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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (0-4) at Philadelphia (2-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There are currently six winless teams in the National Football League, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers happen to be one of them.
Bucs first-year head coach Raheem Morris is off to a rough start, and it doesn't get any easier with another road test this Sunday against the rested Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Tampa Bay has started 0-4 for the third time since 2004 and hasn't lost its first five games of the season since 1996, when the Tony Dungy-led squad went 6-10.
After three weeks of getting blown out, the Buccaneers had a 10-0 lead in Sunday's game against Washington evaporate after they surrendered 16 straight points en route to a heart-breaking 16-13 loss at FedEx Field. Morris hoped a change at quarterback would bear more fruit, but Josh Johnson's first NFL start was spoiled by a breakdown from his team's defense.
Johnson, a second-year player out of the University of San Diego, was 13-of-22 for 106 yards with a touchdown and an interception as a replacement for benched starter Byron Leftwich. The more mobile Johnson was sacked three times, but made plays with his legs to finish with 41 yards on seven scrambles. Perhaps the quarterback shuffle will work out in the end with Johnson's ability to create opportunities.
Tampa Bay leading rusher Cadillac Williams said that being 0-4 "is terrible" after he posted 77 yards on 16 carries against a nearly-as-lowly Redskins team that committed four turnovers and still won. Williams, who is averaging five yards per carry after undergoing offseason knee surgery, and his Tampa teammates have gone through eight straight losses dating back to last season.
Morris' defensive unit made strides on Sunday despite blowing a comfortable lead. The Buccaneers held the Redskins to 277 yards after surrendering 462, 438 and 397 in losses to Dallas, Buffalo and the New York Giants. Tampa Bay stressed how it wanted to start fast and force turnovers, and it did. It also wanted to limit mistakes, which it didn't.
Cornerback Aqib Talib put forth his best effort with three interceptions of Washington quarterback Jason Campbell, but was burned on a 59-yard touchdown by Santana Moss in the third quarter. Talib and the Buccaneers secondary will have their hands full again, with the myriad of weapons Philadelphia has.
The Eagles will welcome the return of Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, who missed two games after suffering a cracked rib in the team's season- opening victory at Carolina. Philadelphia went 1-1 in McNabb's absence, and this past week's bye allowed the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 draft to rest. McNabb was back at practice this week and will start Sunday's third consecutive home game for the Eagles.
Backup quarterback Kevin Kolb threw for more than 300 yards in his two starts and did a fine job in Week 3 versus Kansas City, recording 327 yards passing and two touchdowns in the 34-14 triumph. Kolb threw for a career-high 391 yards with two scoring passes and three costly interceptions during the Eagles' previous matchup with New Orleans.
No matter who throws the football, the Bucs have to be aware of Eagles second- year wideout DeSean Jackson. The explosive Jackson is a deep threat and can also hurt teams across the middle and on special teams. Jackson's matchup with Talib will be an exciting one.
Eagles running back Brian Westbrook was also back at practice this week after missing the Kansas City game with an ankle problem and will start as well. The oft-injured Westbrook is a valuable piece to the offense and has a chance to rebound in a strong way against a shaky Tampa defense. Rookie running back LeSean McCoy showed bright signs of the future as Westbrook's replacement, running for 84 yards and a touchdown on 20 touches against Kansas City.
All eyes will also once again be on Eagles third-string quarterback Michael Vick, whose contributions this season have been limited. Often used as a decoy and in the Wildcat formation in his return to action in the Kansas City game, the Eagles hope he will keep defenses wary of what head coach Andy Reid has up his sleeve.
Since Reid took over for Ray Rhodes as head coach in 1999, the Eagles have been unbeatable after the bye, going 10-0 in games directly following the team's off week.
The all-time regular season series between the Buccaneers and Eagles is knotted, 5-5, with Tampa Bay evening the series by virtue of a thrilling 23-21 home victory when the teams last met, during the 2006 season. Kicker Matt Bryant hit a 60-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Bucs to the victory. Tampa Bay also won in its most recent trip to Philadelphia, opening Lincoln Financial Field with a 17-0 win to open the 2003 season. Philly's most recent regular season win in the series was a 20-10 victory at Veterans Stadium in Week 7 of the 2002 campaign.
The teams also have an extensive postseason history together, having split four all-time playoff contests. The Eagles and Bucs met in the playoffs each season between 2000 and 2002, with Philly winning NFC First-Round Playoff games at home in 2000 (21-3) and 2001 (31-9) and the Bucs coming into the Vet and winning the 2002 NFC Championship (27-10). Tampa Bay also defeated Philadelphia in a 1979 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Reid is 4-4 all-time against Tampa Bay, while Morris will be meeting both Reid and Philadelphia for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Johnson (142 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) probably thought he had a win in the bag by halftime of Sunday's loss in Washington. He still had a decent starting debut and proved to his head coach that he can make plays with both his arm and legs. With Leftwich unable to escape the pocket with ease, Johnson gives the Bucs a better chance at making something happen when a play breaks down. Tampa Bay doesn't have notable wide receivers in Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant, with Clayton recording no catches against the Redskins. Bryant exploded on the scene a year ago and had his best game of the 2009 campaign last week, as he ended with 44 yards and a touchdown on four receptions. Clayton, a former first-round pick, has two catches over the last two weeks after posting five for 93 yards in a Week 1 loss versus Dallas. Bryant continues to work through the lingering effects of his August knee surgery, while Clayton is battling sore ribs. The offensive line needs to give Johnson more protection and time to find his open targets, as he was sacked three times last Sunday. Tight end Kellen Winslow (17 receptions, 2 TD) leads the Bucs in receptions and receiving yards (155). Tampa Bay went 2-for-13 on third down against Washington and is 17th in passing this season, averaging 221.8 yards through the air.
The Eagles tightened up their secondary in the win over the Chiefs, one week after Drew Brees and the Saints left town with a big day passing. Kansas City's Matt Cassel managed to throw for a pair of touchdowns, but one of them came when the game was already out of hand. Cassel had just 90 yards through the air, while Brees was able to pick apart defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's defensive backfield for 311 yards and three scores. Philadelphia, which is second in pass defense so far this season, didn't post an interception versus Kansas City, but did finish with six passes defensed. Top cornerbacks Asante Samuel (10 tackles, 1 INT) and Sheldon Brown (9 tackles, 2 INT) must not let Clayton and Bryant hurt them deep, or it will be a long day in the City of Brotherly Love. Hard-hitting safeties Quintin Mikell (21 tackles) and Macho Harris (9 tackles) are the last line of defense in case the Bucs try to air it out. Mikell leads the team in tackles, while the rookie Harris is still getting adjusted.
Williams (191 rushing yards, 1 TD) is on a mission after knee surgery in the offseason and leads the Buccaneers in rushing yards and attempts (38). After totaling 17 yards on nine carries the previous two weeks, Williams broke out for 77 yards on 16 touches last weekend and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season. He could have center Jeff Faine back on the line to help block, although a triceps injury may keep the valued lineman out for more time. Sean Mahan has filled in admirably for Faine, as the Bucs rank 23rd in the NFL in rushing with 97.0 yards per game. Williams, who is second on the team in receptions with 12, may have his playing time cut short with Derrick Ward (96 rushing yards, 1 TD) returning from a knee injury that kept him out of the Washington game. Earnest Graham (25 yards) was back in action last week and had a season-high five carries for eight yards. If the pocket breaks down, Johnson will be forced to beat Philadelphia's 15th-ranked run defense with his legs. The Eagles are allowing 106.0 rushing yards a game.
Philadelphia defensive tackles Brodrick Bunkley (8 tackles) and Mike Patterson (8 tackles, 0.5 sacks) have to be drooling over their opportunity at getting to Bucs' inexperienced quarterback Johnson. In order to do that, the two tackles must collapse the pocket and apply pressure to force turnovers. Defensive end Trent Cole (15 tackles, 2.5 sacks) plays at a high level and has registered at least a half-sack in every game this season. Cole's explosiveness off the edge will create problems for the Tampa Bay line, while Juqua Parker (7 tackles, 2 sacks) and Darren Howard (7 tackles, 2 sacks) are a part of a healthy rotation at defensive end. The Eagles brought back a familiar face to play middle linebacker, as Jeremiah Trotter inked a one-year deal during the bye to add depth and help the younger linebackers. Trotter is a fierce competitor and knows what it takes to get this defense to play at its best. Outside linebacker Akeem Jordan (18 tackles, sack, 2 INT) is enjoying a strong season so far playing alongside Omar Gaither (18 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Chris Gocong (7 tackles). Gaither will share time with Trotter in the middle.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Kolb (741 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INT) said he enjoyed being the No. 1 quarterback, but will resume his backup duties this week. He gained valuable experience and confidence as a starter and became the first player in NFL history to surpass 300 yards passing in his first two career starts. McNabb (79 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) hasn't seen action since going down with a broken rib in Week 1 at Carolina, but his teammates said he's been looking good in his rehab process. The strong-armed signal-caller must get his timing back to keep up with Philly's seventh-ranked passing offense (264.3 ypg). Jackson (12 receptions, 259 yards, 2 TD) has been a huge reason for the Eagles' scoring success in scoring, as the team sits second in the NFL behind the Saints with an average 31.3 points per game. Tight end Brent Celek (22 receptions, 245 yards, 2 TD) has continued his hot play from the 2008 postseason and is another target Tampa Bay must keep an eye on. Celek is aiming for his third straight 100-yard game. Wideout Kevin Curtis (5 receptions) was back at practice after a knee injury forced him to miss Week 3.
Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell is struggling this season, but managed to beat the Bucs with 170 yards and two second-half touchdown strikes, although he did throw three interceptions to Talib. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates must have scratched a few hairs off of his head after that performance. Bates' unit did produce four takeaways last Sunday after having just two through the first three weeks. The Buccaneers are 17th against the pass this season, but did look better in coverage last Sunday than in previous weeks, and must take Jackson out of his game. Talib (17 tackles, 3 INT) is coming off a hot week and joined teammate Ronde Barber as the only two players in team history to intercept three passes in a single game. Cornerback Elbert Mack (4 tackles) made his first career start when the Bucs used a nickel package against Washington's three-receiver package. The Bucs made some moves in the secondary during the week, releasing defensive back Marcus Hamilton to open a roster spot for safety Tanard Jackson, who is returning from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy. Will Allen (15 tackles) has started the last two games at free safety, while Jermaine Phillips opened the 2009 campaign in that position before a thumb injury ended his season.
With Westbrook's return on the horizon, the Eagles can breathe a sigh of relief now that one of their top weapons is at full strength. Westbrook (116 rushing yards) has thrived in this West Coast offense and keeps defenses on their heels every time he's on the field. Westbrook also has great hands out of the backfield and has caught six passes for 22 yards and a score this season. McCoy (148 rushing yards, TD) had his most productive day as a pro against the Chiefs, but his time will decrease now that Westbrook seems ready to return. Philadelphia is 12th in rushing this season, averaging 119.0 yards per game, and will look to dissect the Bucs' 30th-ranked rushing defense. With all the injuries and dramatics the Eagles' offensive line has endured this season, they appear to be leaning towards running the ball more often. Vick (7 rushing yards) has ran the ball just once this season, and so far the experiment has produced little results. Vick is still a dangerous player in the open field, however, and may have a bigger role this week versus the winless Bucs.
Tampa defensive ends Jimmy Wilkerson (14 tackles, 2 sacks) and Gaines Adams (10 tackles, 1 INT) each had a sack in Washington, and hope to do the same to whoever's playing under center for the Eagles. The Bucs don't have a threatening pass rush and have their linebackers do most of the work on the gridiron. Leading tackler and starting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (40 tackles) finished with a team-high nine stops last week and will have his eyes on the Philadelphia backfield all afternoon. Defensive tackles Ryan Sims (11 tackles) and Chris Hovan (9 tackles) will be hoping to plug the middle this weekend. Weakside linebacker Geno Hayes (28 tackles) and strongside starter Quincy Black (25 tackles, 1 sack) could be in trouble if they are matched up with either Westbrook or McCoy coming out of the backfield.
The Eagles have several fantasy-worthy players this week, and it starts with the dynamic DeSean Jackson, who can hurt defenses catching passes as well as making an impact on special teams. Celek is emerging as a go-to tight end, while Westbrook and McCoy are safe picks for this week. Give kicker David Akers a shot too, since the Eagles are expected to put up at least 20 points. Tampa Bay doesn't have many options for fantasy owners, but it still has the running back trio of Williams, Graham and Ward. Take your pick with either Winslow, Bryant and Clayton if a typical starter has a bye week. Forget about using kicker Mike Nugent, because he was released after missing two field goals against the Redskins that would have given the Bucs a win. Shane Andrus is expected to do the placekicking for Tampa Bay.
History has shown that Reid and the Eagles are perfect the week following a bye. All good things must come to an end at some point, but unfortunately for Morris and the Bucs, their losing ways will continue Sunday in the City of Brotherly Love. With McNabb slated to make his return after a few weeks off because of a broken rib and Westbrook on the mend after an ankle ailment, expect the Eagles to be running on all cylinders to keep pace in the NFC East. Vick will also play a big role running or throwing the football and will try not to skew the rhythm of the offense. He admitted earlier this season that he wants to throw the football more, but understands that won't happen too often playing behind McNabb, who is 0-4 lifetime against Tampa Bay. McDermott has been doing a fine job for the late Jim Johnson as defensive coordinator and will have something special for Tampa Bay's young quarterback. Morris' squad isn't going to roll over for the Eagles, so expect a strong effort early from the Buccaneers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Buccaneers 14
10/08 17:45:56 ET