JUDGE: Raiders vs. Buccaneers preview

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Clark Judge

Now this is the way it¿s supposed to be. The NFL¿s number-one ranked defense against the NFL¿s number-one ranked offense in the most important game of the season. That should be enough to satisfy fans unfamiliar with the Oakland or Tampa Bay Bucs, but if it¿s not we¿ll throw in a special added attraction. Jon Gruden vs. Al Davis. Yes, it¿s the game within a game that makes Super Bowl XXXVII so intriguing, with Gruden coaching against the team that just sold him to the highest bidder. That, of course, would be the Tampa Bay Bucs, who paid four draft picks and $8 million to extricate Gruden from the last year of his contract. Most people believe the Bucs were snookered, but tell that to an organization that¿s making its first trip to the Super Bowl. The price was as right for Tampa Bay as it was for Oakland, with Gruden turning the Bucs into a club that finally, mercifully, plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Yet for all the attention that Gruden deserves, it¿s Tampa¿s defense that gives the team a personality. The Bucs were the league¿s No. 1-ranked unit, led everyone with 31 interceptions and surrendered the fewest number of points. Their defense isn¿t good; it¿s superb, reminiscent of Baltimore¿s defense in Super Bowl XXXV. Sure, nobody passes or scores like Oakland, but haven¿t we been here before? It was a year ago that the league¿s No.1-ranked offense was a prohibitive favorite to drill the New England , but somehow that didn¿t happen. This time, though, there¿s extra incentive for the guys with the pyrototechnics, and it¿s the head coach standing on the other side of the field. Let¿s just say that when Gruden left last February some of Oakland¿s players were as ornery as management ¿ which means there are a lot of unhappy campers waiting to get even. Gruden was gone, but he never was forgotten. That is, not until now, and now the want something more out of their deal. Something like the Lombardi Trophy.
Passing game: are league¿s best
Let¿s see, you have the league¿s MVP in ; two Hall of Fame receivers in and ; and the league¿s best offensive line. Is it any wonder that no one passes the ball better than Oakland? Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has such faith in his passing attack that he threw 65 times against Pittsburgh in the second game of the year, then called one running play in three quarters against Tennessee in the AFC championship game.
Advantage .
isn¿t , but Gruden¿s getting the guy to come around. Over the last eight games Johnson managed the quarterback position effectively, throwing 18 touchdowns and three interceptions, and it¿s no coincidence that Tampa Bay¿s won all but one of those games. There is little speed on the outside, with the most serious receiving threat, and backs and don¿t catch as well as Oakland¿s .
Running game: Bucs backs unimpressive
and are solid short-yardage backs, but you can¿t talk about the ¿ rushing attack without mentioning Gannon. He doesn¿t run as much as he once did, but he did have three scores this year — and finished off Tennessee with a rushing TD in the AFC championship game
Advantage .
The team¿s leading back was Pittman, and he had 718 yards. Alstott had more touchdowns (five) and the only 100-yard game among Tampa backs, but let¿s be serious here. Is he among your top 20 running backs? Your top 30? Nope. Neither is Pittman. The club averaged 3.8 yards a carry, substantially below the league average, and ranked 27th in rushing. That¿s not good. Neither is this: Its six rushing TDs tied Houston for dead last.
Defense: Can Bucs slow down ?
The took a major step forward with the additions of defensive tackles and , linebacker and safety . The combination of old and new worked well for Oakland, which jumped from 22nd against the run last year to third. The loss of rookie hurt a secondary that wasn¿t as effective as it should have been, primarily because of injuries that slowed cornerback . Still the were 11th in overall defense, with more interceptions (21) than every AFC team outside of Baltimore. There is speed everywhere, and you can start with linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year . The guy can go sideline to sideline, and you don¿t need to remind Atlanta¿s . Brooks caught him from behind. The Bucs have a solid pass rush, led by at right end, and marvelous cornerbacks in and . The biggest hose job this year was not in that San Francisco-New York playoff game; it was in the Pro-Bowl balloting. Barber should have been named.
Advantage .
Special teams: Janikowski too erratic
is nothing beyond erratic. He missed seven of 33 field-goal tries, barely making more (seven) than he missed (five) from 40 to 49 yards. That¿s where nailed the game-winner from in last year¿s Super Bowl, and heaven help the if they have to count on Janikowski from that distance. Nevertheless, while accuracy has been a problem for Janikowski, distance has not. He led the league with 22 touchbacks. Punter is better than he showed this season, slipping to a 32.7-yard net average that was 26th in the league. The return games were a lot better when Buchanon and were around ¿ but they¿re not anymore. The coverage units were downright dreadful, with the ranking next-to-last in punt coverage and last in kick coverage. Say what you want about , but the guy¿s a lock from beyond 50 yards — making five of six kicks. OK, so he struggled in that 40-49-yard range, too, missing four of 10, but his 32-for-39 finish is an improvement over Janikowski. His kickoffs were not, with Gramatica pushing only six for touchbacks. Punter is decent, despite that six-yard shank last weekend, and the return game is vastly improved from a year ago. It¿s the coverage units that give Tampa trouble, and somebody better rewind the videotapes of again for the Bucs.
Advantage .
Coaching: Gruden turned tide in Tampa
Bill Callahan was the offensive line coach with Philadelphia before Gruden brought him along to Oakland in 1998. As the offensive coordinator there he oversaw an offense that improved with each year of Gruden¿s tutelage of Gannon. Callahan is quiet, but he¿s decisive. He had the guts to make Trestman the offensive coordinator when critics said he was crazy, and the move paid off. He¿s also the guy who took it easy on his veterans in practice, hoping to save their legs for the finish. I think it¿s safe to say it worked. The statistics say that Tampa didn¿t improve much offensively, inching from 26th under Tony Dungy last year to 24th this season. But the players tell a different story. They say that Gruden is unafraid to take chances, particularly with the passing game, and that¿s because his faith has grown in Johnson. Gruden is tough, decisive and innovative, taking advantage of a variety of movements and formations to gain mismatches like the one he got with on linebacker .
Advantage .
Intangibles: still angry at Gruden
The know this terrain. Heck, Al Davis used to coach with the , and the team plays here once a year. They have a loyal — and, yes, intimidating — fan base in Los Angeles, with the Pirates Pavilion transplanted two hours south for Sunday¿s game. Paint it black, baby, and make it R-rated. The Gruden-Davis feud makes this an emotionally charged game for Oakland, with some of the players outspoken in their dislike for what Gruden did a year ago.
Advantage .
The Bucs had to go home Sunday night, then fly across the country on Monday. That¿s not easy, but they have six days to get over jet lag. Gruden knows Qualcomm Stadium, too, having coached here four years. He also has something to prove, and it¿s with Davis — a boss who gave him his chance but who, in the end, made it easy for him to leave.

Tagged: Falcons, Colts, Raiders, Patriots, Giants, Eagles, Buccaneers, Michael Vick, Sebastian Janikowski, Shane Lechler, Jerry Rice, Charlie Garner, Charles Woodson, Adam Vinatieri, Tom Tupa, Barry Gardner, John Parrella, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Phillip Buchanon

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