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HOUSTON 19, TAMPA BAY 7 // Call it rushin' roulette

A couple of weeks ago, they were 5-2, in first place, and the questions surrounded whether they were bound for the playoffs.

This morning the Bucs awake 5-4, on a two-game slide, and thanks to their impending bye week, the only certainty is they are bound for a layoff.

In a game they desperately hope serves as the nadir of their season, the Bucs managed virtually nothing on offense Sunday, falling 19-7 to the Houston Oilers in front of an intimate Astrodome gathering of 31,489.

Stop us if you've heard this before, but in helping the 3-5 Oilers become the last NFL team to win at home this season, the Bucs were blitzed into oblivion. Quarterback Trent Dilfer was sacked just three times, but he was hurried and pressured almost constantly by Houston defenders who rushed in droves.

Until they stop the pass rush, the Bucs aren't likely to stop a losing streak.

"Until we come up with a more consistent answer for people blitzing, they're going to keep blitzing," Tampa Bay tight end Jackie Harris said. "When we had the opportunities for big plays, we didn't make them. It just didn't happen for us today offensively.

"If we don't win, we don't do anything but watch the playoffs, period. Nobody is dominating our division, so the opportunities are still there. But the prospects looked much brighter a couple weeks ago. It there was ever a low point of the season, this was it today."

Harris was not exaggerating; the numbers back him up. Try these for starters:

Tampa Bay's 155 yards total offense was 81 yards fewer than its previous season low _ 236 in a 14-6 win over Washington.

The 155 yards represents the fifth straight game the Bucs' offensive total has dropped.

Tampa Bay had 77 yards of offense on its touchdown drive (plus 15 penalty yards). The Bucs totaled 78 yards the rest of the game.

The Bucs, facing a team that had lost three straight games by a combined 10 points, trailed in time of possession by a whopping 41:51 to 18:09, and generated season lows in first downs (10), net passing yards (61), and average gain per pass play (2.3).

"It was a bad loss," said Dilfer, whose post-game frustration level was the only season high attained by Tampa Bay. "There's nothing pretty about his loss. I don't see a whole lot of bright spots in it."

But with Green Bay's loss at Detroit on Sunday, the Bucs still are in the thick of the NFC Central race. Tampa Bay trails the Packers (5-3) by a half-game, and Chicago (5-2) by one game, pending the Bears' matchup with Minnesota tonight.

Not that Dilfer was in the mood to look ahead. He finished 10-of-23 for 82 yards (his season low except for the game at Carolina, which he left early with a concussion). More important, he threw his first three interceptions _ all in the second half _ since tossing four in a Week 3 loss to the Bears.

Ironically, by avoiding a turnover on his first 17 passes of the game, Dilfer set a Bucs record with 140 straight attempts without an interception. That broke Doug Williams' 1982 record of 137 consecutive passes without a pickoff. But Dilfer then threw interceptions on consecutive attempts _ both to cornerback Cris Dishman _ and on three of his final eight passes. Ex-Buc Odie Harris logged interception No. 3 on the game's final play.

Dilfer provided Tampa Bay's only offensive highlight, scoring on a 21-yard second-quarter scramble to give the Bucs a 7-6 lead. It was Dilfer's first career rushing touchdown and the longest Bucs run of the season until backup running back Jerry Ellison matched it late in the game.

Houston was led offensively by four Al Del Greco field goals _ 19, 45, 41 and 39 yards _ and a 4-yard touchdown run by running back Marion Butts. Ex-Buc quarterback Chris Chandler exacted a little revenge on Tampa Bay with a 19-of-29, 167-yard, no-interception day, and rookie running back Rodney Thomas slashed for 89 yards rushing in 23 carries.

This time, Tampa Bay was not taken by surprise by the blitz. At least four times the Bucs' offense tried to burn the gambling Oilers, looking deep for receiver Alvin Harper, who was in one-on-one coverage. But Tampa Bay went 0-for-4 with one interception on those plays.

"I think in a game like this you had to hit a couple of those home runs," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. "You knew what was coming. You knew if you hit them, you win. Or at least you're back into it.

"The job I've got with this team right now is to make sure they're (not too) dejected and disappointed. Now they've been challenged. What we've had is a tremendous disappointment."

The Bucs played without one offensive line starter for the whole game _ right guard Ian Beckles was out with an injured knee _ and another for part of the game (center Tony Mayberry re-aggravated his broken right thumb and was replaced in the second half by Mike Sullivan).

"Until we take care of it and start throwing the ball quick, learn to take the short stuff, teams will continue to blitz us," said left tackle Paul Gruber, who had his hands full all day with Oilers right end Henry Ford. "A lot of times there was pressure in the middle and Trent couldn't step up."

But which Tampa Bay team steps up now? The Bucs take this week off, then travel to Detroit for a Nov. 12 matchup, starting a streak of six division games in the final seven weeks.

"I think we have to go back to basics and maybe simplify some things," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "I don't know what the answer is, but both sides of the ball need to start showing up. We all need to start doing our jobs; otherwise you don't know what's going to happen."

Down, down, down

The Bucs' offensive output has gone steadily down the past five weeks, with Sunday's total half what Tampa Bay put up at Carolina on Oct. 1. The slide:

Date Opponent Total yards

Oct. 1 at Carolina 310

Oct. 8 Cincinnati 299

Oct. 15 Minnesota 263

Oct. 22 Atlanta 258

Oct. 29 at Houston 155

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