham offered a reminder of what could ultimately decide Sunday's game. "I don't care who you're talking about," he said. "You have to be able to set the tone with the running game."
And the Bucs face an upgraded Saints front seven, with rookie DT Sedrick Ellis joining reliable ends Will Smith and Charles Grant. Also, LB Jonathan Vilma was acquired from the Jets.
"Their front seven is very strong, and it's something they addressed in the offseason," Graham said. "But we've gotten better as well, so it's going to be interesting."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.