This week PewterReport.com debuts a new column in which beat writer Mark Cook will determine five keys that the Buccaneers must try to achieve to put themselves in a better position to win the upcoming game on the schedule.
As part of the post-game analysis Cook will review the five keys and grade out the results.
Key 1: Slow Down Calvin Johnson
Notice I didn’t say shut down Calvin Johnson. While that would be the best way to help the Buccaneers win, it isn’t an absolute must.
With Aqib Talib not seeing any action since the Atlanta game last December in which he suffered a hip injury that landed him on injured reserve, I don’t think we will see Talib at his best. However 80 percent of Talib is better than 100 percent of any of the Buccaneers second stringers. I’m sure I won’t be the most popular beat writer amongst the defensive backs next week, but if the Buccaneers could have held Johnson to half of his 10 catch, 152-yard day last season, Tampa Bay would have been in the playoffs.
Containing Johnson will be the key, and Talib has the best shot of all the Buccaneers defenders to do just that. With that said, Tampa Bay must generate some pass rush on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford or it won’t matter if Derrell Revis is covering Johnson.
Key 2: Neutralize Ndamukong Suh And The Lions Pass Rush
Perhaps the title of this key should have also been slow down Suh instead of neutralize. While Ted Larsen did a great job last season against the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year it was towards the end of the season. Most first-year players tend to hit a wall after 12 games, as it is similar to a college football season’s length.
Suh was no different in that after Week 12 he collected just two sacks, including a three-game stretch without a quarterback takedown.
But this is Week 1, and Suh will no doubt be bent on showing the NFL his rookie season was no fluke and there won’t be a sophomore slump in store.
While it seems an easy plan to double team Suh on every play, remember that Detroit’s defensive line isn’t a one-man show. Corey Williams is a young, talented defensive linemen and the wily veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch still has some juice in the tank. The Buccaneers interior linemen, Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph and Ted Larsen will need to play one of their best games of the season right out of the gate.
Key 3: Offense Can’t Start Slow
Offensive tackle Donald Penn and I were discussing Josh Freeman on Thursday and the Buccaneers Pro Bowler mentioned several times how Freeman is at his best when Tampa Bay is behind and when their back are against the wall.
No one will argue with Penn’s take on his young quarterback, and it certainly shows an intangible that takes many NFL quarterbacks years to achieve. However for the Buccaneers to reach their goal of winning the NFC South, Freeman and company must get things rolling much earlier this season.
A lot of things went right for the Buccaneers last season when they mounted several come-from-behind victories but even Penn admitted the Buccaneers counted on all the pieces falling into place.
This week both Greg Olson and Raheem Morris agreed the Buccaneers need to get their offense playing better out of the gate. Saying it and doing it are two different things, however. One negative of a young team may be a lack of urgency.
Olson will do all he can to instill this in his young Bucs, I’m certain, but it may take a little more maturity from Freeman and his teammates before it will become reality.
Key 4: Establish Running Game
It sounds cliché, and you will rarely hear a pregame press conference where the head coach doesn’t say the same thing, but establishing the running game is the only way to consistently win in the NFL.
The Buccaneers found a diamond in the rough last season in LeGarrette Blount. As well respected as Mark Dominik’s eye for talent is, even he couldn’t say he expected Blount to perform as well as he did last year. It is critical for Blount to pick up where he left off last season to not only help keep the Lions defense off balance, but to keep the Buccaneers’ defense off the field, especially early in the season where the heat can make a difference.
The running game was nearly non-existent during the preseason with the top three running backs averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry, collectively. PewterReport.com, along with most media outlets, were concerned with the lack of a running game, but every offensive lineman we spoke with seemed annoyed and not even the least bit worried when questioned about the lack of success running the football. Jeremy Trueblood told me after the Dolphins game that Tampa Bay is a pound-and-wear-you-down type running game and it was hard to do that not playing more than a few snaps together as starters.
Perhaps that will be the case and all of the media's fears were premature. If not, the Lions will leave Raymond Stadium victorious for the second year in a row.
Key 5: Play Smart, Eliminate Penalties
Again, like the running game, I’m being Captain Obvious to a degree by saying the Buccaneers must eliminate penalties and play smart football. But after a preseason where yellow flags seemed to outnumber the fans in the stands at times, it is worth mentioning again.
To come to Tampa Bay’s defense just a bit, more than half of the Buccaneers’ penalties came against players who will not see the field Sunday. Another reason for the high number of infractions is NFL referees tend to be more aggressive in throwing flags during the preseason to impress their bosses. Before each preseason a number of penalties are as labeled as “points of emphasis” and you will see them called frequently. But as the regular season begins the times you see a particular violation flagged seems to settle down.
But penalties like false starts, holding and pass interference will still be called often and Tampa Bay can’t afford to have a long gain called back on offense, or give teams second chances to convert first downs with defensive penalties.
Cook’s Final Analysis: It’s opening weekend in the NFL and, as a player, if you can't get pumped up and ready for this game, then maybe a new profession is in order. With tributes before the game for longtime Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen planned along with Buccaneers Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this game will be an emotional, chill bump-producing contest. Based strictly on preseason results you have to give this one easily to the Lions but I’m drinking the Buccaneers’ Kool-aid and listening to the players and coaches who told us they will be ready for the regular season.
Cook’s prediction: Buccaneers 20, Lions 17