Down At The Half
It was windy again. Not Giants Stadium windy but windy enough to warrant running the ball. So what did the Bucs do Sunday against the Saints? They spent the day throwing. It's not like they had much choice.

Their inability to run the ball or stop the pass early on Sunday left the Bucs wallowing in a hole so cavernous that they never managed to fully climb up out of it. That's nothing new, of course.

The problems that allowed the Saints to grab a quick 17-point lead and then run away with a 31-14 victory at Raymond James Stadium were the same ones that plagued the Bucs during a 17-3 loss last week at Giants Stadium.

In fact, they are the same problems that have plagued the Bucs throughout a 2006 season that is not only half over but also seemingly half empty. After all, teams that run up 2-6 first-half records usually miss the playoffs.

A 2-6 team possibly could make a second-half playoff run if it had some victories against divisional foes, but the Bucs' only victories have come against non-division opponents Philadelphia and Cincinnati. That means the Bucs can gain virtually no edge whatsoever in the early playoff tiebreakers. That likely means no playoffs. And if they want to blame their fate on one thing, they can blame it on those slow starts.

When they dragged a 14-0 deficit into the second quarter against the Saints on Sunday, it marked the fifth time this year the Bucs have carried such a burden into the second 15 minutes of play.

It also brought to 48 the number of points the Bucs have surrendered in the first quarter. Match that against the measly seven points the Bucs have scored in the first quarter and it's easy to see the root of their problem. "We've got to get more done in the early part of the football game," Jon Gruden said. "We're capable, but we're just not getting it done. This is not what we are about here."

Indeed, the Bucs have always emphasized starting fast, and on both sides of the ball. In recent weeks, though, their starts, especially on offense, have been snail-like. On Sunday, for example, the Bucs went three plays and out on each of their first six drives. And despite the fact they gained just 16 yards during that span, the string actually constituted something of an improvement.

A week ago, at windy Giants Stadium, the Bucs went three plays and out on each of their first five drives. Their sixth ended on the first play when quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was credited with a lost fumble. Gradkowski lost another fumble this week, but that came late in the fourth quarter, long after the game had been decided and long after the Bucs' inability to run the ball had forced them once again to lean on the pass.

Not that throwing the ball made much of a difference. With the pass protection in front of him "spotty," according to Gruden, Gradkowski again struggled to complete even the most routine plays. He did have a stretch late in the second quarter when he fell into a zone, hooked up with Joey Galloway and produced a couple of score-tightening touchdown passes. But neither Gradkowski nor the Bucs could sustain the momentum.

When they got the ball for the first time in the second half, the Bucs ran it three times, gained 9 yards and punted. Six plays later, Deuce McAllister ran in from 3 yards out to give the Saints a 24-14 lead. The Bucs were still in the game at that point, but when their offense produced yet another three-play drive, the Saints responded with yet another touchdown, this one coming off a 45-yard pass from Drew Brees to Devery Henderson.

The play was one of 10 passes of more than 10 yards the Bucs failed to prevent and one of two for more than 25 yards the Bucs failed to keep off the stat sheet. That's un-Buc-like as well. "It's our trademark," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of stopping big pass plays. "We just gave up too many big plays today and we don't usually do that."

They did it Sunday, Kiffin said, because they failed to cover well in the deep secondary and because they failed to produce enough of a pass rush despite having an apparent edge in one very important matchup. The Bucs had right end Simeon Rice going up against a rookie in Saints left tackle Zach Strief, but Rice didn't record so much as a quarterback hit, much less a sack.

Brees took good advantage of the lack of pressure. In driving the Saints to their 17-point edge in the first half, he completed each of his first 11 passes and didn't record an incompletion until the second quarter. "Brees was outstanding," Gruden said. "We had him in trouble three or four times early on, but he got out of it and made some good plays with his feet."

Brees was the only Saint who made plays with his feet Sunday. The Bucs shut down the Saints' running game, allowing McAllister and Reggie Bush to gain just 27 yards on 26 carries. But that's what was so frustrating for Kiffin. Just when it seemed as though his defense had corrected the problem it had stopping the run and tackling, up cropped another problem.

"We knocked the dog out of the run today," said Kiffin, whose defense gave up just 49 yards rushing. "I mean, we tackled well today. And we tackled well last week against the Giants. But you've got to do the whole thing. We had people back there [in the deep secondary], but we didn't play it well. And overall we're just not playing that good right now. It just wasn't a very good day."

Kiffin was speaking for the defense, but he may as well have been talking about the entire team. The offense ran the ball 18 times for just 68 yards and got another 185 off an 18 of 31 passing performance by Gradkowski.

"We're trying," Gruden said, speaking in particular about the running effort. "We're trying from a one-back set, from a two-back set, with two tight ends, with three tight ends and with no tight ends. We didn't have any sustained success at all and that's going to make you do things you don't want to do. I mean, we're just not the offensive juggernaut that we want to be or think we can be right now."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 6 November 2006