Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds shares his opinions, insights and observations from Tampa Bay's 27-21 loss in Atlanta on Sunday.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS OFFENSEWe learned that offensive coordinator Greg Olson is really opening up the playbook.
Olson is putting a lot of trust into his offensive players, many of whom are rookies or second-year players and displaying that trust by expanding the playbook and dabbling into some trickery. On Arrelious Benn’s touchdown catch, the Bucs had five rookies on the field at the same time – Benn, receiver Mike Williams, fullback Erik Lorig, running back LeGarrette Blount and left guard Ted Larsen.
Benn’s TD was the standout play from an X’s and O’s standpoint in Sunday’s game as the Bucs showed a run-heavy look with tight end Kellen Winslow to the left of Donald Penn and receiver Mike Williams flanked out wide to the right. Lorig and Blount were lined up in an I-formation. Benn went in motion from left to right, but stayed behind right tackle James Lee to give the Falcons defense an H-back-type look and draw linebacker coverage as the Falcons were in a base 4-3 defense instead of nickel.
At the snap, Benn waited a second and then had a delayed release off the line, beating linebacker Mike Peterson downfield. As Freeman rolled to his right, he lofted a beautiful pass to Benn, who leaped up to make a 14-yard touchdown catch near the front right pylon.
Olson also broke out a flea-flicker that might have gone for a touchdown had Freeman’s throw to Benn been deeper. As a result, a pass interference penalty picked up 33 yards for the Bucs and set them up at the Atlanta 11-yard line.
On second-and-10 from the 11, Olson deployed a wide receiver screen with rookie Preston Parker flanked to the left and lined up deep behind Benn, Mike Williams and Cadillac Williams. That screen pass was a new wrinkle and gained seven yards. Freeman believes it could have gained more had it been executed better.
“When were down there at the -yard line, we only have one [play out of that] formation,” Freeman said. “We have to go, we have to get guys lined up and we have to snap it before they can get set up. When Coach Olson called that, I thought it was really going to be a touchdown. I looked up to make sure everybody was set and there was some talking going on. We have to find a way to continue to get better.
“Everybody is developing as an offense. We made a couple of plays to keep the defense off balance. When he calls the plays, we have to make them work.”
Olson also showed some daring by calling for a deep pass out of Tampa Bay’s own end zone. Freeman hooked up with Micheal Spurlock for a 43-yard catch on that play. Olson also inserted Josh Johnson in at quarterback for a play that forced Atlanta to burn a first half timeout, and called for a flea flicker that resulted in a 33-yard pass interference penalty on the Falcons.
Fans might look at the stats and see that the offense only had 285 yards and think it was a bad day at the office. But remember that Freeman threw two second half picks that cost Tampa Bay a couple of possessions, and Spurlock’s kickoff return for a touchdown also cost the Bucs offense a possession. Now that Freeman has a firm grasp on the playbook and offensive concepts and now that Blount is giving the offense some balance, Olson is really opening things up, which is good to see.We learned that Mike Williams is only going to get better.
Each week, the Bucs rookie receiver does something else to impress us. After producing his first 100-yard game last week at Arizona, Williams hauled in a career-long 58-yard touchdown pass on a quick slant as Atlanta blitzed a safety, beating veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson for the score.
That touchdown was his fifth of his career and he is now tied with Kevin House for the second-most in team history, trailing only Michael Clayton’s seven touchdowns that he recorded in 2004.
Williams dropped what would have been a 20-yard gain on his first catch attempt, but made up for it with a huge, 15-yard catch on third-and-7 that the Bucs desperately needed on their first touchdown drive. He must work to become a sure-handed receiver. While Williams is making even more big plays, he is also good for a drop each game. That has to be eliminated.
Yet he is currently ranked 12th in the league in receiving yardage ahead of notable names like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson, Steve Smith and others. Williams has 36 catches for 559 yards and five touchdowns. He is on pace to record 72 catches for 1,118 and 10 touchdowns and Clayton’s rookie records of 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven TDs are within striking distance.We learned that Josh Franchise is not immortal.
Outside of two blowout losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans and a blowout victory at Carolina, Freeman has been a perfect 4-0 in fourth quarter comeback attempts this season with wins over Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Arizona. Freeman looked like he was up for the challenge in the first half as he completed 8-of-13 passes for 126 yards with two touchdowns. Tampa Bay’s second-year quarterback was 4-of-5 for 84 yards on Tampa Bay’s second scoring drive right before halftime.
But in the second half, Freeman lost his rhythm and was out of sync. He threw two interceptions and underthrew Arrelious Benn on a flea-flicker play. That play resulted in a 33-yard pass interference call, but it could have gone for a 44-yard touchdown had it been a perfect pass.
Freeman finished the second half 3-of-9 for 63 yards with two INTs and no touchdowns as the Bucs offense didn’t score any points in the third or fourth quarter. The Bucs still had a chance to win the game, but were denied when Blount came up short on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 2-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game. Had Freeman avoided turnovers, been more accurate and made more plays in the second half, it seems as if the Bucs would have notched their fifth come-from-behind victory.
“I played my worst game of the year,” Freeman said.
It was actually his worst half of the year.We learned that the Bucs have a dilemma at running back.
Tampa Bay has a problem at running back. Starter Cadillac Williams is a reliable pass protector, but cannot run the ball effectively. While Blount is a reliable runner but cannot pass protect effectively. Tampa Bay’s decision to waste its first two possessions by giving Williams the ball played a huge role in the Bucs falling behind 14-0 to the Falcons.
Williams predictably rushed for one yard on his first three carries and finished the game with a paltry eight carries for 13 yards (1.6 avg.), which dropped his season average to 2.4 yards per carry. The difficulty for the Bucs is that Blount is still learning how to pass protect, evidenced by the sack he gave up to linebacker Mike Peterson in the first quarter. Blount clearly did not know which blitzer to pick up and wound up blocking nobody on the play.
When Williams is in, foes can rely on the fact that it will likely be a pass play outside of the first quarter. When Blount is in, opponents can rely on the fact that it will likely be a running play, a rare exception was Freeman’s touchdown pass to Benn out of a run-look formation.
Blount, who was held in check with 46 yards on 13 carries (3.5 avg.), needs to continue to work on pass protection so he won’t be a liability in that area. Yet at the same time, Olson will have to start the game rushing Blount more in the first quarter or risk wasting possessions and punting the ball because Williams simply can’t get the job done anymore on the ground as a ballcarrier.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS DEFENSEWe learned that the Bucs defense really struggles on third downs.
With just six sacks this season, Tampa Bay is tied for last in the NFL and has a hard time rushing the passer. Giving up 147 yards on the ground per game and ranking 30th in run defense, Tampa Bay is having a hard time stopping the run. On Sunday those issues reared their ugly heads as the Bucs went sackless for the fifth time this year.
But Tampa Bay also struggled mightily to get off the field on third down, especially in the first half when Atlanta converted 5-of-8 (63 percent) of its third down. The Falcons finished the game converting 8-of-14 (57 percent) of their third downs. The disappointing thing was six of the Falcons’ third down conversions came in third-and-6 or longer situations. Here is the breakdown from Sunday’s game.FIRST QUARTER
Third-and-6 – Tony Gonzalez 15-yard catch
Third-and-2 – Incomplete pass (but Falcons converted fourth-and-2)
Third-and-6 – Gonzalez 9-yard catch
Third-and-9 – Brian Finneran 14-yard catchSECOND QUARTER
Third-and-6 – Finneran 8-yard catch
Third-and-3 – Jason Snelling catch for no gain (Falcons kicked 31-yard FG on fourth down)
Third-and-10 – Incomplete pass (Falcons had to punt)
Third-and-8 – Snelling 9-yard catchTHIRD QUARTER
Third-and-9 – Roddy White 9-yard catch
Third-and-goal – Michael Palmer 5-yard touchdown catch
Third-and-15 – Snelling 4-yard catchFOURTH QUARTER
Third-and-8 – Incomplete pass (Falcons had to punt)
Third-and-12 – Incomplete pass (Falcons had to punt)
Third-and-2 – Michael Turner 6-yard run
“They were able to convert a third down and a fourth down on that first drive, and that hurt us,” Morris said.
Converting third downs in the first half enabled Atlanta to compile 17 first downs by halftime. The Falcons finished with 26 first downs against the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay came into Sunday’s game allowing opponents to convert 45.6 percent on third down. That dastardly number will only climb closer to 50 percent following Sunday’s loss to Atlanta.We learned the Bucs defense cannot hold teams to field goals.
When Atlanta went up 14-0 in the second quarter, it marked the 21st touchdown Tampa Bay’s defense has surrendered. The Bucs also gave up another one in the fourth quarter, which makes 23. What’s staggering is that the Bucs have only forced seven field goals this season. That lopsided 3:1 touchdown-to-field goals allowed ratio was bound to catch up with the Buccaneers sooner or later, and that’s what happened on Sunday.
The fact that Tampa Bay has thrived on takeaways, including a league-leading 14 interceptions, and won almost solely due to an advantageous turnover margin, can’t be underscored enough. Without the takeaways, Tampa Bay’s defense would be known for giving up yards and touchdowns at will.We learned that rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson might have a bright future on defense.
Watson, a seventh-round draft pick, saw some time at right defensive end in the Bucs’ 3-3-5 Redskin defense and later replaced Quincy Black at strongside linebacker after he was injured after halftime. Lining up as a defensive end, Watson pressured quarterback Matt Ryan, who dumped the ball off to fullback Jason Snelling, and pursued the play all the way from the backside and wound up making the tackle on third down to force a field goal in the second half. Snelling gained just four yards on the screen pass.
“We were able to throw Dekoda Watson in there and he got some pressure,” Morris said.
Watson’s speed and desire to get to the ball were obvious on Sunday, and despite the fact that he is only a rookie with very limited time on defense the game didn’t look too big for him. It would not be a stretch to say that Watson was one of the fastest players on the field in the second half as he finished with two tackles.
While Black is having a very fine year, and led Tampa Bay with eight tackles before leaving the game in the third quarter, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris needs to find a way to get Watson on the field more whether it is at strongside linebacker, weakside linebacker or defensive end. It would be interesting to see how Watson, who is a chisled, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds.
We learned that first-round pick Gerald McCoy is making strides. McCoy had his best game in terms of getting off the ball on Sunday. Unfortunately, he got off a little two quick and drew two offside penalties. But McCoy was very disruptive against the run and the pass.
Rushing from the nose tackle position in Tampa Bay’s 3-3-5 package when Atlanta was in a two-minute offense right before halftime, McCoy easily beat veteran center Todd McClure off the ball with a swim move and drilled Ryan as he was throwing the ball away. McCoy would also have another hit on Ryan in the third quarter.
The NFL statisticians had McCoy down for two tackles and a tackle for loss. The guess here is that he will likely wind up with about five tackles once the coaches go back and review the game film as McCoy was more active than the stat sheet would indicate. While he has yet to record his first NFL sack, McCoy has put together two pretty solid games back-to-back, and that’s a good sign.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS SPECIAL TEAMSWe learned that Micheal Spurlock is the best kick returner in team history.
Clifton Smith had a great year in 2008 and made the Pro Bowl after returning a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown, but Spurlock made history on Sunday by returning his second kickoff return for a score – the only Buccaneer ever to do so. Of course Spurlock made the record books against Atlanta on December 16, 2007 when he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, which was the first time that had been done in franchise history. On Sunday, his 89-yard kickoff return in the second half sparked the Bucs in addition to ranking him first in team annals.
Maurice Stovall, who threw a key block on Spurlock’s 66-yard return in the first quarter, bobbled the kickoff in the fourth quarter. Spurlock, who was lined up behind Stovall, picked it up, hesitated and then eluded tackle attempts by running back Antone Smith, receiver Eric Weems, safety Erik Coleman, linebacker Spencer Adkins, kicker Michael Koenen and linebacker Coy Wire before taking it down the right sidelines.
Spurlock also had a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown last year at New Orleans in the fourth quarter, which helped the Bucs force overtime where they eventually prevailed. Spurlock now has three touchdowns on returns and moves ahead of Smith on the list of Tampa Bay return men. If Spurlock can return two more kickoffs or punts for touchdowns, he will tie Karl “The Truth” Williams, who returned five punts for touchdowns during his eight year Buccaneers career.
Spurlock, who also had a 66-yard kick return in the first half, has returned 21 kicks for 578 yards (27.5 avg.) and one touchdown this year.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS IN THIS LOSSWe learned the Bucs could hang with the heavyweights.
When Tampa Bay tussled with a perennial playoff team in Pittsburgh and defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, it got drubbed by a combined score of 69-19. Early season victories against Cleveland and Carolina proved the Bucs could beat the lightweights, and victories over Cincinnati, St. Louis and Arizona proved they could beat the middleweights. But how would the Bucs fare against a 5-2 Falcons team that was tied for the lead in the NFC?
That was determined on Sunday in Atlanta where the Bucs trailed 14-0 early, but came roaring back and got the Falcons’ lead trimmed to 17-14 before halftime. Tampa Bay would fall six points short in their bid to become the best team in the NFC, but they had their chance at the Atlanta 2-yard line and couldn’t pick up a first down. After the game, Morris said he doesn’t believe in moral victories.
“There are no moral victories in the NFL, man,” Morris said. “There are no moral wins. At the end of the year there are wins and losses. They don’t say you won seven games by one point or lost 12 games by one. It doesn’t matter. We lost today to a very good Atlanta Falcons football team. I’m proud of my young Bucs and how they came back and how they responded and how they fought all the way through. We have to see these guys again and we’ll embrace the challenge.”
Morris can talk about not accepting moral victories all he wants, but the truth is that the Bucs proved they are almost as good as the Falcons and that they have improved to the point where they may impervious to knockouts from heavyweight teams from now on.We learned the Bucs really wanted to win this game.
Credit Morris for really pulling out all the stops and treating this game like a sudden death playoff affair. Not content to trail by three points heading into halftime, Morris ordered Freeman to throw the ball twice with just 55 seconds left in the second quarter to see if they could tie the game with a field goal.
Then after Spurlock’s 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Morris and the Bucs went for a surprise onside kick and it nearly worked. After initially ruling that kicker Connor Barth had recovered the kick, the Falcons challenged the play and replays showed that the ball hit Barth’s hip before it went 10 yards.
In the fourth quarter, Morris eschewed a field goal attempt to go for the win on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 2-yard line. You have to be impressed by Morris’ gusto on Sunday. He’s talked the talk with all of the “Bucs are the best team in the NFC” quotes over the last two weeks. In order to be the best you have to beat the best, and that’s what Morris was trying to do. He wasn’t playing for moral victories. He was playing to win. It just so happens that the 6-2 Falcons and the 6-2 New York Giants are actually the best teams in the NFC. But at 5-3, the Bucs are pretty darn good, too.
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