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Bucs struggle early, quickly get better

By JOANNE KORTH
Published December 10, 2003

The Bucs have the first-quarter blues.

Through 13 games, Tampa Bay has scored 24 points in the opening quarter - total. Three touchdowns, one field goal. Ten times, the defending world champions have been shut out during the first 15 minutes, including the past seven games.

"We try to score every time we get the ball," said coach Jon Gruden, who calls the plays. "Every play we have is designed to score. Unfortunately, we have not been able to get started fast."

Productivity picks up when the Bucs change ends. The second quarter is their most productive with 92 points. Only two teams, Carolina twice and New Orleans once, have held the Bucs scoreless in the second.

The Bucs have 54 points in the third, 74 in the fourth.

Gruden accepts a share of the responsibility for the first-quarter failures. The coach scripts the first 15 offensive plays the night before each game, though the plan is subject to change depending upon field position.

"I've installed 15 plays all over the world - Tokyo, Japan; Philadelphia; Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans - that have been, for the most part, not good," Gruden said. "But we're working hard to score. To do that, we need to execute better, and the play caller, which is me, needs to do a better job also."

MAKING NOISE: Receiver Keenan McCardell needs 10 yards for his fifth 1,000-yard season of his 12-year career. His seven receiving touchdowns are the most of his career.

And the Bucs are 6-7.

"That's probably the worst feeling a player could have. You play fantastic, but you still lose," said McCardell, who has eight touchdowns total, all in Bucs losses. "At the end of the day, you want wins."

In his second season with the Bucs, more is up than McCardell's production. He also is a more vocal leader.

"Last year, I was the new guy here and really didn't say much," said McCardell, a Jaguar for six seasons before signing with the Bucs. "In Jacksonville, I really was a vocal leader. I guess I've gone back to my old self. This offseason, I made a promise to myself to just be myself and just play the way I played my whole career." INTRODUCING ...: Edell Shepherd's 28-yard reception to the New Orleans 3 during the third quarter Sunday was negated by a penalty, but he caught the eye of Gruden. Shepherd, a rookie from San Jose State, was activated from the Bucs' practice squad Saturday and made his debut Sunday.

"He is an obscure person. Not a lot of people in the media knew who he was," Gruden said. "They were feverishly going over their sideline sheets to see where he's from. He made a nice catch. He makes nice plays on our practice field."

PERSONNEL MOVES: The team signed defensive end Corey Smith and linebacker Justin Smith to the practice squad Tuesday after releasing running back Earnest Graham. Corey Smith played in five games for the Bucs last season.

INJURY REPORT: Defensive tackle Warren Sapp (foot) is questionable. Fullback Darian Barnes (ankle), tight end Ken Dilger (hip), safety David Gibson (ankle), safety John Lynch (shoulder) and defensive end Simeon Rice (elbow) are probable.

[Last modified December 10, 2003, 01:34:25]

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