Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds shares his opinions, insights and observations from Tampa Bay's 31-16 victory over Carolina on Sunday.WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS OFFENSEWe learned that Josh Franchise is having a “super” season.
Freeman is off to a fantastic start to his second NFL season. Against Carolina, Freeman had a career-high 134.2 passer rating, finishing the game completing 18-of-24 passes (75 percent) with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
With a career-high 12 touchdowns and only five interceptions, Freeman, the team’s franchise quarterback, is on pace to throw for 21 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 3,489 yards. Those numbers compare favorably to the numbers Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson put up in 2002. Johnson threw for 3,049 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in 13 games that year, missing three games due to injury.
Should Freeman actually throw 21 touchdown passes that would tie Trent Dilfer for third on the most TD throws in a single season. Dilfer accomplished that feat in 1997 and 1998. Only Johnson has thrown more touchdowns in a single season. He tossed a franchise-record 27 TDs in 2003 and 22 the previous year. We learned that LeGarrette Blount has new ways to dazzle us.
It was just two weeks ago that Blount made the highlight reels by hurdling Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes en route to a 48-yard run. On Sunday, Blount ripped off a 17-yard touchdown that finished a leaping, 360-degree spin in the air after being hit by Panthers safety Charles Godfrey at the 1-yard line. As Blount was coming to the ground he had the presence of mind to stick the ball over the goal line to score the touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a commanding 14-3 lead with 12:23 left in the second quarter.
Blount had a 12-yard run to start Tampa Bay’s 87-yard touchdown drive and also had runs of 24, 3 and 17 before his 17-yard touchdown scamper. With the second quarter just beginning, Blount already had six carries for 78 yards (13 avg.) and wound up with 91 yards on 19 carries on the day (4.8 avg.).
Even though Blount was contained in the second half, the Bucs were able to use play-action passing the entire game because of what Blount was able to do in the first half on the ground.
“The biggest thing is establishing the run,” Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “Play action is really never good if you’re stopping the run – it is not so much of a threat. It’s also a lot better when you get in situations where you are not expecting it, when you’ve got a second-and-short [where] you can take more chances. That’s probably the ideal situation, where you’ve got a second-and-3, second-and-3 as opposed to second-and-10 [where] you’re kind of expecting a pass a little bit more. Being able to use [play action] in situations where you are not expecting a play pass or pass in general [is helpful]. When you’ve got guys like Josh Freeman and Mike Williams that are big play threats, and, for instance, for me in a Cover 2, I’m going to err on the side of reading the pass first, and then I’m going to come up. If there are guys that I’m not really worried about a vertical threat [from] or a quarterback who is going to throw it vertically, I’m not as fast to get back. That’s the biggest thing, I think: the [players] who are executing those play actions, [because] that is what is going to make it work well.”We learned that the Bucs could win without Mike Williams being a factor.
Tampa Bay’s offense put up 21 first half points before Williams recorded his first catch. The rookie from Syracuse has been the primary weapon in the passing game this season, but he was only thrown the ball twice in the first half as Freeman directed his throws to tight ends Kellen Winslow (three catches for 41 yards and a touchdown) and John Gilmore (one catch for 29 yards).
Freeman said that Williams was getting a lot of attention in coverage and the Panthers paid the price by leaving other targets in single coverage.
“We may start with Mike, if he’s not open, we’ll reset to the middle and John Gilmore is sitting wide open,” Freeman said. “Our team, we present a lot of matchup issues. If you’re going to play man-to-man, you’re going to have a linebacker matched-up on Winslow, and I’d take Kellen Winslow in that matchup. If you play zone, we have too many guys filling in the holes, and obviously Kellen working inside and Cadillac checking down.”
Blount’s running (75 yards on eight carries in the first half) made the Buccaneers offense balanced, and with the Bucs having the lead ever since they went up 7-0 in the first quarter, Tampa Bay didn’t have to have Williams carry the passing game as he has done so often this year. Williams caught his first pass, a 28-yarder, at the start of the third quarter and finished with a strong second half, catching four passes for 68 yards.
Williams now has 40 catches for 627 yards (15.7 avg.) and five touchdowns. He is on pace to post 72 catches for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns this season.We learned why Ted Larsen got the start over Jeremy Zuttah at left guard.
Despite the return of center Jeff Faine, Larsen, a rookie, remained the starter at left guard over Zuttah, who was a 16-game starter at the position last year and filled in nicely for Faine this year. The reason? Larsen is a more physical blocker and the team has averaged over 147 yards rushing with him in the lineup.
On Sunday, the Bucs rushed for a season-high 186 yards on 30 carries (6.2 avg.) and Larsen helped spring Cadillac Williams, who had a phenomenal day as a third down back with 62 yards and a score on five carries, for a 45-yard touchdown. On third-and-11 from the Tampa Bay 45, Larsen pulled from left to right and sealed off Carolina linebacker Jon Beason to create the hole for Williams’ touchdown jaunt. Williams also received great blocks from wide receiver Preston Parker and tight end John Gilmore.
With Larsen, who was an adept waiver wire pick-up by general manager Mark Dominik prior to the start of the season, playing so well it would be foolish to take him out of the starting lineup. The one area of his game that really needs to be cleaned up is his penchant for penalties, though. Larsen was flagged for two false starts on Sunday against Carolina.We learned that the Bucs got better in the first quarter.
Why have the Bucs had so many come-from-behind wins this season? Tampa Bay has struggled to get off to fast starts in the first quarter. In fact, the Bucs had been outscored 42-23 in the first quarter heading into Sunday’s game. That’s a 19-point differential, favoring opponents. But offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s play-calling was sharp on the Bucs’ first series and Freeman’s execution was perfect as the Bucs traveled 47 yards in four plays with the drive covering 2:07.
After a 5-yard run by Freeman, Olson gave the Panthers a run-first look with two tight ends to the left and Freeman used a play-action fake to Blount to find Winslow open short and Gilmore open deep. Freeman wisely hit Gilmore for a gain of 29 yards down to the 13. Staying with a run-look formation that featured two tight ends on the next two plays, Blount picked up five yards down to the 8-yard line before Freeman hit Benn for an 8-yard touchdown to give Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead - a lead it would never relinquish.
Benn went in motion from right to left and acted like a was going to block the backside end, but Freeman again executed a play-action fake to Blount and hit Benn wide open in the flat as the rookie receiver outraced cornerback Richard Marshall to the pylon. Olson has done a great job of scheming ways to get Benn his first two touchdowns, his initial one coming last week at Atlanta out of a similar two-tight end formation that likely signals run-first to opposing defenses.
“Coach Olson is calling great plays; that’s made it a lot easier on myself,” Freeman said. “[Sunday] was another awesome day.”WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS DEFENSEWe learned that the offense is carrying this Buccaneers team.
Times have changed in Tampa Bay. For the better part of the last two decades, the Bucs were known for winning with defense. Not any more, and that has to upset Bucs fans and frustrate head coach Raheem Morris because he is in charge of that side of the ball as the team’s defensive coordinator. On Sunday, Tampa Bay recorded just two sacks, only one takeaway, and allowed more points (16) than the Bucs defense surrendered against a better and healthier Panthers team in Week 2 (seven).
With Freeman throwing for 241 yards, the Bucs rushing for 186 yards, the team converting 50 percent on third downs and the offense scoring a season-high 31 points, including four touchdowns, the offense carried the day. Over the last three games, the Bucs offense has averaged 370 yards and averaged 23 of the 30 points per game that Tampa Bay has averaged, which is more than acceptable for the youngest team in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the defense is surrendering 23 points per game over the last three contests, which is about six points more than ideal.
“That’s always our feeling,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “One way or another whether it’s a defensive stop or a defensive score we can win with 17 points. It’s a number we’ve played with for years. [Former Bucs defensive tackle Warren] Sapp used to say that all the time. That’s the standard. I think it started with [former Bucs head coach] Tony [Dungy] in 1996.”
Until the Bucs scoring defense dwindles down to 17 points or less, which may not happen this season, Freeman and the offense will be carrying this team.We learned that Tampa Bay’s defensive line simply cannot sack the quarterback.
Through nine games, Tampa Bay has recorded only eight sacks and the Bucs defensive line has generated a woeful five quarterback captures. Tampa Bay’s defensive line got some pressure on rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, notably from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive ends Michael Bennett and Stylez G. White, but wasn’t able to finish.
Unlike the first meeting when the Bucs defensive line recorded three of the team’s four sacks in Week 2, both of Tampa Bay’s sacks on Sunday came off blitzes from middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and cornerback Ronde Barber. Only two members of the Bucs defensive line have sacks this season – White (three) and defensive end Tim Crowder (two).
Since the game at Carolina in the second week of the 2010 season, the Bucs defensive line has recorded just two sacks over the last seven games, which is pitiful.We learned that Aqib Talib is becoming a complete cornerback.
As good as Talib has been picking off passes as a cover corner this year, he has really shown improvement as a tackler. He has 41 (38 solo) through eight games after having 69 stops (62 solos) last year. After recording eight tackles (seven solo) on Sunday against the Panthers, Talib is on pace to notch a career-high 82 tackles.
Against Carolina, Talib fought through a block by Steve Smith to tackle Goodson for a gain of eight yards on a cutback run on second-and-14 to set up third-and-6. Had Talib not made the tackle near the sidelines, Goodson could have easily picked up the first down or even scored a touchdown if Talib had given up the sideline.
Considering the fact that cornerbacks Elbert Mack and E.J. Biggers both had shoddy tackle attempts on Mike Goodson in the second quarter that resulted in runs of 18 and 15 yards to total 33 yards, Talib stepped up big against Carolina. The third-year cornerback also had a monumental, tackle-saving tackle for loss on the backside of a Goodson run after he reversed field and cut back after running from right to left. That tackle also prevented a touchdown and showed that Talib can make money plays against the run – not just the pass.
“The last three weeks with what Aqib Talib has been able to do in what we call chute awareness or keep the cup has been unbelievable,” Morris said. “To watch him run up yesterday and watch him make some of the tackles that he made and do some of the physical things that he did not show in his first two years here – maybe sparingly – but to watch him become this complete corner is really fun to watch.”WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THE BUCS SPECIAL TEAMSWe learned that Tampa Bay’s return game might be the most inconsistent unit on the team right now.
A week after the Bucs return game was revved up and dangerous at Atlanta with Micheal Spurlock ripping off returns of 66 yards and an 89-yard touchdown, the special teams units against Carolina sputtered and were dreadful. One week their hot, the next week, they're not.
Dime corner Elbert Mack had a ball bounce off his leg on a punt and get recovered by Carolina, which went on to score a touchdown off that turnover.
Tampa Bay’s return game could not get going as Spurlock returned two punts for five yards (2.5 avg.) and returned four kickoffs 61 yards (15.3 avg.) with a long of 21. On one return, Spurlock bobbled the ball and Maurice Stovall turned around and essentially blocked him as he was trying to advance the ball. Special teams killed the Bucs and gave the offense terrible field position, especially in the third quarter. Spurlock did a poor job of returning kicks he should have downed in the end zone.
Panthers return man Captain Munnerlyn had a 37-yard punt return in the third quarter to set up a Carolina field goal.
“It wasn’t a good day for our special teams play,” Morris said. “We have to bounce back off the performance, but other areas of our football team lifted us up and that’s how it has to be. Last week, they almost won us a football game. This week, we had to get help from other areas and we had to do that to bounce back and win this football game. I’m proud of what these guys were able to do today.”WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THIS BUCCANEERS VICTORYWe learned that the Bucs are twice as good as they were last year.
Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Parcells is famous for saying that you are only as good as your record indicates. At 6-3, the Bucs have won twice as many games as they did during the 2009 season when they finished with a disappointing 3-13 record.
“I didn’t even notice it until you just said it,” Morris said. “It’s certainly nice, but it’s not the goal. We talked about the goal [the race to 10 wins], and we talked about where we wanted to be at the beginning and these guys have continued to march and continued to go in that direction.”
With six wins combined with being the youngest team in the NFL, head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have done enough this year to earn the right to have their two-year options picked up by the Glazers. The only thing that would prevent that would be if the bottom fell out down the stretch and this team was to finish 6-10 after such a promising start. At this point, a 7-9 record or better would have to be considered a success.We learned that the Bucs have yet to learn how to put a team away.
Granted, Tampa Bay has only notched two wins with a margin of victory of 10 points or more twice this season, and both of them came against Carolina, but the Bucs should have beaten the Panthers by more points than they did. Tampa Bay opened up a 21-10 lead at halftime, but allowed the score to narrow to 21-16 in the third quarter.
Even in the fourth quarter after a Tampa Bay field goal, the Bucs were allowing the Panthers to hang around as the differential was only eight points at one point, which is just a touchdown and a two-point conversion. That didn’t sit well with Morris.
“I think that’s a part of the lesson,” Morris said. “When you go out every week – you don’t want to knock yourself on a win, and that’s not what I’m doing, but you know you got a John Fox-coached football team over there that’s going to keep fighting and keep playing and keep playing tough. For us, the beauty of it is that we’re learning lessons. I’m able to have teachable moments throughout the game and go out there and yell at people for doing some of the wrong things and also go out there and be able to congratulate people for doing things right, and that’s lovely for this young football team.”
The Bucs had eight penalties on offense – most of which were false starts or illegal shifts or formations – that played a significant role in the team stopping itself. Gilmore also said the players were frustrated that they didn’t come out with more of a sense of urgency in the third quarter.
“We were clicking on that first couple series,” Gilmore said. “We got up on them and we let go. We let go of the reins. I think that’s something that we need to improve on. This is no disrespect to Carolina, but we’ve playing to the level of our opponent. Big games on the road we’ve been getting up for. In games like these in the third quarter, we are not putting them away like we should. That’s something that we should try to improve on.”We learned that winning games alone is not going to get Bucs fans back into Ray-Jay.
Tampa Bay returned home from a two-game road swing with a surprisingly pleasant 5-3 record through the first half of the season. Sunday was an absolutely beautiful day weather-wise and the fans were treated to an expected victory over the hapless Panthers. Yet there was only a paid attendance of 44,264. That’s roughly 21,000 less than a sellout, which is why this game and the rest of the home games this season will be blacked out.
The Glazers were wise to come out on Friday with the announcement that ticket prices would be lowered for some seats and that there would not be any ticket price increases in 2011. The Tampa Bay area economy is still hurting and local unemployment numbers are over 12 percent. The Bucs should see a rise in season ticket sales next year given the development of Josh Freeman and the team’s improved win total, but it would be a stretch to think that the Bucs’ season ticket base would climb above 50,000 even with a big increase. That likely means more blackouts in 2012 as the gap between the current attendance and a sellout is around 20,000 tickets.
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