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O's woes begin up front

It's not a play they work on in practice.

Brad Johnson to Keyshawn Johnson to Michael Pittman to Keenan McCardell to Brad Johnson to Cosey Coleman to Cornell Green ended with a fumble, not a run over a trombone player on the final play of the Bucs' 17-14 loss to the Saints on Sunday.

"The California Golden Bears-Stanford game is still etched in my mind forever," coach Jon Gruden said. "There was a chance until Cornell Green touched the ball."

This is the type of turnover that is killing the Bucs _ the one involving the offensive line.

With tackle Roman Oben out with a broken hand, guard Jason Whittle nursing a shoulder strain and Green questionable with a left ankle sprain, the Bucs likely will start a different combination on the offensive line for the fourth time in five games Sunday at Carolina.

Green made his first start of the season against at the Saints at right tackle for Kenyatta Walker, who was switched to Oben's left tackle spot for the first time since his rookie season.

The result was a shaky performance by quarterback Brad Johnson, who was intercepted twice, had one returned for a touchdown, was sacked four times and lost a fumble.

In his first five games, with the starting offensive line intact, Johnson threw 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his past three games, Johnson has thrown four touchdowns and been intercepted five times.

The reason is that opponents are playing mostly zone coverage, dropping seven into pass defense knowing they can successfully pressure Johnson by rushing four defensive linemen.

The sacks Sunday were mostly because Johnson couldn't find an open receiver.

"We're seeing our heavy dosage of a four-man rush," Gruden said. "I'm sure there are reasons for that."

Oben, who played with a cast on his right hand against the Cowboys two weeks ago, likely won't return to the lineup until the two broken bones are healed.

"You have to look at the tape and you have to be totally honest," Gruden said. "To be a left tackle with a cast on your right hand certainly doesn't help you vs. the inside moves and stunts and things of that nature."

Gruden said the Bucs practiced for a day and a half with the offensive line that started Sunday.

"Is that enough? No," Gruden said. "That's why we go to training camp, that's why we have minicamp, that's why we have offseason programs to develop traits and skills, continuity, chemistry; all those things are very important to an offensive line."

But the world champions can't blame injuries for falling to 4-4 overall and 1-3 at home at the midway point. The Bucs lost to Carolina in overtime after having an extra point blocked on the final play of regulation. They collapsed against the Colts, losing in overtime after blowing a 21-point lead in the final four minutes.

Sunday, despite six turnovers and a missed 36-yard field goal, the Bucs had a chance to win. Johnson rallied his team from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to see the Saints drive for a winning 47-yard field goal by John Carney with eight seconds left.

Gruden, who watched Johnson go 14-of-27 for 135 yards and two INTs until the fourth quarter, supported his quarterback.

"He's the strength of this football team from an offensive standpoint," Gruden said. "He had two miraculous two-minute drives (Sunday) to put our team in position to win a football game. He's an iceman.

"And again, we've got to play better around him. We dropped some balls, we miscued on some key opportunities to get the crowd in the game, to get some momentum and life back on our sideline. And we were unable to do that."

The Bucs, who have not won consecutive games this season, wasted a chance to trim the Panthers' NFC South lead to one game heading into Sunday's critical game at Charlotte. If the season ended today, the Bucs would miss the playoffs.

"I see the playoffs as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Gruden said. "The regular-season schedule is halfway done. And we've got eight more opportunities to establish ourselves as a playoff football team and that's what needs to be done."

It won't be easy. The Bucs lost backup safety Jermaine Phillips for 4-6 weeks with a broken right forearm Sunday. Linebacker Ryan Nece is questionable with an ankle sprain.

Already, Gruden is tired of hearing about all the Super Bowl champions who have failed to repeat.

"You have to forget about last year," he said. "Certainly, you don't want to forget about a Super Bowl championship run. But we've got between 20 and 25 new guys contributing to this year's squad that weren't here then.

"I'll tell you this, I'm really proud of this football team and I know I'm as sick as I can be about being 4-4 and losing some of the games like we have at home," Gruden said. "I wish we could play better. We've got to coach better, certainly. But the heart, the drive is there."