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1. RED ZONE OFFENSE IS HOLDING BUCS BACK FROM BREAKING RECORD In four of the five Bucs wins this season, the team has won the game by two scores. Tampa Bay had one close win, its 27-24 overtime victory in Chicago. The Bucs' two losses came by a total of seven points. Against Atlanta, Carolina, and Seattle, the Buccaneers have rolled up some big margins of victory. While the team won those games handily, they left points on the field in each game.
The Buccaneers are 10th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 23 points per game. The only team in the division that is averaging more points is the New Orleans Saints, who do a good job of giving up more points than they score. Tampa Bay has scored 161 points, and is on pace to score 368 for the season. That would put the team 20 points short of tying the franchise record for points in a season.
The reason why the Bucs aren't on pace to out-score the 2000 Tampa Bay squad, is largely due to the red zone offense. In 28 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, the Buccaneers only have 11 touchdowns. That is 39.3 percent. In the other 17 red zone trips, the Bucs have scored 13 field goals, thrown one interception, had two fumbles, and punted once after having the ball moved back due to penalties.
Bucs fans that remember would be quick to agree that this year's offense is much better than the 2000 unit led by offensive coordinator Les Steckel and quarterbacked by Shaun King. The 2008 Buccaneers could break the franchise record for points in a season. In order to do that, they will have to have a significant improvement in their red zone offense in the final nine games of the season.
2. HIGH DRAFT PICKS ON O-LINE NEED TO BE DUPLICATED ON DEFENSE There is not much to point at for weaknesses on the Bucs defense, but if you were to choose one it would be the defense's lack of sacks. For three games in a row the defense has been held sackless. There are coaches on the Bucs, and around the NFL, that will tell you that a sack is only one play and not an accurate indicator if a defense is providing a good pass rush. They are right for the most part.
However, sacks lead to a number of things that help a team win a game. Generally with a sack comes a failure to convert the series into a first down. Even if the sack comes on first or second down, it mostly creates such a daunting down and distance situation that a team is unable to get a new series of downs. Sacks also provide forced fumbles. Pressuring quarterbacks is great, but sacking quarterbacks leads to more turnovers. Sacks also help to knock quarterbacks out of games. Across the NFL, it is much easier to beat an offense with their backup signal caller than their starter. Lastly, sacks lead to quarterbacks getting uncomfortable in the pocket and throwing passes they shouldn't.
Currently, Greg White leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Gaines Adams has only two, but after re-watching the game against the Seahawks, Adams did have a number of good pressures. The pass rush overall has not been awful in the three sackless games. Opposing quarterbacks have not had time to work through their progressions generally, and no quarterback has gotten into a rhythm throwing the ball against Tampa Bay. Still, the Bucs will need White and Adams to harass the quarterback if they are going to repeat as division champions and make some noise in the playoffs.
Remember the streak the Bucs had years ago where they went 69 games with a sack? It was no coincident that in those 69 games the Bucs had 50 straight where they recorded a turnover in addition to the sack. Well Tampa Bay did that largely with first-round picks across their defensive line. Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Regan Upshaw, and Marcus Jones were first-rounders that contributed to that streak. The Bucs also got good contributions from free agent defensive end Simeon Rice, who was also a first-round pick.
Right now the backbone of the Bucs offensive success that has led them to being the eighth ranked offense in the NFL is their dominant offensive line. For years the Bucs whiffed on drafting offensive linemen in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. This exceptional offensive line was built with players that were high draft picks, with the one exception of left tackle Donald Penn. Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine were selected in the first round. Arron Sears and Jeremy Trueblood were chosen in the second.
This observer believes that the Bucs will have to do that on defense in order to get a sack-happy defensive line again. Currently, three of the four starters (Adams, Kevin Carter, and Chris Hovan) on the line were first-round picks. Carter and Hovan are older veterans, and for Tampa Bay to have a dominant defensive line for years to come they should invest some premium picks in surrounding Adams with some talented players to help bear the pass-rushing responsibilities. That seems more likely with this front office rather than them committing big money to premium free agent defensive linemen.
At this time there are three premium pass rushers that are entering free agency. Baltimore Raven Terrell Suggs, Carolina Panther Julius Peppers, and Tennessee Titan Albert Haynesworth. They all are going to command mega-contracts. Haynesworth is the most worthy of that kind of commitment. He is the best defensive tackle in the NFL right now, and has six sacks in six games this season. Haynesworth is a big reason why the Titans are undefeated.
Last offseason, the Bucs chose not to make the big money contracts to premium players at need positions like cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Jared Allen. The Bucs made center Jeff Faine the highest paid player at his position, but that position carries a much smaller price tag. If Tampa Bay were to add some elite talent on the defensive line around their young pass rushing defensive ends of White and Adams, the Bucs defense could challenge to be a Super Bowl/Hall of Fame defense like the 2002 unit.
3. CLARK OVER SPURLOCK The Buccaneers made an interesting choice in promoting wide receiver Brian Clark from the practice squad instead of fellow wideout Micheal Spurlock. What the move indicates to this reporter is that the Bucs envision needing more help at the wide receiver position, rather than on special teams.
In training camp and the preseason, Clark proved himself to be a more polished receiver than Spurlock. Clark also was more productive on kick coverage. With Joey Galloway and Maurice Stovall out, the Buccaneers saw the wide receiver position as having a lack of depth. That became even more pressing when Ike Hilliard went out of the game against the Seahawks. Hilliard also could be out this week at Dallas, along with Galloway and Stovall.
If those receivers are out, Clark would be the Bucs' third receiver. Outside of Clark, behind starters Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton is rookie Dexter Jackson. The second-round pick Jackson has gotten on the field on offense very sparingly, and has not had a catch or had the ball thrown his direction. Clark recorded one catch for 12 yards in his Buccaneer debut. That reception also produced a first down.
With Jackson struggling as a kick and punt returner, it could be argued that Bucs should have promoted Spurlock. Clark was a kick returner for the Denver Broncos in the 2006 and 2007 seasons, but he did not have great success there. He averaged 22.4 yards per kick return, and never brought back one for a touchdown. Spurlock, on the other hand, returned a kick for a touchdown last season and averaged 26.2 yards per kick return, and 7.5 yards per punt return.
Spurlock could still make it to the active roster before the end of the season. If Jackson were to incur an injury, Spurlock seeing the field for Tampa Bay would be even more likely. Whichever route they go, the Bucs need to jump start their special teams and improve on their starting field position. Thus far, the poor play of the return game was a big detriment to their hopes of a comeback win at Denver, and if it does not improve it could come back to bite the Bucs again later in the season.
4. JUNIORS COULD BE THERE This week on profootballtalk.com, Mike Florio discussed the talk of a massive amount of juniors declaring for the draft this April. The reason being that the negotiations between the NFL players union and the league will institute limits on rookie salaries, and thus players, and agents, will be pursuing the draft before the system changes.
In some previous PI Quick Hits and SR's Fab 5, we have written that the best receivers in college football are three juniors: Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, and Florida's Percy Harvin. If those juniors enter the draft that would benefit Tampa Bay. Even if none of the three make it to the Bucs selection they will push down other receivers that could have gone higher.
Another junior receiver to keep on eye on is Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, commonly referred to as DHB. Along with explosive speed, Heyward-Bey has good size (6-3, 206). He has averaged almost 16 yards per catch in his college career, and has the size-speed combination that would be a good fit in the Tampa Bay offense.
Last week against Wake Forest, Heyward-Bey had 11 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. It was the first 100-yard game of the year. In his career, he has 119 catches for 1,856 yards for 12 touchdowns. The concern with Heyward-Bey is that teams do not know what kind of NFL receiver he will be. That is because he has been underutilized at Maryland, in a similar vein to Eddie Royal at Virginia Tech in last year's draft.
If all four of those junior wide receivers enter the draft, the Bucs' chances of getting one would be much better, and if the Bucs are picking at the end of the first round, they might be able to trade up into the early 20's to get the last of the four elite receivers. 5. COLLEGE GAME OF THE WEEK This is a weekend in college football that leaves a lot to be desired as far as draft prospect matchups. The Kentucky against Florida game is intriguing because there is NFL talent on the Wildcats defense and on the Gators offense. However, a lot of those players are juniors.
The matchup for this week is the Ohio State vs. Penn State battle in Columbus. Ohio State has a number of seniors — this writer is not very high on any of them, but they do have a lot of players that will make it into the NFL. Running back Beanie Wells, linebacker James Laurinaitis, linebacker Marcus Freeman, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, wide receiver Brian Robiskie, and offensive tackle Alex Boone are all seniors that will get drafted next April.
Leading Penn State is senior wide receiver Derrick Williams, sophomore running back Evan Royster, sophomore defensive end Aaron Maybin, and junior defensive end Maurice Evans. They have each displayed pro potential.