By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 27, 2001
TAMPA -- Thirteen days and the Gulf of Mexico separate the Bucs from their season opener Sept. 9 at Dallas.
Coach Tony Dungy will try to convince you his team is further away than that.
"We're still a ways away from being where we need to be," Dungy said Monday after reviewing the Bucs' 20-3 preseason win over New England. "We're definitely not a championship team by any stretch of the imagination yet, but we're coming.
"I've been with (Vikings coach) Denny (Green) for so long. And those guys, you watch them, they're very sharp. They come out and they do what they do very well. We're not at that point yet. Even on defense, we're not quite all cylinders all the time. That's what I like to see. I don't like to see the penalties and mistakes."
The first round of cuts will come today as the Bucs reduce their roster from 83 to the league-mandated limit of 65 by 4 p.m. Tuesday. That figure does not include exemptions for some NFL Europe players.
"We got a chance to look at some young guys. We've got some decisions to make rosterwise," Dungy said. "So the game helped us in that regard, but we still have a ways to go.
"You try to put people in situations and see things. Some people excel and come on, some people don't do as well. It's never one play or one night that does it, but a lot of times the game confirms what you've seen in practice."
The Bucs looked better Saturday. Quarterback Brad Johnson led Tampa Bay to the end zone for the first time with touchdown passes to Aaron Stecker and Jacquez Green.
And tailback Warrick Dunn set a club preseason record with 115 yards on 12 carries, including gains of 35 and 56 yards.
"We did some better things, especially on offense," Dungy said. "We're starting to get better tempo. And the more our first unit played, I thought the better we got."
The Bucs defense appeared in midseason form with five sacks while allowing 83 yards, including a net zero in the second half.
"Defensively, I think after maybe the first series of the Miami game we've played pretty well and we've played pretty consistent all the way through," Dungy said. "Yesterday was much more of the same. From about the middle of the first quarter on, it was really crisp and I thought our second group came in and played really well the second half. To hold them to zero yards, that's hard to do."
Johnson, who struggled in the first two preseason games, benefited from Dunn's strong rushing attack. Dunn's long runs enabled the Bucs to get more man-to-man coverage, which translated to big pass plays.
"That's kind of what happened early on," Dungy said. "We had some success running, we got a little more strong safety up as the game went on and we were able to hit some passes and throw the ball. It's got to be a balance. You've got to be able to do everything."
Dungy said Dunn is becoming more comfortable with blocking schemes that emphasize running outside the tackles and utilizing his open-field abilities.
"I think we've got an offensive line in place and we've had the attack in place for a year and a half," Dungy said. "It's going to help him. We've got some wide running plays and some ways to get him in the open field. When we're able to do that, he's going to make big plays."
The Bucs conclude the preseason Friday at Atlanta, but the first-team offense and defense are expected to play little.
"Defensively we've got to keep our momentum going and keep playing the way we're playing hard and control our run gaps," Dungy said. "We're starting to come defensively. Offensively we've got to continue to build. We made some big plays last night, but we've got to consistently build on. I think our running game has gotten better each week. Throwing the ball, I think we've got to cut down on the drops and cut down on the penalties. Special teams-wise, we're actually kicking the ball pretty well. Our young returners are struggling, but that's something we can correct easily if we go to the veteran guys."