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Here is five points of interest as the Buccaneers are about to embark on a critical stretch of their season.
1. WIDE RECEIVERS NEED TO PICK UP PRODUCTION
Through the first two games the Buccaneers wide receivers have compiled 22 receptions for 209 yards and one touchdown. By comparison, Earnest Graham has 246 yards on 29 combined touches (rushing and receiving). Of the wide receivers at this point, only Ike Hilliard has not been disappointing.
Antonio Bryant followed up his Week 1 effort of three catches for 43 yards with no catches, including two drops against the Falcons. Joey Galloway has eight catches for 74 yards, and he has just not looked like the Galloway of past seasons. His longest reception was 13 yards. At the same time, Galloway and Bryant did get open on bombs that quarterback Brian Griese overthrew for an incompletion.
In the Tuesday night chat, this Pewter Reporter discussed wide receiver Michael Clayton and how it would be good to see him get an opportunity. Clayton finished last season strong and had an excellent offseason leading up to training camp. Then in training camp he was the most consistent receiver the team had. The weight he dropped in the offseason allowed him to gain more separation from defensive backs and get open regularly. Clayton had a fairly productive preseason. He had a bad drop in the first game at Miami, but was sure-handed with all the other passes that came his way over the remaining games, including a touchdown against Jacksonville.
The Buccaneers are hoping that Clayton will be able to continue that production as he enters the starting lineup. The other receiver that figures to receive more of an opportunity is third-year receiver Maurice Stovall. Like Clayton, Stovall had a strong offseason and was making some circus catches in training camp. With the shoulder injury, groin injury, and now foot ailment the Bucs have to face the possibility that Galloway is not going to be able to produce breakaway touchdowns forever.
This is what Clayton and Stovall were drafted for. It looks like it is time for Tampa Bay to play its young receivers. The Bucs may provide the spark that they need to get the passing game going. Everybody knows what Griese did with Clayton in 2004, and given the play of both in training camp and the preseason there is reason to believe that they can re-capture that chemistry.
At some point Tampa Bay has to figure out what it has in its young wide receivers. Now is definitely that time with Clayton. He will be a free agent after this season and the Bucs need to know what kind of commitment, if any, they should make to Clayton in another contract. Head coach Jon Gruden has said they don't want players to be backups forever. They want them to become starters. The Bucs spent premium picks on these wide receivers, but what is the point of using those picks on these players if they are just going to be reserves and special teams players?
It is unclear how long Galloway will be out with his foot injury, but it does not look like a major injury. Hilliard will remain a valuable asset, but two other receivers are going to have to help him out. Bryant will still get a lot of opportunity to provide some big plays, but if those flashes don't start occurring soon the Bucs will have to consider how long they should stick with a player that may have fizzled out. With the older veteran receivers not providing the spark, Clayton and Stovall should get an opportunity to make some plays.
2. TRADE RECEIVER OPTIONS
Perhaps Clayton and Stovall are the answer to what ills the Bucs passing offense, or perhaps they are not. The Buccaneers could look to acquire a veteran receiver before the trade deadline. Bucs general manager Bruce Allen has made a habit of acquiring veterans at need positions in years past. In 2005, he traded for veteran quarterback Tim Rattay. In 2007, he swung a deal for running back Michael Bennett. This year he could do the same with a wide receiver.
In order for a deal to go down the right match has to be made. Most likely, it would be with a team that is not in the playoff picture. Another contributing factor would be contract status and how that impacts a player's future with his current team. With that in mind there are four receivers that appear to be a possible match: Cincinnati Bengals Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, St. Louis Ram Torry Holt, and Detroit Lion Roy Williams.
None of those receivers comes without some issues to consider. Holt is 32-years-old, and has similar numbers to Galloway and Hilliard thus far this season (seven catches, 85 yards, and a touchdown). After nine productive seasons and a lot of wear-and-tear one has to wonder how much Holt has left in the tank. Nevertheless, Gruden has gotten a lot out of older veteran receivers. Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Galloway, and Hilliard all had good seasons in Gruden's offense in their 30's. Even their mid-30's.
Houshmandzadeh, 30, has hauled in 415 career passes for 4,878 yards (11.8 avg.) and 33 touchdowns while playing alongside Johnson in Cincinnati's explosive offense. Cincinnati looks like it has a long season ahead of it. Houshmandzadeh is a free agent after this season, and the Bengals may not want to give a 30-year-old receiver a big contract while they have to rebuild the rest of their roster. It will probably be a sizable contract as well, Houshmandzadeh likely will be one of the most sought-after wide receivers next March.
Johnson wanted to be traded last offseason and of all the receivers is the player with the most explosive play-making ability. Johnson is also 30 years old and has had a very quiet beginning to this season, hauling in only five catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns. The biggest concern with Johnson is his behavior. This observer does not believe that Johnson would fit in well with the Bucs locker room. Not to mention, he is the cousin of Keyshawn Johnson, who might turn his cousin against Gruden from the start.
Like Houshmandzadeh, Williams will be a free agent after this season. So far this season he has six receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown. Williams, 26, has a nice combination of size and speed although he is not a deep threat like Johnson or Galloway. Williams would also be a good fit in Gruden's offense, and it seems that it would take a higher draft pick to get him. That would only be acceptable for a team if a contract extension were part of the deal. That complex a trade seems unlikely during the season.
The compensation for the players would also have to be low. The Buccaneers have not dealt a draft pick higher than a fourth-round selection under Allen (that pick turned into a seventh-round pick when Jake Plummer retired). A late to mid-round pick may work for one of the receivers if the team was looking to unload a veteran to get a pick in next years draft.
If the Bucs brought in a veteran receiver in mid-season the other consideration is how effective they would be. Last year, running back Michael Bennett was limited in his impact due to having to learn a new offense in the middle of the season. The rest of the team is focused on game planning for opponents and the coaches have already installed the offense in the offseason. With Allen at the helm, a trade can never be ruled out, but what kind of impact that player would have is debatable. 3. TIGHT ENDS TO PICK UP THE SLACK
Sticking with the passing game, the longest pass play of the season for the Bucs offense was Griese's 36-yard pass to tight end John Gilmore. After the game, Pewter Report discussed the route with Gilmore. The veteran tight end ran a seam route and Atlanta was caught in a busted Cover 2 zone coverage. Re-watching the game confirmed the observation and conversation.
Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy moved up into the box to show blitz, but started to drop into zone coverage at the snap. Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking let Gilmore run by thinking that the safety would be covering the deep seam. Gilmore got open quickly and it was an easy throw for Griese.
Gilmore and tight end Tight end Alex Smith have put together two good games catching some passes, making some great blocks, and running well with the ball after the catch. Gilmore helped seal the edge on Earnest Graham's 46-yard run at New Orleans and Smith did the same on Graham's 68-yard touchdown against Atlanta. Against Atlanta, Smith and Gilmore were getting open all game.
With tight end Jerramy Stevens coming back from suspension, the Buccaneers tight ends just got even more dangerous. Stevens was second on the team in touchdown catches last season with four. All of that production came in the final month of the season and it made an impression on Gruden. In training camp, the Bucs were getting Stevens active in the passing game regularly. His size and speed combination make him their best red zone weapon.
The Bucs tight ends are going to be a critical part of the Bucs offense. They will be vital in run blocking and pass protection. At the same time, Gilmore's splash play is a mismatch that the Buccaneers may be able to go back to often. With Graham and running back Warrick Dunn having success on the ground, and the Bucs wide receivers not providing much punch, the Bucs can expect opposing teams to bring their safeties close to the line of scrimmage.
That should leave the middle of the field vulnerable to the tight ends running seam routes. Gilmore, Smith, and Stevens all have the ability to make opposing defenses play honest and not stack the line of scrimmage. 4. NEXT FOUR GAMES ARE CRITICAL
Pewter Report subscribers are well aware that under Gruden the Bucs have been a team that produces playoff seasons when they get off to good starts. When Tampa Bay has started slow the team has not shown the ability to reverse the momentum and rally to make the playoffs.
The next four games are going to be a very important stretch of the 1-1 Buccaneers' schedule. This week's game at Chicago may be the most winnable contest that the Bucs have in over a month. That should indicate how tough the slate is going to get considering the Bears have a great defense, running game, and are playing in their home opener.
After Chicago, the red-hot Green Bay Packers come to Tampa with one of the best offenses in the NFL, and a good, young defense. Then the Buccaneers have one of their hardest road games of the season at Denver. The Broncos also have a high-powered offense that will test the Bucs defense. After those tough contests, the Buccaneers host the Carolina Panthers.
In Tampa Bay, Carolina hasn't lost since the 2002 season. If the Bucs can go 2-2 in that stretch then they are in good shape. The Buccaneers go to Dallas for the eighth game of the season, and from there the second half schedule looks much easier at this point. The Buccaneers only have one tough road game in the second half of the season when they go to Carolina. Playing the Panthers on the road has been more successful for the Bucs than when they play at home. Tampa Bay has won two of the last three meetings in Charlotte. If the Bucs go 1-3 in the next four games their backs will be against the wall, and Gruden will have to do something new and turn the season around.
5. HAYES GRADES OUT WELL
Linebacker Geno Hayes saw the first game action of his career against Atlanta last Sunday. The rookie linebacker came into the lineup to spell the banged-up Will (weakside) linebacker Derrick Brooks. Hayes recorded one tackle and earned some guarded praise from Gruden on Monday. Pewter Report caught up with Hayes this week, and asked him how he graded out in his first professional game.
"I graded out well," said Hayes. "I think it was a 90 percent grade. I only had one bust out of all of them, so I have to work on that. Otherwise I did well."
Overall, Hayes was pretty pleased with his first game as a professional. He expected some growing pains and had thought that it would be a real learning experience.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," said Hayes. "Coming from college I was used to the big crowds. It was real good though, it was a lot of fun to see the fans, and get some reps with the first team."
As for this week, Hayes wasn't sure if he would play as much against the Bears.
"I don't know," Hayes said. "Right now I'm working with the second-team, but as the game gets closer, we'll see how Derrick's leg is coming along. If he needs to be spelled more during the game, then I'm sure I'll get my share of snaps."
If Hayes continues to impress he could put himself in position to replace Brooks long-term. Hayes is focused right now on learning more from his teammates. The young linebacker isn't concerned with the long-term or trying to be the Will linebacker of the future. His focus is solely on the next game and learning more at the pro level.
"That is something that I don't control," Hayes responded. "At the same time, I work hard in practice. I try to learn as much as I can as quickly as possible from the guys around me, and the coaches. I feel that I've done well with that, and I believe I can handle myself at this level. Whatever they choose to decide (about playing time) I'll go with it, and try to help the team."