The Pewter Pulse often appears on Fridays during the offseason as Scott Reynolds offers up his weekly insight, analysis and the latest inside scoop on the Buccaneers. This column is typically part of PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider premium content, but this week's edition is a FREE sample so that all can Bucs fans can read the analysis and observations about the Bucs' offseason workouts.DON’T COUNT OUT BLOUNT
The selection of Boise State running back Doug Martin means that he will automatically be Tampa Bay’s starting running back in 2012 over incumbent LeGarrette Blount in the minds of some Bucs fans and even some in the media. All of a sudden, Blount is the most egregious fumbler in the league and the worst receiving back in the NFL.
Not so fast.
Let’s set the record straight regarding his fumbles. According to NFL.com, Blount was credited with five fumbles last year – three of which turned into turnovers when the defense recovered the loose balls. The NFL gave the blame for a mishandled exchange at Carolina last year between Blount and Josh Freeman to the quarterback when the Panthers recovered the fumble, but televised replay clearly shows that Blount failed to squeeze the ball after Freeman placed it in his arms.
So if you want to say that Blount fumbled six times and lost four of them, that’s fine. And that is six too many for new head coach Greg Schiano’s liking.
However, Schiano is giving Blount – and every Bucs player – a clean slate, in addition to teaching the Bucs’ current leading rusher and his teammates a lesson in holding the ball a new way with a high-and-tight grip that is designed to eliminate fumbling. While Blount has yet to rush for a single yard in 2012, he has yet to fumble the ball, too.
It is true that Blount is not too experienced in the passing game when it comes to being used as a receiver or picking up blitzes because he wasn’t asked to do those things at Oregon. But he did make significant strides in that area last year, catching 15 passes for 148 yards (9.9 avg.) with a career-high 35-yard reception. As a rookie in 2010, Blount caught just five passes for 14 yards (2.8 avg.).
Throw in the fact that even during a down year from his NFL debut in which he rushed for 1,007 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per carry in only 13 games (with seven starts), and Blount still averaged 4.2 yards per carry en route to amassing 781 yards and five scores in 14 contests in 2011. Blount’s 4.6-yard career average over two years is higher than that of Michael Pittman (4.2 avg.), Warrick Dunn (4.0 avg.), Mike Alstott (3.7 avg.), Errict Rhett (3.5 avg.) and Reggie Cobb (3.5 avg.) in Tampa Bay.
Blount is not a bad back at all, and the Bucs don’t necessarily want him replaced in 2012 or even in the future. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik grew up outside of Kansas City and got his first NFL job working as a scout for the Chiefs – a team he grew up watching along with his childhood favorite Pittsburgh Steelers. Like it was years ago in Pittsburgh with Franco Harris and Rocky Belier in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and as it was in the early 1990s in Kansas City with Christian Okoye and Barry Word, the NFL has gotten back to being a two-back league.
In 1989, Okoye led the league in rushing with 1,480 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 4.0 yards per carry. In 1990, Okoye rushed for 805 yards and seven scores on 245 carries (3.3 avg.) in an injury-plagued season, but rebounded in 1991 by rushing for 1,031 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
While Okoye was banged up in 1990, Word emerged as the leading rusher with 1,015 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per carry despite 41 fewer touches. In 1991, Word served as a great complement to Okoye, rushing for 684 yards and four touchdowns on 160 carries (4.3 avg.).
The difference between the present day NFL and the NFL of yesteryear in terms of the need for two starting-caliber running backs is that the league has become so pass-oriented in the 2000s that the backs must become more proficient in the nuances and intricacies of the passing game. When Harris and Okoye ruled the day in their respective eras, the NFL was much more ground-oriented and offenses were built around three yards and a cloud of dust.
But that’s the kind of offense Schiano wants to build in Tampa Bay. With defenses gearing up to stop the passing game and the slew of great quarterbacks currently dominating the NFL these days by moving to 3-4 schemes and putting the emphasis on building defenses around shutdown cornerbacks and fast, pass-rushing defensive linemen, the Bucs hope to go against the grain and take advantage of the fact that defenses aren’t designed to really stop the run from a ground-and-pound attack.
While the 5-foot-9, 223-pound Martin is a Ray Rice clone with the strength to break tackles and the quickness to elude them, the 6-foot, 247-pound Blount has the muscle to bust through would-be tacklers and the agility to jump over them. In fact, Blount may be better suited to be the starter to wear down defenses initially and then let speedier Martin complement him as a change-of-pace back and a back that can operate better on obvious passing downs.
Starting Martin may limit the times and places Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan can use Blount, and that approach may actually become counterproductive. It will be up to Blount to keep the starting job by performing well, and that’s what he was trying to say to the media during the OTAs.
Blount is a prideful player, and sometimes that comes across as being boastful, but wouldn’t you want a running back that has a ton of confidence as opposed to one that is lacking in that department? Blount has designs on being Tampa Bay’s leading rusher, but he has no problems with Martin being on the roster. Martin has already said that he has no issue teaming with Blount and following his lead.
The only concern about Martin may have been the fact that he averaged 4.94 yards per carry for the Broncos while other premier running backs in the 2012 NFL Draft had a much better rushing average. Alabama’s Trent Richardson averaged 5.93 yards per carry, Virginia Tech’s David Wilson had a 5.89-yard per carry average, Cincinnati’s Isiah Pead averaged 5.31 yards per carry, Utah State’s Robert Turbin had a 6.09-yard average, Miami’s Lamar Miller averaged 5.6 yards per carry, San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman averaged 5.50 yards per carry and Oregon’s LaMichael James led the nation with a 7.31-yard average on 247 carries.
Now here’s what the Bucs really like about Martin’s game – his consistency. Martin rushed for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns on 263 carries, while catching 28 passes for 255 yards and a pair of scores as a senior. As a junior in 2010, he rushed for nearly identical numbers – 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns on 201 carries (6.2 avg.), while hauling in 28 receptions for 338 yards and two TDs.
Through two weeks of OTAs, Blount has been taking most of the carries while Martin has been nursing a sore hamstring and only receiving a few carries in a precautionary fashion. Not taking the initial starting snaps doesn’t necessarily mean much.
Last year in training camp Tyrone McKenzie was the starting middle linebacker for the first couple of practices until the Bucs inserted Mason Foster in with the first-team defense, supplanting McKenzie. A month later, Foster was the starting Mike linebacker and McKenzie didn’t even make the 53-man roster.
Anything can happen, but the Bucs haven’t given up on the idea that Blount can still be a 1,000-yard running back – despite Martin’s arrival.BUCS PRACTICE AN UNORTHODOX PASSING STYLE
NFL quarterbacks coaches and offensive coordinators spend an awful lot of time trying to eliminate bad habits when it comes to quarterbacks throwing the football. Textbook footwork and proper mechanics when it comes to releasing the ball are taught throughout the offseason at mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities), which are days that are rooted in fundamentals.
But not in Tampa Bay. Quarterbacks coach Ron Turner and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan do have their quarterbacks practice doing things the right way, but are also spending time having Josh Freeman, Dan Orlovsky and Brett Ratliff doing things the wrong way, too.
The three Buccaneers quarterbacks spend one practice period scrambling around and throwing off balance – all while trying to maintain accuracy. The purpose is to simulate real game-like situations where the quarterback may have to make an awkward throw on third down to move the chains and the pass still has to be on target to accomplish that goal.
The idea is born from Sullivan, who had Giants quarterback Eli Manning improve his accuracy in 2011 by having him practice using proper and improper throwing technique. Backup quarterback David Carr said the drills produced the desired results.
“I won’t say his drills are unconventional, but not being a quarterbacks coach before, he has some different drills where it's uncomfortable movements,” Carr told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.
“You’re not just dropping back, moving to the left and right, stepping up and throwing the ball, which never happens in the game. You move up, you sprint out, run away from someone and then try to throw off-balance.”
The Bucs quarterbacks typically practice the unorthodox throwing during special teams periods, and on Tuesday, the primary targets were wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who is working hard on developing a rapport with Freeman, and running back LeGarrette Blount, who is working on his receiving skills.
While the quarterbacks are using a different throwing method to practice throwing the ball in awkward situations, Blount is also using an unorthodox drill to help his concentration and pass-catching ability. The coaches have Blount stand in a stationary fashion, which helps Freeman and the other quarterbacks lock in on a target when they throw the ball. When the pass arrives, Blount has to concentrate and catch it with one hand.
Sullivan hopes that his different methods make a difference in Tampa Bay with Freeman as they did with Manning.BALL SECURITY IS PARAMOUNT UNDER SCHIANO
Every NFL head coach stresses the importance of ball security. Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano obsesses about it.
“No one who touches the football will get touches if they don’t protect the football,” Schiano said. “That is one of our core covenants – the ball. It’s so important they named the game after it. We make a big deal about it.”
Every recent Bucs head coach from Tony Dungy to Raheem Morris has used a practice period a couple days per week to practice holding on to the football. Running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends would typically run through the gauntlet drill, which consisted of coaches with padded blocking shields swatting at the pigskin as the ballcarrier runs between them.
Under Schiano, the gauntlet is still used on offense, but the twist is that the defensive players practice ball security, too. Under former head coaches in Tampa Bay, the Bucs offensive players would practice holding on to the ball and the defensive players would practice creating turnovers. With Schiano’s coaching staff, the Bucs defenders also practice good ball security once they have secured the takeaway.
Secondary coach Ron Cooper and assistant DBs coach Jeff Hafley make sure the defensive backs use the same “high and tight” ball-carrying method that the running backs use to insure that they don’t have the ball stripped before they get tackled.
Hafley was seen repeatedly telling the safeties during the interception drill during the individual period, “Put the ball under your chin! Put it under your chin!”
Picking off passes or recovering fumbles doesn’t mean a thing on defense if the offense can take the ball back before the whistle blows, and that is something that the Bucs coaching staff is spending a good deal of time stressing. The amount of attention to detail at One Buccaneer Place never seems to end under Schiano.PULSE TIDBITS
• Aside from the break-neck pace of the Bucs’ up-tempo practices, one of the interesting things about the way Greg Schiano’s coaching staff operates is the way that the different units hang together as they watch the offense and defense in the 11-on-11 scrimmage. All of the running backs stick together and all of the wide receivers are standing closely together. The same holds true with the tight ends and the offensive linemen. The respective position coaches stand close to their squads and provide continual instruction to the players on the sidelines and as the players come off the field.
In years past in the Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris eras, the Bucs players on offense and defense would typically drift amongst each other and converse. That may happen in time during the Schiano regime, but right now the Buccaneers are staying glued to their respective positions as everyone is learning the offensive and defensive systems.
• Another thing that is fundamentally different about Bucs practice is that there is very little swearing compared to the coaching staffs under Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris. Former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy, who never cursed, did not like his coaches swearing and for the most part they complied.
But when the salty-tongued Gruden took over in 2002, Dungy holdovers like defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, linebackers coach Joe Barry, and especially defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, incoporated swearing into their daily coaching vocabulary. The practice continued to a degree when Morris, who is also a known curser, took over.
In the parts of three practices that Pewter Report has been able to watch this spring, we have yet to hear any cursing on the practice fields at One Buccaneer Place. Those Schiano comparisons to Dungy seem to be even more realistic by the minute.
• One final word about Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount and his status with the team. If Tampa Bay were planning on phasing him out or replacing him with newly acquired running back Doug Martin, Blount would not have been selected to model the new Nike Buccaneers uniforms. Instead, the Bucs would have chosen quarterback Josh Freeman, the face of the franchise, to be model the new Nike duds.
Sure, Blount is a product of the University of Oregon, which is the same school that Nike founder Phil Knight went to, so he could have been selected to be Nike’s model because of his ties to the Ducks program. But the NFL teams have the final say in which player was called upon to represent them when it came to modeling the new gear, and if Blount was expected to just be a role player or an afterthought in 2012 he wouldn’t have been selected for such an import publicity move.
To see Blount, whose production in the coming year will likely dictate his future role with the team, modeling the new Bucs uniforms you can click here and here.
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