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Pewter Report editor-in-chief Scott Reynolds takes a look at five positives that came out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2004 preseason.

1. SOLID RUNNING GAME – Although the Buccaneers’ leading rusher in the preseason, Earnest Graham, took his three touchdowns and 124 yards on 37 carries to Tampa Bay’s practice squad, the Pewter Pirates showed a much improved running game in the 2004 exhibition season, thanks in part to a revamped offensive line. Tampa Bay averaged just 103 yards per game in 2003, and while they averaged only 101 yards per contest in the preseason, the running game really came together nicely in the last two games against Miami and Houston.

After a dismal showing at Jacksonville when the Bucs rushed for a paltry 59 yards, including 22 yards from scrambling quarterback Chris Simms, Tampa Bay rolled up 108 yards versus the Dolphins and a whoping 147 yards against the Texans.

While Charlie Garner showed a nice burst and the vision to navigate through traffic in limited preseason duty (four carries, 20 yards), and Mike Alstott returned to form from his neck injury, newcomer Jamel White (17 carries, 59 yards) and holdover Michael Pittman (20 carries, 104 yards) had solid performances, too.

The Bucs offensive line, which features new tackles in Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese and Anthony Davis, who may play left tackle if Deese’s foot injury flares up again, a big, new guard in Matt Stinchcomb, a healthy and focused Cosey Coleman, and a steady center in John Wade, should only improve on the 3.7-yard rushing average that Tampa Bay put forth in the preseason.

2. SOLID QB PLAY – The old saying “three out of four ain’t bad” certainly applies to the Buccaneers quarterback play this preseason. All three of Tampa Bay’s signal callers – Brad Johnson, Chris Simms and Brian Griese – displayed remarkable consistency and playmaking ability in three out of four preseason contests this year. The notable mulligan was the Jacksonville game in which the Bucs fell to the Jaguars 14-6, and none of Tampa Bay’s passers were very good, especially Johnson and Griese, who really struggled.

But in the team’s other three exhibition games, the quarterback position as a whole showed it is the team’s deepest and most talented unit. All three QBs completed at least 60 percent of their passes, and all three players were limited to just one turnover through four games. Only Johnson, who heads into his fourth season as the starter in Tampa Bay, did not throw a touchdown pass in the preseason.

Here are the vital statistics for the Bucs QBs this preseason:

Simms 42-of-61 (68.9 percent) for 432 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Griese 26-of-42 (61.9 percent) for 258 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 1 fumble

Johnson 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) for 189 yards 0 TDs, 1 INT

3. KEENAN WHO? – While Tampa Bay fans wondered how the Buccaneers receiving corps would fare without Pro Bowler Keenan McCardell, who is holding out over a contract dispute, several players stepped up in the preseason to ease those fears. McCardell guessed that general manager Bruce Allen would come to him waving the checkbook after the trade of Keyshawn Johnson and injuries to Joe Jurevicius (back surgery), Edell Shepherd (broken foot), Justin Skaggs (hamstring tear) and Charles Lee (hamstring tear) left the receiving corps a bit thin. He guessed wrong.

Allen was ready for McCardell’s holdout this offseason. He drafted LSU wide receiver Michael Clayton in the first round, traded for speedster Joey Galloway, and signed crafty veterans Tim Brown and Bill Schroeder instead of caving into McCardell’s demands for a pay raise. As evidenced by their preseason statistics, those moves paid off wisely for the G.M. dubbed “Bruce Almighty.”

Clayton led the Bucs with 11 catches for 154 yards in the preseason. Schroeder had six catches for 98 yards for a 16.3-yard average. Brown made four receptions for 31 yards. Tampa Bay also got big contributions in the passing game from Lee (three catches for 55 yards) and Frank Murphy (five grabs for 65 yards), which helped ease the loss of McCardell. Another key contributor was second-year tight end Will Heller, who led the Bucs with 12 catches for 99 yards and one touchdown in the preseason.

4. KICK RETURN THREAT (FINALLY) – Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has stated that better kickoff returns will help his offense score more points on its opening drives in the first quarter. Tampa Bay’s low point production in the first quarter (just 34 points combined through 16 games) last year was blamed in part because of poor starting field position. Too often the Bucs started at or behind their own 20-yard line.

To remedy this, the Bucs chose not to re-sign any of their kick returners – Aaron Stecker, Karl Williams, Thomas Jones or Reggie Barlow – from a year ago, and sign a plethora of new players to compete for the kick return duties in 2004. Among the candidates were Brandon Bennett, Edell Shepherd, Frank Murphy and rookie Mark Jones.

As it turns out, Murphy won the job with a 29-yard average in the preseason, including a 38-yard return out to the Tampa Bay 42-yard line in the finale at Houston. That average was head and shoulders above the stats that were turned in last year as Barlow averaged just 22.1 yards on 10 returns and Stecker averaged only 20.8 yards on 25 returns.

Murphy returned the first kickoff in the Jon Gruden era 95 yards for a touchdown in the 2002 preseason opener against Miami at Raymond James Stadium. In fact, Murphy had a higher average (32.3 yards) on six returns during the 2002 preseason than he had this preseason. Had Murphy not been released two years ago, the Bucs may have ended their dubious record of kickoff returns without a touchdowns, which enters its 29th season in 2004, two years earlier.

5. TURNOVER MACHINE – All offseason, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and head coach Jon Gruden have both been preaching that the team needs to create more turnovers this year. The defense proved it was listening by recording nine turnovers in four preseason games.

Tampa Bay opponents fumbled the ball six times, but only four were recovered by the Buccaneers. Defensive tackles Oliver Gibson, Damien Gregory and DeVone Claybrooks each recovered a fumble, as did safety Will Hunter.

Tampa Bay defenders also produced five interceptions in four games during the preseason. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber, Mario Edwards and Ronyell Whitaker each stole a pass, and linebackers Keith Burns and Ryan Nece got into the act too, with Nece’s pick returned 56 yards for the game-winning score against Miami.

Not only was Kiffin’s defense consistently creating turnovers in training camp, but that desire to capture the ball for the offense was translated into the preseason games with amazing consistency. Tampa Bay produced at least one turnover in every preseason contest this year. Now Kiffin wants those turnovers to come when the bullets fly for real this Sunday at Washington.
This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com. Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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: sr@pewterreport.com
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