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Bucs likely face topsy-turvy title defense test

Place-kicker Matt Bryant

Place-kicker Matt Bryant

If you like elevator rides, you love the Bucs. Tampa Bay has won the NFC South three times in six seasons under Jon Gruden, but it has never defended its title. Not even close. In fact, the Bucs are 11-21 in seasons after hoisting the crown. The NFC South is a study in motion sickness, since there has never been a repeat champion. Can the Bucs defy the gravitational pull in the standings this season? Or will what goes up finally come down? Way down. Here are some reasons why the Bucs have a chance to reverse the curse. And there are also a few reasons to expect another free-fall.

The good

1 DEEEEE-Fense, DEEEEE-Fense: There are certain things you can count on in life: You'll always pay more at the pump, the dropped toast will land jelly-side down and the Bucs will have a good defense. Sure, there was that blip on the radar when Tampa Bay fell out of the top 10. But if Monte Kiffin is pushing the buttons, you can be confident the defense will be among the league's best. That retooled unit finished second overall in 2007 — not bad considering defensive end Gaines Adams and safety Tenard Jackson were rookies while Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber were anything but. The defensive line is deeper, linebacker Cato June will be better in his second season in the system and the secondary is stellar, including a boost from first-round pick Aqib Talib, right. The Bucs will always be in striking distance in the fourth quarter.

2 OH, MY, WHAT AN O-LINE: The strength of the offense is its line. It should be. Tampa Bay has invested heavily in the big fellas. Guard Davin Joseph was a first-round pick, guard Arron Sears and tackle Jeremy Trueblood were second-round choices, and center Jeff Faine and left tackle Luke Petitgout were quality free agents. It's simply the best collection of offensive line talent the Bucs have ever assembled. Tampa Bay was 11th in the NFL in rushing at 117 yards per game, in no small part because of the blocking behemoths. If the Bucs improve their pass protection, look out.

3 DEPTH AT QB: The quarterback position is everything in the NFL. You don't really think that much about it unless you don't have one. Remember Bruce Gradkowski in 2006? So does Jon Gruden. That's why he will never be caught with his options down. The Bucs will bring (at least) five quarterbacks to training camp. More important, four have won games with the Bucs. Of course, Tampa Bay could add another certain icon from Green Bay. But even if the Bucs stand pat, it looks as if Jeff Garcia will have understudies in Brian Griese, right, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson.

4 SOLID KICKING GAME: Punter Josh Bidwell and place-kicker Matt Bryant don't get enough credit. Bidwell has been one of the league's best punters for years, but his numbers may not show it because he'll sacrifice yards for a chance to pin an opponent deep. Bryant, right, is money from 49 yards or less. It's not like he has a popgun foot. He did kick a field goal from Brandon to beat the Eagles in 2006.

5 JOEY GALLOWAY BATHES IN FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH: Remember the movie Cocoon? Galloway, 36, must swim in an alien pool. How else do you explain that he gets better with age? Galloway is coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Bucs and just as many Pro Bowl snubs. He's coming off shoulder surgery, but the guy takes remarkable care of his body. It helps that he rarely practices. Who needs practice anyway?

The bad

1 NOT CATCHING ON: The Bucs didn't do enough to improve at wide receiver. Outside of Joey Galloway, only two wideouts caught touchdowns — one each by Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall. Michael Clayton has caught one touchdown since his rookie year in 2004. Stovall struggles to get separation. Did you see what happened when Galloway had a bum shoulder against the Giants? The Bucs responded by drafting Appalachian State kick returner Dexter Jackson and adding free agent Antonio Bryant. Anybody want to trade for Ocho Cinco?

2 SOPHOMORE SLUMP: Michael Clayton's downfall is well documented. Cadillac Williams has never been the same since his rookie year. What happens if Gaines Adams, left, Arron Sears and Tenard Jackson catch sophomoritis? Adams had six sacks after starting just eight games last season. Jackson was an anvil at safety. Insiders believe Sears will be headed to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. But young players have trouble handling success in Tampa.

3 MUSICAL QUARTERBACKS: The last to start all 16 games for the Bucs was Brad Johnson in 2003. Coach Jon Gruden has a wandering eye. Jeff Garcia offers some continuity, but he's 38 and in the last year of his contract. At some point this season, the Bucs have to find out about Luke McCown. There's suddenly a sand spur in Garcia's shoe over the way he's been treated.

4 WHAT'S THE RUSH?: The Bucs used to be feared by quarterbacks because their fierce front four could get pressure on the passer. Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Anthony McFarland and Greg Spires. Three were No. 1 picks. The Bucs were better, but not the best, at getting after the quarterback last season. But Greg White won the sack race with eight. That won't get it.

5 OLDEN GOLDIES: Linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber are icons. They have statues in the lobby of One Buc Place. But at some point, the wheels will fall off. Maybe not all at once. At best, they have two seasons left on their tires. They're not alone. Jeff Garcia, Kevin Carter, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard — all over 30. Older players miss practice because of injuries even if they suit up for the game. Brooks, left, has never missed a game. Can he keep it going?

Bucs likely face topsy-turvy title defense test 07/23/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 26, 2008 3:01pm]
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