This is a game that figures to go Tampa Bay’s way -- on a relatively low-scoring day -- because the Raiders haven’t had time, during a short work week, to make the extensive changes they need to solve the Buccaneers’ unconventional defense.
With two weeks instead of one to transform their offensive playbook, the Raiders could win.
They might anyway. They’re classier offensively and more creative.
But they don’t figure to win.
The Buccaneers owe their appearance in today’s 37th Super Bowl primarily to their mastery of former coach Tony Dungy’s famous two-deep defense, in which only two safeties patrol the entire width of a football field’s three deepest areas or zones.
That puts five fast and energetic Buccaneers in position to saturate the five short passing zones -- precisely where Raider quarterback Rich Gannon has been throwing regularly to wide receivers Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter as well as running back Charlie Garner and tight end Doug Jolley.
Almost 95% of Gannon’s record 418 pass completions this season were in one of the five short zones frequented by five Tampa pass-defense experts, two of them all-pros, Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks.
Accordingly, the majestic short-pass offense that carried the Raiders to the AFC championship seems out of the loop now, gone, done, dead, extinct, or at the least hopeless as a weapon of decision.
Only one thing could revive it: an effective long-passing assault to loosen up the Buccaneers. But few long passes have lately had a place in Raider Coach Bill Callahan’s game planning. For one thing, Gannon doesn’t have that kind of arm. Nor do Brown and Rice have that kind of speed.
Although the newest and youngest Oakland receiver, Porter, is swift enough, Callahan’s problem is that, to break Tampa’s defensive code, it usually takes a pair of offensive sprinters racing deep.
Theoretically, running back Garner could join Porter as a deep threat. But the two of them aren’t a really good bet to get there before Gannon is caught and buried by Tampa’s four all-pro pass rushers, defensive end Simeon Rice, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Brooks and cornerback Barber.
Again speaking theoretically, the weak point in the Buccaneers’ pass defense is John Lynch, one of the safeties. A terror against running plays, Lynch is perhaps the slowest safety in the league.
So the Raiders’ best chance in this game is to menace Lynch deep and open a gap between Tampa Bay’s deep and short zones spacious enough for a Gannon target to slide in unmolested.
One helpful thing for Gannon is that the Raiders will be blocking for him with a veteran offensive line that is the NFL’s largest.
One unhelpful thing is that Jon Gruden, who built the Raiders and now coaches the Buccaneers, knows everything there is to know about the players he couldn’t win with a year ago.
Gruden’s present players -- those he was brought in to improve -- provide the Buccaneers with an offense that is as peculiar as their defense, if not more so.
Throughout a season in which they won the NFC championship, the Tampa Bay players showed a very limited, frequently fruitless running game except when fullback Mike Alstott was asked to gain a yard or so on, say, third and one or third and goal.
In those crises, Alstott, a 248-pound , was basically unstoppable.
If, otherwise, the Buccaneers’ running backs can’t run much, their quarterback can’t run much either.
The truth is that Brad Johnson is probably the least mobile quarterback in the league.
The way to beat him, his critics say, is with a steady two-man blitz up the middle, the ploy that ordinarily forces quarterbacks to escape to the outside. But Johnson can’t get outside.
Put it all together and you’d think the Raiders could win somehow against a team without a dynamic running game, without a mobile passer and without a powerful, Raider-like offensive line. Yet unless Gannon gets off a few big, miraculous, game-changing passes, the Raiders, against the Buccaneer defense, don’t figure to win.