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Midterm grades lend optimism to second half

The Bucs' season is not quite hanging on a ledge, but it will take at least four wins in the second half to save them.

No problem, shrugs coach Tony Dungy. A year ago, with nothing to play for, the Bucs won five of their last seven games.

"We certainly came off much more adversity last year," Dungy said. "We should be able to do that at 5-3."

Here now, the midterm grades.

QUARTERBACK: B-minus. Trent Dilfer still is among the top-rated quarterbacks in the NFL (86.1), just a year removed from being ranked in the basement. His TD-to-INT ratio (12-6) is above average. No signal-caller has been better on third down this season. So why the fuss? He attempts so few passes, he almost can't afford to miss a receiver without the offense shutting down. But if the Bucs are going to make the playoffs, Dilfer will have to ascend to the next level.

RUNNING BACKS: B-plus. The Bucs are a little like the girl with the curl. When they have been good, they have been very good. But when they have been bad running the ball, horrid doesn't begin to describe their offense.

Even so, the performances of rookie Warrick Dunn and fullback Mike Alstott have been impressive enough to prompt longtime Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur to call the Bucs dynamic duo the best he has seen in years. That may have something to do with the 217 rushing yards the Bucs compiled at Green Bay earlier this season.

The Bucs averaged 147 yards rushing in their first four games. But since then, they have managed 98.8, including the boffo day at Green Bay.

But Dunn (485 yards, 3 TDs, 4.6 avg.) is still a Rookie of the Year candidate and Alstott (358 yards, 3 TDs, 3.7) is the favorite for the NFC Pro Bowl team.

RECEIVERS: C-minus. As good as rookie Reidel Anthony is, he should not be leading the Bucs in receptions (25 for 341 yards) and TD catches (3). Veteran Horace Copeland (24 for 350, 1 TD) has cooled off and has had a yo-yo season at best. Karl Williams, projected as the most improved, has dropped off the radar screen, with just 10 catches for 178 yards and a TD. Since the fifth game, there has been a lot of single coverage and the receivers have not consistently beaten it.

OFFENSIVE LINE: C. At the start of the season, the Bucs blockers were playing way over their heads. But they have had too many breakdowns during the three-game losing streak to warrant a good grade. Right tackle Jason Odom and Jerry Wunsch have been an adventure in pass protection. And the Bucs haven't gotten much out of ballyhooed rookie guard Frank Middleton. But say this: The line has not missed a start. A year ago, the starting unit played just one game together because of injury.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A. The Bucs have 27 sacks and are on pace to shatter the team record. What's more, defensive end Chidi Ahanotu (7 sacks) and Warren Sapp (6.5) are the fourth-best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. Both could eclipse Lee Roy Selmon's single-season sack record of 13, held since 1979. If you want to single out the best assistant coach on the Bucs' staff, look no further than Rod Marinelli. Brad Culpepper and Regan Upshaw also are having career years. More impressive than the pass rush has been the Bucs' ability to play the run, allowing 91.4 yards per game. Whatever happened to Marcus Jones?

LINEBACKERS: A. There may not be a better group in the NFL. Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks are both having Pro Bowl seasons. Brooks could finish the year with more than 200 tackles. Veteran Rufus Porter has been a solid addition, although he has not produced the sack totals of his predecessor, Lonnie Marts.

SECONDARY: C-minus. Cornerback Donnie Abraham is among the best cover men in the NFL. Teams rarely even test him, which is why he has only one INT. Anthony Parker has been solid if not spectacular. Strong safety John Lynch plays the run as well as any in the league. The free-safety spot has not produced enough interceptions, prompting the Bucs to replace Melvin Johnson with Charles Mincy. But the Bucs are thin after that. The nickel coverage has been suspect. Rookie Ronde Barber is having a redshirt season. Tyrone Legette is backing up free-agent rookie Floyd Young. The Bucs should have paid to retain Charles Dimry.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C. The wheels came off when P Tommy Barnhardt was placed on IR with a broken collarbone. PK Michael Husted has developed the yips on PATs. Return man Williams has sophomoritis. The coverage unit has given up three long returns. The reason? The Bucs lost some key members from last year's unit. Joe Marciano will get it straightened out in the second half.

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