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With training camp over, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are getting into the meat of the preseason and are just over three weeks away from their regular season opener at New Orleans. At the close of training camp, a few things have caught this Pewter Reporter's eye. Here are touchdown's worth of points to ponder as you get ready for the preseason home opener.
1. QUARTERBACK UPDATE
After the preseason game against the Dolphins, quarterback Brian Griese and Luke McCown were still getting equal repetitions and revolving which signal caller went first in scrimmages and installations. However, there was one very notable distinction between the quarterbacks battling for the backup spot. Griese was practicing with the first-team offensive line.
As you probably noticed in our practice reports, the second-team offensive line was struggling in their blocking. This was in part because they were consistently matched up against the first-team defense, but regardless, McCown did not have a lot of time to throw the football in the scrimmages this week.
It looks like the team is turning to Griese as the backup quarterback. McCown was solid against Miami, but he missed on his touchdown opportunity to an open Michael Clayton in the end zone. Griese moved the ball down the field, and the end result was a touchdown. The bottom line is: Griese produced a touchdown and McCown did not.
While some say that Griese may be the second coming of Captain Checkdown, the Bucs seem to be very comfortable with that. Last season, the Bucs threw to running backs 31 percent of their pass attempts. That was the highest in the NFL, and this year that number figures to only increase with the manner in which the team is using running back Warrick Dunn.
During training camp, Griese threw to the running backs the most of any quarterback getting a significant number of snaps. The coaching staff seems to trust Griese more, and appears to be more comfortable turning to him. Sources have indicated to Pewter Report that the Bucs are still monitoring Griese's decision making process.
At points in his career, Griese has had a habit of throwing interceptions. The team is hopeful not to see Griese make some of the mistakes he made as a Chicago Bear. In his two seasons away from the Bucs, Griese threw for 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He averaged two interceptions per start last season (six starts, 12 picks). In Griese's defense, the Bears passing offense was not a consistent unit, and head coach Jon Gruden's system is more quarterback-friendly with easy passes to compile a high completion percentage. In his 17 games under Gruden, Griese threw for 27 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Sources have said that McCown still does not have the mental clock in tune to the game action on the field. They say that McCown is going along great for a bunch of plays and then out of nowhere misjudges his time to throw the ball and makes a mistake. Perhaps that is why they are putting him in with the second-team offensive line. That way he will get more pass rush in his face and force him to practice getting the ball out faster and making the proper decision. While that may be the case, prior to the Dolphins game they were getting about equal reps with the first-team offensive line.
It remains unclear if McCown could clear up that issue he were to receive extended playing time. He is a young quarterback that is entering his fifth season, but only has seven starts in his career. Other teams give young quarterbacks every opportunity to grow into being a quality NFL quarterback only to see the player be unable to become a reliable starter.
Some teams are rewarded by going through a young quarterback's growing pains. Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Matt Hasselbeck, and Drew Brees are all quarterbacks that went through growing pains for at least one season before becoming Pro Bowlers. It is unclear if the Buccaneers are willing to endure that or take the risk of McCown not panning out and hurting the team's playoff chances.
The belief here is that in order for McCown to be the number two quarterback he will have to light it up in the remaining preseason games and practice. McCown has a lot going for him from a physical standpoint. Of all the quarterbacks in training camp McCown is the best pure passer. He also has good mobility. In watching practice, the impression was given that Gruden wants McCown to run with the football more, especially on third downs with a first down in a manageable distance.
One thing to consider is comeback potential. If the Bucs were down 10 points in the fourth quarter, McCown's downfield passing ability makes him a much better prospect to be able to lead the Buccaneers back from a deficit. Griese's short passing game is not conducive to putting points on the board quickly.
In 101 games under Gruden including the playoffs, the Bucs have never overcome a deficit of more than seven points. In that stretch, Griese started 16 games for Tampa Bay and appeared in 17. He owns a 9-7 record as a Bucs starter.
Right now, it appears that Griese is in the driver's seat to become Garcia's backup. At 38 years of age, many fans and observers doubt that Garcia will play all 16 games for the Bucs this season. He missed time last year, and missed over a week of training camp with a calf strain already this year. If Griese wins the backup quarterback spot, Tampa Bay fans can expect to see him on the field for a significant amount of time in 2008. 2. STEVENS READY FOR BIG YEAR
Tight end Jerramy Stevens has picked up where he left off after his strong finish to last season, and team sources have confirmed that notion. Stevens was second on the team in touchdown receptions last season with four, and did all of that damage in his final four games of the season.
Pewter Report spoke with Stevens about whether he feels that he can continue the momentum from last season. Stevens believes he can, and pointed towards his one year of experience with Tampa Bay's offense as one reason.
"Without a doubt," said Stevens. "I'm comfortable with the offense. I'm not thinking I'm just playing. That is huge for me to go out there and be able to play and react and not have to think about what I'm doing."
From watching practice, the Buccaneers tight ends are a definite strength of the offense. They have a nice mixture of receiving threats and effective blockers. Stevens also believes that the Bucs tight ends are a good unit.
"Yeah, I think we arguably have the best tight ends group in the league," said Stevens. "We got a lot of talent. It will be a challenge for Coach Gruden to get us all on the field and get us the chance to make plays."
While Stevens saw the challenge there, he believes whole-heartedly in his head coach.
"Gruden does a great job of utilizing all of our talents," said Stevens. "I think we all are going to get a lot of plays."
It would not be surprising for Stevens to repeat as the team's second-leading touchdown receiver. His 6-foot-7 frame makes him a real threat in the red zone due to the size mismatch he poses. The Bucs got those mismatches with Stevens lined up wide against cornerbacks. They have thrown to Stevens quite a bit in training camp and he was an effective part of the passing game, running seam routes down the middle of the field and routes into the flat. Stevens also ran a variety of patterns in the red zone offense.
Last year, Stevens had to earn his way onto the field, but this year he is in position to make an impact earlier in the season.
"I think a lot it had to do with that Coach Gruden didn't know how my season was going to look last year," said Stevens. "Once things played out, he saw that I was going to be there every week, so this year I look forward to making as many plays in the red zone and on the field as I can. I think we're all on the same page. We got all of that stuff still in the playbook, so when Coach Gruden calls on it I'll be ready."
This Pewter Reporter believes that Stevens is the best receiver amongst the tight ends and is poised to have a big season catching the ball. He also may be the key player to the Bucs improving their red zone offense.
3. STORER LOOKS LIKE A LOCK
Some media outlets have written that backup fullback Byron Storer is a bubble player, but from what Pewter Report has seen and heard, Storer will be on the 53-man roster. Storer is one of the most improved Buccaneers from last season.
He has come a long way as a receiver and is much better now than he was a year ago. Storer has seen a lot of action in training camp, and after talking with Gruden, it sounds like Storer has made the most of his opportunity.
"Yeah, he's gotten too many reps," Gruden said. "With [B.J.] Askew not taking any. He's gotten better as a receiver. With the fine points of the game, he has become a little bit better rounded. We still have work to do there. There is not a better kid that I've ever met or tougher son-of-a-[gun] than Byron Storer. We want him to keep getting better, and he'll work at it."
Askew, the team's starting fullback, was restricted in training camp with an ankle injury, and it was an ankle injury last season that caused him to sit out some games in December. With Askew in a somewhat precarious condition, the Bucs will most likely keep a backup fullback on the roster. According to Askew, Storer is up to the challenge.
"Byron is looking very stellar in the hole, very strong," said Askew. "I'm just trying to help him out with a few things as far as putting the finishing touch on a block. I think Byron is ready to play."
Storer is also a good player on special teams. His running backs coach, Rich Bisaccia, is the special teams coordinator as well. The depth that Storer provides at fullback and his contributions on special teams seem to point to him being a lock on the 53-man roster.
4. GILMORE WILL BE A FAMILIAR PLAYER BY THE END OF THE YEAR
Stevens is not the only tight end that has the Bucs excited. Free agent John Gilmore from Chicago has had a great training camp. Gilmore has been the Buccaneers' best blocking tight end as expected, but he also has shown more receiving ability than many people thought he had. Gilmore was expected to fill the role of former Buccaneer Anthony Becht, but Gilmore is faster and more athletic than Becht.
Gilmore was the Bucs' leading pass receiver against the Dolphins in the first preseason game with three catches for 25 yards. Heading into the game, Gilmore did not have any idea that he would end up being the leading receiver.
"I don't really sit there and plan that kind of thing out," said Gilmore. "It just kind of happened. If your number is called at the right time you see a certain look it just kind of falls that way. They were routine catches that we usually work on in practice. Yeah, it was cool. I didn't know that I was the leading receiver until we got back here on Monday."
In training camp, Gilmore was a very noticeable part of the offense. He was very active as a blocker, but his speed to get up field as receiver was noteworthy and was definitely underrated when he first came to the team. With his all-around skill set and talent it seemed that Gilmore was getting more reps and action than any other tight end, but Gilmore set the record straight on that perception.
"My body feels like that," said Gilmore with a laugh. "We have a lot of different packages as tight ends, but as far as more reps than the other guys I can't say that. I was talking with Jerramy Stevens the other day we were trying to figure it out, even Dan Fells — his reps are right around where our reps are. Everybody is getting a pretty fair shake of reps because there is a lot of tight end sets where all of us are in together."
That was the case last year as well. The Buccaneers used the tight end so much that no team in the NFL lined up more often with just one wide receiver. Tampa Bay also went to two or more tight end sets 32 percent of their plays, eighth most in the NFL. Starter Alex Smith may be the most complete tight end as a blocker and receiver, but the tight ends that were the most impressive during training camp were Gilmore and Stevens. Bucs fans will see those three and Ben Troupe regularly in games throughout the season.
The prediction here is that Bucs fans will be pleasantly surprised by the play of Gilmore this season, and they also will enjoy the affable tight end off the field. 5. ROOKIE BRADWELL IS IMPRESSING
A player that really came on towards the end of training camp was undrafted rookie free agent defensive tackle Chris Bradwell. The 6-foot-5, 280-pound Bradwell showed some nice foot quickness to beat blockers and also looked to hold up well on the line of scrimmage. Overall in training camp, Bradwell made more plays than rookie fourth-round pick Dre Moore.
Last season at Troy while playing with Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack, Bradwell made a big impact on the field. For the season, Bradwell recorded 36 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, four sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and one pass defensed. Bradwell had an odyssey for a college experience that included junior college and sitting out the 2006 season.
While Bradwell remains a long shot to make the team, he has raw, intriguing talent. Bradwell seems to be a perfect candidate for the practice squad. Starting defensive tackle Jovan Haye spent time on the practice squad before breaking in and having an impact on the field. Bradwell is definitely a player to keep an eye on in the three remaining preseason games. If he keeps escalating his play and shows up well, Bradwell could solidify a spot on the practice squad – or maybe even the 53-man roster. 6. PRACTICE SQUAD PROSPECTS
Speaking of the practice squad, the Bucs have a lot of young talent that has flashed at times in training camp. Below is a list of players that this Pewter Reporter could see making the eight-man practice squad after cuts are made at the conclusion of the preseason.
DT Chris Bradwell CB Elbert Mack LB Geno Hayes QB Josh Johnson RB Clifton Smith WR Micheal Spurlock TE Daniel Fells
Some of those players could make the 53-man roster, especially Johnson, Spurlock, Hayes, and Mack. All of those players have eligibility for the practice squad and all the players are raw, developmental types. This list leaves a couple of spots open for the Bucs to sign players that are cut by other teams. Tampa Bay could also sign one of its offensive linemen to the squad. There are a lot of players competing there and it is too close to call at this time.
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