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Bucs seek to avert first 0-5 start since 1996

Oct 11, 2006 - 12:15 AM Cincinnati (3-1) at Tampa Bay (0-4) Sunday 1:00 pm EDT

TAMPA, Florida (Ticker) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have their ship in reverse. The Cincinnati Bengals are right on course. Headed in opposite directions, the teams cross paths in an interconference game Sunday.

Last season, the Bucs started 4-0 en route to the NFC South title. Now Tampa Bay is trying to avert its first 0-5 start since 1996.

The Bengals also were 4-0 last year en route to the AFC North crown. They did not match that this season but are right behind first-place Baltimore (4-1) and comfortably ahead of defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh (1-3).

This is the first of three games against NFC South opponents for the Bengals, who host Carolina and Atlanta the next two weeks. But they should not underestimate the Bucs, who totaled 406 yards in last week's 24-21 loss at New Orleans.

Tampa Bay appeared to be on the verge of its first win before rookie Reggie Bush returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown with 4:17 left in the fourth quarter.

Bucs rookie Bruce Gradkowski made quite an impression in his first NFL start, completing 20-of-31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. The sixth-round pick from Toledo was not intercepted but lost a fumble at his 20-yard line that led to a touchdown for the Saints.

"I like everything about him," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. "Not a lot of rookies can handle the stuff we throw at him. He's a very exciting young prospect."

Gradkowski beat out Tim Rattay and Luke McCown for the backup job and got the opportunity to start after Chris Simms needed an emergency splenectomy on September 24 after a loss to Carolina. There is no timetable for Simms' return.

Look for the Bucs to try and establish a running game against the Bengals, who were steamrolled for 236 yards on the ground by New England in a 38-13 loss October 1.

Cincinnati has lost two starting linebackers - David Pollack and Odell Thurman - for the remainder of the year. Pollack suffered a neck injury in a September 17 win over Cleveland and Thurman has been suspended after violating the substance abuse policy and an arrest for DUI.

Brian Simmons has moved from the outside to replace Thurman in the middle and Rashad Jeanty has replaced Pollack on the outside. Until both players adjust, the Bengals are vulnerable to the run.

That should make for a heavy dose of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who rushed for 111 yards on 20 carries vs. New Orleans.

Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton will match up against Bengals playmaking cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James, who combined for 15 interceptions last season. However, they have just one in Cincinnati's first four games.

Galloway caught four passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the loss at New Orleans.

The Bucs will need defensive end Simeon Rice, who has 119 career sacks, to put some heat on Carson Palmer. Rice has just one sack this season.

A Pro Bowler last season, Palmer has come back from a torn ACL and completed more than 62 percent of his passes for 917 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will match up against cornerbacks Brian Kelly and three-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber.

Johnson led the AFC with 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season. But he is off to a slow start with 18 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown. Houshmandzadeh has 13 catches for 189 yards and two scores in just two games after missing the first two weeks with a heel injury.

The Buccaneers have won the last four meetings. This is Cincinnati's first trip to Tampa Bay since 1995.

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