Yardbarker Horiz

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Erratic Buccaneers: 12-4 or 8-8?

What a difference a week makes.

The Experts at NFL.com are faltering in their impression of the young Buccaneers after wild swings through the second quarter of the season.  Last week, 12-4 looked possible.  This week, Tampa Bay may not make the playoffs.

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 4-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, currently ranked 17th in the NFL.com Expert Consensus Power Poll

LOST 27-20 to Detroit
WON 24-20 against Minnesota
WON 16-13 against Atlanta
WON 24-17 against Indianapolis
LOST 48-3 to San Francisco
WON 26-20 against New Orleans
LOST 24-18 to Chicago

Up Next:

November 6th @New Orleans (5-2) #3

Houston (4-3) #11
@Green Bay (7-0) #1
@Tennessee (3-3) #21
Carolina (2-5) #23
@Jacksonville (2-5) #25
Dallas (3-3) #16
@Carolina (2-5) #23
@Atlanta (4-3) #13

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 27-27

Based on the Power Poll, Tampa Bay should finish the 2011 season with an 8-8 record.  The swing games appear to be against Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, which means Tampa Bay's playoff hopes are shaping up to go down to the wire again.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Buccaneers Enter Bye Week at 4-3

I bet it was a long plane ride back from London.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to Florida at 4-3 for a well earned weekend off.  The team has shown it's youth this season with wildly inconsistent results, the latest being 24-18 loss to the Chicago Bears at Wembly Stadium in London, after beating the New Orleans Saints, and two weeks since the San Francisco game.

They did all they could to prevent a repeat of the 35-7 loss to New England in London just two years ago.  The team went to London early, they acclimated and adjusted.  At times, they played well.  But it just did not go well enough.

It didn't help when Micheal Koenen, a stalwart performer this season, sent the opening kickoff out-of-bounds.

The inactive list for the game was much last last weekend with lots of talent on the sidelines: DT Gerald McCoy, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Sammie Stroughter, C Jeff Faine, T James Lee, and TE Zack Pianalto.  Unfortunately, those players had company quickly.

The Buccaneers three-and-outed the Bears after the Koenen miscue, but were unable to to make much progress themselves.  The Bears got the ball back, then drove the field and scored first to take the early lead 7-0, then three-and-outed the Buccaneers to get the ball back again.  Bears QB Jay Cutler was victimized by Tanard Jackson, who made his second interception in as many weeks, who returned the pick to the Chicago 12 yard line.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman was then intercepted on the next play at the two yard line.

The defense rose to the occasion on the next play when DT Brian Price stopping the initial surge by Chicago, forcing Bears RB Matt Forte to veer left into the waiting tackle of CB Ronde Barber for a safety, bringing the score to a strange 7-2 mark.

Tampa Bay took over after the safety kick at their own 40 yard line.  However, after an initial first down, the offense imploded with three penalties on the next five plays.  The drive included such unmanageable situations as 2nd and 21, 2nd and 26, and 3rd and 21, before the Buccaneers were forced to punt on 4th and 12.  The Bears got one play in the books before the first quarter ended.

Although behind on the scoreboard by only five points, Tampa Bay lost the services of both RB Earnest Graham and FB Erik Lorig in the first quarter, leaving RB Kregg Lumpkin as the lone healthy running back for the Buccaneers.

Chicago opened the second quarter with the ball, but was forced to punt.  After one carry by Kregg Lumpkin, who lost a yard, Tampa Bay passed twice then punted for a three-and-out by the Bears.  Chicago then went on a 7 play, 79 yard touchdown drive to push their lead to 14-2.

Tampa Bay got the ball back on their own 20, threw three times, then punted the ball away.

The Bears then drove to the Tampa Bay 36 yard line before they stalled and punted.

Starting from their own 7 yard line, Tampa Bay ran once and threw eight times before the clock caught up with them, resulting in a 33-yard field goal by Connor Barth, resulting in a 14-5 halftime score.

The Bears opened the second half by three-and-outing the Buccaneers, then putting together another seven play scoring drive, this time covering 55 yards and a lead of 21-5.  It would be the only points scored in the third quarter.

Tampa Bay finally broke through after S Corey Lynch intercepted a pass at the Chicago 35-yard line, returning it to the 21.  Four plays later, the Buccaneers scored on a Freeman to TE Kellen Winslow pass of two yards.  The 2-point conversion failed, but Tampa Bay had closed the gap to 21-11.

After a Chicago three-and-out, the Buccaneers then called six straight pass plays, the final one being a 24-yard touchdown to WR Dezmon Briscoe, tightening the score to 21-18 with 7 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game.

The Bears took the resulting kick and drove to the Buccaneer 4-yard line.  The defense held steady for two plays, then Ronde Barber broke through and sacked Jay Culter for a six yard loss with 3:44 to go in the game.  The Bears would have been forced to attempt a field goal and give the Buccaneers the ball back, but CB Aqib Talib got into a tussle with Bears WR Roy Williams, resulting in a personal foul penalty on Talib and new life for Chicago.  Although the Buccaneer defense then rose to the occasion a second time, forcing the Bears to settle for a field goal, the Bears had run 12 plays and drained the game clock to the two minute warning with the score at 24-18.

The Buccaneers took the resulting kickoff and, from their own 28-yard line, marched quickly to the Bears 39 yard line before Josh Freeman was intercepted for a fourth time, ending the game at 24-18.

During the game, Tampa Bay also saw LB Mason Foster and DE Da'Quan Bowers leave the game with injuries.

The bye week could not have come at a better time.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One of Those Choices

Around 28 minutes into his Total Access show from London this week, Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik talked about spending 24-hours agonizing over one decision regarding his roster during the run-up to the New Orleans game.

The timeframe of this decision was Oct 10th through Oct 14th (not many roster changes on Thursdays or Fridays before games).  As I see it, the major event of that timeframe is the reinstatement of Tanard Jackson into the NFL.

Tampa Bay retains Jackson's rights through the end of this league year.  What triggered a hard decision is Jackson showed up at One Buccaneer Place in game shape.  In a group of Safeties which was already down one body with the loss of Cody Grimm, the return of a ready-to-play Tanard Jackson was a big boost.  Unfortunately, with Jackson reinstated, the Buccaneers were one man over the NFL roster limit.  Either Jackson had to be cut or another player.

This is the agonizing part for any GM, and I'm sure it's what Dominik was referring to.  The roster is flush with young talent.  Yet an experienced performer in your scheme is available.  And there is no "both" option; someone has to go.

After all the agonizing, phone calls with coaches, consultation with the pro personnel staff, and (no doubt) a long discussion with Head Coach Raheem Morris, the decision seems to have boiled down to keeping Tanard Jackson and releasing RB Allen Bradford (6th Round, 2011).

Bradford was deep on the depth chart behind players like LeGarrette Blount, Earnest Graham, and Kregg Lumpkin.  Clearly, the leadership group saw something in Bradford they liked.  This is a franchise which clearly values every selection.  So it would seems they planned on getting Bradford to the practice squad.

Then Dominik got . . . well, Dominik'd.

The Seattle Seahawks (and Bradford's former coach at USC Pete Carroll) swooped in and signed Bradford.  Talent lost.

That's not to say Bradford will never return.  Pro Personnel Director Shelton Quarles will keep an eye on the young man, no doubt.  Clearly Seattle also thinks Bradford is a worthwhile prospect, validating what the Buccaneers believed from the start.  But now he's not learning in Tampa. Tampa Bay's coaches are not directing his development and he's not in the Tampa Bay meeting rooms.

General Managers and their staff make these kinds of choices all the time.  There is no way to know if Bradford becomes the next Top 5 running back in the NFL, or if Tanard Jackson's troubles are behind him.  Jackson played a big role in the New Orleans victory last weekend, so in the short term at least, the decision appears to be solid.  Every roster move in the NFL involves something lost versus something gained.  The challenge for for more to fall under "gain".

Anticipating the results of this move will be something that nags at the front office for a while.

Such is life at One Buccaneer Place.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Buccaneers Special Teams Dominating

A kickoff through the endzone.  A booming punt.

These were common sights last weekend as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New Orleans Saints 26-20 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

But it is much more than a one game phenomenon. During the Tony Dungy coaching era of the 1990s, the Buccaneers were well known to have excellent special teams play.  It appears that phase of the game is returning to it's dominant form.

It has been a long and winding special teams road for General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris.  In 2009, the first year of the new leadership, Tampa Bay utilized five different kickers during the first seven games of the season before finding Connor Barth, who has been the steady, heady presence an NFL team needs at the position.  In fact, last weekend, Connor Barth hit four field goals and two extra points generating more than half of the Buccaneer's points last Sunday.  Add in his kickoffs without returns and there is a case for MVP last weekend.

Punting has been equally tricky for Dominik and Morris to get a grip on.  That is, until this past offseason when Dominik took a rare dive into the free agent pool and signed Micheal Koenen, turning a solid double-play: fix a position of need for Tampa Bay and remove a player who had never missed a game from the Atlanta Falcons.  Textbook case of playing to win.

Last weekend, Koenen averaged nearly 50 yards per punt, but the real story is much better:  Tampa Bay currently ranks 4th in the NFL in net yards per punt (42.5 yards).  Not only has Koenen been a great addition, but the entire punting team has been making sure that those big booms don't get wasted by a big return.

Tampa fans love their defense, and the young talent on offense is explosive.  But the special teams play, the "We-fence" as it it called at One Buc Place, has become equally valuable to the team's playoff run in 2011.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Saints Win Puts Buccaneers on 12-win Pace

With a 26-20 win over the previously #2 rated New Orleans Saints, the Buccaneers get a critical win for reaching the playoffs this season.

A peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 4-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, currently ranked 11th in the NFL.com Expert Consensus Power Poll

LOST 27-20 to Detroit
WON 24-20 against Minnesota
WON 16-13 against Atlanta
WON 24-17 against Indianapolis
LOST 48-3 to San Francisco
WON 26-20 against New Orleans

Up Next:
Chicago (in London) (3-3) #16

@New Orleans (4-2) #7
Houston (3-3) #15
@Green Bay (6-0) #1
@Tennessee (3-2) #14
Carolina (1-5) #24
@Jacksonville (1-5) #29
Dallas (2-3) #20
@Carolina (1-5) #24
@Atlanta (3-3) #17

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 27-31

Based on the Power Poll, Tampa Bay should finish the 2011 season with an 12-4 record.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Buccaneers Flaunt Depth, Reach Top of NFC South

One week after a disastrous trip to the west coast, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held serve at home in the NFC South against the New Orleans Saints 26-20.

The game started with several key Buccaneer players unavailable, including RB LeGarrette Blount, DT Gerald McCoy (both starters), WR Sammie Stroughter, TE Luke Stocker, LB Zac Diles, and Tackles James Lee and Derek Hardman.  Blount and McCoy both started last weekend, Stroughter was the opening day kick returner, and Stocker has been coming on recently in relief of Kellen Winslow.  Lee and Hardman filled key roles on the offensive line during the injury-plagued 10-win run last season.  It's a large, important group and the bye week can't get here soon enough.

Nevertheless, the Buccaneers proved once again they have capable depth on the roster.  RB Earnest Graham and DT Brian Price stepped in for Blount and McCoy respectively, and TE Zack Pianalto stepped in to spell Winslow.  Another new face to the starting lineup was the return of S Tanard Jackson to help with the season-ending loss of starting Safety Cody Grimm two weeks ago.  Clearly, depth will come into play this season as well.

Early in the game it was apparent that there was one facet of the game the Buccaneers were going to close down, and that was the New Orleans special teams play.  With a dangerous return man like Darren Sproles waiting, punter Micheal Koenen boomed towering punts to the sidelines, removing the Saints' return game from consideration.  Koenen punted just four times, but posted a nearly-fifty yard average (49.8 yards; Sproles was only able to return one, and he lost 10 yards on the play, tackled by LB Dakota Watson).

The supposedly slow-starting Buccaneers scored first on a Conner Barth 48-yard field goal in the first quarter to take a 3-0 lead.

The Saints grabbed the following possession and scored on a 38-yard Drew Brees to Maques Colston pass down the left sideline, taking their first lead of the game at 7-3.  The first quarter would finish with that score.

Less than two minutes into the second quarter, Tampa Bay grabbed the lead back on a 65-yard bomb from Josh Freeman to Arrelious Benn across the middle of the field to raise the score to 10-7.  The defense then held the Saints to a 3-and-out, and the Buccaneer offense took the ball back to the New Orleans side of the field for a field goal and a 13-7 lead.

On the following Saints possession, S Tanard Jackson intercepted a Drew Brees pass, and the young Buccaneers turned it into points with another Josh Freeman pass.  This time, Preston Parker sprinted right-to-left across the middle of the defense for 19 yards and a touchdown, extending the Tampa Bay lead to 20-7.

New Orleans, showing the resilience one has come to expect from the Saints, drove the field to close the half but were forced to settle for a field goal and Tampa Bay took a 20-10 lead into the locker room.

In the third quarter, both teams were only able to generate field goals, and the fourth quarter started 23-13.

New Orleans opened the fourth quarter with the ball and, assisted by a pass interference call, used rookie Mark Ingram from 12 yards out to narrow the Tampa Bay lead to 20-23.  After an exchange of 3-and-out series, the Buccaneers drove to the New Orleans 20 yard line before stalling, and another Connor Barth field goal opened the lead to 26-20.

The New Orleans Saints then took the next possession at their own 24 yard line and tore through the Buccaneer defense to the Tampa Bay two yard line where, on 4th and 2, Drew Brees was intercepted by Quincy Black in the endzone to preserve the Buccaneer lead.

Two first downs later, the Buccaneers lined up in the victory formation and finished the game with a 26-20 victory and ascended to 1st place in the potent NFC South.

It was a significant change of fortunes as the visiting team had won Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans games for the past two years.

Super-Sub RB Earnest Graham gained 109 yards on 17 attempts, a blistering 6.4 yards per carry average.  DT Brain Price recorded a tackle for loss, and S Tanard Jackson posted five solo tackles and an interception.  Even first year, undrafted TE Zack Pianalto donned his super-sub helmet and recorded a catch for nine yards.

It was important for Tampa Bay to put the prior week behind them, and they certainly did against the team many considered to be the best in the NFC South.  Later this season they may face the West Coast hurdle again, but for now Buccaneer fans can enjoy the return to the top of the NFC South and look forward to this weekend's game against the Chicago Bears in London.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Buccaneers Poised for 11-win Season

One year ago, we started tracking the "Race for 10" (copyright Head Coach Raheem Morris) after week 4 and predicted the Buccaneers would finish 10-6 based on the NFL.com Power Poll of the 32 NFL teams.  Turns out the predictive powers were good, although declaring 10 wins enough to make the playoffs was, sadly and surprisingly, inaccurate.

So, we take the same path for 2011 and peek ahead at the upcoming schedule of the 3-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, currently ranked 9th in the NFL.com Expert Consensus Power Poll

LOSS 27-20 to Detroit
WIN 24-20 against Minnesota
WIN 16-13 against Atlanta
WIN 24-17 against Indianapolis

Up Next:
@San Francisco (3-1) Power Poll Rank: #15

New Orleans (3-1) #2
Chicago (in London) (2-2) #18
@New Orleans (3-1) #2
Houston (3-1) #6
@Green Bay (4-0) #1
@Tennessee (3-1) #12
Carolina (1-3) #23
@Jacksonville (1-3) #26
Dallas (2-2) #19
@Carolina (1-3) #23
@Atlanta (2-2) #17

Remaining Schedule Cumulative Record: 28-20

Based on the Power Poll, Tampa Bay should finish the 2011 season with an 11-5 record.  That  should put the Buccaneers in the playoffs!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Playoff Fate Determined By Next Four Games

For the second season in a row, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are off and running to a fast, 3-1 start.  The one loss?  The unbeaten Detroit Lions.  Not shabby at all.  And putting Atlanta one game into the rear view mirror is always A Good Thing. The other two wins?  Versus the winless Colts and winless Vikings.

It's a similar situation to 2010, when the Buccaneers beat Carolina, Cleveland, and Cincinnati but lost to Pittsburgh in the first four games.  Then came the statement by Head Coach Raheem Morris that this was the best team in the NFC.  Are the Buccaneers as confident this season?  Probably so.

Nonetheless, the next four games may decide if the Buccaneers miss the playoffs again this season:
1. Oct 9th -- West Coast tip to meet up with the 3-1 San Francisco 49ers after a short Monday Night Football week
2. Oct 16th -- Home against the co-NFC South leaders, the 3-1 New Orleans Saints
3. Oct 23rd -- Off to London to face the 2-2 Chicago Bears in Wembley Stadium
A Halloween bye week, then finally:
4. Nov 6th -- To the Superdome to match up for the second time in three games (and last time during the 2011 regular season) against the New Orleans Saints.

Every one of those four teams are in the NFC, and wins against NFC teams are crucial for late-season tie-breaker scenarios.  In addition, all are contenders to win their divisions which makes them excellent tuneups for playoff football.  Finally, Tampa Bay can bury the New Orleans Saints with two wins and place themselves all alone at the top of the NFC South.

In 2010, Tampa Bay lost two divisional games during the second quarter of the season, then played the rest of the season looking up from below at Atlanta and New Orleans.  In the end, they missed the playoffs.

The next four games will go a long way determining if this season finishes any differently than the last.