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Bucs count on Raymond James for a boost

Every time Jon Gruden holds an open house at Raymond James Stadium, something gets stolen.

The New Orleans Saints robbed the Bucs in the home opener two years ago when punter Tom Tupa was intercepted in the end zone in overtime. Last season, the Carolina Panthers made off like cat burglars, winning in OT after Martin Gramatica's extra point was blocked with no time remaining in regulation.

Both losses spoiled improbable, dramatic, fourth-quarter comebacks by Tampa Bay.

"Those are gut-wrenching defeats," Gruden said. "Those are as mysterious losses as I've ever seen."

Just as puzzling is how the Bucs, who had turned RJS into one of the NFL's most hostile houses, could lose their homefield advantage. Tampa Bay went 3-5 at home in 2003.

Before last season, the Bucs had a 30-10 record in the regular season and were 2-0 in the playoffs at Raymond James Stadium. Since opening it in 1998, Tampa Bay is tied for the eighth-best mark at home.

But the Bucs can ill afford to lose today's home opener against the Seahawks, a defeat that would leave them 0-2 with three of their next four games on the road.

"Obviously, we've used our crowd as an advantage to playing at home over the years," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That was something that was really disappointing last year that we didn't play well at home when that's kind of been a trademark that this franchise was built on. We've got to win at home, establish winning at home and that feeds into a winning attitude on this team. Last year was a letdown in that area."

Even with the loss to the Saints in Gruden's regular-season coaching debut in Tampa Bay, the Bucs finished 6-2 at home and went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII. Last season, the world champion New England Patriots were 8-0 at Gillette Stadium.

Winning in the NFL is hard enough, but winning on the road is even tougher. The travel, crowd noise, climate _ all require major adjustments for visiting teams.

"We want something special in this stadium, something special from our fans," rookie Michael Clayton said. "When you come to play at home, you don't lose and we really take that seriously. I've heard it come out of Coach Gruden's mouth a million times since I've been here.

"It's hard to go to an away game, especially like Washington, and come out with a victory. You're not always going to do that. But for a team to come into your hometown, you have to get those victories."

If there is a formula to winning at home, it's getting off to a fast start.

By the time kickoff rolls around at 4:05 p.m., fans will have had their fill of their favorite beverages and be lubricated to scream for three hours. Keeping that energy in the building is the key.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, they have become notoriously slow starters. Last season, Tampa Bay was outscored 50-34 in the first quarter. Only the Houston Texans scored fewer points to start the game.

Conversely, not many teams allowed fewer points in the first quarter than the Bucs. Last season, even when Tampa Bay's D stiffened, it allowed teams to start the game by picking up a few first downs and reverse field position.

"You go to Raymond James Stadium, a lot of people come there to see good football, they come to see that defense," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "If we can get that thing started early, get a few three and outs, you might make a big play, a big hit, it electrifies the team and we sort of spin off of that. The way our special teams are playing right now, those two units are going to carry us for a while until we get the offense going."

"There's so many positives when you start fast, especially at home," Clayton said. "The crowd, the energy, it's hard for your opponent to get up from. That's one of the things Washington had against us is we never could get a drive going. You didn't hear a Buccaneer fan in that building."

Make that a sold-out building. Since opening RJS, every game has been a sellout.

"We need help, there's no question, from our fans," Gruden said. "We know they're going to be there for us. We have to give them a reason to be involved in this game. That involves offense, defense and specials teams for 60 minutes. We have to play very, very well this week because Seattle is a playoff team that's coming off a very convincing win.

"I still consider it a positive edge and a great motivator. You want to play well when your mom is at the game, when your friends are there and your fans are there. Starting fast and getting a lead is something this defense has thrived on. That's when they're at their very best, with the exception a couple times last year in two-minute situations. We're going to do everything we can to start much better than we did. Teams that get a lead, they win over 70 percent of the time and that's a statistic worth quoting."