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Super Bowl XXXVII

Offense: No. 1 vs. emerging force

Tampa Bay's offense looked moribund early. But at 24 points a game in the past 10, the unit is alive and well now.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- You can't blame them for feeling slighted, really. Whenever the Bucs offense tried to stand up for itself at Super Bowl XXXVII this week, players were patted on the heads and told to be quiet.

After all, the main actors in this game are the Bucs' No. 1 defense against the Raiders' No. 1 offense.

The other guys are treated like extras.

"Nobody has talked about our offense all season long, so we're kind of, "whatever,' to us," Brad Johnson said. "I feel like we have a tremendous team. We talk about our team. We don't talk about anything else. Fortunately for us, we have the No. 1 defense in the league. They've had an unbelievable season. Offensively, we improved from the beginning of the season to midpoint. For the last eight games, we averaged 28 points a game. We really improved in our offensive line play. We got a running game going. We started making plays. We started to believe in each other. We got more confident within the system and it has shown."

In both wins this postseason, the Bucs offense took the games over.

Tampa Bay scored four touchdowns in the first half and hung 31 points on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional victory.

Then last week, after falling behind 7-0 in the first two minutes, the Bucs mounted touchdown drives of 96 and 80 yards to demoralize Philadelphia in the conference championship game.

"They're probably taking us as a sidebar, but that's part of having a great defense," receiver Keenan McCardell said. "The offense gets overshadowed, the special teams get overshadowed. You don't let that bother you. If you have an ego about "I want to do this, I want to do that,' it'll get in the way. The guys on offense feel we have to go out and produce, let's go out and be the best we can be. Once we're the best we can be, we know it's going to help our defense out. If we go out and lay an egg, it puts a lot of pressure on those guys.

"Right now, we've got a lot of confidence. We're going to go out and play. Play with the best."

It's understandable that the Bucs offense is regarded so poorly. At the start of the season, when players were struggling with the verbiage of coach Jon Gruden's West Coast system, they were lost.

But in the past nine starts by Johnson at quarterback, Tampa Bay has averaged more than 28 points and 100 yards rushing. Meanwhile, Johnson has thrown 18 touchdowns and been intercepted three times in that stretch.

"We felt no fear in Philly," McCardell said. "We felt we could do what we wanted to do against those guys and that was something we said during the week. We knew it during the week. I think the long drive really capped it off. Not just the field goal, but the long drive for the touchdown really said, okay, it's our time.

"One game it's the offense, one game it's the defense. But a lot of people around America think it's just always the defense in Tampa. We've stepped up. And in this game, we have to step up, too."

Gruden might be familiar with the Raiders offense, but a lot of what he knows about their defense has been learned by watching film. Oakland has changed much of its personnel on that side of the ball since Gruden was traded to Tampa, adding veterans like Rod Woodson, Sam Adams and Bill Romanowski.

"We've got a lot of concerns," Gruden said. "Roderick Coleman is a disruptive pass rusher. John Parella and Sam Adams are big, physical guys that make it very hard to run inside. The speed of this linebacker corps is very impressive. A lot of players weren't with the Raiders when I was. The rookie, Napolean Harris, is a fine football player. Eric Barton has really taken off as a weakside linebacker. They utilize the 3-4 scheme, they play the 4-3 scheme and all those linebackers are featured. A guy like Bill Romanowski brings to the linebacking corps what I believe Jerry Rice brings to the offensive team, which is an impeccable work ethic and attitude which is something you can't put a price on."

Meanwhile, Raiders coach Bill Callahan has a good feel for what Gruden will try to do offensively. And he has some major concerns. Cornerback Charles Woodson is playing with a broken fibula, and in the AFC Championship Game he was penalized three times for interference.

"It's an interesting matchup because as I watch the Tampa Bay Bucs on offense, you see an offense that's efficient," Callahan said. "(One) that's multiple. That creates as many formations and schematic problems for you in terms of your force patterns and the run. And obviously, coverage adjustments in the pass. So knowing Jon and understanding his world and what he's trying to create, there's going to be a lot of different shifts, formations, and personnel groupings."

Gruden loves to create mismatches and the second half turnaround for the offense can be traced to the increased role of receiver Joe Jurevicius.

In big games, the 6-foot-5 free agent has played big. He caught the winning touchdown against Green Bay, caught eight passes for 100 yards and two scores against Atlanta and helped put the Bucs ahead with a 71-yard reception in a 27-10 victory over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

"We have a lot of playmakers," Bucs receiver Karl Williams said. "A lot of people will say the offense isn't going the way it should and they always compare us to our defense. But our defense has been playing together a long time. This is our first year with this offense, our first year playing with a lot of new guys and I think we've done a great job or we wouldn't be here."

But nobody is saying much about the Bucs offense. Which, by the way, suits them just fine.

"Good, let them keep talking about our defense against their offense," McCardell said. "We'll just quietly come in, walk silently with a big stick. And that's what we've been doing all season."

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