Three And Out
This just in: It's not just quarterback Chris Simms and the offense that Bucs fans need to be concerned with. The virus that seemed to infect everyone on the offensive side of the ball during the season opener not only has taken up residence there, but it also seems to have spread to the defense and special teams.

That became evident Sunday during a 14-3 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, where Tampa Bay's defense gave up more rushing yards than it ever has and place-kicker Matt Bryant missed two makable field goal tries.

"Which one of the three [units] do you want to talk about?" Jon Gruden said when asked whether it was the play of the offense, the defense or the special teams that upset him most. "To be honest, we're 0-2 and we have been beaten by two pretty good football teams. I'm not going to present the illusion that I'm completely in the tank, but I am very disappointed."

He has reason to be. The Bucs came into this season thinking they were on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's elite teams. On Sunday, though, they couldn't beat a team running a college offense. It's called the spread option, and University of Florida coach Urban Meyer made excellent use of it while at Utah a couple years ago. Texas coach Mack Brown did the same thing during last year's national championship game against USC.

Now the Falcons have adopted it and it's working wonders for them, too. One week after running for more yards than anyone ever has against Carolina, they racked up a franchise-record 306 rushing yards against the Bucs. What's worse is the Bucs knew it was coming. They picked out the scheme while watching tape and had Bruce Gradkowski run it against them in practice last week. On Sunday, though, they were no match for it.

"They just simplified what they usually do and it worked for them," Simeon Rice said. "They let [quarterback] Michael Vick be an athlete and make plays with his feet and it worked."

It worked like it never has before. Before Sunday the most yards Vick had run for against the Bucs was 81. Vick had more than that after three quarters Sunday and finished with 127 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. "There's never been a guy like that," Ronde Barber said. "Nobody turns the corner the way he does. He changed field position three or four times by himself. We just didn't have an answer for him."

The Bucs defense didn't have an answer for Warrick Dunn, either. Dunn, who had never rushed for more than 82 yards against the Bucs, got the ball 21 times and scorched his former team for 134 yards. A lot of those yards came as a result of cutbacks during which Dunn would change direction and then engage Bucs defenders in a race that often left them looking slow. "Misdirections will make you look that way," Anthony McFarland said. "I mean, they just threw some plays at us and we never could adjust."

You wouldn't know it from looking at the scoreboard. Though they struggled in every phase, the Bucs kept this one close. That, though, was mostly a result of the Falcons wasting more scoring opportunities than the Bucs. While Bryant was missing a pair of field goal tries, Atlanta punter-turned-kicker Michael Koenen missed wide on three field goal tries and had another blocked by Dewayne White.

Those blown scoring chances kept the Bucs alive, but they were never able to capitalize on their scoring chances. And even when they did seem to capitalize, the Bucs couldn't make the points stick. That's what happened in the third quarter when Derrick Brooks intercepted a Vick pass at his own 37-yard line and ran it back for what appeared to be a score-tightening touchdown. owever, Brooks' score was nullified when officials ruled that Ryan Nece's incidental bump into Dunn during the return constituted an illegal block in the back.

Most everyone in the Bucs locker room disagreed with the call, but Gruden wasn't about to put any of the blame for the loss on the officials. What blame he didn't take himself he heaped on his team. He clearly was upset by Bryant's two misses and he wasn't very pleased (again) with the play of his offense, which struggled to move the ball on the ground and turned the ball over three times.

"It's been a combination of things," Gruden said of the offensive struggles. "We don't get the ball in good field position and we never get the ball early enough in games because the other team has it. Points are big in this league, and strategies change when you get behind. When you fall behind 14-0 or 14-3 and you have a young football team, it's not going to happen for you a lot of the time."

The Bucs are young on offense. Simms is running an offense from the start of a season for the first time and several other key contributors are only in their second year of pro ball. For now, though, Gruden doesn't seem inclined to make any changes. He said he'll continue to try to get the ball into running back Cadillac Williams' hands and will keep Simms under center. "We had many opportunities to make a play here or make a play there and that's what you have to do," Gruden said. "We'll look at it and do all we can to remedy the situation

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 18 September 2006