Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds offers up some analysis and observations from Tampa Bay's come-from-behind, 38-35 victory at Arizona, which allowed the Bucs to improve to 5-2 on the season heading into next Sunday's big contest at Atlanta on November 7.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS OFFENSE
We learned that Josh Franchise is having a Pro Bowl season. That’s not a typo. Josh Freeman has become Josh Franchise, the quarterback this team, fan base and town have always wanted but have never had since 1976. Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier wasn’t the answer, and neither was Doug Williams, who gave the Bucs a couple of good years and playoff appearances before a nasty contract dispute with former owner Hugh Culverhouse cursed the franchise for years.
Steve Young became a Hall of Fame quarterback – but only after he was traded from Tampa Bay to San Francisco. Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer were first-rounders who teased Bucs fans with their big arms, but disappointed with their big interception totals.
Freeman, who in his 16th NFL start completed 18-of-25 passes (72 percent) for 278 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions against Arizona, is the real deal. What was his biggest sin on Sunday? Taking a sack to set up fourth-and-23 with 3:24 left in the game to force a 53-yard field goal that was blocked. No doubt that was a big play, but when a second-year quarterback’s only bad play of the game is taking a sack with a three-point lead that tells you how far he has come in his development.
The team’s first-round pick in 2009 has completed 135-of-224 passes (60.3 percent) of his passes this year for 1,533 yards, eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a QB rating of 87.1. Freeman’s goal this year was to play as a fifth-year quarterback – not a second-year quarterback – and that’s exactly what he’s done.
Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are locks for the Pro Bowl in the NFC. Brees has thrown a conference-leading 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, while Ryan has thrown 12 scores and only five picks. But given how clutch Freeman has been in the fourth quarter and with nearly a 3:1 touchdown-interception ratio, he is right there with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (12 TDs, nine INTs) and New York’s Eli Manning (14 TDs, 11 INTs) for that third spot on the ballot. The Giants are also 5-2, while the Packers are 5-3.
Freeman will get plenty of national exposure this week leading up to the Bucs vs. Falcons game, which will have a say in deciding current NFC supremacy, and we all know that the Pro Bowl is a popularity contest.
We learned that LeGarrette Blount should be the starting running back for the Buccaneers. Wait? Didn’t we learn that last week? Yeah, but just in case offensive coordinator Greg Olson didn’t read last week’s column, we’ll restate the case. The undrafted free agent out of Oregon had a phenomenal game with 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while Cadillac Williams rushed for just 10 yards on four carries.
Blount is now the leading rusher in Tampa Bay with 43 carries for 222 yards (5.2 avg.) and three touchdowns. Williams, who is now second on the team with 212 yards and no rushing touchdowns on 84 carries (2.5 avg.), should be relegated to the role of a third down back, because that is where he is helping the team most.
Blount, whose supposed weakness is in the passing game, caught his first NFL two passes for nine yards, and is making a case for himself being an every down back.
But running the ball is what the big, 6-foot, 247-pound Blount does best and he had a huge, highlight reel run against Arizona late in the fourth quarter as the Bucs were attempting to run out the clock. Blount spun away from a tackle attempt by Darnell Dockett at the line of scrimmage, burst past defensive tackle Alan Branch and then hurdled free safety Kerry Rhodes. If not for getting clipped on the heel by diving defensive end Calais Campbell, which allowed cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to tackle him after a 48-yard gain, Blount could have had a 94-yard touchdown.
“Basically it was one-on-one with one of their DBs and I waited until the last minute to see what he was going to do – if he was going to tackle me high,” Blount said. “My first instinct is to jump over them because with me being 250 pounds, I can’t juke anybody. I’m not going to try to run a guy over that is two inches shorter than me because he will probably take my legs out. The first thing I saw was him going down on his knees so I went over him.”
That run and a 15-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run in which he ran over Rhodes, showed why he is clearly the most talented running back on the Buccaneers and is becoming an emerging force in this league. Get ready for Blount force.
We learned that Jeremy Zuttah is a center. If there is any upside to the torn quadriceps injury that center Jeff Faine suffered at Cincinnati it is that the Bucs coaches and personnel department has gotten a chance to evaluate Zuttah at center, which some have said is his more natural position despite never playing it at Rutgers. In three and half games at center, Zuttah has performed quite well and those assertions about him having a future at center have been validated.
Zuttah has played so well that the team decided to release veteran Keydrick Vincent on Friday and move Zuttah back to left guard where he started 16 games last year and underwhelmed once Faine returns from his injury in a week or two. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zuttah play better than he did last year, but not as good as he has been performing at center where he can use his athleticism to quickly double team a defensive tackle with a guard, as he did with Davin Joseph on Arizona nose tackle Bryan Robinson before advancing to the second level and peeling off Paris Lenon on Blount’s 15-yard touchdown.
While Faine is certainly not going to be retiring any time soon, the Bucs have to feel some relief in the fact that they have already found his eventual replacement in Zuttah, who is playing some really good football right now.
We learned that Mike Williams is an elite wide receiver. We knew Williams was the best receiver on the Buccaneers, but on Sunday, he established himself as one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. Williams made several big plays in the passing game, including a 31-yard reception and a career-long 47-yard touchdown catch on the same drive in the second quarter.
He added a 22-yard catch in the third quarter and finished the game with a career-high 105 yards and one touchdown on four catches. Williams’ 470 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 32 receptions leads all rookies this year, and is outperforming the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Desean Jackson, Mike Wallace, Percy Harvin and Chad Ochocinco.
Williams won’t make the Pro Bowl this year, but he should challenge Detroit running back Jahvid Best for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
We learned that Arrelious Benn is on the rise. Benn, one of the team’s two second-round picks this year, had a great game at Arizona despite limited playing time. He almost blocked a punt in the second quarter and had a great block on Rhodes on Blount’s important 7-yard run on third-and-6 from the Tampa Bay 7 with less than two minutes to play in the first half. Picking up that first down allowed the Bucs to score a last-second field goal right before halftime that would prove to be a key score in a game that was decided by three points.
Benn’s 53-yard catch in the fourth quarter to set up Tampa Bay’s go-ahead, game-winning touchdown, was his only reception of the day and was the longest play from scrimmage by the Buccaneers this season. The emergence of Micheal Spurlock is limiting Benn’s opportunities. Spurlock, who was once a Cardinal, had two great catches of 20 and 29 yards in the second quarter on Tampa Bay’s field goal drive right before halftime and finished with three catches for 60 yards to give him 12 for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
But after the victory at Arizona, Benn, who has eight catches for 129 yards this year, has a 16.1-yard average that leads the team. That average, coupled with his clutch, 53-yard reception, will undoubtedly give him some more playing time in the future.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
We learned that the old Geno Hayes is back. Through the first six games of the season, the play of Tampa Bay’s weakside linebacker has come under fire. The playmaking Hayes of 2009, who recorded three sacks and picked off two passes was nowhere to be found until Sunday’s game at Arizona.
In two back-to-back plays, Hayes should have recorded his first sack of the season, dropping Max Hall for a 5-yard loss (but it was called a run by Hall by the statisticians) before intercepting Hall on the next play after the quarterback was pressured by strong safety Sean Jones, who came on a blitz. Hayes returned his pick 41 yards for a touchdown, the first defensive score of his career.
In the fourth quarter, Hayes drilled Arizona running back LaRod Stephens-Howling as he was catching the ball and jarred it loose. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was right there to make a diving interception for Tampa Bay. Hayes was listed as questionable for the game due to a knee injury that caused him to miss some practice time.
Last Wednesday prior to Sunday’s game, I had asked why Hayes wasn’t making the splash plays like he did last year.
“Some teams are really picking up and keying on me,” Hayes said. “At the same time, I have to game plan myself and really adjust to the things that they are doing to me. I’m still understanding when I can make plays and how I can make plays. There are certain situations where you can’t make plays because certain defenses call for you to fall back into coverage or something like that.
“Sometimes you can’t make all the plays, and sometimes you are in position to make a play but they don’t throw the ball your way at the last minute. One of these games I think it’s all going to fall into place and everybody is going to see that I can still do it.”
That game was Sunday in Arizona.
We learned that the old Aqib Talib is back. Talib nearly had an interception on Arizona’s first drive, and then on third-and-13 early in the second quarter, he had blanket coverage on wide receiver Steve Breaston and made a diving pass deflection. The talented corner finally sealed the deal as he jumped in front of Breaston to pick off a pass and return it 45 yards for his first career touchdown.
Talib did give up a big, 33-yard reception to Breaston at the Tampa Bay 11 right before halftime, but the Cardinals receiver made a fantastic play on the ball and Talib’s coverage wasn’t bad. Talib then finished off the Cardinals by picking off Derek Anderson late in the fourth quarter.
More importantly, Talib didn’t blow any coverages to the point where he surrendered a touchdown. Larry Fitzgerald did score a 5-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen, but Talib got blocked by another receiver immediately at the line of scrimmage. That TD shouldn’t be labeled as his fault.
Talib now has five interceptions on the season, which matches his career-high from a year ago. The first-round draft pick in 2008 now has 14 picks in his two-and-a-half-year career, and is on pace to finish with 11 this season.
We learned that Myron Lewis is making a run for the nickel corner job. Nickel corner E.J. Biggers did not have a good day on Sunday. Biggers gave up Fitzgerald’s first touchdown catch and also gave up a few passes to Breaston and Early Doucet. Biggers was also flagged for defensive pass interference on Doucet in the fourth quarter and gave up outside contain and the sideline on LaRod Stephens-Howling’s 30-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Biggers has played well this year, but struggled in Arizona. He only made two tackles and did not record any pass breakups.
Lewis, the team’s third-round pick, has also played well as a dime corner and a situational substitution corner in nickel defense. Against the Cardinals, Lewis did not have any coverage busts, made one tackle and had a nice pass breakup against Fitzgerald on a deep pass on Arizona’s final drive. More solid performances by Lewis combined by another bad game from Biggers will allow the rookie to see even more playing time in nickel situations.
We learned that the Bucs defense still has some glaring weaknesses. Tampa Bay was opportunistic in recording four interceptions and returning two for touchdowns against Arizona. The Bucs defense also made a nice, fourth down stop at its own 3-yard line in the second half. Tampa Bay also held Arizona to just 100 yards rushing, which is 57 yards below what the Bucs defense had been surrendering on average this year.
But that’s where the praise should stop for Morris’ defense. Tampa Bay’s head coach will say that giving up yards doesn’t matter, but that’s a dangerous way to think as the Cardinals came into Sunday’s game with the 32nd-ranked offense and rolled up 396 yards. Even more importantly, the Bucs allowed the Cardinals to convert 54 percent on third down (7-of-13), 50 percent on fourth down (1-of-2) and surrendered 28 points to Arizona’s offense.
Not once did the Bucs force the Cardinals into a field goal situation. Instead they gave up four touchdowns to a bad offensive team.
Tampa Bay led by 10 points at halftime, by 17 points at one point in the third quarter and by three points in the fourth quarter, yet its anemic pass rush could only muster one sack. Not being able to get to the quarterback will be a killer on a day when Tampa Bay’s secondary and linebacking corps is not on top of its game.
Some will look at the interceptions and defensive scores and think the defense played great. It did not. It only played opportunistically and must improve in the red zone, on third down and in getting after the quarterback to be considered a serious playoff contender.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS SPECIAL TEAMS
We learned that it was not a good day at the office for “Wefense.” Tampa Bay survived a blocked field goal attempt from 53 yards in the fourth quarter and a muffed punt that was turned into a touchdown by Arizona to win. The return game continues to struggle. The Bucs had zero punt return yardage and only had 91 yards on four kick returns (22.8 avg.).
Robert Malone fared well with a 42-yard average and a 38.3-yard net on six punts, including two that were downed inside the 20, and Connor Barth did make a 21-yard field goal right before halftime that turned out to be incredibly important, but those were the only real positives.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS FROM THIS VICTORY
We learned that “score and get the ball back” works. That has been Morris’ mantra all season. He has foregone any talk of NFL rankings and has famously said, “Stats are for losers” over and over in his press conferences. The only thing Morris cares about is the turnover margin and winning games. And make no mistake. Tampa Bay’s offense is not a juggernaut quite yet, and the Bucs defense is still far from being a top 10 unit.
Tampa Bay came into the game tied for fifth in the NFL in turnover margin with a plus-6 in that category. The Bucs were plus-2 on Sunday and are now plus-8 on the season. That plays into Morris’ other mantra, which is playing fast, playing physical, playing efficient – and playing smart. Smart teams don’t beat themselves, and the Bucs were able to overcome two fumbles, which Arizona turned into 14 points.
Two of the Bucs’ four takeaways were returned for touchdowns, which helped the scoring. Yet the offense still managed to score 24 points on its own and would have put up 27 if not for a blocked 53-yard field goal attempt.
We learned that the Bucs are ready for round three. We’ll continue to use Morris’ boxing analogy to describe what type of team the Buccaneers are. At 5-2, the Bucs have beaten three middleweights (Arizona, St. Louis and Cincinnati) and two lightweights (Carolina and Cleveland), but have been knocked out twice by two heavyweights in New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
Yet the resilient Buccaneers keep getting up off the mat and it appears as if they are ready for round three against another heavyweight in Atlanta after notching two, back-to-back wins over the Rams and Cardinals. There will be a ton of national media attention this week leading up to the Atlanta game and the Bucs need to show they have improved. Even if they don’t win in Atlanta, the Bucs must not be blown out like they were against the Steelers and Saints this year.
If they can win or keep it close, Tampa Bay must be considered a playoff contender. If the Bucs get knocked out by the third heavyweight they’ve faced this year, they will merely be considered a playoff pretender – and rightfully so.