Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds offers up some analysis and observations from Tampa Bay's 24-21 comeback victory in Cincinnati as the Bucs are now 3-1 and preparing to host the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, which are 3-2 following a 30-20 loss at Arizona on Sunday.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS OFFENSE• We learned that Josh Franchise is becoming the quarterback Bucs fans have dreamed of.
That’s right. Josh Freeman has become Josh Franchise this year. Not only has Freeman won five of his last seven starts dating back to last year, four of those wins have been come-from-behind efforts.
With only 13 starts under his belt, Freeman has shown a great blend of poise, calmness and playmaking ability under fire. All of those traits were on display on Sunday in Cincinnati as Freeman helped rally the Bucs for 10 points in the last minute and a half. He had three signature throws on two drives – a 15-yard out to Mike Williams, a 20-yard fade pass to Williams and a 21-yard out to Micheal Spurlock to get Tampa Bay in field goal range for the game-winner.
What’s helping Freeman is the rapid development of Williams, who a career-high seven catches for 99 yards and scored his third touchdown of the year on Sunday. Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow, who had six catches for 75 yards, are becoming a nice, reliable one-two punch for Freeman to throw the ball to.
Bucs fans have seen only fleeting moments of greatness in Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson, and have seen the team’s most talented quarterback, Steve Young, leave to become a Hall of Famer in San Francisco. If Freeman, who has completed 59.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and three interceptions this year, keeps progresses he could be the Pro Bowl-caliber franchise quarterback this franchise has waited decades for.
• We learned that it’s time to consider replacing Cadillac Williams as the starting running back.
Williams opened the game with an 8-yard carry at Cincinnati, but the next eight carries would net just one yard. He finished the first half with nine carries for 10 yards and didn’t get much help from the offensive line. Only runs of 14 and nine yards in the third quarter prevented Williams from having a disastrous performance.
Still, rushing for 33 yards on 11 carries and averaging three yards per carry is nothing to get excited about. It appears Williams does not have the power necessary to break tackles or the speed and elusiveness to make defenders miss. With the offensive line doing a poor job of run blocking, it’s time for the Bucs to rotate in rookie LeGarrette Blount and second-year pro Kareem Huggins more often. Blount didn’t get a carry in the first half and was held to three yards on four carries. Still, he has power that Williams doesn’t and should be worked into the offense more than he was in Cincinnati.
Huggins only had one carry for four yards in the game and did a great job of picking up blitzing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in an A-gap blitz despite being out-weighed by 57 pounds. He too deserves more carries, especially after rushing for a 5.5-yard average in the preseason.
In addition to having six of Williams’ 11 runs against the Bengals go for no more than one yard or lose yardage, the 28-year old rusher dropped all three passes thrown his way on Sunday, including a screen pass that hit him right in the hands.
In 66 carries this season, Williams has averaged only 2.6 yards per carry and only has two carries longer than 10 yards and none longer than 20. It would be hard to imagine the speedy Huggins or the powerful Blount only producing two runs of more than 10 yards if given 66 carries.• We learned that the fullback dive is alive and well in the NFL.
Pewter Report has been telling our subscribers since the OTAs (organized team activities) that offensive coordinator Greg Olson and fullback Earnest Graham were going to bring back the fullback dive – a one-time NFL staple run – this year. In the second quarter, Graham ripped off a 61-yard gain when Tampa Bay was backed up on its own 1-yard line.
Some fans groaned when Graham was moved to fullback this offseason, but Olson pledged to make him an integral part of the offense and not just a lead blocker. Graham’s first career touchdown catch came at Carolina in Week 2 from the fullback position, and his 61-yard run on Sunday was the longest run by a Buccaneer since his 68-yard touchdown against Atlanta in 2008.
The 61-yard jaunt on Sunday was a great call by Olson and great execution by Graham and the offensive line as Cincinnati’s defense was keyed on Cadillac Williams. Graham also picked up a 3-yard gain on third-and-1 in the third quarter on the fullback dive and then scored a touchdown from the halfback position later in the third after he hurdled left guard Keydrick Vincent and Bengals defensive tackle Tank Johnson in the backfield.• We learned that the Bucs need Jeff Faine at center.
Jeremy Zuttah is a backup for reason. When Jeff Faine injured his quadriceps muscle midway through the second quarter on Josh Freeman’s interception, Zuttah came in the game and the running game began to unravel.
While Faine was in the game, the Bucs rushed for 69 yards on six carries, including Earnest Graham’s statistic-skewing 61-yard run. But without Faine, the Bucs rushed for six yards on the last five carries in the first half.
Williams did break off a 14-yard run and had a 9-yard carry after halftime and Zuttah did have two nice blocks on those runs, but Blount rushed for only three yards on four carries in the third quarter. That’s only 32 yards rushing on 11 carries, an average of 2.9 yards with Faine out and Zuttah in at center.
Zuttah also contributed to a costly delay of game penalty inside the Bengals red zone by not snapping the ball quick enough to Freeman in the shotgun late in the second quarter. Mike Williams fumbled on the next play at the Cincinnati 4-yard line after picking up 15 yards. It’s not as if Zuttah played particularly poorly, it’s just that the experienced Faine gives the Bucs the best chance to win. The Bucs hope that Faine’s quad injury isn’t severe because Tampa Bay’s offensive line isn’t playing top-notch football as it is.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS DEFENSE• We learned that Tampa Bay has a big, big, big problem stopping the run.
Somehow the Bucs have managed to go 3-1 while not doing a good job of stopping the run, especially up the middle. Tampa Bay’s linebackers played awful with Quincy Black, Geno Hayes and Barrett Ruud all struggling to get off blocks and make tackles. According to the post-game stats, Ruud finished with five tackles and Black and Hayes finished with three each.
Tampa Bay’s defensive tackles also did a poor job of shedding blocks and making tackles. Roy Miller finished with two tackles, while rookies Gerald McCoy and Brian Price finished without a stop, according to the post-game stats. That’s unacceptable. Outside of Kyle Moore’s five tackles, the defensive ends weren’t much help in stopping the run as Stylez White, Tim Crowder and Michael Bennett all combined for two tackles.
Cincinnati’s offensive line did a great job of opening up big running lanes for Cedric Benson, who rushed for 144 yards on 23 carries (6.3 avg.). If not for the play of safeties Cody Grimm (nine tackles) and Sabby Piscitelli (seven solo tackles), who did a great job in run support, Benson could have had a 200-yard day. Five of his dashes went for 10 yards or more as he picked up automatic first downs with runs of 11, 22, 18, 11 and 13 yards.
Benson’s 144-yard day comes on the heels of surrendering 143 yards to Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall. Granted, the Bucs held the Bengals to 52 less rushing yards than the 201 yards the Steelers amassed on the ground, but giving up 149 yards is still ridiculous.
Head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris can say “stats are for losers” all he wants, but in some ways it’s miraculous that the Bucs are 3-1 while continuing to be in the bottom five in run defense for a second straight year.• We learned that Todd Wash can save his breath.
Tampa Bay’s defensive line went through a heated and sometimes painful film study during the bye week with Wash, Tampa Bay’s D-line coach, putting together some clips of every one-on-one matchup his players have had. The results weren’t pretty as most of the time the Bucs defensive linemen get one-on-one matchups they have not been winning those battles and getting to the quarterback.
The same was true on Sunday in Cincinnati as Tampa Bay only got a few hits on Carson Palmer, and for the third time in four games, the Bucs failed to generate a sack. Wash even activated defensive end Bennett, who sat out the first three games of the season after leading the Bucs in sacks during the preseason, but to no avail.
Tampa Bay did show some modest improvement in getting some pressure against Cincinnati as the defensive line didn’t even record a hit on Pittsburgh quarterback Charlie Batch, but the results weren’t nearly good enough. The Bucs’ three interceptions were largely due to great individual efforts in the secondary, not because Palmer was under duress.
The Bucs’ inability to get to the quarterback with not only a four-man rush, but by blitzing is a glaring weakness. The secondary bailed out the defensive line today, but Tampa Bay, which ranks last in the NFL in sacks with four in four games, will be hard-pressed to keep winning games without more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It’s unfortunate, but Wash’s bye week pep talk didn’t produce the desired result he and Morris were looking for.• We learned that Cody Grimm is a football player.
His interception for a touchdown on his first career pick is the headline-grabber, but Grimm was everywhere on the field on Sunday against the Bengals. Not only did he record nine tackles and play well against the run and the pass, but he also excelled on special teams. Grimm covered the ensuing kickoff after his touchdown and made the tackle, finishing the game with two special teams stops.
What is impressive about Grimm is that he is almost always seems to be in the right position, takes good angles when making tackles and does a nice job of wrapping up instead of going for kill shots on ballcarriers. Grimm showed a knack for quickly and instinctively sniffing out running plays and coming down in the box in a hurry to make the stop.
Grimm was a bit of a one-man gang at Cincinnati and showed a tremendous amount of improvement from the Pittsburgh game to Sunday’s contest. • We learned that it’s the little things that count sometimes.
On third-and-11 with 8:59 left in the second quarter, Black came free against Palmer and nearly had an interception as the pass was thrown right to him. But because Black was at point blank range, Palmer’s pass bounced off his hands. Had he been able to hang on to the ball, Black likely would have scored a touchdown or at worst, given the Tampa Bay offense the ball back inside the Cincinnati 20.
On third-and-9 from the Tampa Bay 28, fullback Brian Leonard caught a short pass and eluded tackle attempts by Hayes and E.J. Biggers to pick up 11 yards. If either Hayes or Biggers make that tackle, the Bucs fall behind 16-14 rather than 21-14 early in the fourth quarter. That’s huge.
On the Bengals’ two-point conversion, Cedric Benson ran right into the lap of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy at the 2-yard line, but bowled him over and stretched for the end zone. That’s the difference between Cincinnati being up 21-14 instead of 19-14, and that is a play the 295-pound McCoy simply has to make.
Yes, the Bucs defense – especially the secondary – was opportunistic with three timely interceptions, but Tampa Bay could have easily lost this game due to not making several little plays on defense like the ones listed above, especially if it can't consistently stop the run or rush the passer.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS SPECIAL TEAMS• We learned that kicker Connor Barth is a machine.
Barth, who was picked up off the NFL discard pile last year after the Bucs cut Matt Bryant and Mike Nugent during the first month of the season, is a perfect 6-of-6 in field goal attempts this year. Dating back to 2009 when Barth made seven of his last eight field goals to end the year, he is converting a whopping 92.8 percent (13-of-14) of his kicks, which is outstanding. • We learned that punter Chris Bryan is maddeningly inconsistent.
Bryan, who had a dreadful game against Pittsburgh, averaging a woeful 31 yards per punt with a 29.4-yard net, didn’t fare much better against Cincinnati. Bryan’s first punt was a solid 44-yarder down to the Cincinnati 14 that was aided by a half the distance penalty that forced the Bengals to start from their own 7-yard line. His second punt was a 41-yarder down to the Bengals 18-yard line and was returned by Adam Jones for a gain of 28 yards.
Bryan’s third punt was a 34-yarder downed at the Cincinnati 6. Two plays later, Cody Grimm’s interception was returned 11 yards for a touchdown, which was huge for Tampa Bay.
His fourth attempt, a directional punt, was Bryan’s worst of the day, traveling just 15 yards to the Cincinnati 26. Bryan rebounded with a 34-yard effort downed at the Cincinnati 6 in the fourth quarter, but then disappointed with a 35-yard effort that only made it to the Cincinnati 41-yard line with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter.
Through four games, Bryan has 23 punts for 860 yards, which is a 37.4-yard average, and the Australian has a 34.2-yard net. Neither average is stellar.
Bryan’s one saving grace is the fact that through four games he has downed five punts inside the 20 and still has no touchbacks. Yet that may not keep the Bucs from bringing in punters on Tuesday for tryouts, and Brent Bowden, the team’s sixth-round pick, is still available.• We learned that Micheal Spurlock is not a one-trick pony.
Spurlock was tentative in fielding his four kickoffs and had a costly fumble on his final attempt that set up a Bengals touchdown, was able to compartmentalize the special teams element of his game. He rebounded from his lackluster kick return performance and caught three big passes for 35 yards, but perhaps none more important than his 21-yarder down to the Cincinnati 13-yard line to set up Barth’s 31-yard game-winning field goal. Spurlock, who is developing into one heck of a receiver, shrugged off the fumble on special teams and redeemed himself with a big play on offense.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS FROM THIS VICTORY• We learned that Raheem Morris knows more about football than we do.
Kudos to the head coach for having the confidence to stick with the rookie free safety after starting Grimm against Pittsburgh raised plenty of eyebrows, including yours truly. Grimm vindicated Morris’ decision by not only recording a pick six in the first quarter, but also making a ton of sure tackles and finishing the day with nine stops on defense.
It certainly looked like Grimm had more than nine tackles. When the coaches go back and look at the game film and record the stops (tackles are an unofficial statistic kept by the team, not the NFL), don’t be surprised if Grimm winds up with 12-15 tackles against the Bengals. That tackle total would be legit too, as Grimm had a fantastic game.
Grimm is one of those young, ascending players that are part of the Morris mantra in every press conference. The roster is chock full of them and they all believe in Morris, check their egos at the door and are playing an incredible brand of team-first football.• We learned that a villain can be a hero.
There hasn’t been a single Buccaneer that has been under as much scrutiny from the fans and the media than Piscitelli. The fourth-year safety was vilified and crucified for bad play in 2009, which was his first full season as a starter. Piscitelli missed an NFL-high 19 tackles and blew his share of coverages last year, and even though there were plenty of culpable culprits in 2009’s disastrous 3-13 record, the strong safety was branded as the scapegoat on talk radio and on PewterReport.com’s message boards.
Piscitelli played every snap after Sean Jones suffered an injury on the first play of the game and showed vast improvement from a year ago. He finished the game with seven tackles and made up for getting over to tight end Jermaine Gresham late on his 1-yard touchdown catch with a key 31-yard interception return with less than a minute left in regulation to set up Tampa Bay’s game-winning field goal.
Piscitelli, who had to endure losing his starting job to Jones amid all of the criticism he has faced, was mobbed with congratulations by his teammates on the sideline. Redemption can be a beautiful thing.• We learned that the Bucs have a very real shot at the playoffs.
Don’t laugh. The Bucs are 3-1 and have several winnable games left on their schedule, including games against St. Louis (2-3), Carolina (0-5), San Francisco (0-5), Detroit (1-4), Seattle (2-2), Arizona (3-2) and Washington (3-2). Victories in all of these contests and the Bucs win the race to 10. That’s not including two games against New Orleans (3-2), Atlanta (4-1) or Baltimore (4-1).
Of course the Bucs, who have already equaled last year’s win total, will have to show dramatic improvement in establishing the running game, stopping the run and rushing the passer to continue their winning ways otherwise the 3-1 start will begin to look like its been produced with smoke and mirrors.
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