In Saturday's new weekly column, Cook's Five Keys To Victory, Bucs beat writer Mark Cook listed five areas that Tampa Bay had to prevail in to claim victory against the visiting Detroit Lions. Each week following the game, Cook will revisit his five keys and share his opinions and analysis on how Tampa Bay's units on offense, defense and special teams graded out.
Key 1: Slow Down Calvin Johnson
If someone would have told me before the game that Johnson would only have six receptions for 88 yards I would have felt the Buccaneers would have wound up with the win. But two of Johnson's receptions were for touchdowns, and it felt from the press box like it could have been more had Stafford targeted his star receiver on more than the 10 pass attempts that went his way.
Cornerback Aqib Talib drew the tough assignment of trying to cover “Megatron” and while Talib didn’t play terribly, the rust of not playing in nine months showed at times. The stop-and-go route, something that has given the fourth-year cornerback fits over his career, once again was a problem for a Talib as he bit on Johnson's route and gave up a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter on fourth-and-2. Talib jumped too soon in an attempt to deflect the pass and was unable to make a play on the ball.
On Johnson's second touchdown, a 1-yard fade pass, Talib had great coverage, but the 6-foot-5 Johnson was able to out-leap him for the ball. The lack of a pass rush by the defensive line, which failed to record a sack, certainly didn't help Talib, who also had a pass interference penalty on Johnson on third down that gave Detroit a first down.
Final Grade: D
Key 2: Neutralize Suh
Of all of the keys I mentioned in my pregame analysis this was the one the Buccaneers were most successful at. Suh came in pumped and primed to have a big game, and while he did cause Tampa Bay to account for him on every play, his stats were fairly pedestrian compared to the hype.
The 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year finished the season opener with just two tackles and one quarterback pressure. Suh's presence did allow more one-on-one matchups for the other Detroit defensive linemen that resulted in decent pressure on quarterback Josh Freeman.
Final Grade: B+
Key 3: Offense Must Get Off To A Fast Start
It is almost becoming like a broken record to talk about the Bucs offense's slow starts, but once again it reared its’ ugly head as Tampa Bay managed just 108 yards through the first half and was dominated in the time of possession category 21:45 to 8:15. Tampa Bay led 10-6 in the first quarter thanks to an interception return for a touchdown by Talib, but trailed at halftime 20-13. The Bucs offense has not scored more than seven points in the first quarter of any of the past 55 games, including Sunday's contest against Detroit.
The Buccaneers came out in the second half with a plan to speed up the tempo by using its two-minute offense personnel, but it wasn’t very effective until the fourth quarter. By that time, the Lions were up 27-13 and the Detroit defense was playing a soft zone and allowing Freeman and Co. to work the underneath parts of the field which skewed the final statistics somewhat.
This should – and will – be a major point of emphasis this week and every week, until Tampa Bay can show the ability to move the ball consistently and put up points early in a football game.
Final Grade: F
Key 4: Establish the Running Game
Just as in all four preseason games a quarterback – not a running back – led the Buccaneers in rushing as Freeman did on Sunday against Detroit with four carries for 26 yards. And just as in the four preseason games, holes and running room to run never seemed to materialize.
Whether game plan or execution, or a combination of both, there is no way Tampa Bay can reach Raheem Morris’ self imposed goal of winning the NFC South unless the running game gets better.
While Freeman wasn’t very sharp for much of the game, part of that can be attributed to being in third-and-long situations for most of the first three quarters.
But finally, there isn’t an excuse for not being able to convert in short-yardage situations a number of times Sunday, which were drive, and more importantly, momentum killers.
Final Grade: F
Key 5: Eliminate Penalties and Play Smart
Again, something that plagued the Buccaneers in the preseason cost the team somewhat in their 27-20 loss to the Lions. Tampa Bay was flagged six times for 39 yards against Detroit, which on the surface is quite a reduction in yardage from the preseason when the team was racking up over 100 yards worth of penalties regularly.
On the plus side, Tampa Bay didn’t have any unnecessary bonehead penalties like personal fouls or late hits. On the negative side, the Buccaneers defense was flagged three times for offsides or neutral zone infractions, and also gave the Lions a first down when Talib was penalized for illegal contact on a third down incomplete pass that extended a drive. The Bucs should get commended for getting fewer penalties than Detroit did as the Lions accumulated eight infractions for 68 yards.
Final Grade: C
Cook's Keys To Victory Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Lions 17
Actual Score: Lions 27, Buccaneers 20
Getting beat to open the season isn’t the worst thing that could happen to the Buccaneers. It may actually help as the team may have been reading their press clippings and media chatter. Obvious weaknesses were exposed and the players and staff clearly can see where the team must improve.
BUCCANEERS UNIT GRADES vs. LIONS
Without the fourth-quarter drives this grade would have easily been a D or worse. In a bit of defense, Josh Freeman was hampered by Tampa Bay’s inability to run the football and faced several third-and-longs, which are difficult to convert no matter who is behind center. But from the opening drive Freeman’s passes weren’t very crisp and frequently off-target. He completed 28-of-43 (65 percent) for 257 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while getting sacked twice and fumbling once. Freeman did lead the Bucs in rushing with 26 yards on four carries (6.5 avg.). Josh Johnson subbed for Freeman for two series, but failed to pick up a first down, completing 1-of-3 passes for seven yards and rushing once for two yards.
With only 28 yards on 11 carries between LeGarrette Blount and Earnest Graham combined, this unit performed poorly, although there was not much room to run. Graham did lead the Bucs in receptions with eight for 58 yards and Kregg Lumpkin added one catch for nine yards, but the lack of an explosive, make-your-own-yards type running back is something Tampa Bay is missing this year. Blount was a non-factor due to the lack of a commitment to running the ball by offensive coordinator Greg Olson and the team's inability to pick up first downs in the first half. If this unit does not perform better next week against Minnesota expect an 0-2 start for Tampa Bay.
The release of Ryan Purvis, Nathan Overbay and Daniel Hardy surprised many fans and members of the media. I’m not saying one of them makes the fourth-quarter catch that Luke Stocker miss-timed and dropped for an easy, 27-yard touchdown, but that is one I’m sure Stocker would love to have back. Kellen Winslow wasn’t targeted in the red zone as much as expected, but still led Tampa Bay with 66 yards on six receptions.
Tampa Bay's tight ends didn't do much to help the running game, which never got on track.
Other than Mike Williams' acrobatic fourth-quarter 5-yard touchdown snag on fourth-and-2, the Buccaneers receivers were average at best. Tampa Bay’s wideouts managed 18 receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown collectively and had no critical drops, but were unable to create much separation from the Lions’ secondary.
Freeman didn’t help his receivers, as many of his throws were off-target and not where his receivers could do much after the catch.
Still struggling to find an identity, the Buccaneers offensive line struggled in the run game, failing to open hardly any holes for Blount and Graham. The biggest failure was the lines inability to make any room at all in short-yardage situations. Five of the team's 11 possessions were three-and-outs, including half of the team's possessions in the second quarter and all three of them in the third.
The pass protection was adequate as Freeman was only sacked twice – although Kyle Vanden Bosch beat left tackle Donald Penn for a sack-fumble in the fourth quarter – and he will likely see he had more time than he thought after reviewing the game film.
There was a great deal of hype about how the defensive line would be better this year after a great preseason, in which the unit recorded 10.5 of the team's 14 sacks in the preseason. While the personnel is better and more talented, the defensive line's performance against the Lions was a huge disappointment.
Zero sacks and no quarterback pressures will not allow the Buccaneers to win many games this season, and receivers will put up huge numbers until a pass rush can be found and becomes consistent. The defensive line did a fair job in run defense, but the Lions still rushed for 126 yards on 35 carries.
Overall, the play of the linebackers was solid. Geno Hayes made a couple standout plays and finished with eight tackles and a tackle for loss. Rookie Mason Foster had six tackles with one behind the line of scrimmage in his first start at middle linebacker. Quincy Black finished with eight tackles and one forced fumble, while Dekoda Watson contributed two tackles on defense.
But missed tackles were numerous in the first half and allowed the Lions running backs to keep the chains moving and eat up clock, keeping the defense on the field for a majority of the 86-degree day. The linebackers missed their fair share of tackles and must become more consistent when wrapping up the ballcarrier.
Enough has been made of the Talib-Johnson matchup in which Talib had a pick-six to start the game in the first quarter, but surrendered two touchdowns to Johnson. Yet when the opposing quarterback has a 305-yard day, as Matthew Stafford did, the secondary struggled. Besides Johnson’s 88 yards and two touchdowns, Nate Burleson chipped in with 60 yards on five catches.
But half of the damage was done by Detroit’s tight ends and running backs, which means the linebackers share in the pass coverage woes. Strong safety Sean Jones played well with eight tackles and a forced fumble, but free safety Cody Grimm only had just one tackle. Cornerback Ronde Barber excelled in run defense with seven tackles and a tackle for loss.
Finally, a unit to get excited about. Unfortunately when a team's punter is the MVP of the game it puts a bit of a damper on things.
Micheal Koenen was as good as advertised, averaging 52.2 yards per punt and placed all his kickoffs, except the onside attempt, in the end zone for touchbacks. Sammie Stroughter had a 78-yard kickoff return in the first quarter. The punt team limited the Lion’s Stefan Logan to only 6.8 yards per punt return.