Pewter Report's Dory LeBlanc examines five keys for a Buccaneers victory each week prior to the game. Following Tampa Bay's loss to New Orleans on Sunday, LeBlanc reviews her keys to victory and offers up her grades on each one.
Key 1. Calm the Brees
When Ronde Barber intercepted Drew Brees off a tipped ball by Gerald McCoy on the opening drive, it appeared as if the Bucs would have Brees’ number Sunday.
As it would turn out, they did not.
Brees completed 20-of-25 passes for 313 yards, four touchdowns and the first-possession pick in the first half alone. Some of it can be attributed to defensive play calling and some of it can be blamed on a lack of fundamentals.
Defending a former Super Bowl MVP QB isn’t easy, but when you meet that quarterback twice a season you would think you’d learn some tricks of the trade to at least slow him down, which the Bucs eventually did in the second half, holding Brees to 7-of-12 passes for 64 yards.
To be fair, the Bucs were without their No. 1 corner Aqib Talib who is serving a four-game suspension for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance and rookies Lavonte David and Mark Barron have obviously never faced Brees. The Bucs made adjustments at halftime and were able to keep the elite QB from adding anymore passing touchdowns to his season resume.
Tampa Bay could not bring the 12th year quarterback down, however, mostly because they were using a three-man rush the entire game. In fact, the Buccaneer defense didn’t even register a QB hit, which speaks to the time Brees had to get the ball out of his hands and into the hands of one of the seven receivers he completed a pass to.
Key 2. Freeman Must Focus
Josh Freeman’s focus wasn’t put to the test on the opening touchdown as he fired a 13-yards laser to Tiquan Underwood on the first offensive snap, putting a quick seven points on the scoreboard in front of a nearly-packed Raymond James Stadium.
The fourth-year quarterback had the best game of his career, throwing for 420 yards and three touchdowns, while completing 24-of-42 pass attempts.
Despite two illegal hands penalty calls, a botched snap, and poor run blocking, the O-Line once again gave Freeman enough time to find receivers, particularly Vincent Jackson who set a franchise record of 216 yards receiving in a single game. Freeman-to-Jackson also eclipsed the Bucs’ previous mark for longest single play.
The former first-round draft pick has hit his stride the past two games, passing for a combined 748 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception.
Freeman still needs to improve on the consistency of his short-to-intermediate passing accuracy, which tends to get the 6-6 QB into trouble at times as he overthinks the throw and releases the ball too late, causing a low or errant pass. Mentally, Freeman has a tendency to get stuck in lulls where he will throw several incomplete passes in a series. Against the Saints, Freeman was lull-free until the fourth quarter when he threw seven incompletions out of 15 passes on the TD drive to bring the Bucs to within a touchdown. The drive was kept alive by back-to-back illegal contact calls on the Saints’ Roman Harper, giving Tampa Bay a first down for both yellow flags thrown.
Overall, Freeman looked confident and was sharp and did throw several lasers to his receivers. If he can get do away with overthinking and just use his natural talents, 2012 could be Freeman’s best season yet.
Key 3. Hit The Trifecta
One third of the trifecta played well – the offense.
The defense looked confused through much of the game, and although his coverage was questionable at times, Eric Wright ended the game tied as the Bucs’ leading tackler with eight total.
There were several blown assignments in the secondary, which Brees surgically worked through. Giving up big pass plays has been the Bucs’ Achilles heel all season and it wasn’t much different against New Orleans.
Special teams also struggled Sunday and even had an unsportsmanlike penalty called against them for trying to draw the Saints’ field goal unit offsides. New Orleans was given a first down which they converted into a touchdown four plays later.
Michael Koenen handled his kickoff duties much more sufficiently than his punting, having all five kickoffs resulting in touchbacks, while punting three times for 126 total yards, an average of 42 yards per punt.
Connor Barth, who made 25 consecutive field goals before having his streak snapped last week against Kansas City, missed a 42 yarder in the third quarter as the ball sailed wide left.
The return game was mostly non-existent for the Bucs, with Arrelious Benn making a poor decision to take a kick out of the end zone, amassing only 16 yards on the return, four yards back from where they would have started if he would have taken a knee. Roscoe Parrish couldn’t find many holes on punt returns, returning two for 15 yards total.
The Bucs have now lost four games by an average of 5.5 points. Having all three phases play all 60 minutes has to be the primary focus of the team moving forward.
Key 4. Sure-Tackles Will Snuff Saints Arsenal
Entering Sunday’s game, the Saints were ranked 30th in the NFL in running the ball, averaging 75.2 rushing yards per game, while Tampa Bay’s defense was third in stopping the run, allowing an average of 75 yards on the ground per contest.
The scales should have been tipped in the Bucs’ favor against New Orleans, but the Saints rushed for 81 yards as a team, mostly due to missed tackles.
Tampa Bay’s tackling has been solid the first five games, with the linebacking corps leading the charge, but Sunday it was corner back Wright who was the team’s
tackling leader with eight.
The fundamentals head coach Greg Schiano has been preaching since taking the helm of the Buccaneer ship in January were absent through much of the first half, and in its place were sloppy arm tackling that had little effective on the Saints’ offensive players.
Both middle linebacker Mason Foster and rookie weakside LB Lavonte David had been turning heads all over the league with their sure-tackling, but Sunday Foster only mustered up five stops. David was tied with Wright with eight tackles and fellow rookie Mark Barron made seven, and also missed a huge tackle in the second quarter
that eventually led to a Saints TD.
The Tampa Bay defense has to make a quick turnaround as they face Minnesota Thursday. Sloppy and missed tackles like in the Saints game will pull the Bucs even farther below .500.
Key 5. Run Early, Run Often
The Buccaneer running game was primarily all Doug Martin Sunday. Martin ran for 83 yards on 13 attempts for an average of 5.3 yards per carry and had a breakout TD run of 36 yards in the first quarter.
Freeman took off running twice, with a long of 13 yards for a first down in the Bucs’ second possession of the game and later for minus-4 yards on the goal line situation that resulted in the ball being turned over on downs. D.J. Ware converted a third down in the first quarter and Benn picked up a couple of yards on an end-around at the end of the opening quarter.
Blount struggled getting anything going for positive yardage, having a long of one yard and finishing the day with minus-4 yards on five carries.
All of the ball carriers combined for 98 yards on 25 attempts against a New Orleans rushing defense that was ranked 31st in the NFL, allowing 172.8 rushing yards per contest.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan will have just a few days to figure out how to get the run more involved as they face a pretty good Vikings defense that is holding opponents to an average of 96 yards per game on the ground.