NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (0-1) at Buffalo (0-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Buffalo Bills showed they can go toe-to-toe with one of the NFL's heavyweights in their season opener. Now the team must prove it can bounce back from a gut-wrenching loss when it takes the field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills gave the mighty New England Patriots all they could handle in a thriller that kicked off the league's Monday night schedule, but a costly late miscue combined with the precision passing of Tom Brady resulted in a heartbreaking 25-24 road loss to the AFC powerhouses in Week 1. Brady engineered a pair of touchdown drives in the final 5 1/2 minutes, the second coming after an ill-advised fumble by Buffalo return man Leodis McKelvin deep in New England territory with under two minutes to go, to bring the Pats back from a 24-13 deficit.
While the devastating defeat was met with both distraught and angry feelings -- McKelvin returned home on Tuesday to find that the front lawn of his residence had been vandalized by enraged fans -- there were also plenty of positive signs displayed from a Buffalo team that's desperately trying to take the next step forward following three straight 7-9 seasons that have put affable head coach Dick Jauron squarely on the hot seat. Third-year quarterback Trent Edwards looked sharp and decisive operating the Bills' new no-huddle scheme, backup running back Fred Jackson made a strong impact in place of suspended starter Marshawn Lynch, while a determined defense often bent but didn't break until the final stages against Brady and the Patriots' multi-faceted aerial arsenal.
Buffalo will look to rebound against a Tampa Bay squad that's going through a transitional phase under the new regime of 33-year-old head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik, and the growing pains were evident in the Buccaneers' 34-21 setback to Dallas last Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa's overhauled defense surrendered three long touchdown passes and a career-best 353 yards to Cowboys field general Tony Romo, forcing the team to stray from its ball-control game plan and engage in a shootout with one of the league's most dangerous scoring attacks.
The Bucs have now dropped five consecutive contests dating back to last season, when the club conducted a December free-fall that culminated in a wasted opportunity to reach the playoffs and the surprising firing of long- time head coach Jon Gruden. It's Tampa's longest losing streak since a six- game skid that took place from the end of the 2003 campaign and lasted through the first four weeks of the 2004 season.
Buffalo will be seeking to end a string of five consecutive home losses that included a 16-3 decision to Miami at Toronto's Rogers Centre in Week 14 of last year. The Bills have failed to score a touchdown in any of their last three tilts as the host team.
Tampa Bay has a 6-2 edge in its all-time series with Buffalo, and has won three in a row since the Bills won at Tampa in 1991. The Bucs were 19-3 home winners when the clubs last met, in 2005. Oddly enough, Sunday's matchup will mark the first game of the series to be played in Buffalo. The Buccaneers' lone trip to the city all-time occurred in the 1977 preseason.
Jauron was 3-4 against the Buccaneers while serving as head coach of the Bears from 1999 through 2003. Morris will be meeting both Jauron and the Bills for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
The Buccaneers come into Sunday's test hoping to build off a very encouraging performance on the offensive side last week. Tampa Bay piled up an impressive 450 total yards and 26 first downs against the Cowboys and controlled the ball for over 33 1/2 minutes with a run-based approach that produced 174 yards on the ground. Former NFL Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams appeared both healthy and spry in his return from a pair of serious knee injuries that cut short both his 2007 and '08 seasons, as the brittle back put up 97 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Free-agent pickup Derrick Ward added 62 yards and a score on 12 attempts while splitting backfield duties with Williams, while journeyman quarterback Byron Leftwich threw for 276 yards and connected with talented tight end Kellen Winslow (5 receptions last week) on a short touchdown toss late in the game. Enigmatic wideout Michael Clayton also clicked with Leftwich in the loss, with the sixth-year pro compiling 93 yards on five catches. Antonio Bryant, Tampa's usual top threat from the wide receiver spot, is still working his way back to full strength from offseason knee surgery and finished with just two grabs totaling 29 yards. The Bucs did suffer one significant injury in the Dallas game, as sturdy center and offensive line anchor Jeff Faine strained his left triceps and will be sidelined at least a month.
Buffalo employed a soft zone defense for much of Monday's game that helped take away the big-play capability of the Patriots, but Brady was able to routinely find the openings underneath and racked up 378 yards on 39 completions before the night was over. The Bills did get a huge interception out of end Aaron Schobel (2 tackles), one the accomplished pass rusher returned 26 yards for a touchdown to help the club build its early lead. Schobel also had Buffalo's only sack of the evening and displayed no after effects of the lingering foot sprain that limited him to only five games a year ago. Two other key players did get hurt in Monday's loss and will sit out this week's game, however, as valued middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (6 tackles) broke a bone in his left arm and starting end Chris Kelsay (1 tackle) left with a knee bruise. Posluszny's important role as the defensive play- caller will be carried out by Marcus Buggs, an undrafted free agent with just five games of experience to his credit. Buffalo ended last season ranked just 22nd in rushing defense (121.6 ypg), but did hold New England to an average of only 3.2 yards per carry in the opener.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Lynch's three-game penalty for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy hasn't turned out to be a crippling loss so far, as the unheralded Jackson (57 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 TD) stepped right in and accounted for 160 of the Bills' 302 total yards against New England as a two-way threat out of the backfield. Edwards had a solid night as well, as the cerebral Stanford product threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over in leading recently-promoted offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt's no-huddle system. He'd like to get the outstanding wide receiver tandem of the entertaining Terrell Owens (2 receptions) and Lee Evans (3 receptions) more involved this week, though, as the duo recorded a mere 71 yards and five catches in Monday's loss. A rebuilt line that features two rookies and four new starters garnered mixed results in the opener, as the group did a decent job opening holes for Jackson but allowed four sacks.
Owens will likely be licking his chops after witnessing the way his former Dallas teammates abused a Buccaneers secondary that looked slow and confused last Sunday and is without regular free safety Tanard Jackson, who's serving a four-game suspension for failing a drug test in the preseason. Both Jermaine Phillips (6 tackles), shifted from outside linebacker to fill Jackson's spot, and strong safety Sabby Piscitelli (8 tackles) were repeatedly burned for long gains by the Cowboys, while Tampa Bay's only sack of the game came on a blitz from aging cornerback Ronde Barber (2 tackles). The defense, which fields a pair of inexperienced outside linebackers in sophomore Geno Hayes (6 tackles) and third-year pro Quincy Black (5 tackles), also wasn't anything to be reckoned with against the run last week, with Dallas rushing for 119 yards to complement Romo's big day. The standout of the front seven is unsung middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (4 tackles), who amassed a team-best 137 tackles last season and doubles as a strong cover man as well.
Owners of Owens and Evans may have been a bit let down by the combo's rather pedestrian production last week, but a juicy matchup awaits the two highly- skilled receivers and both should be fixtures in fantasy lineups for Week 2. That in turn makes Edwards a reasonable play as a starting quarterback, while Fred Jackson proved himself quite worthy of starter's material with his game against the Patriots. On the Tampa side, Bryant's injury makes last year's breakout performer a risky proposition at the moment, while Clayton's career inconsistency should have his owners proceeding with caution as well. The Bucs are going to run the ball a lot, which limits the already-questionable upside of Leftwich, but neither Williams nor Ward figure to get enough touches to make either back more than a flex option. Tampa Bay's most reliable fantasy source is Winslow, who'll be taking on a Buffalo defense that permitted two touchdown catches to New England tight end Ben Watson last week.
The Bills may have found themselves the perfect remedy for their Monday-night hangover in a haphazard Buccaneers' team that appears a long way from being truly competitive, especially in a hostile environment against an opponent that should be highly motivated to atone for last week's missed opportunity. Tampa Bay will do its best to hang around by controlling the clock with its solid running game, but the Bucs won't score enough or prevent Buffalo's quality skill players from breaking off a number of game-changing plays. Look for Owens to perform his first touchdown celebration in a Bills uniform, and his new team to calm the nerves of a frustrated fan base with a satisfying victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 24, Buccaneers 13
09/17 16:13:36 ET