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Here are five points that caught my attention.
1. BUCS NEED JACKSON TO STEP UP AT RECEIVER
Dexter Jackson had a rough first three games in his rookie year. Jackson was averaging 3.0 yards per punt return, and was falling down before contact on many kicks and punts. After getting removed from kick return duties in the first quarter at Chicago, the Bucs veterans rallied around Jackson in the week prior to the game against Green Bay.
Veterans sat down with Jackson and pumped him up for playing at the NFL level. Some said that they told Jackson very clearly that in the NFL, you don't go down unless you are being tackled down. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia also pumped up Jackson, and put his units on the spot by reading their statistics out during the special teams meeting. There were a few veterans who helped Jackson turn the tables on his return production. One who stood out the most was tight end John Gilmore.
"Gilmore, he was in Chicago for a little bit, so he just tried to show me some things in how they blocked for [Devin] Hester and how to understand how to follow and trust your blockers,' said Jackson.
It looks like Jackson may have turned the corner on special teams. Now the Buccaneers need their second-round pick to do that as a wide receiver.
The improved play on special teams will help Jackson to see the field more as a receiver as well. This week Jackson told Pewter Report that he got more practice reps at receiver than any other week this season. Considering the lack of speed at receiver with Joey Galloway out, it would not be surprising to see Jackson get some plays called for him on offense. The opportunities to break a big play may also come on some wide receiver screens, end-arounds, and reverses.
If Jackson was given practice time at receiver than he most likely will see the field on offense for the first time as a Buccaneer. There are some rumblings about whether Galloway will make it back to be a factor for Tampa Bay this season. In fact it would not be surprising to this reporter if Galloway were to go on injured reserve with his ankle injury, perhaps even this week.
If Galloway is going to be out for the season, or a long period of time, the Buccaneers are going to need their rookie receiver to contribute on offense. They will also need Jackson to stretch the field.
While the Buccaneers have sent wide receiver Antonio Bryant deep on a number of plays, they have not connected on any deep bombs like they have with Galloway in seasons past. Bryant seems to have good speed, but not elite breakaway speed. Jackson is the closest player the Bucs have to a deep threat, and if they cannot get that threat for defenses then there will be defenses selling out to stop the Bucs rushing attack.
A good model for Jackson to follow would be Carolina's Steve Smith. The small-speed player Smith, started his career as a returner. Through dynamic special teams play, Smith earned playing time as a receiver. As he got more playing time at receiver, Smith developed his route-running, hands, knowledge, and instincts to the point of being one of the best receivers in the NFL.
From the start of Jackson's time as a Buccaneer he was characterized as a project at receiver. In college he was especially dangerous on running slant routes, which is a staple route in Jon Gruden's offense, and a route that Galloway has burned teams on repeatedly over the years. Jackson also ran good stop-and-go route, those are two good positions to grow from. Hopefully for Tampa Bay, Jackson will follow suit in listening to veterans and coaches as a receiver and start to show signs of playmaking ability there too.
2. HAYE LOOKING TO TURN SEASON AROUND
One of the breakout players in the 2007 season was Bucs defensive tackle Jovan Haye. After winning the starting under tackle position in training camp and the preseason, Haye went onto have an excellent campaign. He had six sacks, with 97 tackles, and four fumble recoveries. During the offseason, the Buccaneers and Haye had discussions about a contract extension that did not result in a long-term contract.
After missing the majority of training camp and preseason with a groin strain, Haye has gotten off to a slow start in the first quarter of the season. Through four games he has recorded 12 tackles with no sacks, no tackles for a loss, no forced fumbles, and no fumble recoveries.
"The first quarter wasn't the best that I've played. I'm definitely looking forward to the rest of the season," said Haye.
Haye is not on pace or shown much signs through the first four games of approaching his production from last season. With the year he had last season, this observer wondered if teams are playing him differently and focusing on taking away an interior rush. Haye responded to that theory.
"Not really, those numbers took 16 games, and we are only four into it," said Haye. "We have a lot of football left. I'm trying to get back to where I was and I feel like I'm turning the corner. I need to pick it up a notch."
Picking up the slack for Haye has been defensive tackle/end Jimmy Wilkerson and defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Wilkerson recorded his first sack of the season last Sunday against Green Bay, but got a number of pressures and hurries in the previous games. Sims has also done a good job of pushing the pocket. With them excelling and Haye struggling, they have cut into some of the snaps that went to Haye last season. Haye is the only defensive lineman (outside of the usually inactive Greg Peterson) that does not have either a tackle for a loss or a sack thus far in the 2008 season.
"It is one of those things were sometimes plays don't come to you, and sometimes you have to make your own plays," said Haye. "I'm not saying I wasn't happy about the first quarter, it was okay, but I don't need okay and the team doesn't need okay right now. We are going to pick it up now.
"We are getting everybody out there. They try and use depth all throughout the team. Offense, defense, and special teams the staff know what they are doing. I think we definitely can improve."
Over the last few games, Haye seemed to be used mostly in running situations, and thus it will be harder for him to get his pass rushing numbers up. Wilkerson has earned those game reps and has produced in them. In focusing on Haye, he is holding up well at the point of attack and is not getting blown off the ball. Where Haye is struggling is breaking free from his blockers and getting to the quarterback. Haye will have to start making the most of his opportunities to rush the passer.
Last year, Haye did a good job of making the most of his opportunities. It seemed that when he got a pass rush he did a good job of maximizing the chance and was able to get the quarterback down for a sack. However it did not seem like Haye was getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks throughout the games and over the course of the season.
Seeing a dominant defensive tackle in Warren Sapp spoiled Bucs fans. While Sapp almost set the franchise record for sacks, he hurried or hit the quarterback constantly. For Haye and the Bucs, it would be great if he started to pressure the quarterback. Once Haye starts getting some pressure the sacks will come. It is not for a lack of hard work either. Coach Larry Coyer shared this week that he didn't know anybody in the NFL that works harder than Haye and fellow starting defensive tackle Chris Hovan. The pressure of performing for a new contract could also be impacting Haye's play.
"Sometimes you think about it, but you realize you shouldn't think about it," said Haye. "The first couple of games you try and get off to a fast start and things don't turn out the way you want them to be. Then you just have to come back to earth and just play football."
The good news for Haye is that he has 12 more games, and plenty of snaps to get stats and tape footage to help his standing as a free agent.
3. BUCS POINT TOTAL IS ON THE RISE
For years the Buccaneers have a well-deserved reputation as a low scoring team. While they have not lit up the scoreboard like the Colts or Patriots, the Bucs have been able to get by on enough offense combined with great defense. This year that reputation could be on the way to changing. Tampa Bay is one of only 5 teams that have scored 20 or more points in every game this year. Here is the list:
The Bucs are 11th in the NFL in scoring averaging 25.2 points per game. They are also 11th in points allowed with 19.5 points per game.
The other interesting fact is that the Buccaneers have increased their point total in every game. They have gone from 20, to 24, to 27, and to 30. This Sunday should present another opportunity to increase their point total as they are going against one of the worst defenses in the NFL at Denver. The Kansas City Chiefs appear to be one of the worst teams in the NFL, and they just scored 33 points on Denver last Sunday. This reporter believes that Tampa Bay will continue the trend and surpass 30 points this Sunday.
If Galloway can come back to be even close to the Galloway of 2005-07, then the Bucs scoring potential will become even greater, and give them an explosiveness that would help them score faster.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE ON A GREAT PACE
In the first four games of the season the Buccaneers offensive line has allowed four sacks, and is on pace to allow only 16 sacks for the season. That is the same amount as the New Orleans Saints allowed last season when they led the NFL in protecting their quarterback. The Bucs are tied for fourth in the NFL with the Saints and New York Giants. The top three teams in order are the Tennessee Titans (2), Denver Broncos (2), and Dallas Cowboys (3).
"I think our line is going to be really good," said Coyer. "They have done a good job against tough defenses. I don't know how many people notice that. They are good players. Physically they have done well. Last week was a good showing against a really good front four. They are going to be good. They are going to keep building and they are going to be strong. They are a strength."
The Bucs offense ranks seventh in the NFL, ninth in rushing and passing. The line has led Tampa Bay to success on the land and in the air. They have not allowed a sack since the second game of the season, and they have consistently opened up running holes. The old football mantra is ‘it all starts upfront.'
"This is the proof of it," said Coyer. "It is. That is the truth anywhere. Any successful team it starts with the lines. Obviously your quarterback has to play well. We've been blessed to have that happen. The lines are key. It makes no difference whether it is the Bucs, the New York Giants, or Baltimore Ravens. It is all about the offensive and defensive lines."
5. DEFENSIVE LINE BRINGING MORE HEAT
Keeping in mind Coyer's quote, the weakness of Tampa Bay's defense in the 2007 season, where they finished second overall and first against the pass, was the pass rush. The Buccaneers increased their sack total from 2006, and recorded 33 sacks. That mark put them tied for 16th in the NFL.
Through the first four games of the 2008 season the Bucs have recorded 11 sacks, currently Tampa Bay is tied for eighth in the NFL for sacks recorded. They are on pace to notch 44 sacks this season. That would be a major boon for the Buccaneers as last season the New York Giants were league leaders in sacks with 53. The pass rush was the backbone of the Giants push to win the Super Bowl.
Last season, the Buccaneers secondary was the definite strength of the defense. This year the secondary has maintained their strong play, but the defensive line and the front seven as a whole have been greatly improved. Currently defensive ends Greg White and Kevin Carter are on pass to have double-digit sack totals.
Gaines Adams is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and he also has two sacks. Over the remaining 12 games, this observer believes that Adams will really ramp up his pass rush, and notch 8-10 quarterback takedowns to reach double digits for the first time in his career.
If Adams does that and White and Carter maintain their pace, then Tampa Bay will have three ends combine for 30+ sacks. That would be reminiscent of the Giants trio of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck that led New York on their post-season run last season.