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With the kickoff for the 2008 regular season hours away here is a touchdown's worth of points to get you ready for the Buccaneers' battle with the Saints.
1. QB UPDATE There are some conflicting views as far as the Buccaneers backup quarterback is concerned. Many Bucs fans have already assumed that quarterback Brian Griese has won the backup quarterback job over Luke McCown. Tampa Bay has not announced a backup quarterback, and the depth chart on the team's official website has McCown as the backup quarterback. However, after speaking with several sources, the Griese is in the lead to be the backup.
Most Pewter Insiders will not find that news groundbreaking. The Buccaneers feel very good about their stable of quarterbacks. They are happy with the amount of preparation time that Griese and McCown were able to receive this training camp and preseason with Jeff Garcia nursing a calf injury. They have confidence in both players' ability to lead the team to victories in 2008. Considering the somewhat fragile health status of Garcia, there is a good chance that their depth will be put to the test this season.
Sources told Pewter Report that right now Garcia is the one that the team is trying to get up to speed. The veteran needs a lot of practice to get sharp and where he needs to be for the regular season. This was indicated to Pewter Report in the middle of the week, and that has to be a bit of a concern for the team with Garcia set to start at New Orleans.
The prediction here is that on Sunday, Griese will be named the backup quarterback with McCown dressed as third emergency quarterback. As Pewter Report's publisher Scott Reynolds mentioned in the Pewter Pre-Game Show, it would be a smart strategy for Tampa Bay to hammer the Saints with the run throughout the game. Even if the running game takes some time to get going, that will help keep the Saints potent offense off the field and keep the score close.
2. FLANKER WIDE RECEIVER PLATOON There was a report earlier in the week that wide receiver Antonio Bryant was going to be the Bucs' starting flanker receiver against the Saints. While Bryant figures to see action against New Orleans, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden likely will use more of a platoon at the flanker spot. The players that should figure in there will be Bryant, Ike Hilliard, Michael Clayton, and Maurice Stovall, although it is likely that one of them will be inactive for the game against the Saints.
"Well, Ike is the guy I guess that has had the most consecutive starts there," said Gruden. "He is going to see time there. Mike Clayton has played there. Antonio has done some good things at the split end position. We might try to creatively get Antonio and Joey on the field together. Whether or not we can, we'll have to work through that. To answer your question, yeah, we are still working our way through it we'll see several different guys probably playing at some point in the game at that position."
Throughout the offseason Bryant worked more at the split end spot behind starter Joey Galloway. As Bryant progressed and got the rust off from his one-year hiatus from the NFL, the Bucs cross-trained Bryant at the flanker receiver spot. Keep in mind that Bryant is still new to the offense and is in a tough position to have to learn more than one spot at a time.
The situation could dictate which of the Buccaneers receivers will be on the field. Clayton's ability as a blocker will not be lost on the coaching staff, especially with the quick passes and perimeter screens that the team added to the playbook this offseason. Hilliard is reliable, and is great on third and manageable. Stovall's size, hands, and leaping ability make him a big red zone threat. Not to be devalued, rookie wide receiver Dexter Jackson could figure into some wide receiver screens, reverses, and end-arounds.
In training camp and the preseason, none of the receivers completely distanced themselves from the others in their play. They all provided times of effective play and they all figure to get regular snaps throughout the games during the beginning of the season. If one excels from there and distinguishes themselves above the others then the Buccaneers may have a traditional set of two starting wide receivers. Football fans know a running back by committee situation, for now it likely will be a wide receiver by committee approach at the flanker spot on the Buccaneers.
3. GENO HAYES The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an interesting developmental prospect on their hands in rookie linebacker Geno Hayes. The young linebacker had an impressive training camp and preseason to make the final roster. Hayes and a few other young linebackers were chosen over veteran linebacker Ryan Nece.
Hayes' size, speed, and hitting ability are somewhat reminiscent of a young Derrick Brooks. Like Brooks, Hayes hails from Florida State and relies on his speed and instincts to make up for what he lacks in size. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Hayes looked too good for the Buccaneers to let out on the open market for other teams to pick up. Still, the 21-year-old linebacker was not sure if he had made the team.
"[Linebackers coach Gus Bradley] gave me a call to let me know I made the team," said Hayes. "I was at the home the whole time and it was a great feeling to know that I made it. Just sitting back waiting on it was kind of stressful, but I made it.
"I really didn't know. I couldn't predict it. I really didn't think much of it because it was out of my control," said Hayes.
In his final preseason game, Hayes put his skills on display with some extended playing time. He intercepted a pass, broke a pass up, had a tackle for a loss, and a quarterback knockdown on a blitz. In speaking to Pewter Report, Hayes described the interception.
"It was a play that they tried to run a boot," said Hayes. "Everybody was covered and I knew that he was going to throw the ball out of bounds, so I went up the field a little bit and waited for him to try and get it out of bounds. It wasn't a surprise because I figured he was going to throw the ball out of bounds considering everybody was running towards the sideline."
Bradley was impressed with the instinctive and athletic play made by his young linebacker.
"He did a great job on that," said Bradley. "There wasn't even a receiver in the area. He cued the quarterback's eyes and showed a great instinctive play."
Hayes told Pewter Report that he has been all ears to the veterans in his meeting room. The rookie said he has learned a lot from Cato June, Barrett Ruud, and Brooks. Not only has Hayes picked up some knowledge from the veterans in front of him, but he also has mimicked their play.
"Well, he's been productive. You have an assignment and you also have a factor grade," said Gruden. "I'm a big believer in doing your assignment, but also a big believer in having a factor grade, and his factor grade has been pretty darn good."
Bradley gave a good explanation for a factor grade on a linebacker.
"We just look the opportunities to make plays compared to the number of plays they're in," said Bradley. "So if he was in for 30 plays and had five plays that he had an impact on the game, that is a pretty good factor grade. He showed up quite a bit and he wasn't in many plays, but the ones he was in he made them."
With three veterans and some young returning linebackers in front of Hayes, Bucs fans probably won't get a good look at him until the next preseason.
"Yeah, I would like to see him obviously against some two-back sets," said Gruden. "Coming at him from multiple formations, some teams challenging him in the hole. I'd like to see him go against a Pro Bowl fullback and a great back with a big offensive line. But we like what he is doing. He is a flashy player. He obviously is a contact guy."
Hayes may be inactive for many games this season, but he is hopeful that he will be active for some and be able to contribute on special teams. Next offseason will be important for Hayes. While he is a speed and contact player, it looks as though he needs to add on another 10 pounds or so to help him hold up at the NFL level. Bradley wasn't concerned with that issue, saying that Hayes has already added weight since he came to the Buccaneers. The Bucs may have gotten a sixth-round steal with Hayes. 4. BENNETT INACTIVE The players that are inactive on Sunday always come down to a few factors: injuries, depth at positions, and special teams necessity. Running back Michael Bennett was the new Mr. August for the Buccaneers this year and was very productive.
In the preseason, Bennett averaged 4.5 yards per carry, totaling just over 200 yards rushing with a touchdown. Bennett was also active as a receiver, hauling in 10 receptions for 52 yards. Ahead of Bennett on the depth chart are running backs Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn. Graham had 10 carries for 20 yards with a touchdown and a fumble. Dunn had eight carries for 24 yards. Both Graham and Dunn caught three passes for 15 yards.
The potential benching of Bennett in favor of Graham and Dunn is further proof of how illogical the NFL preseason games can be. Teams will play their backups mostly, and they often times can get a lot of reps and are sharp for the season. Then once Week 1 arrives, the sharp players sit on the bench and the rusty starters enter the lineup.
That seems to be the case with Bennett and the running backs in front of him. The difference with Bennett is that he is an accomplished veteran. If he were a player like practice squad rookie Clifton Smith it would be more understandable. But Bennett has had some quality NFL seasons. He ran for almost 1,300 yards in 2002, and has been a homerun threat throughout his career.
Bennett's breakaway speed and potential to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball is evident in just a brief perusal of his stats. In his career he has touchdown runs of 31, 65, and 85 yards. He has touchdown catches of 38, 45, and 80 yards.
Tampa Bay wanted to get more explosive on offense for this season. Of the running backs on the roster, Michael Bennett is the player that fits that bill the most. It will be unfortunate if he is standing on the sidelines in New Orleans dressed in street clothes. 5. UNDERRATED BUCS There are not many times when a division champion team can be considered to be an under the radar team the next season, but that is the case with the '08 Buccaneers. As Pewter Insiders are sure to know, very few in the national media are picking Tampa Bay to win the division or even a Wild Card.
Last year, the Buccaneers went from worst to first, and one would think with a five game improvement, a young defense, a young offensive line, and a veteran Pro Bowl quarterback the team would be considered to be a favorite. The pundits think otherwise and this Pewter Reporter believes that is a real advantage for Tampa Bay.
As Bucs fans can recall from the 2003 season, when a team is on top they get the best of their opponents each week. Everybody tries to knock off the champion, and with the exception of the first game against the Saints, it does not look like any team is going to play the Buccaneers with any extra motivation.
In fact, Tampa Bay is the team that might have added motivation to prove to the world that last season's playoff berth was not a fluke, or the result of being the best out of a weak division. The Buccaneers locker room is a calm place, and the team appears to be very united.
The chemistry on the roster and in the locker room is a credit to the entire organization. General manager Bruce Allen stresses the organization is looking for good teammates. Gruden has not had patience with prima donnas, selfish players, and guys that just enjoy being an NFL player. Team captains like Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber set the example, enforce the law of the locker room, and keep the team focused.
With the team chemistry and functional organization, the Buccaneers have fostered the ability to weather any rough patches that hit the team in 2008. That will go a long way to them making a playoff run. Tampa Bay is an underrated squad going into the 2008 season.
6. DRAFT PROSPECT: SAKODA Later in the fall, Pewter Report publisher Scott Reynolds and I will resume our draft prospect profiles. We are waiting for the college season to get further along and accumulate more tape to study of potential future Buccaneers. Prior to those prospect profiles, we will write about some players that are catching our eye for the 2009 NFL Draft.
After the first weekend in college football, there were a number of players that stood out. But the one that stood out the most for this observer was Utah Utes kicker Louie Sakoda. A four-year starter, Sakoda is a legit triple threat option at kicker. He has pro potential as a punter, kickoff kicker, and place-kicker. At the end of 2007, Sakoda was named as a first-team punter and first-team kicker by various publications. He has been the Mountain West Conference's Special Teams Player of the Year for the past two seasons.
Prior to this season he was a second-team All-American punter by Sports Illustrated and a first-team place kicker by Rivals.com. Sakoda entered his senior year at Utah as the university's all-time leader in field goal percentage with 83 percent. He is second all-time with 35 field goals entering this season. After his first three seasons he is third all-time in punting average with 42.1, and has 36 punts of at least 50 yards. Sakoda is adept at downing his punts inside the 20-yard line as well with 43 percent backing up the opponent to their own end zone.
In the opener last Saturday, Sakoda put his skills on display against Michigan. He was 4-of-4 on his field goals, nailing field goals of 28, 41, 43, and 53 yards. Those four field goals were vital as the Utes escaped Ann Arbor with a 25-23 win. Sakoda also had a 60-yard punt that was a key play in the second half. Michigan was set to get some good field position, but Sakoda's booming kick negated that possibility for the Wolverines.
Bucs kicker Matt Bryant has struggled leading up to the regular season. Tampa Bay has to have a reliable kicker for its offense. Another possibility to replace Bryant is potential free agent New York Jets kicker Mike Nugent, who the Bucs loved coming out of college and is scheduled to become a free agent in 2009.
But imagine what a weapon it would be to have only one roster spot taken up by your punter and field goal kicker? NFL teams have typically resisted that, making those players be one or the other. Sakoda may have the potential to do both well at the NFL level and bears watching throughout the preseason and the lead-up to the draft. If Sakoda can handle both punting and kicking, that would make it much easier to carry a player that is purely a return specialist or a special teams demon.
EXTRA POINT: HAYWARD IS THE HEIR APPARENT TO NECE Nece was valuable to the Bucs in a number of ways. Not only did he stand out on special teams, but Nece also offered the Buccaneers some flexibility as a backup in being able to play a few of the linebacker spots in the Bucs scheme.
Backup Matt McCoy has played outside linebacker in his career, but has been exclusively at the Mike (middle) linebacker spot as he learned the defense. Sam (strongside) linebacker Quincy Black was briefly tried at Mike some last year, but that experiment did not stick. The player that looks to have made the transition to having position flexibility is second-year linebacker Adam Hayward. He has been a Will (weakside) linebacker, but towards the end of the preseason has gotten action at the Mike.
Hayward saw time at the Mike against the Houston Texans in the final preseason game, and looked good there. Bradley talked about Hayward's new dimension.
"He got some reps there during the week before and prior to that he has gotten some here and there," said Bradley. "He did a great job with it. When you got seven linebackers some guys have got to be flip guys who can play multiple positions and that is what we are working on him with."
Hayward just made himself awfully valuable to the Buccaneers. He now can play competently at two linebacker positions and is one of the team leaders on special teams. With Nece moving on to Detroit after being released, Hayward has become his heir apparent as the flexible linebacker and a staple on special teams.