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Archive for Sunday, January 19, 2003

NFC championship: Tampa Bay at Philadelphia

January 19, 2003

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WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

This is where Tampa Bay has had problems at Veterans Stadium, with no offensive touchdowns in three consecutive losses. The offense has come on lately as long as Brad Johnson (14) has been at quarterback, although it still ranked 24th in yardage in a 32-team league.

Johnson was sacked six times when the teams played Oct. 20, a 20-10 Philadelphia win in which the Bucs' only TD came on a fumble return by linebacker Derrick Brooks (55). The Tampa Bay offensive line has improved since then. Left tackle Roman Oben (72) held down Hugh Douglas (53), the Eagles' Pro Bowl defensive end, in the first game, but the relatively immobile Johnson had trouble escaping the blitz. LB Carlos Emmons (51) got to him twice.

The main problem for Tampa Bay could be against the secondary. Three of the Eagles' four starters are Pro Bowlers: cornerbacks Troy Vincent (23) and Bobby Taylor (21), and free safety Brian Dawkins (20). The fourth DB, strong safety Blaine Bishop (24), is a savvy 10-year veteran.

The receivers, on the other hand, are big but lack separation speed. The best (and loudest) is 6-foot-4 Keyshawn Johnson (19), with 6-1 Keenan McCardell (87) and 6-5 Joe Jurevicius (83) the other tall targets. The tight ends, Ken Dilger (85) and Rickey Dudley (88), could play major roles, especially Dudley, a talented receiver whose career has been hampered by drops.

Tampa Bay's running game lacks speed with the departure of Warrick Dunn as a free agent. Mike Alstott (40) is a Pro Bowl fullback, but he is really a tailback, often used in a single-back set. Alstott remains one of the NFL's better power runners. He's rarely on the field at the same time as Michael Pittman (32), who replaced Dunn, but averaged just 3.5 yards a carry in leading the team with 718 yards rushing. He often runs behind FB Jameel Cook (43).

End Brandon Whiting (98), tackles Corey Simon (90) and Darwin Walker (97), and 300-pound middle linebacker Levon Kirkland (93) are solid run-stoppers and decent pass rushers. N.D. Kalu (94) is one of the NFL's better pass-rushing specialists. LB Shawn Barber (56) is an underrated defender against the run and as a blitzer.

One thing to watch: Alstott has a tendency to fumble.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

Quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) will be making his second start since missing eight weeks with a broken right ankle. He ran for 19 yards on his second play against Atlanta last week, demonstrating his mobility, but he probably will have less scrambling luck against the NFL's best and one of its quickest defenses.

Tackle Warren Sapp (99) is the anchor of that unit, but end Simeon Rice (97) led the NFC in sacks with 151¼2. Brooks was voted the league's defensive player of the year and scored four touchdowns, including the only TD against the Eagles on a fumble return. Strong safety John Lynch (47) is another perennial Pro Bowler and is like a fourth linebacker against the run.

Even so, teams that have beaten the Bucs have run on them, especially with Sapp's inside partner, Anthony McFarland, hurt for most of the season. Chartric Darby (91), a second-year undrafted free agent, has replaced him. Duce Staley (22) ran for 152 yards against the Bucs in the first meeting and had 1,029 for the season after being limited by injuries for two years.

Staley, Dorsey Levens (25) and rookie Brian Westbrook (36) are good receivers, and Westbrook provides outside speed when the Eagles need it.

James Thrash (80) is the main deep threat, and Todd Pinkston (87) leads the team with 60 catches. Veteran Antonio Freeman (86) and tight end Chad Lewis (89) are solid possession receivers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell (30) holds most of the NFL's career return records and is one of the top special-teamers ever. At 34, he's lost little. He'll return both punts and kickoffs, although Westbrook and Levens have limited his service as a third-down back. Karl Williams (86) handles punt return duties for Tampa Bay, and Aaron Stecker (27) is the kickoff returner. Both are good, but not in Mitchell's class.

The Eagles have two left-footed kickers: 41-year-old punter Lee Johnson (6) and David Akers (2), the NFC Pro Bowl placekicker.

Tampa Bay has another veteran punter, Tom Tupa (9), who was once a starting quarterback for Cleveland and provides a good arm if the Bucs decide to fake. Kicker Martin Gramatica (7) has a lot of range, going 5-for-6 from 50 yards or more.

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