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1. CRITICISM OF FREEMAN Since drafting Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the behind the scenes chatter about Freeman at One Buc Place has been glowing. That is expected and understandable, as the organization wants to unite behind their top pick. Sources within the team that may have had some skepticism in their voices after the draft have said that Freeman has been impressive during the offseason practices and has improved rapidly.
The most consistent mistake that Freeman was making when he first started practicing with the Bucs was locking onto his primary receiver and not surveying all his options before throwing the ball. That would cause Freeman to force passes into covered receivers resulting largely in passes being broken-up. While Freeman improved greatly over the OTAs and mini-camp, he was still making that mistake on occasion, but it was much less often. With Freeman officially listed at 6-foot-6, there is no reason for him not to survey the field and throw to the most open receiver.
After speaking with sources within One Buc Place, the one criticism that has been said about Freeman is that he is immature. Freeman is not immature in that he is a bad guy, and getting in trouble off the field. Sources said that Freeman is immature in that he is almost too nice, and not very serious. They say that Freeman is a big kid, and has a smile on his face everyday. The sources want to see Freeman develop a command presence. They want him to be a team leader, and be a general on the field.
Sources said that Freeman did a good job in the huddle when practicing with the veterans. He was not overwhelmed, and he had an excellent work ethic during the offseason. Freeman also is a good teammate.
The sources believe that Freeman will become more serious, and develop into a leader as he gets older and gains more experience. Freeman turned 21 this year, and has gone from a locker room filled with players right out of prom and college freshmen to NFL veterans. Being around those veterans will hasten Freeman's maturation process, after he gets through his rookie season the leadership characteristics in Freeman will emerge.
So don't think of the use of the term "immature" as an insult to Freeman. It literally means that his game and his demeanor must mature, and that will take some time. Freeman was a team captain in college, and I would be surprised if there is not a "C" patch on his jersey a few years from now. Freeman has loads of potential and promise.
2. THE DRAWBACK OF THE ZONE-BLOCKING SYSTEM Throughout the offseason workouts, much has been made about the Bucs playbook being much smaller under new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. Former head coach Jon Gruden had one of the most complicated offenses in the NFL with numerous variations of the same play. Jagodzinski has installed a zone-blocking scheme for the Bucs running game, and that by nature has very few running plays.
There is the staple of three runs in the zone-blocking scheme – zone right, zone left, and inside runs. While there are only a few running plays in the offense, the halfbacks have holes and cutback lanes to chose from making zone-blocking running schemes difficult to defend. The Buccaneers have those and possibly a few more; they also consider quarterback bootlegs rushing plays.
Jagodzinski said when he was first introduced as the Bucs offensive coordinator that some of the plays that the team did well last year would be retained, but during the practices that were open and the media was allowed to watch, it appeared that the Bucs were practicing over and over again their zone running plays.
The limited number of plays in a zone-blocking scheme is one weakness of the scheme. If those plays aren't working because defenders are consistently penetrating the moving wall of blockers, the offense does not have other running plays to turn to. In Gruden's power man-blocking scheme the Bucs would run off-tackles, sweeps with pulling guards, counters, and some zone blocking plays. Tampa Bay guard Jeremy Zuttah outlined what has to take place for zone blocking runs to be effective.
"There is a lot of lateral movement, but you have to be pushing up field as you are going laterally," said Zuttah. "If you focus on just running laterally a lot of times you can get knocked back, and that is the main thing that will mess up zone concepts is penetration."
It will be interesting to see in training camp practices and the preseason games if the Buccaneers follow through on having a set of rushing plays that employ some of the man-blocking schemes that were effective last season. In order to prevent penetration it will also require the wide receivers and tight ends to block well on the perimeter. The tight ends are often right next to an offensive tackle, so they have those tackles to help them win their assignments.
Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow has run some of the zone scheme in the past, but thinks the Tampa Bay offensive line is a natural fit to move up field and laterally.
"(We ran it) a little bit, but it was a lot more physical in Cleveland and more downhill," said Winslow. "Not as much zone stretch. We are a lot more athletic here, so we are going to use it."
Outside of the Buccaneers having a few rushing plays that are outside of the zone-blocking scheme, the passing weapons are supposed to aid the rushing attack by keeping safeties playing deep to double team Winslow or franchise wide receiver Antonio Bryant. In theory, the Bucs think the diversity of weapons, and the strong offensive line, will keep the zone-blocking scheme from breaking down due to penetration of being overloaded with defenders.
"They have to decide if they are going to play eight in the box to stop Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward," said Winslow. "Or are you going to stay in a 2 shell, like Cover 2 or Cover 4, and stop Jerremy [Stevens], stop myself, stop [Antonio] Bryant, or [Michael] Clayton. We have a nice package. We have a young, very energetic offensive line that can move. I'm real excited. It looks good on paper."
3. A VERY INTERESTING PRESEASON A lot of fans, media, players, and team employees are eager to get through the preseason games quickly. Everybody is collectively holding their breath that a season-ending injury does not happen to a core player. Also a lot the game action features players that are cut from the team, and the game plans are vanilla to not tip off opposing teams in the regular season.
This year could be the most entertaining and eventful slate of preseason games for the Buccaneers in a long time, maybe ever. For starters, there is the starting quarterback competition. Veterans Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich are likely to be treating those games as regular season contests in order to try and win the spot. Freeman's play in the preseason will have a major influence on if he sees any game action in the 2009 regular season. Plus, quarterback Josh Johnson will get an opportunity to make a case for the Bucs keeping him or turning himself into a valuable trading commodity.
It may take more than two games for the starting QB battle to be decided in the preseason. In fact, it may take parts of all four. With the Bucs interested in seeing how their number one pick performs in August to gauge his progress, Johnson's playing time may get squeezed like it did last preseason when the Bucs carried five QBs in training camp.
Outside of the quarterbacks, there will be a fierce battle between kickers Matt Bryant and Mike Nugent. That battle should play out over all four games. There is also the starting Sam (strongside) linebacker competition, and the nickel cornerback battle that will have a big impact on the effectiveness of the Buccaneers defense in 2009. Tampa Bay will also need need some time to fill out the depth chart at receiver behind Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton.
Lastly, Bucs fans have one less home game in 2009 with the Bucs being the home team in the Week 7 game against the Patriots in London, England, so they better enjoy the two exhibition games. The fact that the starters will need more experience because of new offensive and defensive schemes really makes this year's preseason games worth watching.
4. QUICK THOUGHTS a. Luke McCown looked comfortable and effective in Jeff Jagodzinski's offense this offseason. McCown is the most versatile quarterback on the roster as far as being able to play in multiple systems. Leftwich and Freeman would not be good fits in former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's offense, and it remains to be seen if Josh Johnson can stick around in any NFL offense, and especially one that is not a West Coast offense. While McCown may be the most versatile, Freeman or Leftwich could prove to be the most natural fit in Jagodzinski's offense.
b. Leftwich puts a lot of pressure on his offensive line. They have to play perfect games with him at quarterback. Leftwich takes an extra step on his drop, has a slow wind-up delivery, and no mobility to break out of the pocket and run. All of those combine to cause him to be prone to taking sacks. Taking sacks leads to injuries. Leftwich can make up for it some with his cannon arm and NFL experience.
c. Leftwich also puts more pressure on his receivers. He can't scramble and allow receivers to break off their routes to get open. He also can't pick up first downs with his legs, so if they are covered on third-and-3, the pass is going incomplete and the team is punting. The receivers love Leftwich's ability to get them the ball at any point on the field, and his ability to see the entire field and not be limited to a couple of options.
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