BUCS 2007 MIDSEASON AWARDS OFFENSIVE MVP QB Jeff Garcia Garcia has been the biggest difference-maker for the Bucs in the 2007 season. He has completed 152-of-230 passes (66.1 percent) for 1,771 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Garcia broke Brad Johnson's team record for consecutive passes without a pick before his three-INT debacle versus Jacksonville. But it hasn't been the gaudy, Pro Bowl-caliber stats that have helped Tampa Bay win four games during the first half of the season. Garcia's leadership and veteran savvy has been just as impressive. He has a gritty, gutsy determination that has rubbed off on his offensive counterparts and that has played a big factor in Tampa Bay's good start. Garcia is also on the same page with head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden and has gone with the right audibles more often times than not. His health and performance are the keys to what the Buccaneers will do over the second half of the 2007 campaign.
DEFENSIVE MVP MLB Barrett Ruud Ruud's play has validated Bruce Allen's decision to release starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, which was quite unpopular at the time. Not only has Ruud done a great job with the physical part of the game, evidenced by his 103 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and his interception, but he has also made sure the Buccaneers defense has gotten into the right alignment and made the right audible calls, too. Ruud is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year in his first season as a full-time starter and is on pace to break Hardy Nickerson's single season tackle record of 214, which was set in 1993. Ruud looks to be a future star on this defense for years to come.
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP K Matt Bryant In just three years, Bryant has become the most accurate field goal kicker in Tampa Bay history. After making 77.2 percent of his field goals a year ago, including a team-record 62-yarder, Bryant has improved on those statistics in 2007, making 12-of-14 field goals (85.7 percent). He hasn't missed under 40 yards, and his 43-yard field goal against Tennessee in Week 6 was the game-winner in a tight, 13-10 victory for the Buccaneers. Bryant's kickoffs have been quite good, too, as Tampa Bay has a top 10 unit in kickoff coverage this season. Tampa Bay kick and punt returner Mark Jones would have been in the running for this award had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury.
MOST IMPROVED – OFFENSE RT Jeremy Trueblood Trueblood made an incredible transition from playing left tackle in college to playing right tackle in the NFL, and he did it while starting 13 games, too. After just one year in the league, Trueblood looks like a natural right tackle and has gotten his footwork down pat. Arguably the best and most consistent offensive lineman this year, Trueblood held New Orleans' Charles Grant, St. Louis' Leonard Little, Carolina's Julius Peppers, Indy's Robert Mathis and Tennessee's Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom without a sack in consecutive weeks before surrendering two sacks to Detroit's Dewayne White – while fighting food poisoning. Trueblood has the size, skill, competitiveness, intelligence and demeanor to dominate for years to come.
MOST IMPROVED – DEFENSE SS Jermaine Phillips Phillips had his worst year as a pro in 2006, with a mix of bad tackling, poor recognition skills, and taking bad angles contributing to a nightmarish season that almost cost him his job in 2007. What was missing? Great coaching. Former secondary coach Greg Burns was fired after one year for failing to connect with Tampa Bay's group of tight-knit defensive backs. Former assistant DBs coach Raheem Morris was brought back in 2007 to replace Burns and he has made a huge impact, turning Phillips into a force in the secondary. Through eight games, Phillips has 56 tackles and has produced two interceptions. Credit Phillips for holding off 2007 second-round draft pick Sabby Piscitelli in training camp and the preseason. Piscitelli was drafted to replace Phillips, but the sixth-year defensive back has shown the will to succeed.
MOST DISAPPOINTING – OFFENSE RG Davin Joseph It's not that Joseph's play has been terrible in 2007. It's that the Buccaneers expected Joseph to play much better than he has this season because he is capable of it. Tampa Bay had hoped that Joseph, a first-round draft pick in 2006, would turn into a dominant offensive lineman by his second season. Instead, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood holds that distinction while Joseph has struggled with inconsistent play, especially in pass protection. To put this in perspective, Joseph is currently grading out as a "B-minus, C-plus player" when he has the potential to be an "A player." If Joseph would become more consistent and stop underachieving, Tampa Bay's offensive line would be dominant.
MOST DISAPPOINTING – DEFENSE DE Gaines Adams It's understandable that some rookies will face a tough learning curve in their first season in the NFL. But there is also some understandable frustration and disappointment from the Bucs' brass over the play of Adams, Tampa Bay's first-round pick. Because of Adams' lofty draft status – he was picked fourth overall in 2007 – the expectations were that he would have more than 1.5 sacks through the first eight games. Adams has shown flashes of becoming a good pass rusher, and has applied pressure to quarterbacks at times this year, but he still appears to be a year away from becoming the dominant force on defense Tampa Bay was hoping he would become.
BEST ROOKIE FS Tanard Jackson While most preseason prognosticators (including Pewter Report) had predicted that the Bucs' top rookie would be either the team's first-round pick, defensive end Gaines Adams, or second-round pick, left guard Arron Sears, it has instead been Jackson. The Bucs' fourth-round draft pick has started from Week 1 and has compiled 48 tackles and one interception in his first eight NFL starts. While the plays that Jackson have made have been impressive, what has been even more stellar is that Jackson has not made many detrimental mistakes that most rookies make. Jackson has quickly earned the praise and respect of Tampa Bay's veteran defenders like cornerback Ronde Barber. The rookie has also been a star performer on the Buccaneers' special teams.
MIDSEASON UNSUNG HERO RB Earnest Graham Things seemed awfully grim for Tampa Bay's running game when Cadillac Williams was lost for the year with a torn patellar tendon in Week 4 at Carolina and Michael Pittman went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 5 at Indianapolis. Graham, who had amassed a career-high 75 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of Tampa Bay's 24-3 win over St. Louis earlier in the year, was held to just 29 yards on 13 carries against Tennessee in his first NFL start. That prompted the Bucs to trade for running back Michael Bennett. But Graham picked up his game the following week and posted 92 yards rushing and 99 yards receiving in his second start the following week at Detroit. Graham has proven his ability to carry the load in Jon Gruden's offense and keep the Buccaneers' ground game going.
BEST FREE AGENT PICKUP FB B.J. Askew It might come across as blasphemy, but the Buccaneers offense hasn't really missed the play of starting fullback Mike Alstott, who is on injured reserve with a neck injury. The reason is because of the play of Askew, a free agent import from the New York Jets. Of course quarterback Jeff Garcia is the Bucs' top free agent pickup, but since he is Tampa Bay's MVP, Pewter Report decided to praise Askew for his contribution to Tampa Bay's 4-4 start. His role as a lead blocker has been tremendously valuable this year, especially given the turnover at running back due to injury. The Bucs haven't had a lead blocker this good since Alstott's 2005 season. Askew has also shown his versatility as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, too.
BEST PLAY (SO FAR) Joey Galloway's 69-yard TDs Galloway has had two dynamic 69-yard touchdown catches this season, so take your pick. His first 69-yard score came in Tampa Bay's 31-14 Week 2 win over New Orleans and really blew the game open. Galloway caught a slant pass from Jeff Garcia and received a crushing block at midfield from Michael Clayton to set him free for a 69-yard touchdown. On Galloway's other long distance score, he hauled in a 69-yard bomb against Tennessee that proved to be critical in Tampa Bay's narrow, 13-10 victory in Week 6. Opponents have done a good job of defending Galloway and taking away Tampa Bay's deep ball this year by using a lot of Cover 2, but on these two instances Galloway was able to break free and help the Buccaneers claim victory.
SECOND HALF FORECAST 9-7 Bucs win NFC South Pewter Report's original preseason prediction for the Pewter Pirates this season was 8-8, which represented a four-game improvement over last year's disappointing 4-12 record. But given the fact that the Buccaneers have already won four games, which is what some in the local media had predicted Tampa Bay would win all season, let's set the bar a little higher. While the Bucs could claim two wins against Atlanta, another victory over Carolina and have winnable games ahead against Arizona, San Francisco and Washington we're forecasting a 5-3 finish down the stretch and a 9-7 record overall. The reason? Injuries. To Tampa Bay's credit, the team has overcome a litany of injuries this season to start off the season 4-4. The Bucs should receive a boost when running back Michael Pittman, wide receiver Michael Clayton, cornerback Brian Kelly and tight end Alex Smith to return for a playoff push. The bye week after the Arizona game should help Tampa Bay get healthy.
BUCS 2007 MIDSEASON GRADES QUARTERBACK = B When Jeff Garcia has played well, the Bucs have won. When he has played poorly, Tampa Bay has lost. If he can stay away from turnovers and stay healthy, the Bucs will make the playoffs this year.
RUNNING BACK = B- The position has been hard hit with injuries, but should receive a boost when Michael Pittman returns and Michael Bennett becomes more acclimated to the playbook. Earnest Graham has been solid, but unspectacular in the meantime. Tampa Bay scored just six rushing touchdowns in 2006 and they already have eight halfway through the 2007 campaign. Fullback B.J. Askew has been very good as a lead blocker and an asset as an outlet receiver.
WIDE RECEIVER = B- Joey Galloway has been a touchdown-scoring deep threat and is averaging 17 yards per catch with four TDs. He's on pace for another 1,000-yard season. Ike Hilliard has been steady, except for a costly drop at the end of the Jaguars game. The position has been hard hit by injuries to Mark Jones and Michael Clayton, but Maurice Stovall stepped up big against Jacksonville with five catches for 47 yards, a 22-yard kickoff return and a partially deflected punt. This unit needs to do a better job of catching the ball and finding the end zone.
TIGHT END = C- Sources at One Buc Place say the tight end position has been the most disappointing unit on the team. Anthony Becht has been mediocre as a blocker this season and Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens need to get more involved in the passing game. Smith is out with an ankle injury, but should return after the bye week.
OFFENSIVE LINE = C While this unit has improved from a year ago, it is still inconsistent from week to week. The run blocking has been the most improved aspect of the offensive line as Tampa Bay is averaging 107 yards per game on the ground. In pass protection, the O-line has surrendered 12 sacks, but that might be expected from a unit that has four players with less than two years of NFL experience. The loss of left tackle Luke Petitgout has hurt from an experience standpoint, but Donald Penn has filled in admirably. Right tackle Jerramy Trueblood has played outstanding in his second year.
DEFENSIVE LINE = C- Tampa Bay has been hard-pressed to generate much pass rush this year. Aging veterans Greg Spires and Kevin Carter lack initial quickness and the ability to re-direct. Rookie Gaines Adams has only been mildly productive as a pass rusher. Tampa Bay's defensive line has been more stout against the run, but the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has hurt. Speedy defensive end Patrick Chukwurah has been effective when healthy.
LINEBACKERS = B Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has been a stud in his first full season as a starter. He is on pace to record over 200 tackles in 2007. Derrick Brooks continues to show his age with some missed tackles, but is playing better than a year ago. Newcomer Cato June has flashed his potential, but has not made enough impact plays. This unit has the potential to play better. After starting off the season strong, the linebackers have faded over the last four weeks.
DEFENSIVE BACKS = B- Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris has helped turn Jermaine Phillips' career around and has prepared rookie Tanard Jackson to be a starter. Improved safety play has been a key, but the corners need to make more plays. The return of Brian Kelly from a groin injury should help. The secondary needs to create more turnovers.
SPECIAL TEAMS = B Kicker Matt Bryant and punter Josh Bidwell are having great seasons. The return game has been hit or miss, but took a big blow when it lost return specialist Mark Jones for the season with a torn patellar tendon. The Bucs' coverage units were fantastic at the start of the season, but have lost some of their brilliance as the weeks have rolled by. Part of this may be due to injuries on the team. For example, when Earnest Graham had to start at running back, the special teams lost one of its best cover men.
COACHING = B Jon Gruden's playcalling has been more creative this year. Having a veteran quarterback that he can trust like Jeff Garcia helps. Gruden has done a good job of overcoming the injuries that have hit the offense and getting Michael Bennett quickly acclimated into his system. Points and yardage are up on offense. On defense, the Bucs have been better against the run, but need to produce more turnovers and must generate more of a pass rush. Tampa Bay's cornerbacks have only produced two INTs and the defense has only recorded 14 sacks. The coaching has been good, but can also improve.
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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: email@example.com