SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. FREEMAN DESPERATELY NEEDS A TIGHT END TO THROW TOVincent Jackson and Mike Williams are the primary receivers on nearly every passing play in Tampa Bay’s playbook – as they should be.
Jackson made the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career last year and the first time as a Buccaneer in 2012, while catching a team-leading 72 passes for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns. Williams was second on the team in catches with 63 receptions for 996 yards and a team-high nine TDs last year.
But outside of those two receivers, who primarily work the sidelines in Tampa Bay’s offense, the Buccaneers don’t have a reliable target to work the underneath area in the flats, and the intermediate middle of the field down the seams. The lack of a security blanket for quarterback Josh Freeman was startling apparent in the Bucs’ stunning, 18-17 loss at New York last Sunday.
The Bucs tried in vain to get running back Doug Martin the ball as a receiver against the Jets. But Martin, who caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown last season, had six passes thrown his way and only managed to catch two of them for minus-1 yards.
The tight end duo of starter Luke Stocker and backup Nate Byham produced just one catch for one yard, and that was by Byham. Stocker’s noticeable play of the day against the Jets was giving up a sack in the first half.
As a result, Freeman had a mediocre performance against the Jets, completing just 15-of-31 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Meanwhile, Freeman’s former tight end Kellen Winslow was carving up the Buccaneers for the Jets. Winslow caught seven passes for 79 yards and a key touchdown right before halftime in New York’s 18-17 victory over Tampa Bay. Winslow also had a 25-yard catch on the Jets’ final drive to help them get into position for the game-winning field goal.
Last Sunday, Winslow was for rookie quarterback Geno Smith what he used to be for Freeman – a dependable safety blanket and first-down producer.
In 2009, which was Freeman’s rookie year, Winslow caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown in a 38-28 win over Green Bay in Freeman’s first start. The next week, Winslow caught seven passes for 102 yards in a narrow, 25-23 loss at Miami. In wins against Seattle and New Orleans towards the end of the season, Winslow caught six passes for 93 yards against the Seahawks, and four passes for 76 yards against the Saints while helping the young Freeman develop.
In 2010, Winslow was Freeman’s primary target, catching 66 of the 98 passes that were thrown his way for 730 yards and five touchdowns while helping Tampa Bay to a surprising 10-6 season. In 2011, a year in which the Bucs started off 4-2, but finished the season losing 10 straight, Winslow caught 75 of the 121 passes he was targeted with for 763 yards and two scores.
It’s no coincidence that Freeman had his best years in terms of accuracy when he had a pretty good tight end to catch the ball in Winslow. In 2010, Freeman completed 291-of-474 passes for 61.4 percent. The next year, Freeman completed 62.8 percent of his throws while connecting on 346 of his 551 passes.
Winslow was jettisoned in the 2011 offseason because he didn’t buy into Greg Schiano’s “toes on the line” hard-line disciplined approach to coaching, and because the team felt that Freeman was leaning too much on the volatile, outspoken tight end, who often demanded the ball in the huddle. Many of Freeman’s 22 interceptions during the 2011 campaign were made when he was attempting to force the ball to Winslow.
The front office felt like Winslow, who only turned 30 this year, but has had multiple knee injuries, had lost a step. With the faster, more athletic Jackson essentially replacing Winslow atop the passing hierarchy the Bucs felt like they could move on without the playmaking tight end. And with Williams and Martin also atop the pecking order for passes from Freeman, the tight end position has slipped to fourth alongside the team’s third wide receiver.
For that reason, the tight end has been almost an afterthought in Tampa Bay’s offense since 2011. The Bucs haven’t drafted a tight end since Stocker in the fourth round in 2010 and Drake Dunsmore in the seventh round in 2012, and signed Dallas Clark after the draft last year.
Clark caught 47 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns in 2012 in his lone season as a Buccaneer, but the team opted not to re-sign the 34-year old in the offseason. Instead, Tampa Bay wanted to give Stocker the opportunity, and signed Green Bay reserve Tom Crabtree to compete for the starting job that was vacated by Clark. However, sources tell PewterReport.com that Tampa Bay was poised to draft Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert in the first round had the Bucs not traded its first-round pick to New York for cornerback Darrelle Revis.
PewterReport.com repeatedly reported during the offseason and during training camp that Freeman and Stocker did not have a good rapport and failed to connect on several pass attempts in practice. Crabtree was poised to win the starting job in the preseason after catching three passes for 71 yards (23.7 avg.) in the preseason, including a 61-yard gain, before suffering a high ankle sprain in the fourth exhibition game against Washington.
To say that Freeman missed Crabtree in Week 1 would be an understatement. To make matters worse, Winslow starred against his old team, the Buccaneers, and provided Smith with a safety blanket. To add insult to injury, Clark, who signed with Baltimore to ease the loss of starting tight end Dennis Pitta, played well in the Ravens’ Week 1 loss to Denver. Despite dropping a touchdown and fumbling against the Broncos, the 34-year old Clark did catch seven passes for 87 yards.
The Bucs could have used Clark in pewter and red on Sunday as the team has very limited receiving threats in Stocker and Byham with Crabtree out right now. Freeman, who completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the preseason and in Week 1, is clearly missing a tight end to throw to over the middle. Crabtree can’t get healthy soon enough.
FAB 2. PAGE MAKING A POSITIVE IMPRESSION AT ONE BUC PLACEWhile Tampa Bay struggles at the tight end position, which may be the weakest spot on the roster, the Bucs are also not feeling good about the wide receiver position past starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on the depth chart. Sources tell PewterReport.com that the team is not happy with Kevin Ogletree’s performance on Sunday, and even in the preseason when he dropped passes along the sidelines at New England in August and at New York on Sunday.
The Bucs wanted to upgrade the third receiver position so they signed Ogletree where he was a spotty producer in Dallas for four years. Ogletree led the Bucs with 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in the preseason and pushed Tiquan Underwood off the roster, but he disappeared against the Jets and wasn’t thrown to until the very end of the game where he failed to catch a pass.
Tampa Bay parted ways with Underwood, who was the team’s third receiver last year, in order to make room on the roster for Russell Shepard. But if Ogletree doesn’t step up, first-year receiver Eric Page, who is the Bucs’ primary return specialist, might get a shot at playing the slot.
Aside from starring on special teams as a return man with six punt returns for 65 yards, including a 19-yarder, and seven kick returns for 191 yards (27.3 yards), Page had two catches for 25 yards in the preseason, including a 20-yarder against Washington.
“I had real limited reps, but I think I did good,” Page said. “When I got out there I was able to make a big play with Mike Glennon. I think I did pretty well.”
Glennon, a rookie quarterback who was selected in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, saw Page’s rapid development in the month of August.
“I think he was definitely one of the most improved players,” Glennon said. “Towards the end of the camp he definitely finished really strong. We saw him improve his understanding of the playbook and he got better throughout the course of camp and earned a spot on the team.
“He’s really tough. If you are going to go back there and return punts you have to be tough – both mentally and physically. He showed he could go out there and hold his own. He’s done a great job for us on special teams and as a receiver.”
In a room full of receivers that average 6-foot-2 in height, the 5-foot-10 Page stands out as the smallest wideout on the roster.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but I think he has the biggest heart, though,” Williams said. “He’ll go across the middle. He’ll catch the ball across the middle. He’ll do all the reverses. But to be out there doing punt return and to stare those guys down – you have to have heart to do that.”
Page had two punt returns for 35 yards in his NFL debut, including a 28-yarder. On his 7-yard return he was scooped up and slammed down like a pro wrestler by a Jets defender. No flag was thrown for unnecessary roughness.
“It was great,” Page said. “I was just glad to go out and help the team any way I could. I didn’t think it was any different from the preseason. I’m glad I got the chance and now I’m preparing for the Saints game.
“I was thinking after the game if I was a quarterback it would have been different (regarding getting body-slammed), but that’s how it goes. It’s football. In high school that’s not going to get called. In backyard football, that’s not going to get called. I’m a little guy, but I have to go out there and play. Stuff happens.”
Williams thought there should have been a flag on the Jets for slamming Page to the ground unnecessarily.
“You see that he got right back up,” Williams said. “He’s tough. There was no issue with him being hurt. I’m surprised there wasn’t a flag, though.”
Page’s lack of size may cause him to get roughed up on occasion from bigger NFL defensive players, but it pays off in the slot where smaller, but quick receivers like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola have thrived.
“He’s quick and shifty,” Glennon said. “As a receiver he is what you see as a punt returner. He’s a little guy that can get away from defenders with his speed and quickness. He’s always eager to learn and he’s always asking questions. I think that’s the thing that really sticks out about him.”
Page is thankful that he has great mentors like Jackson and Williams to learn from.
“Vincent Jackson leads by example,” Page said. “He’s the first in every drill. He’s the first one out here. As a young kid you just watch him and want to be like him. Mike Williams has helped me out a lot. He’s shown me the ropes and talked to me and helped me in my first year”
Williams was the first to see the potential in Page and offer to help him in the offseason.
“When he first got here he didn’t know how to work,” Williams said. “I kind of took him under my wing. I told him that you have to work to stay in this league. He’s doing better. The way he’s working I told him to keep working like he doesn’t have a spot. He’s going out there and getting his catches in practice every day. When he gets the ball in his hands it’s just the God-given talent and showing what he can do.
“I can’t wait to see what he can do out there on offense. He’s out there in our four-wide package. He’s going to get to show his stuff on offense, but what he can do in the punt and kick return game is dynamic.”
Although Page is known for his ability to play special teams from his days at Toledo where he had four kickoff return touchdowns and one punt return TD, he was also a prolific receiver for the Rockets. Page caught 82 passes for 1,159 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman before posting 99 catches for 1,105 yards and eight scores as a sophomore.
Page left Toledo after his junior season where he caught 125 passes for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns before foregoing his senior campaign and entering the 2012 NFL Draft. At 180 pounds, Page’s lack of ideal size and a slower than expected 40-yard dash time caused him to go undrafted. He signed with Denver as an undrafted free agent, but suffered a knee injury during the summer of his rookie season and ended up on injured reserve.
“I was at home training before training camp and I went up for a ball and came down and tore my ACL,” Page said. “It was tough. I didn’t even make it to training camp. It was tough having to sit out a whole year. Playing football I’ve never been injured my whole life. That was the toughest part about it. I spent time with my family and rehabbed. There wasn’t much else to do.”
A year later, Page is Tampa Bay’s primary kick and punt returner – at least until Jeff Demps enters the mix when he’s back in football shape in a week or two – and will be given consideration to play wide receiver as he continues to practice on offense.
“I think the coaches have a good plan for me,” Page said. “They always say be ready because injuries can happen at any time. Right now I’m just trying to learn all of the positions – not just one – and be ready when my name is called.”
If the Bucs go with a four-wide receiver package against New Orleans, Page’s name could be called on Sunday.
FAB 3. BOWERS WON’T BEAT OUT TE’O-NESHEIM ANYTIME SOONWhich Buccaneer has the most sacks over the past five games dating back to last year? The answer may surprise you.
Linebacker Lavonte David and unheralded defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim hold that distinction with three apiece. Both players recorded a sack at New York in Tampa Bay’s 18-17 loss, and Te’o-Nesheim was the only defensive lineman to get Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith on the ground in the 2013 season opener.
On a defensive line that features Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a former first-round pick in defensive end Adrian Clayborn and rookie sensation Akeem Spence at nose tackle, Te’o-Nesheim is a mere afterthought to most observers. In fact, the biggest news in training camp on the defensive side of the ball was the fact that Da’Quan Bowers didn’t claim the starting left defensive end job in his third season.
The real news should have been that Te’o-Nesheim beat out Bowers, which is exactly what happened. Te’o-Nesheim didn’t win the job by default, and proved that with a solid performance in the season-opening loss at New York.
Make no mistake. The Bucs front office wants its 2011 second-round draft pick to succeed and the plan was to have Bowers start opposite Clayborn. But Bowers’ work ethic and hustle is not close to the level it is with Te’o-Nesheim.
Bucs middle linebacker Mason Foster was a college teammate of Te’o-Nesheim at the University of Washington where the All-Pac 10 defensive end had 194 tackles, eight forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his career. Te’o-Nesheim is the Huskies’ all-time leading sacker with 30, and his 50.5 tackles for loss is also the most in school history.
Those statistics prompted him to get drafted in the third round by Philadelphia in 2010. But Te’o-Nesheim injured his shoulder during his rookie season and recorded just one sack before being released in the final roster cutdowns in 2011. He was signed to the Eagles practice squad before Bucs general manager Mark Dominik stole him away from Philadelphia and signed him to Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster on November 22.
After spending the rest of the 2011 season developing in practice, Te’o-Nesheim was called on to replace Clayborn as a starter for the final 13 games of the 2012 season at right defensive end. His 40 tackles were one shy of tying defensive end Michael Bennett for the most among Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen.
Te’o-Nesheim finished the 2012 campaign with a career-high four sacks with his first one coming at Minnesota. He had five tackles and a sack two weeks later against San Diego, followed by a career-high seven tackles in a 27-21 overtime win at Carolina the following week.
After recording a sack against Philadelphia, Te’o-Nesheim recorded another quarterback capture to go along with three tackles in a 22-17 win at Atlanta to end the 2012 season. The fact that he picked up right where he left off with a sack in New York doesn’t surprise Foster.
“He’s a great all-around player,” Foster said. “He’s one of the players I looked up to in college because of how hard he worked and the effort he played with. To this day I think it’s something that sets him apart from the other guys – that effort. He’s relentless, working hard in the weight room or wherever. I think that’s why he continues to get better.”
“I’ve never seen him take a play off. He’s the Energizer Bunny. It was crazy in college, I remember one year he sprained his ankle, but he never slowed down. They had to pull him out so it wouldn’t get worse. He always plays with a high level of energy and he’s a great guy to have on this team.”
Foster said to label Te’o-Nesheim as nothing more than a try-hard guy would be to short change the Hawaiian native of his athletic abilities.
“Te’o is a lot more athletic than people give him credit for,” Foster said. “He ran well at the Combine and did well in his drills. That just shows you how hard he works. When he went to API (Athletes Performance Institute) he trained and worked his butt off. There’s no replacement for hard work – even how he studies film. Nobody outworks him.”
That’s why Bowers couldn’t crack the starting lineup. The Bucs organization wasn’t pleased with how Bowers appeared to loaf during his pass rush and blew containment that allowed Smith to scramble for 10 yards and draw a 15-yard personal foul on a late hit by David to put the Jets in position to kick the game-winning 48-yard field goal. Don’t be surprised if Te’o-Nesheim replaces Bowers in critical, late-game situations like that in the future.
“Te’o goes all out, and I like being around him because it’s contagious,” said Foster, who had eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble at New York. “We are Huskies and we were good friends in college. He makes me want to work harder. You don’t want to let one of your good friends outwork you or out perform you. He brings that to the defense and he’s a great teammate to have.”
And he’ll also be the starting left defensive end ahead of Bowers for the foreseeable future.
FAB 4. EXPECT FOSTER TO KEEP GETTING PICKED ON IN PASS DEFENSEThird-year Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster had a great season opener at New York in the Bucs’ 18-17 loss to the Jets in terms of statistics. Foster had eight tackles, a team-high two sacks and a forced fumble, which was recovered by rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence at the Jets’ 5-yard line and quickly turned into a touchdown by running back Doug Martin a play later.
It was a great start for Foster, whom the team believes should really develop into a playmaker with more consistency in his second year in Greg Schiano and Bill Sheridan’s defensive scheme.
“I felt fast,” Foster said. “It felt good to start my year off like that. Throughout camp I felt a lot more comfortable. I understand the defense a lot better. I’m really just having fun. I can go play now. I was having a lot of fun out there. We just have to pull those games out.
“We work so hard during the week and prepare so much and study so hard that the game is fun. All this stuff during the week is hard. This is the hard part. On Sunday it should be fun. We go out there and try to make it fun. When you have fun you are playing at a higher level and play with more energy.”
Foster has never had a problem when his game is moving forward towards the line of scrimmage. Tampa Bay’s third-round pick in 2011 had 104 tackles, 13 tackles for loss two sacks and a fumble recovery last year after notching a team-high 126 stops with four tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as a rookie.
Where Foster needs work is when his game moves backwards and away from the line of scrimmage in pass coverage. Through two seasons Foster has just three pass breakups and only two interceptions.
To make matters worse, Foster’s struggles in pass defense have made him a target, evidenced most recently in the preseason in games against New England and Miami where he gave up red zone touchdowns, as well as Tampa Bay’s Week 1 loss at New York where tight end Kellen Winslow was able to slide between Foster and the safeties to score a crucial touchdown just before halftime in the Bucs’ 18-17 loss to the Jets.
“Anytime you are getting down in the red zone the Mike [middle linebacker] is getting targeted no matter what,” Foster said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, but that’s an area I have to improve on. That’s the mismatch the offense is looking for. You can take your slot receiver and put him at No. 3 and that’s the Mike’s coverage. That’s going to be where you are going to get jerk routes. That’s where the slot receiver will come right you, settle down like he’s going to stop and then take off again.
“Most of the time when you get down in the red zone they are going to isolate the Mike. Going against VJax (Vincent Jackson) in practice helps a lot because he knows all the tricks. He’s probably one of the best receivers running the jerk routes. You just have to keep getting better and battle.”
Look for Saints quarterback Drew Brees to try to create a mismatch with the 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham on the 6-foot-1 Foster, or to isolate Foster on quicker slot receivers like Lance Moore and Kenny Stills. Until Foster proves he can make teams pay with tighter coverage, more passes batted down and more interceptions, he will continue to be targeted. Foster knows the challenge that lies ahead of him and wants to shed the bull’s eye that’s on him in pass coverage.
“Definitely,” Foster said. “I want to be an all-around linebacker. I don’t want to be known as a run-stopper or a physical guy. I want to be known as a guy that can stop the run and also cover anybody. I want to put it in drive, but also play in reverse. I just try to study. It’s real complex the way our defense is put together. I think I’m doing a good job of working with Coach [Robb] Smith and Coach [Bill] Sheridan. They are making things a lot easier for me. Quarterbacks are so skilled at this level, but I’ve got to overcome that and do my job.”
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• There are two penalty-related issues that have Buccaneers officials steaming mad from Sunday’s game at New York. And no, they don’t have anything to do with linebacker Lavonte David’s late push on QB Geno Smith or the personal foul on safety Dashon Goldoson, who knocked Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland out of the game. Those calls are likely correct given the way the rules written.
The first is the fact that Bucs strong safety Mark Barron hit Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley and knocked his helmet off. Kerley left the game in the first half, but then returned in the second half and played a part in New York’s 18-17 comeback win. Now Kerley was listed on the concussion report and didn’t play in the Jets’ game against New England. In an age where the NFL has gone hysterical about player safety, how could the Jets medical staff have cleared him to return to action, and now declare that he had a concussion, which means he will have to sit out the next game?
The other issue was the fact there was no penalty for unnecessary roughness when punt returner Eric Page was picked up and body-slammed to the ground. Barron was flagged for a personal foul for doing the same thing to Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III while he was scrambling in last year’s loss to Washington. With the diminutive Page wrapped by a Jets defender, the officials should have at least blown the whistle once forward progress was stopped. But when Page was unnecessarily slammed to the ground, the fact that no flag was thrown really upset the Buccaneers.
• Tampa Bay’s upcoming schedule heading into the bye week is very challenging to say the least. With an NFC South clash against revamped New Orleans and a trip to New England the following week, a 0-3 or 1-2 start to the 2013 season is looming. With quarterback Carson Palmer, the Arizona Cardinals, whom the Bucs will face in Week 4, will be no push over.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bucs could be 0-4 or 1-3 heading into the bye week, which would be a disastrous start to a team that should be playoff-bound given the talent on its roster. Teams with winning records use the bye week as time to unwind or regroup mentally, but the Bucs may have a lot of work to do during the bye.
The team may be prepping rookie quarterback Mike Glennon to start after the bye if Tampa Bay has a losing record after Week 4, and there may not be much of a mental break for the players with media criticism swirling around One Buccaneer Place for an extra week without the chance to notch a win on Sunday, October 6.
• Don’t be surprised if Gabe Carimi is not playing left guard again this week if starter Carl Nicks still isn’t ready to go as he recovers from a MRSA infection. Sources tell PewterReport.com that the team is not happy with his play as he struggled against New York.
“My aiming points could be better and my footwork could be better,” Carimi said. “I played right guard for a few games [in Chicago]. Not left guard, but I did play on the left side [at tackle in Wisconsin]. You are switching your stance and your position. It’s a little bit different. There’s definitely an adjustment.”
The Bucs are considering moving Jeremy Zuttah from center to guard and installing Ted Larsen at center. The Bucs are also considering playing Jamon Meredith at guard instead of giving Carimi another game where he’s playing out of position.
• The cardinal sin for Tampa Bay from a personnel standpoint in last week’s game at New York was not having a fullback on the roster. That caused a chain reaction of events that resulted in Doug Martin only averaging 2.7 yards per carry against the Jets’ stout 3-4 defense.
Without Erik Lorig in the lineup due to an injury, tight ends Luke Stocker and Nate Byham were forced to play out of position and become lead blockers in the backfield. Neither excelled as makeshift fullbacks and it prevented Tampa Bay from getting the most out of its two-tight end set, which typically features Stocker and Byham on the edge of the line and Lorig at fullback. To ensure the team would have a fullback in the lineup, the Bucs re-signed Spencer Larsen this week even though Lorig returned to practice.
How valuable do the Bucs feel Lorig is to the offense? He missed most of training camp and all four preseason games with a calf injury and the team kept him on the 53-man roster.
• And finally if you are looking for a great place to watch the Buccaneers games on television and eat some fantastic food, look no further than The Grille At Westchase, which is the home of the official Pewter Report Get2gethers. The Grille At Westchase is located at 13234 Race Track Road in Tampa, and has some incredible game day feast options each Sunday from noon – 4:00 p.m. ET.
For $15 per person, football fans can purchase an all-you-can-eat tailgate buffet that comes with all-you-can-drink water and soda.
For $25 per person, football fans can purchase an all-you-can-eat tailgate buffet that comes with complimentary Bud Light drafts, Michelob Ultra drafts and Amberbock drafts.
For $35 per person, football fans can purchase an all-you-can-eat tailgate buffet that comes with complimentary drafts featuring all beer, including Stella, Corona Light and Shock Top, as well as all house wines and well drinks.
Last Sunday’s tailgate buffet was sold out, and space is limited. So call The Grille At Westchase at (813) 818-7433 to make your reservation and enjoy all-you-can-eat-and-drink specials with prices ranging from $15 – $35 per person, and tell them PewterReport.com sent you.
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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