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Don't think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will win many games in 2007? There are reasons for your pessimism. Although the Bucs were 3-1 in the preseason, this team is far from bulletproof. Pewter Report identifies some of the negatives from Tampa Bay's preseason in this Pewter Insider article.
AFTER GARCIA, WHO’S NEXT? The toughest decision for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden this season might be who takes over at quarterback if starter Jeff Garcia succumbs to a major injury. Is it 16-game starter Chris Simms, who is still shaking off rust from his splenectomy a year ago, and is currently fourth on the depth chart? Is it second-year player Bruce Gradkowski who has 11 NFL starts, but went 3-8 in those outings? Is it Luke McCown, who is the current backup and coming off a great preseason, despite the fact that he has only four NFL starts in his career?
The Bucs feel good about their quarterback situation, but they felt good about Gradkowski last year, coming off a preseason in which he completed 73.8 percent of his passes and had a QB rating of 105.3, too. However, Gradkowski couldn’t maintain those stats during the regular season and was largely ineffective as a rookie.
Should Garcia go down, Gruden will have to make the right decision at quarterback to salvage the 2007 season as his offense is quarterback-driven. Simms is rusty and has shown a penchant for throwing interceptions. Gradkowski struggles with his accuracy on any pass over 20 yards. McCown has shown good poise, accuracy and mobility, but takes too many sacks because he has a difficult time feeling pressure in the pocket and doesn’t throw the ball away or escape the pocket fast enough.
This is a decision Gruden doesn't even want to think about.
WHO MAKES UP THE STARTING D-LINE? During the preseason, Tampa Bay defensive line coach Larry Coyer did a lot of personnel shuffling and never started the same four defensive linemen for any of the four exhibition contests. While Coyer, a new Bucs coach this year, had to see what his linemen could do, the D-line didn’t develop much consistency.
Although not needing the continuity like offensive linemen do, defensive linemen can get a feel for each other and play off each other’s strengths, too. But that only comes with getting reps together. Did the defensive linemen have enough game time together to develop any chemistry?
The Bucs’ starting four heading into Seattle may be Greg Spires at left defensive end, Jovan Haye at under tackle, Chris Hovan at nose tackle and rookie Gaines Adams at right defensive end. But what about Kevin Carter; doesn’t he deserve the right to start, too? Aside from Adams, he was the only player among the potential starters to record a sack in the preseason.
The unit of Spires, Haye, Hovan and Adams might be stout against the run, but this foursome does not appear to be much of a pass rushing threat, except for the rookie. Complicating matters is the fact that Patrick Chukwurah won't be ready for another week or two as he recovers from a torn MCL.
If it all starts up front on defense – which it does – Tampa Bay's starters looked shaky in giving up long drives to New England and Miami in the preseason.
"Offensive success goes hand in hand with defensive success," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "We can’t give up seven-minute drives. We can’t go 16 games and have 12 possessions in each game start on the other side of the 50. We need to get the ball back with three downs and out. We need to get the ball back at the 40 or the 30. We need a turnover to set up a score. That’s when you have a great offensive team."
WHAT HAPPENS TO STEVENS? The Buccaneers only kept three tight ends on their roster when in some years they have kept four. Tampa Bay was banking on a positive outcome from Jerramy Stevens' trial, which took place this week on Wednesday and Thursday, in which he faced DUI charges and marijuana possession stemming from an arrest in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 13.
That didn’t happen, as Stevens was found guilty and will likely be sentenced to a minimum of 30 days in jail under Arizona law, according to the Tampa Tribune. He also faces a possible suspension from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has come down hard on NFL players who have clashed with the law over the past year, including Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and Tennessee cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones.
Stevens has had other run-ins with the law that will likely influence Goodell to impose a lengthy suspension from the league for violating player conduct statutes. While any possible jail time from the sentencing may not come until the offseason, any suspension from the NFL may come swiftly, although Stevens has traveled with the Buccaneers and may get the chance to play against the Seahawks before Goodell hands down a ruling.
Stevens, who had seven catches for 100 yards in the preseason finale`, is expected to be a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing attack this year. If he were to be suspended for any part of the 2007 season, it would be a big loss for the Bucs offense to overcome.
“I’m not going to publicly predict any of that,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Stevens earlier in the week prior to his trial, which concluded on Friday morning with the tight end being found guilty of three charges stemming from the DUI arrest. “He’s made a mistake. I’m confident that he’ll be able to play for the entire season. He’s really a good kid. Again, we really don’t want any of our players to be portrayed in this light. But we’ve known about this for some time. Since he’s been a Buccaneer, he’s been a model citizen and he’s remorseful about it. He regrets every aspect of it. He’s going to go do this thing and we’re going to stand by him and help him get his act together and not only be a great football player, but a great human being. He’s a hell of a kid.”
Aside from missing Stevens for a portion of the 2007 season, there is another problem regarding the Bucs’ talented 6-foot-7 tight end. What if anything happens to starting tight end Alex Smith injury-wise? The Bucs would be in disarray at the tight end position with only Anthony Becht left on the roster. Tampa Bay would likely have to sign tight end Keith Heinrich up from the practice squad.
And if Smith were still out once Stevens return, who becomes the starter? Becht, who is a blocker, but can’t catch, or Stevens, who is a receiver, but can’t block?
Tampa Bay’s tight end position can be a team strength this year provided that Smith, Becht and Stevens play for 16 games. If the Bucs lose one of those players, all of a sudden the tight end position can turn into a weakness.
SLOW RETURNS By not keeping Mark Jones or going out and getting a kick and punt return specialist like Eddie Drummond, the Buccaneers may have handicapped their return game. Wide receiver Ike Hilliard is expected to be the starting punt returner.
While sure-handed and smart when it comes to decision-making, Hilliard is not the fleetest of foot, evidenced by his longest return last year, which was just 16 yards. Hilliard averaged a woeful 6.8 yards per punt return last year despite getting 24 attempts.
The Bucs need to put cornerback Phillip Buchanon or wide receiver Joey Galloway back there if they want longer returns on their punts. Buchanon, who may be the quickest player on Tampa Bay’s roster, has a career average of 10.1 yards and has three touchdowns on his resume`. Galloway, the fastest player on the team at age 36, has a lifetime average of 9.7 yards and has scored five touchdowns on punt returns, the last of which came in his first year in Tampa Bay in 2004.
Without Buchanon or Galloway back to return punts, the Bucs shouldn’t be expected to improve on their pathetic 6.5-yard average from a year ago.
Cornerback Torrie Cox’s four-game suspension will hurt Tampa Bay’s kickoff return team. He averaged 21.5 yards on 18 returns, but Cox posted the longest return last year of 44 yards. Once again running back Michael Pittman will be handling the kick return duties. He averaged 22.2 yards on 39 returns last year, with a long of 37.
In 2005, Pittman returned three kickoffs for a 28.3 average, which was a career high. But Pittman’s longest return has only been 44 yards and that came in 2001 with Arizona. While possessing enough speed to take a kickoff the distance, Pittman has yet to show the ability to make defenders miss on a consistent basis, thus severely limiting his chances to cross mid-field, let alone score a touchdown.
Special teams coach Richard Bisaccia also plans to use running back Earnest Graham and wide receiver Michael Clayton as lead blockers for Pittman. No one wants to see the slow-footed Graham return kicks. He has a 17.3-yard career average in this department and his only return last year went for 13 yards.
Clayton has never returned a kickoff in the NFL and possesses only average speed.
OTHER REASONS TO MOPE • Tampa Bay recorded just eight sacks in the preseason – three less than the 2006 preseason which severed as a prelude for only 25 sacks in 2006. • As if losing Paris Warren for the season wasn bad enough, the DUI case against Bucs wide receiver will proceed based on some evidence from a detailed urinalysis done by the Pinellas Park police. • The backup middle linebacker position is unsettled with Jeremiah Trotter who can play the run well, but not the pass, and Ryan Nece, who can play the pass well, but not the run. • Tampa Bay recorded just two interceptions in the preseason after coming off a year in which it had just 11 in the regular season. • If the Bucs start off 2007 2-2 or worse, history under head coach Jon Gruden shows it will be a losing season. • With head coach Jon Gruden on the hot seat and the entire team knowing about it, there could be a mutiny if the losses mount early in the year and the season becomes lost.
THE FLOOR Although Pewter Report predicts an 8-8 season for the Buccaneers in 2007, the rock bottom record this Tampa Bay team should produce is 6-10. For that to happen, the Bucs would have to get off to a bad start, have some key starters on the injury list and have others play poorly as the team did in 2006. The big keys for the Bucs this year are Jeff Garcia staying healthy and productive, getting Cadillac Williams over 1,200 yards rushing, getting sacks from the front seven and getting interceptions from the back seven. If Tampa Bay strays from any of those areas, disaster could strike. It’s hard to imagine a worse record than 6-10 for the Bucs given the upgrades in talent in several areas of the roster.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com