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With the end of training camp less than one week away, some important attributes of the 2008 Buccaneers have emerged. This week, we have a touchdown's worth of points that cover some of the most noteworthy things that this Pewter Reporter has seen in practice. 1. FOCUS OF THE OFFENSE
"We have a group of running backs that are extremely impressive," said Bucs tight end John Gilmore. "I'd argue that they might be one of the best running back corps in the NFL. That's motivating the guys along the front line to get the job done for those three guys. To be honest, you could take our passing game away, which I don't think would happen, and I think we'd still be able to run the ball. The running backs here from top to bottom, are doing a great job."
Gilmore highlights the group that will lead the Buccaneers offense in 2008. Tampa Bay is built to run. The Bucs' first two free agent acquisitions of center Jeff Faine and Gilmore further bolstered the offense's blocking abilities. Both will do a tremendous amount of blocking for the Buccaneers running backs.
Throughout training camp, the rushing attack has been the most consistent manner in which the offense has been able to move the football. On some days, the passing offense has done better than others, but the Bucs' fast defense has been ready to snuff out the check downs on most occasions.
The running backs won't only see the ball a lot on the ground, but the Bucs have implemented a lot of screens and quick passes to the running backs lined up outside of the backfield.
"Well, we have a lot of designed plays that go to the running back. Those guys are good in space. We feel like they are good route runners and good pass catchers," said Bucs quarterback Luke McCown. "Then you play our defense and their Tampa 2 scheme and it is hard to get the ball downfield. Things are going to be open more than likely for the running back. If you know it is a soft zone coverage why waste time looking downfield? The sooner you get there then he has more room to run and make things happen. Again, we are using the guys that can make plays. Those three guys coming out of the backfield are certainly weapons for us."
The trio of running backs: Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn, and Michael Bennett, have all received a lot of reps running ball and catching the ball on passes. Once the regular season games get started, Pewter Report can see Dunn getting a lot of use early in games. Graham will have some carries in the first half but will get the majority of his workload in the second half and will likely wind up with the most touches. Bennett would be sprinkled in throughout the game.
In Oakland, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had the number one ranked rushing attack in the NFL. Gruden spoke to Pewter Report about whether his group has the makeup to be a top ranked unit like his past ones.
"Well, we have some components in place," Gruden said. "So does Carolina, they have Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The Saints have Reggie [Bush] and Deuce [McAllister]. They have a lot of components. Everybody has players. We're committed to it. We feel like the inside three is a strength of ours. [Right tackle Jeremy] Trueblood is a banger, and we think Donald Penn has gotten stronger. Hopefully John Gilmore and our tight ends can pick up for Anthony Becht because he was a big-time blocker for us."
The key part of Gruden's quote is that the Buccaneers are committed to the running game. Practice has shown that commitment and they feel that their offensive line is able to lead a big rushing attack. If training camp is any indication, plan on seeing Tampa Bay be a team that gets the ball to its running backs constantly, and uses the ground attack as the point of emphasis for their offense.
2. OFFENSE AND GRUDEN
Through the rumors of Brett Favre being traded to the Buccaneers, many people argued over whether Favre would have had enough time to learn the offense and run it effectively at the beginning of the season. To get another perspective on the offense and what makes it challenging, Gilmore explained the Bucs offense in comparison to the other offenses he has played in.
"There's a lot more detail and there's a lot more going on," said Gilmore. "Our philosophy here is to make things look different, but really do the same play from different formations and different sets. There's a lot going on. You have to know not only your position, but also everything that is going on around you. You have to learn the whole concept."
In speaking with Gilmore, he indicated that the only way the offense could work is with a head coach like Gruden. In the offense's meetings and on the field, the Bucs head coach is always communicating with his players. Gilmore has responded to his new head coach.
"I haven't [had a coach like Coach Gruden before]," said Gilmore. "I kind of like it because when he installs the plays it's coming form the head man. You know what is going on. When you hear it from the head guy there are no discrepancies and everyone is on the same page. In this type of offense that's the way it has to be. Lovie [Smith] was a defensive-minded coach and Coach Gruden is an offensive-minded coach. I've never had an offensive-minded head coach. This is new for me and I'm enjoying it. There are two totally different coaching styles. Coach Smith is a little more laid back and Coach Gruden is a lot more intense."
During the Favre saga, there were debates as to whether Gruden's offense is similar to that of other teams that use West Coast passing attacks. Over the years there have been a number of offenses that were supposedly similar to Gruden's, including those run by Seattle's Mike Holmgren and Denver's Mike Shanahan. Pewter Report caught up with former Bronco assistant, and current Bucs assistant head coach, Larry Coyer and asked him how the coaches' offenses compare.
"A different deal," said Coyer. "Coach Gruden is a master of disguise. Deep inside all that he is really tough. But he is a master of disguise and he has a great mind. I don't mean to say this any sort of trite way, but this guy has a brilliant mind." 3. TEAMMATES ON CLAYTON
In reading our practice insider write-ups, Pewter Report Insiders have heard about the improved play of wide receiver Michael Clayton. The LSU product is down to his rookie playing weight and looks like he is much faster than he was in the past three seasons. Clayton also has been very sure-handed in camp, and has not been plagued by the drops that he was in previous years. In order to confirm what we've been seeing, Pewter Report spoke with the Bucs quarterbacks to see if we were seeing things correctly.
"I think Mike looks a lot quicker," said McCown. "Everybody knows Mike can play. He certainly has looked crisp out of his breaks. As far as what we are looking at as quarterbacks he looks real crisp out of his breaks and is catching the ball well."
McCown was asked to compare the '08 Clayton with the player that he was in the past few years.
"It seems like he picked up a step," McCown added. "He looks lean. He is trim and he's strong, and he's catching it well."
Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese was the quarterback that most benefitted from Clayton's stellar rookie season. Griese was also around in the beginning of 2005 when Clayton started down a rough season.
"Yeah [Clayton] looks great," Griese said. "He looks as fast as I ever remember him. It is a credit to him the hard work and dedication that he has put in the offseason. I hope he can stay healthy and contribute."
Staying healthy is the key for Clayton. When he was healthy and playing at a lower weight, Clayton finished the 2007 season strong. If Clayton has injuries, they can distract from his focus and lead to a drop in his play. Staying healthy will be the key to Clayton being consistent at his current level, and providing it throughout the season, which just happens to be a contract year for the former first-round draft pick. 4. DEPTH AT LINEBACKER
The Buccaneers linebackers have had a productive training camp, and not just the starters of Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud, and Cato June. Backups Adam Hayward, Quincy Black, Ryan Nece, Geno Hayes, Antoine Cash, and Matt McCoy have all had strong camps.
The youngsters Hayward and Black has been active and are much improved over last season. The expectations were high for Black, who was discussed as a player that was up-and-coming entering training camp, but Hayward has been the most impressive of the backups up to this point. Prior to training camp, sources told Pewter Report that in some ways Hayward was further along in his maturation. That was in part because Black played a unique position in college were he was a hybrid linebacker/safety in New Mexico's defensive scheme.
Both Black and Hayward will be vital players on the 2008 Buccaneers team, and that is because they are being counted on to be some of the biggest contributors in special teams. Throughout training camp when talking about special teams, Gruden has mentioned the young linebackers as players that should lead the unit. They also will get help from their fellow backup linebacker McCoy.
McCoy so far has made a successful transition from outside linebacker to Mike (middle) linebacker. He is a good athlete that flies to the ball and loves the physical part of football. Pewter Report spoke with McCoy about making the transition to Mike linebacker.
"It is not much different [tracking down the ballcarrier]," said McCoy. "But as far as making the calls middle linebacker is a lot more difficult and everybody is counting on you so you don't want to let anybody down. Running to the ball comes natural."
Last year, June was hurt late in the season and missed the playoff contest. Ruud also got banged up throughout the season, and Brooks came off the field more than ever in 2007. There is a significant chance that the Buccaneers will have to turn to their backup linebackers in 2008, and this group seems to be prepared for the challenge.
5. ROOKIE UPDATE
Pewter Report was interested in how the Bucs rookies have been meshing with their veteran teammates. In order to find out, we spoke with a number of players and Coach Gruden to find out how they are coming along.
"[Cornerback] Aqib [Talib} certainly looks like he is doing well," McCown said. "He is a good-sized corner. He is physical, and has good hands, apparently. He is really coming along. You can't say enough about Dexter Jackson's speed. He can flat fly. When you get him the ball we look for him to do some things."
Jackson still is not 100 percent from his hamstring injury, and has not been able to showcase his full ability up to this point. It will be important for the Buccaneers to get a healthy Jackson ready to contribute on special teams and to accelerate his development as a wide receiver. Fortunately for the Bucs, the offense has benefited from another rookie who has made a great transition from the college to the pro game.
"I can't say how pleased I am with [guard/center Jeremy Zuttah]," Gruden said. "Again we don't want to credit these offensive lineman with too much publically. For what he is doing coming in here out of Rutgers where he played the tackle position, one day you watch him – he is playing left and right guard and next day he comes out here at center. All these positions are foreign to him. He's learning a new offense. I really like him a lot.
"Our playbook is so thick and tedious, I don't know how he does it. It is amazing. Jeremy Zuttah is a brilliant young man."
Zuttah was not the only impressive offensive rookie. Fifth-round pick Josh Johnson has made a favorable impression on the veterans that he shares the quarterback room with.
"I've been really impressed with Josh's ability to pick up the offense mentally," said Griese. "It is one thing to know it on paper and on the blackboard, but is another thing to know it on the field. You've got to have the first part before you can have the second part. I've been really impressed with him being able to pick up the intricacies of the offense."
In watching practice, fourth-round pick Dre Moore has really picked up his production in the past week. He still is not consistent and needs to get in better shape, but within the past week the defensive tackle has flashed some big plays in scrimmages. Moore is not the only defensive rookie that has flashed at times. When asked which of the Bucs young linebackers stood out the most, McCoy named the youngest of them all.
"[Linebacker] Geno [Hayes] has stood out to me," said McCoy. "He's only 20 years old. He's going to be able to play in this league for a little bit now. He's picking up the scheme really well and he's impressed me a lot and I'm in the same boat as him, and we're all trying to get better everyday."
6. COYER UPDATE
Last year, Coyer was working on getting the Bucs defensive line to rebound from a sub-par showing in 2006. This year, defensive line coach Todd Wash is trying to build on the progress that was made under Coyer. Now that Coyer is assistant head coach, it has not been exactly clear what he has been focusing on in training camp.
Pewter Report caught up with Coyer to get an update as to how things are going in his 44th year of coaching.
"It has been good I'm enjoying it," said Coyer. "It is a different perspective, but I'm enjoying it."
Coyer explained what he has been coaching this year under his new title.
"I've been working with the tight ends and offensive line," said Coyer. "And checking their work against the defensive line. I've been focusing on the break out drill.
"The big deal is you have to learn the offense as well as staying on track with the defense. So it is challenging that way, it is good for you. It keeps you learning, keeps you moving, you get to work with different groups of kids. I've gotten to know the whole team better."
After coaching defense throughout his career it is definitely a different animal this year for Coyer, but Coyer knows football and he talked about what he has seen from the unit he has been focusing on.
"I think our offensive line is a steady group. The guards [Davin Joseph and Arron Sears] are very good players. The center [Jeff Faine] is a good player, not that anybody else is not, or a standout. The defensive line, seems to me, has good depth and balance and there is not a great deal of difference between the first and second group. They're pretty competitive. They'll be very competitive this year."
Considering Coyer's vast experience with the defensive side of the ball, he gave a hint of another way in which he is helping the Buccaneers offense.
"I've been going to the offensive meetings mainly," said Coyer. "There, hopefully I can be of some assistance in the way other teams view what they're doing."
2 POINT CONVERSION
7. TURNOVER NUMBERS
One of the points of emphasis for the Bucs defense in 2008 is creating more turnovers. The unit that has a big focus on this is the secondary. They are motivated to record more interceptions this season then they did last year as they dropped a sizable number. Pewter Report spoke with defensive backs coach Raheem Morris and the turnover numbers he discusses are from last Wednesday morning.
"We've got a high standard in our room," said Morris. "We call them ‘miss-ops.' We hold these guys accountable for everything. If Ronde [Barber] wasn't mad at P-Buc [Phillip Buchanon], P-Buc wouldn't be mad at himself. Ronde is the leader of the room as far as the players and he doesn't stand for it. I'm the leader of the room and I'm not going to stand for it, either. We demand excellence and that's all you can do. If P-Buc misses a pick, he's going to hear it. If Ronde misses a pick, he's going to hear it.
"Right now we've got a couple of guys tied for the lead with three – Donte [Nicholson], Aqib [Talib] and E-Mack [Elbert Mack], shockingly. Two rookies and Donte. Aqib is arguing for his one in 1-on-1's yesterday to put him over the top and give him four, but we don't count those. We only count the ones that happen on the field in competitive team situations (like 7-on-7's, 9-on-7's, and 11-on-11's). We've got it all on the board. We've got forced fumbles up there and that jumps Will Allen and Sabby [Piscitelli] up there in the mix. They have three total turnovers, but our leader is Donte with three picks and a forced fumble. Shockingly enough, they are all touching a lot of balls. I've got a lot of numbers up on my board. I'm keeping track.
"We don't count the 1-on-1's because we don't feel like we give the safeties a fair opportunity. We don't give them as many reps against our receivers, so we don't count that against them."
Since Morris spoke, Talib recorded another interception and is tied with Nicholson at four total turnovers. Talib seems to be pulling away for the nickel cornerback spot. He has been running as the first team nickel corner, and sources have told Pewter Report that Talib is already a special player. Despite his rookie status, the team thinks that they got a steal in Talib for the spot he was drafted in. Considering how much the nickel corner plays, Talib will have a big impact on how Tampa Bay fares in 2008.
If Nicholson continues to pick off passes and force fumbles in the preseason games that will greatly help his chances of making the team. Nicholson is already running on a number of the special teams first team units. The fight between Nicholson and Allen, who recorded another pick on Thursday night, for the fourth safety spot figures to be one of the battles that will play out in front of Bucs fans during the preseason games. 8. IMPROVED PRESEASON GAMES
Speaking of the preseason games, this year's slate should be more entertaining and worth watching for Bucs fans. There are a few reasons for that. The first one is the 80-man roster limit.
With smaller rosters, more players that will be on the team will have to play in the preseason games. While that may not be the starters, the backups will probably have to play more snaps than they did in years past. Last year, there were roughly 11 more players in those preseason games who would be playing, but would not be on the team.
Those 11 combined with 27 others gave the team 37 players that could play in the games but would not be on the team. The Bucs were practically in a position to not play their entire regular season roster. That was not necessarily done all the time due to roster battles and evaluations. However, the lineups in the fourth preseason game were typically comprised of players who would not end up making the team. The Bucs also have much better depth compared to previous years, so watching their backups should be more entertaining.
The quarterbacks should also make this year's preseason games worth watching. In the third and fourth quarter of games, Bucs fans will get their only real look at Chris Simms and Johnson. In the second and third preseason game the backup battle between McCown and Griese should be really ramped up, and those players could be playing into the second half if starter Jeff Garcia has returned from his calf injury. Given the precarious health of Garcia, whoever wins the backup quarterback spot is likely to see the field at some point during the 2008 season.
After the long offseason, football games have finally begun. Enjoy.
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