Yardbarker Horiz

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What A Difference A Year Makes

This time, last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were reeling from an 0-7 start and had just returned from London.  This was the bye week in 2009.  The entire Buccaneer Nation was dismayed, disturbed, and disheartened by the record and the way the hard changes brought on by first year General Manager Mark Dominik and first year Head Coach Raheem Morris had impacted the team.

Fast forward one year later and Tampa Bay has reached 5-2, with the NFC South divisional lead on the line next weekend as the Buccaneers head to Atlanta. 

In 2009, the Buccaneers were handing the reigns of the team over to rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.  Freeman has been the quarterback ever since, compiling an 8-8 record and making big progress this year.  2009 also saw the emergence of rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who also has found his rhythm this season and is now a steady contributor.  And the foundation for a young defensive line had been set as rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller was showing flashes of becoming a dominant performer.

In 2010, there has been more talent added with names like Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Gerald McCoy, and Cody Grimm.  This team is certainly performing far ahead of expectations, although some thought a playoff run was within reach.

Yes, there will be more nail biters this season, more games where the results are in doubt late into the fourth quarter.  And the youthful Buccaneers may get big chunks of points as quickly as they may give up a big chunk of points.  And it will drive the fans crazy.

You do get the feeling, however, you are not just cheering for 2010.  It's starting to feel like you are cheering for the bright future ahead for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Buccaneers Bring The Big

6 feet even, 247 pounds.  6 feet 4 inches, 275 pounds.  6 feet 6 inches, 248 pounds.

Thats 770 pounds of football player.  It's not a set of linebackers, nor is it a set of defensive linemen.  It's the Josh Freeman, Erik Lorig, LeGarrette Blount backfield first utilized by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Saint Louis Rams.

With Lorig in the backfield, the Buccaneers boast as much size and power as anyone in the NFL.  Lorig has yet to record a carry or a reception but that is not his function.  He is a steamroller for the tailbacks (so far?).  Blount has made his presence known as he continues to work his way into the playing rotation, with 4.9 yards/carry and over 100 total yards on the season thus far.

While these youngsters have shown great promise this season, as well as giant upside, there is another thing they bring to the Buccaneers which may be even more valuable:  they can extend the careers of Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams.  Every carry the youngsters take extends the career of Graham and Williams by another play.  The versatility and experience of the Tampa Bay running game is keeping the focus on the offensive backfield, allowing the young receiving corp a chance to make themselves a threat to respect.  Once the passing game reaches maturity, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have the most balanced attack seen on the Gulf Coast since 2002, which had Micheal Pittman and Mike Alstott in the backfield with Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, and Joe Jurivcious running routes.

Will the Freeman/Lorig/Blount combination be utilized against the Arizona Cardinals this weekend?  With the injury problems up front on offense and the release of Keydrick Vincent it may not be a question.

It may be the answer.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Freeman Taking A Big Step Forward

Josh Freeman, the first pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009, has taken a big step forward this season.  This weekend, he will be completing his first "season", with a chance of reaching an even 8-8 to start his career.  But that is a small part of the story of Josh Freeman's NFL career thus far.

In his first year, Freeman did not get much time under center in training camp, nor did he start any of the first 7 games of the 2009 season.  But when the Buccaneers realized 2009 was not going to be a playoff year, they handed the reigns to the young signal caller.  Freeman took those initial lumps, some of them pretty solid, but nonetheless was the starting quarterback for all three of the Buccaneer wins in 2009.  Like any rookie, he had his ups and downs:  his most productive game was a 321 yard effort on 44 attempts against Carolina, but he was also intercepted five times that day.  His most efficient game was against Atlanta with a 118.5 quarterback rating, which was followed two weeks later by his least efficient day, a 12.1 passer rating against the Jets.  Of the nine games he played in 2009, only one did not involve an interception.  Learning on the job in the NFL is hard.

Josh Freeman - 2009
New Orleans33171263/26121333.1L
New York Jets3314933/12015312.1L
New Orleans31212713/8035268.1W

Fast forward through a full set of OTAs, a full offseason, and a full preseason as the primary signal caller, and those lumps seem to have molded a efficient young quarterback.  While Freeman's passer rating last year was erratic (high: 118.5, low: 12.1, average 59.8), this year it has been in a much tighter range (high:  102.4, low  67.1, average 82.8 through Week 7).  Josh Freeman has become more consistent at being consistent, a very important quality in the offensive leader.  He does have three picks in six games but also has seven touchdowns in the same time period making his touchdown to interception ratio better than 2:1 -- the mark of a winning quarterback.

Josh Freeman - 2010
New Orleans43252190/0127079.5L
Saint Louis40232123/23121080.4W
If you take Freeman's statistics through the first six games of 2010 and project them to the same number of games he played last year (nine), the improvement is completely obvious (see table below). The projections show nearly the same number of attempts, completions, yards, and exactly the same number of touchdowns.  However, through 9 games last season, the rookie Freeman threw 18 interceptions.  The nine game projection suggests only four interceptions over the same number of games this season.  Truly a remarkable turnaround for a young player.

Taking it one step farther, if you project Freeman's current 2010 numbers out to a 16 game season, Freeman rates out squarely in the middle of the pack among all NFL quarterbacks.  Considering the number of rookies he is working with this season as well as the learning curve he is still climbing, to finish anywhere among the top half of the league is impressive.  The numbers also show a full command of the game, with a touchdown-to-interception ratio projected to be 2.3.  In fact, among quarterbacks with more than 100 attempts so far this season, Freeman is tied for 5th lowest number of interceptions (Matt Cassel, Kansas City has 3, four others have only 2, nobody has less than two).

2010/9**298 176





* Does not include the 2 of 4, 16 yard mop-up duty against New England in Week 7, 2009 
** Estimated

Although Freeman struggled, it appears the way the Buccaneers handled Josh Freeman in his rookie year is producing big returns.  Coach Raheem Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik have stated since making Freeman their ever draft pick he was the franchise quarterback they could build a team around.  Considering Freeman's improvement after just a partial year you can only wonder where his upside levels off, and that's exactly what you want in a franchise quarterback.

Who Buccaneer Fans Should Cheer For: Week 8

First and foremost, of course, it's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  If you are looking for other games which are starting to matter, there are plenty!

First, teams in our conference with a similar record need to lose.  The Buccaneers are one of four teams with only two losses in the NFC (no NFC team has fewer losses).  Of those four, the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Giants are not playing.  That leaves a future Buccaneer opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, as the only other top NFC team playing.  Seattle plays at the same time the Buccaneers play Sunday in Oakland.  I cannot, ever, ever encourage someone to pull for the team in Oakland, so how about we just all pull for a Seattle/Oakland tie on this one, OK?  Seriously, I absolutely can not tell people to pull for that team and still feel good about myself.  Moving on . . . 

Secondly, the teams in our division need to lose.  With the Falcons on a bye, that leaves the Panthers and New Orleans in action.  The Panthers are still a threat as the season is still young, so cheer on the team the Buccaneers just sent home with a loss.  Go Saint Louis Rams!  New Orleans plays the late game Sunday night as the Steelers head to New Orleans.  Another loss by the Saints gives the Buccaneers some breathing room in the division, so cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers!

Finally, the Bears, Packers, Redskins, and Eagles are all 4-3 and cramping the Tampa Bay playoff run mojo.  The Bears and Eagles have the week off, so nothing we can do about them this week.  Green Bay plays an early game Sunday in New York, so root for the New York Jets!  And finally, Washington is playing in Detroit, so Buccaneers fans in the old NFC Norris neighborhood can help out by pulling for the Detroit Lions before watching the Buccaneers game later in the afternoon.

To summarize: in early games this Sunday, cheer for the Saint Louis Rams, New York Jets, and Detroit Lions; in late games this Sunday, we want a victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a tie by the Seattle Seahawks (yes, a tie . . . I just can't!!); and in the Sunday Night game pull for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If all this happens, the Buccaneers will be tied with Atlanta and the New York Giants for the best record in the NFC, setting up a big showdown the following weekend when Tampa Bay invades Atlanta.  Also, the Buccaneers will have a game and a half lead over the New Orleans Saints in the division (good thing all around), the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins slide away from the wildcard picture a bit, and the Carolina Panthers will be all but buried for this season.

Sounds good to me!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Faine, Vincent, And Now Trueblood Not Practicing

Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeff Faine continues to be sidelined with a quadricep injury sustained in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints.  Faine was inactive in Week 7 against the Saint Louis Rams and is not expected back for at least a couple more weeks. Unfortunately, while Faine heals, things are continuing to get thinner on the Buccaneers offensive line.

Let me start by stating I owe Ted Larsen a big, fat apology for thinking he would not see the field this season.  Larsen made me look foolish and I will not underestimate the young man again.  Arriving in Tampa the day after training camp in a post-roster-cutdown haul pulled together by General Manager Mark Dominik, Larsen stepped in at left guard and helped Tampa Bay defeat the Saint Louis Rams, pushing their record to 4-2.  Less than 10 days ago, Larsen was on the practice squad.  Now he has an NFL game under his belt.  Hats off to Larsen and Offensive Line Coach Pete Mangurian for all their hard work being ready to step in and play.  Larsen was pressed into service because veteran guard Keydrick Vincent ended up inactive last Sunday due to back issues.  Vincent missed quite a bit of practice time last week as well.  The extent of his injuries are not known, but he did not practice on Wednesday this week either.

It could have been a complete disaster up front as veteran guard Davin Joseph was nursing a sore knee last week.  Fortunately, Joseph was able to play.  It is not clear if this will be something which nags Joseph for the rest of the season, but for now he appears to be the steady force in the middle of the Buccaneers offensive line.

During the Saint Louis game, Jeremy Trueblood left with an knee injury.  It now appears the injury is more serious than was hoped.  Trueblood did not practice on Wednesday, meaning the Buccaneers could possibly be three men short up front going into the weekend.  This is clearly a bad situation which has gotten worse.

In weeks past, the Buccaneers have taken seven offensive linemen into game day.  If all three injuries are serious the Buccaneers may be promoting another player from the practice squad to the active roster.  It will not be G John Malecki who was added to the practice squad this week after the promotion of OT Derek Hardman last week.  That leaves G Brandon Carter (6'7" 344lbs) and T Will Barker (6'7" 230lbs) as promotion candidates should the team feel the need to tap the practice squad.  However, if the Buccaneers promote another lineman they will have 10 offensive linemen on their 52-man roster, meaning not only will the offensive line be thin, but other areas may also have a shortage of bodies when it comes to making the 45-man game day roster.  The season is almost half over, meaning there is far too much football yet to be played to put any of these men on injured reserve (and thereby losing them for the season).  General Manager Mark Dominik has some serious decisions to make.

The Buccaneers cannot afford any more significant injuries to the offensive line -- they need their most experienced players taking the majority of the snaps if they are going to keep up a playoff pace.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Race to 10" Update: Week 7

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 4-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 

WIN 17-14 Cleveland; Buccaneers Ranked #27
WIN 20-7 Carolina; Buccaneers Ranked #20
LOSS 38-13 Pittsburgh; Buccaneers Ranked #22
WIN 24-21 Cincinnati; Buccaneers Ranked #17
LOSS 31-6 New Orleans; Buccaneers Ranked #19
WIN 18-17 Saint Louis; Buccaneers Ranked #17 (currently)

Up Next:
@Arizona (3-3)  #23 (NFL expert ranking)

@Atlanta (5-2)  #8
Carolina (1-5)  #30
@San Francisco (1-6)  #31
@Baltimore (5-2)  #4
Atlanta (5-2)  #8
@Washington (4-3)  #14
Detroit (1-5)  #29
Seattle (4-2)  #16
@New Orleans (4-3)   #11

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 30-30

The Buccaneers must continue to beat the teams with a lower ranking to stay in the playoff hunt. Tampa Bay also needs a "signature win" this season (much like the Saints road win in 2009) to start building a reputation as a team which has arrived after it's rebuilding.  The "4th quarter stretch run", which includes the Washington Redskins and home against the Seattle Seahawks, will only be relevant if the Buccaneers keep pace.

Using the NFL.com expert consensus rankings (which change weekly), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should still finish 8-8 and in the middle of the NFC Wildcard Race!


Stroughter Finds Comfort Zone

Sammie Stroughter is back in the groove.

The 2009 7th round pick out of Oregon State arrived at One Buccaneer Place last year and has never looked back.  Stroughter went right to the active roster and became the breakout story of the year, catching 31 passes for 334 yards (10.8 average) with a touchdown.  And he shows no signs of the foot injury which placed him on Injured Reserve after the Seattle win last year (two games missed).

He also shows no signs of slowing down.

This season, Stroughter emerged from training camp as one of the few wideouts on the roster with any NFL experience.  The team named him a starting wideout, across from 2010 Rookie Mike Williams.  Running head up with a corner, Stroughter stuggled a bit (by his terms). Then, after the by week (Week 4),  Stroughter was moved back to the slot, where there is more space and assorted defensive matchups to deal with.  Here are his stats before and after the move:

As Flanker

As Slot
New Orleans935117.0270
Saint Louis333812.7180

Clearly, Stroughter's game has picked up since the move.  Across the board his statistics took a step up with the change back to his original position.

This move makes Stroughter a more potent weapon, which should help the Buccaneers loosen the eight man fronts they have been dealing with.  If it gets the running game working, the chances of the Buccaneers reaching the playoffs will go up dramatically!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Who Will Dominik Find Next?

Thirty One NFL teams are nervous today:  the Buccaneers have an open spot on their practice squad.
Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik has been ruthless attacking the practice squads of other NFL teams.  Granted, they don't all pan out, but his keen eye and the strong staff around him have found players like Donald Penn, Micheal Bennett (swiped from Seattle when they tried to get him on the practice squad last season, a tactic Dominik uses regularly), Rudy Carpenter, Tim Crowder, and Kregg Lumpkin, and pulled them away from another team's practice squad.  Is there another gem to be found in 2010?  And at what position?

Two voids were created with the promotion of TE Ryan Purvis and T Derek Hardman to the active roster.  Purvis was a same-position swap with the active roster, replacing TE Jeremy Stevens.  Hardman was added for depth along the offensive line which has some nagging injuries.  Although a new tight end prospect seems to be on the way, there is no guarantee the other will be an offensive lineman .  What are the possibilities?

A look at the Young Core Defense does not show any immediate needs.  A linebacker, perhaps, but LB Mike Balogun is already on the practice squad having been lifted from the San Francisco 49ers back on October 11th.  A fourth defensive tackle to complete the two-deep of young players is also a possibility.

A look at the Young Core Offense shows a couple areas where the team is thin.  With Purvis coming up to the active roster, the tight end position finally has the young players it has needed.  Another tight end is, nevertheless, a possibility.  And although Hardman adds some depth to the offensive line, another offensive lineman is always a possibility because the practice squad is a great place to develop them.  The season ending injury to Kareem Huggins also opens the door to another running back.

The roster shows there are six players with 7 or more years of NFL playing experience:  Ronde Barber (14), Keydrick Vincent (10), John Gilmore (9), Ryan Sims (9), and Jeff Faine (8).  That's corner, guard, tight end, defensive tackle, center.  These overlap with the lists we've already made, so no clues there.

The last place to check is the projected future draft needs.  These strongly suggest additional offensive linemen or linebackers.

With 31 teams having 8 players each on their practice squad, Dominik, pro personnel man Shelton Quarles, and the rest of the front office will have 248 players to pick from.

There is one thing we know for certain:  the players chosen for these spots will be a player Dominik believes can be a key part of the future of the franchise.

Buccaneers Looking At TE Nathan Overbay For Practice Squad

A source says the Buccaneers are looking at Nathan Overbay for one of the vacant practice squad positions.

Overbay was an undrafted tight end in the Class of 2010 from Eastern Washington.  At 6'5" and 260 lbs, he is a big physical player with good hands.  Overbay started the season on the Miami Dolphins practice squad, but was released on September 14th.

This move would leave one practice squad position still open.

You'll know more when we hear it!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Attrition Problematic For Young Buccaneers

If there is one thing a young team needs it's NFL game experience; to get it, you have to play, not just practice. For the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers injuries are starting to be a significant concern.  Not only do injuries keep important players off the field, possibly impacting the ability of the team to win, they could impact the overall growth of the experience pool on the team.

The Primary case in point is Kareem Huggins, who is lost for the year to Injured Reserve.  No more game experience for him after he just started getting some game action.

Also this weekend, Brian Price will watch instead of get reps on defense under game conditions.  Price has a pelvis bone injury and is week-to-week at this point, but definitely out for the Rams game on Sunday.

Mike Williams has lost only practice time (thank goodness) due to a foot injury, while Elbert Mack will miss his second game at nickel due to a problem with his heel.

All these players are part of the foundation the Buccaneers will need to have stand up and play over the next several seasons.  To prepare for that they need to play.

The Buccaneers training and strength staff got the team through the offseason without major injuries and into the regular season in great health.  In fact, after the bye week (Week 4), the injury report was clean.  Hopefully the young players can continue to stay healthy and continue their development.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rams Game Preview By Head Coach Raheem Morris

The Best 3 Minutes of Head Coach Raheem Morris this season (9:08 to 12:00):
Morris Press Conference, 10/20/2010 (Video)

Not sure I could have said it better myself!!

(And stay tuned until 14:25 in for a Bonus)

Another Mike Williams Payback Week

What was it like for Mike Williams on draft day?  Agonizing, to be sure.  But, at some point, you have to think it turned over to a bit of anger as nine teams picked college wideouts before the Buccaneers made him the 101st pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Who knew revenge would come so early?  Acutally, I know one person who did . . .

If you are a Buccaneers fan, you know that Williams is currently tops among Rookie wide receivers (if not, you need to stop by more often).  Being the Lead Dog in the rookie class is in itself a bit of sweet revenge.  Add the fact Williams has been nominated for Rookie of the Week three times already this season and you can see how he's making his point: o n the field.  He is putting doubters to shame (see "Worst Fourth Round Pick").

There were eight teams who picked wide receivers before Mike Williams:   Titans, Broncos, Patriots, Panthers, Cardinals, Steelers, Bengals, Seahawks, and Rams (Well, it's nine teams if you count the Buccaneers for picking Arrelious Benn in the 2nd round, but Tampa Bay was smart enough to make the pick).  It's gotta get under his skin, doesn't it?

Success is still the best revenge.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently 2 (Panthers, Bengals) and 1 (Pittsburgh) against the teams who passed on Williams.  This week he gets another shot at a team on "His List" with the Saint Louis Rams coming to town with Mardy Gilyard.  Gilyard was selected just two spots ahead of Williams in the draft and has 6 catches for 63 yards so far this season.  Williams has 23 catches for 283 yards.  And don't bother to bring up the young quarterback in Saint Louis to explain the difference -- Josh Freeman has played just eight more NFL games than Sam Bradford.

And it's not just win/loss success but overall success which is running high for Williams:  if he keeps up his current pace, Williams will rack up over 900 yards this season.  I'm sure an extremely productive rookie season would feel great going into the offseason next spring.

And don't forget next week: It's the Cardinals, and more sweet revenge!

You Can't Throw A Cadillac Under A Bus

I find it very amusing people think Cadillac Williams may need to be benched.  Granted, it's the easy answer when the team plays a stout defense as the Buccaneers have twice this season (Pittsburgh and New Orleans).

But, as always, some in depth analysis shows it's a completely mistaken idea.  

Behold, Ye Doubters

In the game last weekend, woeful as it was offensively, Cadillac Williams lead Tampa Bay in both rushing and receiving yards, catching as many passes as Mike Williams.  But just the numbers do not demonstrate his value.  Williams also converted 4 of the 5 third down plays when the ball went into his hands (out of 13 total third down plays).  And he brings value because of the attention he receives from opposing teams.  There is not a more dangerous runner on the team.

But there must be some reason people think the offense is not producing.  Most likely, it is because all the yards are not in just one player's basket:
  • Cleveland:  Williams 75, Freeman 34, Graham 10: 119 total rushing yards
  • Carolina:  Williams 51, Freeman 43, Graham 1:  95 total rushing yards
  • Pittsburgh:  Williams 13, Freeman 15, Graham 13, Blount 27:  68 total rushing yards
  • Cincinnati:  Williams 33, Freeman 20, Graham 65:  118 total rushing yards
  • New Orleans:  Williams 18, Johnson 11:  29 total yards rushing

Is it any surprise for the Pittsburgh and New Orleans rushing totals to be lowest of the season so far?  Still, as a team, the Buccaneers are on pace to be a 1,300 yard hybrid running back.  For comparison, last season there were only six running backs who gained more than 1300 yards in the NFL.  For the Buccaneers themselves, last season Cadillac and Derrick Ward gained over 1,200 yards on the ground, which means actually the rushing attack is slightly improved if this pace stays consistent for the rest of the season (and it should).  In 2008, Graham and Warrick Dunn combined for 1,349 yards.  In 2007, Graham, Williams, and Micheal Pittman combined for 1,392 yards.  The pattern is obvious . . . the running game is not "broken".

Granted, some are just looking for the quick finger point.  And some will just never (ever, ever) do the research.  A pity on them.

Fortunately, Coach Morris knows it isn't broken.  And there is no need to fix it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Race to 10" Update: Week 6

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 3-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 

WIN 17-14 Cleveland; Buccaneers Ranked #27
WIN 20-7 Carolina; Buccaneers Ranked #20
LOSS 38-13 Pittsburgh; Buccaneers Ranked #22
WIN 24-21 Cincinnati; Buccaneers Ranked #17
LOSS 31-6 New Orleans; Buccaneers Ranked #19 (currently)

Up Next:
Saint Louis (3-3)  #23 (NFL expert ranking)

@Arizona (3-2)  #26
@Atlanta (4-2)  #9
Carolina (0-5)  #31
@San Francisco (1-5)  #29
@Baltimore (4-2)  #4
Atlanta (4-2)  #9
@Washington (3-3)  #16
Detroit (1-5)  #27
Seattle (3-2)  #18
@New Orleans (4-2)   #8

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 30-33

It is starting to appear the pivotal games this season will be at the Washington Redskins and home against the Seattle Seahawks.  To stay on a playoff pace, the Buccaneers need to beat the St. Louis Rams in Raymond James Stadium this weekend.

Using the NFL.com expert consensus rankings (which change weekly), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should finish 8-8, which would put the team in the middle of the NFC Wildcard Race!


Buccaneers Get Another Piece Of The Puzzle

Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik has spent the season looking for additional draft picks by stealing players from other team's drafts.  He may have acquired another one just before the 2010 trade deadline.

Late Tuesday, Dominik pulled the trigger on a trade with the Kansas City which sent a draft pick to the Chiefs with the Buccaneers getting a draft pick and defensive end Alex Magee.

Details of the draft picks were not disclosed.

Magee was the second-ever draft pick (3rd round) for Kansas City GM Scott Pioli who was hired during the 2008 offseason (as was Buccaneers GM Dominik).  A defensive end out of Purdue, Magee is about 6'2" and nearly 300 lbs.  His addition to the Young Core Defense makes DE the largest single group of young players on the defense.

Will he play end for the Buccaneers?  The Chiefs play a 3-4 scheme and Magee was playing defensive end.  In the Buccaneers Tampa 2 system, Magee has the size to play tackle or could continue to play end. 

It has already been documented how Tampa Bay GM Dominik has rebuilt the defensive end position on this team with the waiver wire in less than one season.  Is this possibly the first move to shore up this position with higher draft position talent?

As with the rest of the youth on the team, only time will tell.  And we'll be watching!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Carnell Williams is still the Cadillac of Buccaneer Running Backs

He had to know coming in.  It had to be on his mind this past offseason.  And I'm sure it was no surprise to the coaching staff.  Opponents were going to stack the box against Josh Freeman to force the young quarterback to win games for the Buccaneers.  Which means Cadillac Williams was going to be the priority-one item on the Stop-That-Guy list every Sunday this season.  He had to know it.

How's it working so far?  The Buccaneers are 3-1 through the first quarter of the season.  So it's working just fine for Tampa Bay, thank you very much.

The best way to take pressure off a quarterback is a solid running game.  The Buccaneers have a solid, experienced offensive line, many of whom have played next to each other for multiple years.  It makes sense for the Buccaneers to be a run-first team.  It's no secret.  It's not even a rumor.  The Buccaneers want to run the ball down your throat, period.  The best of days is when the pass is needed to augment the run game.  The rough days are when the pass is needed to open up the run.

And let's face it -- if we know this, then opposing teams know it.  Head Coach Raheem Morris knows it.  And Cadillac Williams knows it.  3.4 yards/carry against Cleveland, 1.9 yards/carry against Carolina, 2.2 yards/carry against Pittsburgh, and 3.0 yards/carry against Cincinnati.  Every carry against a loaded front, with or without an included blitz, every yard hard earned.  And through it all you never hear a complaint.  Williams never points a finger.  Because he knows until the team establishes the young quarterback and young wide receivers as a threat you have to respect, he has to be ready to fight for every yard.  And should they dare start to look the other way, he has to be ready to explode.  Guess what?  It's a perfect fit to his mentality.  What do you think a guy who's had two shredded knees rehabbed would be like on a football field?  Happy?  Give me a break.

And don't discard Earnest Graham, either.  He knows the same thing, and as fullback he leads the charge on most plays.  Graham is another guy who has paid a long list of dues to get to the field.  What hasn't he done for this team?  How in the world can you think about changing a highly effective piece of the puzzle away from exactly what it is right now?  He's going to be the difference in a lot of games -- a 61-yard dagger from under the Buccaneers own goal posts last Sunday makes the point precisely.

Don't even get me started on how good Williams and Graham are catching the ball out of the backfield either.

There may be younger players showing flashes of talent on the roster, and we the fans are excited about all the youth and the future we believe they bring.  But there are some positions where the experienced players bring a heavy focus from other teams.  The attention on the Buccaneers backfield gives the youngsters on the edges room to roam.

But the tide is changing.  3-1 will do that.  Teams are starting to see that forcing the pass does not win the game.  In fact, concentrating only on the run game is become dangerous (just ask the Bengals, who had the ball, 1:30 left in the game, and a seven point lead).  The Buccaneers can beat you through the air -- they never called a running play in the fourth quarter against the Bengals.  And won.

What are you going to do now?  One thing is for sure:  Do not look past the four-legged creature roaming the Buccaneers backfield on game day.  It's a mistake you will regret.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rumor: Jeff Faine Out At Least A Month

It's not official or unofficial.  It's just a rumor.  But I am starting to get a feeling from One Buccaneer Place that Faine's injury could be as serious as reported by BucsBeat just after the game last Sunday.  I am picking up chatter here and there that Faine will be out for at least a month -- and maybe much longer.  If the injury is this serious, the team is most likely getting specialist opinions before deciding on a course of treatment.  Expect Coach Morris to be suitably grilled at the next press conference about the subject.

An interesting twist is the Buccaneers swapping linebackers on the practice squad this week as well as possible changes at punter (is 2010 draft pick Brent Bowden on the way back?).  No shifts for the offensive line?  Either the Buccaneers are happy with what they have, or the injury to Faine is not quite as serious.

More news as soon as it bubbles to the surface!

Connor Barth: The Iceman Cometh

Place kicker Connor Barth has reached absolute zero, and it's a great, great thing.

An undrafted free agent in 2008, Barth returned to the Kansas City Chiefs for the final 10 games of the regular season after being beat out for the position in training camp.  In Week 15, the Chiefs had allowed a 21-3 lead to evaporate to a 21-22 deficit with :31 seconds to play when Barth was called in.  With :01 second on the clock, his 50-yarder missed, and the Chiefs lost.  It was Barth's first miss of his career, having been 9 for 9 up to that point.  Although just a taste of what was to come, the following offseason the Chiefs cut Barth in favor of a drafted kicker.

After a very short stint with the Miami Dolphins, Barth was signed by the Buccaneers on November 3, 2009, settling a position for Tampa Bay which was producing more than it's share of headaches.  I don't know if Barth arrived with veins frozen to the core, but since signing with the Buccaneers he has made a previously shaky position rock solid.  Barth has never missed an extra point in the NFL and was 14 of 19 at field goals last season.  You may remember several of them:
Fast forward to last weekend against the Bengals, and Barth, with one second on the clock, kicked the winning field goal for the Buccaneers.  Redemption has been a theme this week for Head Coach Raheem Morris and if Barth needed some it would be his to have.  But I don't think he does.  His current 12 for 12 field goal streak reaches back to the Seattle Seahawks win last season.  He has redemption piled up in trucks in the parking lot.

Sean Payton tried to freeze Barth last season in overtime.  Marvin Lewis tried to chill him last weekend.  It just does not work with this guy.

Because you cannot ice The Iceman.

Question: What's wrong with the Bengals?

Answer:  Take away Ochocinco and the 2010 Bengals are the 2009 Buffalo Bills.

Don't think so?  Check the past two weeks: "8-5" had 3 catches for 59 yards versus Cleveland (loss), followed by a 3 catch, 20 yard performance against Tampa Bay (loss).  Those numbers are down slightly from Ochocinco's 2009 averages of 4.5 catches and 65 yards/game.

It certainly is not Terrell Owens.  Against Cleveland, Owens set an individual best of 10 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown.  Against Tampa Bay, he pulled in 7 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.  And yet, both of these games were losses . . . ?

And it does not seem to have anything to do with Cedric Benson:  15 carries for 60 yards versus the Browns, 23 carries for 144 yards against the Buccaneers.  Benson did not reach the endzone in either case, which does correlate, and could be a contributing factor.  But in both game he had a 4-or-more yards/carry average, so that doesn't seem broken.

The comparison to the Bills of last year is completely fair:  the 2009 Bills utilized Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards at quarterback last year.  Each threw for over 1,000 yards and had quarterback ratings of 69.7 and 73.8 respectively.   Carson Palmer currently boasts a slightly better 78.3 quarterback rating.

The 2009 Bills had 1,000 yard rusher Fred Jackson in the backfield and the 2010 Bengals have Cedric Benson who was also a 1,000 yard rusher in 2009.

At one wide receiver for the 2009 Bills was Lee Evans, who lead the team in touchdowns.  At the other wide receiver position was Terrell Owens, who lead the 2009 Bills in catches and yards.

The 2010 Bengals also have Terrell Owens, who is leading the team in receptions and yards.

Does it feel eerie to you yet?

Are Lee Evans and Chad Ochocinco the same player?  Specifically, no.  But they both have played across from Terrell Owens.  And taking away the not-Owens wide receiver appears to be a good formula to win against the Bengals.

Then again, it could be the loss of Jordan Shipley.  Or perhaps the lack of rushing touchdowns by Cedric Benson.

However, I don't think it's so much what's wrong with the Bengals.  It's more about the Browns and Buccaneers reaching the point of being talented enough to take a wide receiver out of the game as well as being talented enough to beat the 2009 Buffalo Bills.  Let Owens have all the yards he wants, it's who's wearing his jersey that is most important to him.

You're welcome, Atlanta!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The "Race to 10" Update: Playoffs Here We Come!!

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 3-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

WIN 17-14 Cleveland; Buccaneers Ranked #27
WIN 20-7 Carolina; Buccaners Ranked #20
LOSS 38-13 Pittsburgh; Buccaneers now Ranked #22
WIN 24-21 Cincinnati; Buccaneers Ranked #17 (currently)

Up Next:
New Orleans (3-2) 

Saint Louis (2-3)
@Arizona (3-2)
@Atlanta (4-1)
Carolina (0-5)
@San Francisco (0-5)
@Baltimore (4-1)
Atlanta (4-1)
@Washington (3-2)
Detroit (1-4)
Seattle (2-2)
@New Orleans (3-2)

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 26-28

Using the NFL.com expert consensus rankings (which change weekly), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers project to finish 10-6, which would qualify as an NFC Playoff Team!


Monday, October 11, 2010

Buccaneers Have Been Searching For Backup To Center Jeff Faine For A Long Time

On September 5th, the day after the 2010 roster cuts from 75 men to 52, there was one transaction which was lost in the shuffle.  And it might be an indicator of things to come.

Going into Week 5 of the 2010 season, the only center on the Buccaneers roster was Jeff Faine.  When Faine needs to be spelled (or is knicked up), current starting Guard Jeremy Zuttah slides over and veteran Keydrick Vincent (G) steps in at left guard.  That means two players who graded out at different positions are responsible for defending quarterback Josh Freeman, who still has less than one year of starting experience.  When Faine left the game against the Bengals, all the experienced offensive line talent was called into duty -- with no room for another injury.  There is no room for injury because of the event I've alluded to.  And that event was . . .

Jonathan Compas (C) going on IR.  Compas entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2008. The Buccaneers moved Compas to center behind Faine on the depth chart last season.  When Compas went on IR just before the 2010 season started the Buccaneers got very thin in the middle.  And thin in the middle is dangerous with a young quarterback at the helm.

The day after Compas hit IR (Sept 6th) the Buccaneers signed Ted Larson, a 2010 6th round pick by New England, when the Patriots tried to sneak him over to their practice squad.  But this was not really a depth move, it's was a for-the-future move.  Playing center is complicated.  It's well known how Jeff Faine calls the coverages for the big guys up front.  To play center, you have to be on the same page as the quarterback as well as the entire offensive line.  Oh, and you have to snap the ball as well.  So Larson, with no training camp, is essentially a learn-as-you-go player.  In other words, don't expect him to be on the field before he goes through a full offseason with the team.

Which brings us back to Compas.  Compas was in the same position last year that Larson is in now.  Jeremy Zuttah was playing full-time at Guard because of the loss of Aaron Sears. Then the worst case scenario unfolded: Faine went down with a triceps injury (harsh when you're the center) in Week 1.  The Buccaneers opted to not put Compas on the field, and instead pulled Sean Mahan off the street due to his familiarity with the system (Mahan, an experienced center, had been cut at the end of training camp just before last season after playing for the Steelers in 2008).

When Faine returned in Week 6 of 2009, Mahan was released.  In Week 7, Josh Freeman made his first appearance for the Buccaneers and Week 8 of 2009 Josh Freeman started his first NFL game.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Did it go unnoticed?  You bet -- but it clearly demonstrates how important center Jeff Faine is to this team.

Now, the next chapter begins.  Compas was taken off of IR on Sept 24th and cut, opening a spot for 2010 draft pick Erik Lorig to be promoted from the practice squad to the active roster.  If Faine is down for an extended period, things get tight.  This certainly shows the value of General Manager Mark Dominik bringing in Keydrick Vincent from the Carolina Panthers during the past offseason.  It at least makes the Zuttah/Vincent/Faine position swap possible.  And kudos to the coaching staff and Head Coach Raheem Morris for getting Zuttah snaps at center during the preseason.  If Faine has a long duration injury, the Vincent move is front office gold, and the preseason experience provided to Zuttah by the coaching staff shows excellent foresight and attention to detail.

It appears the Buccaneers could be in a tricky situation and there is not an easy solution running around.  Where Mahan was available after being cut last season, Compas was already declared for the IR and cannot play this season. Zuttah and Vincent must pick up the slack.  This is an issue which we have been following for a quite a while now -- and it has struck again.  Zuttah and Vincent stepped in against the Bengals with good results (a win), but from now on teams will challenge them.

Obviously a high-quality backup center is something General Manager Mark Dominik has been trying to identify and injury derailed his plans this season.  The problem is there is no viable solution.  It's too early to say for sure, but this is one injury situation which could define the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as simply "improved" or an actual Playoff Team in 2010. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Did The Buccaneers Use Their Bye Week To Plan For The Bengals . . . Or The Saints?

I've been wondering how the Buccaneers spent their bye week.  Sure, the coaches will tell you they are focused on the next game (Cincinnati Bengals).  This is something a coach says to keep his players focused on the right task:  win one game at a time.  But coaches are sly.  And they can be very sly at times.  There is nothing better for a young team than time to regroup.  More study, more time, more technique, and more healing all go a long way in a long season.  Add in the benefit of extra preparation time and you can expand the playbook a bit for the rest of the season.  The question is how to expand the playbook. Certain things work better against certain teams.  So where did the Buccaneers spend their time?

The next game is always the most important game for any young team, particularly one as young as the 2010 Buccaneers.  And this weekend's game against the Bengals is no less important.  The challenges are obvious:  Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are outstanding physical talents even though their mental composure is sometimes questioned. Cincinnati (2-2) beat Carolina 20-7 and Baltimore 15-10, but lost to Cleveland 23-20 and New England 38-24.  Buccaneer fans are familiar with Carolina and Cleveland, the "two" in the Buccaneers 2-1 record.  Certainly, this is a team the Buccaneers can compete with.  On the "against" side, this is the second road trip for this young team this year and you can expect a bigger, more hostile crowd in Cincinnati.  Cincinnati also represents the middle of a challenging early-season three game stretch for Tampa Bay with this game sandwiched between games against the Steelers and the Saints.  Winning this game means 3-1, a second strong road performance, and another notch in the growth of the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, the more important game for this season could be the Saints game at Raymond James Stadium the following week.  At 3-1, the Saints are currently at the top of the NFC South.  The most direct route to the playoffs is a division crown.  To win it, you have to win your home divisional games, then steal some road games.  The Buccaneers have already won at Carolina and so are on track thus far.  The Saints, however, have lost a division game -- a home game against Atlanta in fact.  This puts the Falcons in the driver's seat for now, and the Buccaneers must hold serve at home to keep pace. We all remember the overtime road win at the SuperDome late last season (the link is video, with a priceless moment, which will forever put a smile on my face -- you'll know it when it happens).  So we know Tampa Bay is certainly capable of winning this game, too.

Which is why you have to wonder if Head Coach Raheem Morris might have worked on some packages specifically needed to attack New Orleans this past bye week.  Certainly Coach Morris knows the formula.  Just as certainly, the Buccaneers and Saints know each other inside and out.  So any little unexpected wrinkle may go a long way towards a win.  And coaches, those sly coaches, they can work in this wrinkle here and that wrinkle there while practicing for one game, knowing full well it won't be used until the game after next.

Of course, reaching 4-1 makes the discussion irrelevant.  But would you risk a loss to the AFC Cincinnati Bengals to beat the NFC New Orleans Saints?  And how important is it to stay unbeaten at home?
Getting to 3-2 with a win over Cincinnati and a loss to New Orleans would put the Buccaneers at 1-1 in the division with a home divisional loss.  Such a scenario would firmly put the Atlanta Falcons in the lead of the divisional race.  
On the other hand, 3-2 with a loss to Cincinnati and a victory over New Orleans would bury the chance of New Orleans winning the division crown pretty deeply, turning the four team NFC South into a two horse race.  So perhaps a tiny bit of bye-week emphasis on New Orleans may have been in order.

Doing enough to beat the Bengals is good; putting in a little something for the Saints sounds good, too.  Really, really good.
It's not a slam on the Cincinnati Bengals.

It's just keeping your eye on the prize.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Did Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik Orchestrate A Second 2010 Draft?

The short answer: He did, pretty much.  It was only a two day draft this time, targeting later-round players, held quietly at One Buccaneer Place on September 5th and 6th, 2010.  But already the impact is being noticed.

Day One, September 5th, 2010

This day was probably a typical Sunday at your house.  Across the United States, it was "The Day After" in the homes of NFL players:  you either made the cut, or were left on the outside of the 53-man rosters constructed by NFL teams.  At One Buccaneer Place, however, it was not a typical Sunday.  In fact, it was probably pretty noisy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik has made no attempt to hide the fact he believes that good teams find and draft talented young players and develop them.  He has referenced Indianapolis and Pittsburgh as prime examples of this methodology and the lasting competitiveness it brings.  And Head Coach Raheem Morris has been right there with him on the philosophy, taking it to the field where young players have been making noise since DT Roy Miller and WR Sammie Stroughter opened eyes early in the 2009 season.

Dominik expects and gets a lot of feedback on potential players from his coaching staff, so it was probably not just Dominik and College Scouting Director Dennis Hickey in the building that Sunday pouring over the approximately 864 players (27 players -- 80 to 53 -- per 32 teams) released the day before. The review may have started on the 4th. We will never know. But the "draft" started on the 5th.

On the first day of this "second draft", Dominik landed:
Kregg Lumpkin (RB, 5'11", 220lbs) who was on the Packers practice squad since going undrafted in 2009.  A training camp injury made him a candidate for the Packers practice squad.  He may be a candiate for fullback.
Ted Larson (C, 6'2", 205lbs) who was drafted in the 6th round this past April by the New England Patriots.
Vince Anderson (CB, 6'2", 205lbswho went undrafted in 2009 but made the New York Giants practice squad.  He worked at safety in New York but the Buccaneers have him projected at Cornerback, the position he played in college.  He is on the Buccaneers practice squad.
George Johnson (DE, 6'4", 265lbs) who went undrafted in 2010 and is now on the Buccaneers practice squad.
Ryan Purvis (TE, 6'4", 260lbs) who was undrafted in 2009 and is now on the Buccaneers practice squad.

Day Two, September 6th, 2010

The next day (did they even go home??) was just as busy.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed:
Chris Bryan (P, 6'5", 220lbs) brought in from Australia and is now the starting punter. 
LeGarrette Blount (RB, 6'2", 247lbs) who was undrafted in 2010 and spent training camp with the Tennessee Titans.
Dezmon Briscoe (WR, 6'2", 207lbs) who was drafted this past April in the 6th round by the Cincinnati Bengals and is now on the Buccaneers practice squad
Derek Hardman (T, 6'6", 300 lbs) who went undrafted in 2010 and is now on the Buccaneers practice squad.
Will Barker (T, 6'7", 320 lbs) who went undrafted in 2010 and is now on the Buccaneers practice squad.

When the dust cleared, Dominik and Gang had signed 10 more young players.  Two of them were sixth round draft picks of other teams (one of which appears to be a sore point).  Bryan is currently the starting Punter.  And Blount showed promise against the Steelers.  If the rest make it to training camp next year the competition for roster positions could be the most intense in several years.

If Tampa gets solid production from Bryan, Blount, and Lumpkin this year, this "also-draft" could be a significant boost to the overall talent of the team. A boost which could get the Buccaneers back into the playoffs sooner than later!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Upcoming Schedule Strength: Week 4, 2010

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 2-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

WIN 17-14 Cleveland; Buccaneers Ranked #27
WIN 20-7 Carolina; Buccaners Ranked #20
LOSS 38-13 Pittsburgh; Buccaneers now Ranked #22

Up Next
@Cincinnati (2-2)

New Orleans (3-1)
Saint Louis (2-2)
@Arizona (2-2)
@Atlanta (3-1)
Carolina (0-4)
@San Francisco (0-4)
@Baltimore (3-1)
Atlanta (3-1)
@Washington (2-2)
Detroit (0-4)
Seattle (2-2)
@New Orleans (3-1)

Remaining Schedule: 25-27

Using the NFL.com expert consensus rankings (which change weekly), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should finish 8-8 and in the middle of the Wildcard Playoff race in the NFC.