Let me tell you a story about the 1996 Indianapolis Colts.
Back in the pre-Peyton Manning era, the Colts actually did make the playoffs on occasion. That season the Colts lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card playoffs. That was a minor miracle.
You see, the injury bug bit that Colts backfield hard. Marshall Faulk, who was coming off a 1,000-yard season, rushed for only 587 yards. Lamont Warren rushed for 230 yards. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh — not known for his running ability — was the third-leading rusher with 192 yards.
The Colts were, at times, down to their third running back and third fullback, according to Zack Crockett, who rushed for 164 yards on that team.
In all, that Colts team had 19 starters miss 78 games.
And they made the playoffs.
So the Colts can serve as inspiration to a Buccaneers team that, quite frankly, has dealt with more running back injuries than any team has a right to have to handle.
These three guys represent — are you ready for this — 86.4 percent of the Buccaneers' rushing yardage dating from the start of the 2005 season through last week.
Earnest Graham, the third-string back, will start. Kenneth Darby, the rookie everyone loved in training camp but was cut, is his backup. Crockett was signed Wednesday to join B.J. Askew as a fullback.
What, Errict Rhett wasn't available?
Sunday's game against Tennessee represents a critical stretch for the Buccaneers, in that all four of these contests are winnable games — certainly more winnable than last week. None of them are world-beaters. Some of them — like Arizona — appear to be in as much disarray as the Bucs at a key position (quarterback).
Tampa Bay is as likely to go 3-1 and take a 6-3 record into their bye week in November — a record that would make them hard to catch in the increasingly lame NFC South — as they are to go 1-3 and allow the rest of the division back into this race.
So — which Bucs team will show up? Will Graham be able to tote the rock full-time? Will the running game be effective again? Can the Bucs slow down Vince Young?
These are all very interesting questions.
The Tennessee defense is a beast of a unit. In fact, it's speed and pursuit is eerily reminiscent of a Bucs defense in its prime. Tackle Albert Haynesworth is the trigger, much like Warren Sapp was in his time in Tampa Bay. I found Haynesworth to be the most explosive tackle I've seen this season when I watched him last week. He's headed for a Pro Bowl if he keeps this up.
The ends — Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom — should be feared. Linebacker Keith Bulluck is having a Pro Bowl-type year and new cornerback Cortland Finnegan has impressed plenty of people, including Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.
Jeff Fisher is a master defensive tactician. He was a student of Buddy Ryan in Chicago and still adheres to many of the same principles Ryan espoused — ball pursuit, violent collisions and pressure up front.
Judging from what I saw last week, the Titans can bring pressure inside and outside, making them difficult for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden to scheme against offensively. Oddly, the Falcons ran well on the Titans early in the game, but found the sledding much tougher in the second half. The Titans can bang up an offensive line pretty quick. They sent Falcons tackle Todd Weiner to the shelf last Sunday.
All that pressure ferments in a way the Bucs are used to on defense. Because they defend the run so well — the Titans allow about 74 rushing yards per game — they're able to create second-and-long and third-and-long situations. Then, their combination of a fine pass rush (eight sacks and 41 pressures through four games) and opportunistic linebackers and safeties (seven interceptions) smother receivers and passing lanes. They're the league's 10th-best pass defense, plus they're tied for fifth in the NFL in points allowed.
So how does an offense combat that? First, the Bucs must run the football any way they can. Their offensive front is young, but good enough to create holes and control the line of scrimmage. They've done so in three of their last four games. Tennessee's defensive line may be as tough, if not tougher, than Indianapolis', so they'll have to be more physical than they were last week. Expect the run offense to gain little yardage early, but the Bucs should stick with it. When they do, the lanes tend to open up in the second half. Also expect Zack Crockett and B.J. Askew to see a few carries this week to give starter Earnest Graham a chance to rest, and to change the pace of the game. Don't expect Graham to have a special week, either. His performance will be serviceable. If he averages 3 yards per carry and doesn't fumble, be happy.
Jeff Garcia will throw more early in an attempt to stretch out the Titans defense and help the run game. The secondary isn't as hawkish in pass coverage as the Titans' linebackers are this season. Expect Garcia and Gruden to try and pick on Finnegan, a second-year corner, and Calvin Lowry, a second-year free safety. They're the youngest in the rotation. Finnegan had a fine game against Atlanta, but he may find himself covering Joey Galloway at times on Sunday, and I like Galloway's craftiness in that head-to-head battle. Garcia will work the middles and flats early, mainly because I think that's what Tennessee will give them, and that will open up longer routes later in the game.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on offense (we'll get out the scorecard on Monday):
1. The Buccaneers will rush for 90 to 100 yards on Sunday, thanks to a stout Titans run defense led by Albert Haynesworth. Earnest Graham will lead with about 50 yards on 18 carries.
2. Jeff Garcia will go a sixth straight game without throwing an interception, even though the Titans defense averages more than an interception a game this season.
3. Left tackle Donald Penn will take a step back in pass protection, as Titans end Kyle Vanden Bosch will take advantage of Penn, who might still be amped up after blocking Dwight Freeney last week. Vanden Bosch will have a sack and three pressures.
4. The Buccaneers will find a way to break big plays in the passing game, most notably to Joey Galloway, who will have a reception of 40 yards or more for the first time in three weeks.
5. Alex Smith will continue to get key looks in the red zone, as he'll catch his third touchdown pass of the season.
I expect the Buccaneers defense to bounce back this week. The Titans offense is not nearly as explosive as the Colts. In fact, that offense consists of quarterback Vince Young and a lot of spare parts.
The running game is ranked fourth in the NFL right now, but I think that's an aberration. First, Young inflates that figure with his running ability. Second, the backs — Chris Brown and LenDale White — are unimpressive. I don't see much life in White's legs, nor the talent that led some scouts to say that he was a better prospect than Reggie Bush coming out of college. White's rushing totals have dropped every week so far, from 66 in Week 1 to 32 last week. As for Brown, aside from his huge opening game — 175 yards against Jacksonville — he hasn't done much. He gained only 27 yards last week against Atlanta. This offensive line, while anchored by veteran center Kevin Mawae and guard Benji Olson, is pretty inexperienced. That's part of the reason the holes have been so sporadic for Brown and White.
So there's plenty for the Bucs to exploit there. I think they'll get better penetration this week — particularly on the left side of the Titans' line — and collapse running lanes and the pocket. This could be a big day for right ends Patrick Chukwurah and Gaines Adams, because I don't think left tackle Michael Roos and left guard Jacob Bell are quick enough to keep up.
So, without a consistent running game, the Titans will be forced to pass. Now, the Titans are probably a better passing team than their No. 30 ranking indicates. But until last week they ran the ball very well, so Young didn't need to throw as much.
He'll need to on Sunday. The Bucs are going to shut down the run and force Young to win the game with his arm. He has the ability — he's a 62 percent passer this season — but he's also prone to mistakes. He threw three interceptions last week, and I broke down all three plays. All of them were mistakes by Young, even though head coach Jeff Fisher said other factors led to two of them.
This will be only his 18th NFL start. Since the Bucs are mixing defensive fronts now — they used a 3-4 at times against the Colts — they can further confuse Young. Now, they don't have the pass rush they should to pressure Young, so there will be blitzing on Sunday. But there won't be as much because I believe defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will be using some linebackers and safeties to cut off outside rushing lanes in case Young runs with the football.
I'm not terribly impressed with the receivers. Brandon Jones may not play, which would elevate rookie Chris Davis to the starting lineup. Eric Moulds is a savvy veteran, but he's the only one of that ilk in this group. Roydell Williams is young, and tight end Bo Scaife is young but has good hands. Young doesn't have the weapons yet, and I think the Buccaneers secondary is capable of covering them up.
Now, this young offensive group may be gangbusters in a couple of years. But, right now, this group will be prone to fits of inconsistency, and those can be aggravated by a defense playing as well as Tampa Bay right now.
Here are my fearless predictions for Sunday's game on defense:
1. The Buccaneers will goad Vince Young into two interceptions on Sunday, one of which will lead to a score.
2. Rookie end Gaines Adams will record his first sack of the year, as he has the speed to track down Young and has a favorable matchup in an inexperienced left tackle for the Titans.
3. Tampa Bay will hold the Titans to less than 100 yards rushing.
4. Tanard Jackson will have another big hit on Sunday, likely on one of Tennessee's young receivers.
5. The Bucs will not allow Vince Young a run of more than 15 yards, limiting his effectiveness.
This has the potential to be a low-scoring game because both defenses are playing at a high level. Yardage and first downs will be hard to come by for both teams. If I have to be pinned down, I think the Titans offense is a little weaker than Tampa Bay's, even though Tampa Bay is down to its third-string running back. I watched the Titans-Falcons game twice and I saw Vince Young make big mistakes on those three interceptions (though coach Jeff Fisher covered for him on two of them). Young runs the offense well, though. Take him out of the equation and the Titans' rushing game is pretty weak, if you ask me. LenDale White and Chris Brown have done little to impress me, and that's where the Titans are weakest. If the Bucs defense can perform against the run the way they did against New Orleans in the home opener, then they'll make Tennessee one-dimensional and force Young to pass more than he would probably like to. Young will get his numbers. The key is to make sure no one else has a big game. I think the Buccaneers defense will make sure of that. Bucs 17, Titans 13.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.