Winning can mask a lot of problems. Just ask Derrick Brooks. The Bucs linebacker said as much after Tampa Bay had to rally to beat still-winless Detroit last week.
One such problem is a Bucs rushing attack that has become downright pedestrian.
Once one of the league's most successful ground attacks, averaging more than 5 yards per carry through the first month, the Bucs' running game has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry during the past five games. The Bucs are 4-1 in that stretch, so no one is really complaining, but everyone seems to agree the Bucs must improve to keep winning.
"You have to be able to run the ball in this league, especially in November and December," Bucs feature back Warrick Dunn said. "That's something we've got to get a little better at."
The Bucs are hoping the return of FB B.J. Askew, who missed almost two months with a hamstring strain, will spark their ground game. Askew was a big part of the success the Bucs had running the ball earlier this season, and it was after he and fellow FB Byron Storer went down that the Bucs running game bogged down.
Since Askew's return two games ago, the Bucs are running the ball a little better.
During that span, Dunn has run 34 times for 143 yards, a 3.7-yard average, and Bucs running backs have combined for 195 yards on 56 attempts, a 3.5-yard average.
Those still aren't the numbers the Bucs believe they need to succeed, but they are an indication the team is heading in the right direction.
The Saints have arguably the most potent offense in the league this season. If they had a defense to match, they probably would be battling the Giants for the NFC's top record.
As it is, the Saints have struggled to keep opponents down this year. Consequently, they go into Sunday's game ranked 22nd in the league in total defense, including 18th against the run and 24th against the pass.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden isn't a big fan of rankings, and he warns that making too much of the Saints' defensive numbers would be a mistake. Judging from what he sees on film, he has a lot of respect for their defense.
"Their defensive coaches Gary Gibbs and Joe Vitt have tweaked their scheme, and they're capable of blitzing from all over the place now," he said. "They're pretty good.
"LB Jonathan Vilma has come in and really given them inspiring every-down play. Rookie DT Sedrick Ellis, a top-10 pick, has really come into his own, and we all know 2006 Pro Bowl DE Will Smith.
"They're pretty talented, so we'll have our hands full."
RING OF FIRE
Bucs SS Jermaine Phillips says he is ready to jump back into the fire, and the Bucs appear to be planning to throw Phillips into the fire Sunday against New Orleans.
After seeing him go through a good week of practice, Bucs coach Jon Gruden said he is leaning toward starting Phillips on Sunday.
"He's been cleared to play and he's confident enough in the arm that it looks like he can go play," Gruden said.
Phillips missed three games with a broken left forearm. He says he'll pad his arm in a way that will help reduce the chances of another injury, but he plans to go all out upon his return.
"There's only one way to test the water, and that's to jump right in," Phillips said. "If something happens, it happens. I can't worry about that, because then I'm not going to play right and I let 10 other guys down."
TAKE THAT BALL AWAY
Winning the turnover battle is one of the keys to winning games in the NFL. There's more to it, though, than just taking the ball away.
The teams that turn those takeaways into points usually win the most, and the Bucs have proven to be one of those teams this year. Going into Sunday's games, Tampa Bay has scored 81 points off 21 turnovers, fourth-most in the league behind the New York Jets (96), Green Bay (93 points) and Baltimore (89).
The Bucs have been slow out of the gate this year, and that's usually a sign of trouble. From 2003 to 2007 the Bucs were 7-33 when allowing the first score in a game.
This year, the Bucs have allowed the first score six times, but are 5-1 in those games.
"I really do like the way we've finished this year, but we do need to start better than we have," Coach Jon Gruden said.
Jermaine Phillips (forearm) is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Others on the injury report include G Arron Sears (illness, questionable), TE Alex Smith (ankle, questionable), QB Brian Griese (elbow, questionable) and WR Ike Hilliard (shoulder, probable).