1. You might see a few passes thrown at Invesco Field. Not only will this game feature two of the most pass-happy teams of the decade, but each quarterback will be facing a seemingly susceptible secondary. (Tampa ranks 21st against the pass and Denver is 31st, but I'll explain later how the latter figure may be misleading.) Expect the two game plans to look something like this: Pass on first down; pass on second down; pass on third down; repeat.
The Buccaneers, led by Brian Griese, are throwing the ball 42.3 times per game, the most of any team since 2000. (And those numbers include opener in which then starter Jeff Garcia, threw just 25 passes; he's since been benched.) The Broncos are throwing 39.5 times per game, sixth-most of any club since 2000.
So, we've got two passing teams and two exploitable secondaries. You have to think the quarterback who makes the fewest mistakes leads his team to victory, and I see Jay Cutler being that guy. Why? Here's the difference between the two: Griese gets the Bucs into trouble by making unforced errors; when Cutler gets burned, more often than not he's attempting some sort of Favrian heroics -- cramming a ball into a spot it shouldn't be, or throwing cross-field off of his back foot. Two plays in particular from last week's game at Kansas City demonstrate Cutler's brazenness:
• In the second quarter, facing second-and-eight from the Chiefs' 16, Cutler hit Brandon Marshall for a touchdown that floated just over the outstretched arms of two Kansas City defenders. Cutler saw the two DBs, neither of whom was more than two yards off Marshall, and he still made the throw, knowing that anything other than a perfectly placed ball would likely result in a pick. That's the type of confidence (cockiness?) Cutler has.
• One quarter later, Cutler tried something similar and got burned. From his own 40, he tried to squeeze a pass to Eddie Royal, who sat shallow over the middle, just beyond Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. There's little doubt in my mind that Cutler saw Johnson; he probably thought that with enough zip he could force the ball through. Johnson proved him wrong -- he picked it off -- but the play resembled something that worked twice against San Diego in a game-winning drive two weeks earlier. You win some; you lose some. Cutler's mistakes are more often than not excusable. Less so with Griese.
2. This marks the second stop on the Brian Griese Payback Tour. The veteran quarterback has played for the Broncos, Dolphins and Bears, in addition to a previous stint in Tampa. Remarkably, Sunday will be just the second time in his 11 seasons that he's faced a former team. It's hard to imagine he's not geared up for it.
In Week 3 Griese went absolutely wild on the Bears, who inexplicably traded him to Tampa Bay for an undisclosed 2009 draft pick in the off-season despite their dire quarterback situation. In that game, Griese set personal career bests in attempts (67), completions (38) and yards (407) while leading the Bucs to a 27-24 overtime win at Soldier Field -- and he did it in the face of serious pressure for three quarters. (Chicago pretty much rolled over in the fourth and OT.) Watching that game, you couldn't help but imagine Lovie Smith on the Chicago sideline, muttering, "Where the %@#! did that come from, Brian?"
Afterward, Griese talked straight. "I can't lie to you guys," he told reporters. "The game meant a lot to me, personally, coming back." Makes sense. If I were sent packing in favor of Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, I'd have some lingering issues, too.
Well, it's two weeks later, and now he gets Denver. The Broncos fooled around with Griese from 1998 to 2002, then dumped him for the admittedly sexier (at least in the football sense) Jake Plummer. Think Griese's got more revenge on the mind?
3. This may be the week we find out exactly how bad Denver's defense is. But, you say, didn't we already learn that last week against Kansas City? Cut the Broncos D some slack. As pathetic as that 33-19 loss to the Chiefs was, Denver's defense -- which admittedly had allowed 117 points through three games, second most in the league behind the Rams' abysmal 147 -- didn't exactly roll over. The offense was far more to blame for the loss, turning the ball over four times in its own territory. Ten of the Chiefs' first 13 points came off Denver fumbles, one of which put Kansas City on the Broncos' two-yard-line. Denver never recovered the lead, so the defense didn't anything to hold on to. Furthermore, the Broncos D limited the Chiefs to three or fewer plays on six separate drives.
So how bad is Denver's defense, really? Clearly the Broncos have an undersized front four, and that's trouble. So far they remind me of the 2007 Bears, who overloaded on pass rushers (Darwin Walker, Mark Anderson) at the expense of run-stoppers. Last week it showed: On the second play of the game, when legs are still supposed to be fresh, Kansas City's offensive line blew the Broncos defenders at least three yards off the ball, sprunging Larry Johnson for a 65-yard run, the longest of his six-year career.
The key to playing Denver is this: Keep yourself in a position in which you can afford to run the ball late in the game. Kansas City was the first team this year to rush more than 18 times against the Broncos, and the results were devastating: 213 yards on the ground (no previous Denver opponent had topped 100), two touchdowns and the Broncos' first loss of 2008.
More often than not, though, Denver's offense puts up plenty of points by the second quarter, forcing opponents to turn to the air to catch up. And despite what the numbers say, the Broncos still have some able bodies in the secondary. Pass, pass, pass for three quarters and you're bound to rack up some yards.
Here's what all that means for the Bucs: They have to start with a heavy dose of Earnest Graham, and stick with him. If the Bucs can get in a position to hand the ball to Graham in the fourth quarter, watch out, because this guy only gets stronger as the game progresses. Here's Graham's carry-by-carry breakdown: On his first five rushing attempts of the game this year, he's averaging 2.9 yards per carry. On attempts sixth through 10, he's good for 5.7. Touches 11 to 15: 9.1. And on 16 to 20: 11 yards per carry. That, my friends, is how you close out the Broncos.
4. If you have it in you to focus on a left tackle for one entire game, make this the week. I spent some time last week watching footage of Ryan Clady, the left tackle whom Denver took with the 12th pick last April, and I was impressed. He has proved to be perfectly capable as both a run and pass blocker, which has gone miles toward hastening a young offensive line's maturity.
Looking back at the draft, Denver never had a chance at Jake Long, and maybe it's for the better. Clady has been a more capable pass blocker as a rookie, and as I point out in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, Denver is averaging an impressive 6.16 yards per carry when they run to his side.
Of the five other tackles drafted in the first round, only Carolina's Jeff Otah, Atlanta's Sam Baker and Houston's Duane Brown have started more than one game -- but their respective quarterbacks have been sacked a total of 24 times. Jay Cutler has been sacked just twice, the fewest among four-game starters, and neither sack came from Clady's side.
Of the 40 or so pass plays Denver will run on Sunday, try to spend at least 10 watching Clady. Pay extra-close attention to his quick feet, as well as to the way he extends and uses his arms.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2007 Bucs opponent had to say about game-planning the traditionally tough Tampa Bay defense:
"Derrick Brooks is still a good player, but he was better when he was younger. He's been around for a long time. Putting a back or a tight end against him in pass coverage is not a really good matchup for the Bucs. Father Time takes it out of you.
"They sit on routes. They recognize routes well. They're pretty much going to play zone and they make you beat them underneath. You've got to throw underneath against them -- that's the bottom line."
ANALYSIS: The numbers on tight ends don't necessarily back up our scout. Of the four starting tight ends Tampa has faced, only Jeremy Shockey has managed even 54 yards, and none has scored. But Denver's Tony Scheffler, who already has two touchdowns, might be a good man to test the theory. Further, rookie Eddie Royal seems the perfect possession receiver to test those underneath routes against Tampa.
On paper, this is one of the greatest shootouts in recent memory. In reality, I think Jon Gruden sees the opportunity to work Graham hard, control the clock and keep the ball out of Cutler's hands. As long as the Bucs don't provide Denver with scoring chances through turnovers, they stick around and finish off the Broncos with a 100-yard rushing fourth quarter. Bucs in a nail-biter, 28-24.