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1. LINEBACKERS TAKE THE LEAD Prior to the season many people thought the Buccaneers secondary would be the strength of the defense. Tampa Bay had franchise great cornerback Ronde Barber to pair with the young, talented corner Aqib Talib. The Bucs were excited about their young safety tandem of Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli, and their potential to make big plays in defensive coordinator Jim Bates' scheme.
Two games into the 2009 season, the Bucs secondary has allowed six plays that have been a big reason why the team has started the season 0-2. Thus far the biggest strength of the defense has been the linebackers. All week the Tampa Bay coaching staff and front office raved about the play of Will (weakside) linebacker Geno Hayes. Hayes is in his first season as a starter, and so is Sam (strongside) linebacker Quincy Black. Mike (middle) linebacker Barrett Ruud has had a mixed performance through two games, but still has an impressive tackle total of 28. Hayes is second on the team with 22 stops, and Black has made nine tackles.
While the linebackers have been the most solid unit on the defense, there is still room for improvement as they were part of the 24 missed tackles that the Buccaneers had against the Bills. The linebackers also have not forced any turnovers up to this point, and Tampa Bay is looking to them to produce some splash plays. Pewter Report caught up with linebackers coach Joe Barry to discuss his unit, and what they need to do as the season progresses.
PR: At this point you would have to say the linebackers are the best unit on the defense.
Barry: "Yeah, I think we obviously can play better. Until we get to where we want to be and start winning, it doesn't matter how good an individual plays or a position group plays. Until we start playing perfect as a unit we aren't going to be satisfied. Barrett had a career-high in tackles, he had 20 tackles, and Geno had 14 or 15. So they both played well. I think Quincy has been solid. I'm selfish; I want them all to play better. They've been playing pretty good."
PR: The linebackers seem to have made the transition to the new scheme quicker than the other position groups. Hayes has had success blitzing, and that was something the Will linebacker did not do much of before.
Barry: "It is a completely different philosophy as far as systems. Derrick [Brooks] had been our Will linebacker. Geno is now our Will linebacker, but it completely unfair to compare the two. They are completely two different systems. Geno has a great feel for the game. He is very instinctual, and he has got all the God-given linebacker abilities. He is quick, fast, he's tough, he can run sideline-to-sideline, and he has all the things that I can't coach and that is instincts. You can teach a guy a lot of things. You can team him how to read better. How to take on blocks better, but actual linebacker instincts, Vince Lombardi can't teach that. Geno has that. He is a natural. I want him to play better. He needs to play better, but he's played pretty good the last two weeks."
PR: Jim Bates had talked about Hayes defending the run. Through these first two games it looks like he has done a good job of taking on blocks and getting off them to make tackles.
Barry: "I think that is something that we as a coaching staff have to be smart with as the season goes on. We have to make sure that he is lifting weights and staying strong. Because his weight and strength are very good right now and it hasn't been a factor. As the season goes on that is the first thing that goes with a young player is that stamina in the physical aspect of the game. It has not been an issue right now. We'll keep our fingers crossed that it won't be as the season wears on."
PR: The weight concern won't be there with Black. In the old system, the Sam linebacker was not always in position to make a lot splash plays. Do you see Black doing more of that as a Sam in this system?
Barry: "Yes, but the position he plays is one where you have to do your job and the plays will come to you. It is a brand new system for all of them. I think that Quincy is going to only improve and get better as the season moves along and the more he plays. He's played okay the last two weeks. Of course he has to play better, but he will play better because he is one of those kids that really works at it. There will definitely be plays out there for Quincy Black to make."
PR: The lack of a pass rush has gotten a lot of attention. Do you see Black getting some snaps at left defensive end to generate more of a rush? In training camp and the offseason practices he was used a lot in the ‘Go' package at left defensive end.
Barry: "Yeah, there is definitely a package for that and we have the ability to go to that. We haven't had (the opportunity) yet except for some third downs, but we haven't had a two-minute situation or a situation where we are up and we are rushing the passer every snap. That is something that Quincy brings to the table, and a skill that he has that we want to use when we get in that situation."
PR: Do you see the linebackers close to making some big plays? Bucs fans got used to seeing that out of Brooks and others over the years.
Barry: "Yeah, again, I think that is something that as the season goes and the more reps these guys get, they are going to understand when and where and how those big plays are going to start coming. We are only two weeks into this system. As good as they've played they can obviously play better. I think they are going to know and understand the nuances of the system and each call. That just comes with experience and reps. We have prided ourselves in our room over the years that linebackers are going to make big plays. They are going to make splash plays, so of course we want those. No doubt."
PR: In these two games playing from behind and needing some big plays, have their been instances of guys trying to do too much and getting caught out of position?
Barry: "Yeah, that is natural with any football player when you are down or you are struggling, you try to help the team by going out of the box a little bit and making a play. Unfortunately, what happens a lot is you end up hurting your team. We preach to avoid that. Barrett Ruud is one of the most disciplined players I've ever been around. Geno and Quincy, for being young players, they are fairly disciplined. They are just trying to do everything right. They are young. It is their first time really playing a lot so they just want to be perfect. That is common for players, even veterans, when you are done things aren't going well and you try and do something out of the box and make a splash play. As a coach you try and fight against that because that is usually when you are trying to make a play, you give up a play."
2. BATES AND BARRY DRILL TACKLING During football season the media is only allowed to watch the very beginning of practice. After a little while, access is cut off and the media works while it waits for the after practice press meetings with head coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs rookie head coach has maintained the media viewing policy of former head coach Jon Gruden. Former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy allowed the media to watch all of practice.
During the portions of practice that the media was allowed to watch this week, Tampa Bay was working on tackling. Morris stated the team missed 24 tackles against Buffalo, and with Giants running back Brandon Jacobs coming to town, the Buccaneers worked on tackling fundamentals at the beginning of practice. Bates worked the drill with his position coach and the players in that group.
The players were working on tackling the dummy low. They were supposed to drive their shoulder through the dummy and wrap their arms around the dummy at the same time. Bates worked them to roll over when they hit the ground. This added movement helps to knock a ball carrier off balance and get them to the ground.
"Make sure you're wrapping up," yelled Bates. "Drive that shoulder and wrap at the same time."
Bates praised linebackers Ruud and Rod Wilson for perfect technique. He scolded Hayes for hitting too high on the pad. Whenever a player was too high on the pad they were quickly corrected.
"This is a low tackle on a big ass back," shouted Barry.
3. COLLEGE FOCUS: ERIC NORWOOD This week's college focus is on South Carolina senior Eric Norwood. The 6-foot-1, 252-pound Norwood is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. The Gamecocks use Norwood in a similar manner to how the Bucs used outside linebacker Quincy Black in training camp. Norwood lines up as a defensive end on passing downs, he blitzes from the linebacker spot some downs, and plays like a normal linebacker defending the run and pass on some downs. The fiery Norwood has fabulous speed, is a team leader, and has big-time performances in big games.
On passing downs Norwood is a hard charger after the quarterback. He has 28 career sacks four games into his senior season with six sacks already in 2009. Norwood has made 174 tackles over the past three seasons, and has started the past 29 straight games. His 28 sacks and 47.5 career tackles for a loss are both records for South Carolina. Last season he had nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss.
Norwood is a flat out football player, and could be viewed as this year's Larry English. There is no doubt that 3-4 teams in need of an outside linebacker will be all over Norwood. However, the Bucs' biggest need on their roster right now is for a pass rusher. Norwood could be dynamic player that could impact the Bucs defense in a variety of ways. Many will say that he is a tweener for a 4-3 defense, too big to play linebacker, and too small to play defensive end. Perhaps Norwood can add 10 pounds of muscle to help him hold up against the run, but the Denver Broncos have gotten great production out of defensive end Elvis Dumervil. He fell to the fourth round of the draft because of his size (5-11, 248), and teams all over the league are regretting it. He has 30 career sacks two games into his fourth season.
To get a view of the diversity in which Norwood impacts a game, check out these clips from games against LSU and NC State. Norwood returned two fumbles for touchdowns against Kentucky in 2007 as a sophomore. Norwood has an interception returned for a touchdown this season against Georgia.
If Norwood maintains his current level of play throughout the season, this observer believes he will go off the board in the middle of the first round, like English did last April. To get an idea of where Norwood is projected to go, here is a mock draft to check out at WalterFootball.com.
4. FULTON RECOVERY TIMETABLE Pewter Report caught up with injured Buccaneer Xavier Fulton this week. The Bucs 2009 fifth-round pick tore an ACL in Tampa Bay's preseason finale. The Illinois product had made the team as the backup left tackle. The disappointed Fulton had surgery yesterday, and is projected to return to practice during the organized team activities and mini-camp in 2010. Fulton hopes to be back early next year. "They told me nine months," said Fulton. "That's the plan, but I hope sooner than that, because I hate being injured."
5. COX ADVISES JACKSON Before going on a four-game suspension, Jackson got some advice from a veteran in his defensive backs room. Cornerback Torrie Cox spoke with S Tanard Jackson about how to spend his time during the suspension. Cox served a suspension during his career for off-the-field issues, and advised the Bucs' third-year safety.
"Tanard and I talked about it," said Cox. "I told him before he left to put something on film now to show what you are going to do when you get back. Your last statement before you come back. Make sure you stay in shape. When he comes back he is going to be even hungrier when you get back, because that is a lesson learned to sit out for four games being unpaid. You get upset about it, but all you can do is learn from it. When he comes back he is going to be so excited to be out there. I can't wait to see him back and making a lot of plays."
Cox is a huge supporter of Jackson, and believes that he is an underrated player across the league that the Buccaneers are severely missing on the field. With Jermaine Phillips out for the year, and the inconsistent safety play in the first two weeks of the season, it is hard to argue with Cox.
A year ago when tight end Jerramy Stevens was suspended he was seen around at One Buc Place working out, but was not allowed to do team activities like meetings and practice. Jackson has not been seen at One Buc Place during his suspension. 6. COX A MAINSTAY Less than 20 percent of sixth-round picks make it in the NFL. One exception to that rule is Cox. After being taken by the Bucs in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, Cox has battled and made the Tampa Bay roster year after year. Cox explained how he has managed to beat the odds and stick in the NFL.
"I just come in every year and work hard," said Cox. "You got to work hard. It is a job I've been doing since I was little. It is something I've always wanted to do since I was a kid. Now I have three kids, and they push me everyday. I want them to understand that they don't have to go through the same things that I went through. I do this for them. To make sure they have a good life to live when they grow up, and go through it differently from how I went through it. Year-in-and-year-out I come to work and work hard. You have to put things on film, and have your coaches keep you around. That is what I've been able to do through the grace of God. I had a couple of injuries down the line, but I came back working hard, and it just has been a blessing for me. Every year, year-in-and-year out I keep pushing."