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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. As readers of my work on PewterReport.com and in Pewter Report magazine, and listeners to my weekly radio show, the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz on WDAE 620 AM, you know that I am a big fan of second-year Buccaneers right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. In fact, I may be the leader of his bandwagon.
Admittedly, he is far from a finished product, but I love the upside, competitiveness and physical style of the mammoth 6-foot-8, 315-pound Trueblood. In my 13 years of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professionally, I’ve seen some pretty mediocre to downright crappy play at right tackle, from Scott Dill to Doug Riesenberg to Jason Odom to Jerry Wunsch to Kenyatta Walker. Trueblood has a chance to be great.
Although I’m no fan of stupid penalties, I did like the scrappiness Trueblood displayed at the end of the Bucs vs. Cardinals game when he was flagged for bumping an official and ejected. Trueblood is the official enforcer on the offensive line. He’s the butt-kicker. He’s picked fights with big, bad Shaun Rogers up in Detroit and Arizona’s Calvin Pace and Darnell Dockett.
The feisty Trueblood is helping give Tampa Bay’s once finesse and embarrassing offensive line a reputation for being tough and physical. I asked him to walk me through what happened at the end of the Cardinals game to give Pewter Report readers an in-depth account of what happened.
“The Arizona guys were doing some things that they shouldn’t have been doing,” Trueblood said. “What I was really trying to do was be level headed about the situation, to tell you the truth. Then it escalated. A pride factor comes into play and I can’t back down then. We were being feisty and nasty, but there is a time and a place for all of that. If you are level headed you can take a step back and go on to the next play, but they weren’t doing that. Those guys were talking a lot of crap, but that’s part of the game. But at the end there, there was stuff that was uncalled for and some cheap shots.
“As an offensive line we were just trying to set the tone. We were supposed to be kneeling the ball, but we were still going after it and double-teaming them and firing out at them and stuff like that. I think they took exception to that, but we took exception to what they were doing, too. Tempers flared. I love it when it gets like that. People were telling us to stop it, but I was loving it. There was no way in hell I was going to stop it. I love it.”
As a result, Trueblood was flagged 15 yards, fined $15,000 for bumping an official and ejected from the game. Thankfully, all of this happened after the outcome of the game had been decided.
But this warrior mentality Trueblood has is refreshing after seeing so many Tampa Bay right tackles being pushovers and turnstiles throughout the years.
“Prior to coming here there were three guys, including me, that always got into fights in practice in college,” Trueblood said. “It wasn’t like a disrespectful thing. We played so hard at Boston College against the defensive line and it was so competitive that we couldn’t help getting in fights. We got in fights every day in practice. It wasn’t personal, we were actually the best of friends. It’s kind of carries over from that. Every one of these guys out here is part of the O-line Brotherhood.”
Although he doesn’t say much and isn’t a vocal leader, Trueblood relishes the opportunity to be “the muscle” of what he calls his “Offensive Line Brotherhood.”
“I’ll take that and I see your point, but all of these guys are tough S.O.B’s,” Trueblood said of his teammates. “But you are going to need someone to step in there and not take any crap. I guess that’s my job. There is a ‘do-not-take-any-crap’ mentality that I have.’”
As I discussed how I admired how physical the offensive line was becoming with Trueblood, I told him how the Bucs’ previous offensive lines have been too finesse for my liking.
“From what I’ve heard from around here it was a good offensive line in 2002,” Trueblood said. “I mean they went to the Super Bowl, so they couldn’t be a bad offensive line if they did that. There is a ton of respect for those guys. I don’t want to speak ill of any offensive line. We would like to make sure everyone talks highly about us. We want to be a team strength.
“We’re not finesse by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not saying we’re the best offensive line, but we will be one of the most physical out there. We do take a lot of pride in that.”
When asked if he aspires to become the leader of this offensive line when center John Wade moves on, Trueblood declined.
“If there is any leadership that I’ve held in my life it has been by example,” Trueblood said. “I don’t talk a whole lot. I play hard and fight. I guess I lead by example.”
Oh, well. The improving Trueblood will just have to settle for being the enforcer for Tampa Bay’s offensive line.
FAB 2. So what does Buccaneers offensive line coach Bill Muir think about Jeremy Trueblood’s development as a player and his antics at the end of the Arizona game? I sought out the salty old Muir to get his thoughts on his right tackle and his other young offensive linemen.
“I want him to be an intelligent, aggressive person,” Muir said of Trueblood. “Sometimes, like in the [Arizona] game, you have to understand the circumstances. They are trying to bait you and you have to be smart enough to understand that you can’t be baited. Sometimes you have to walk away. We want to be aggressive and we want to be physical, but in no way, shape or form do we want to be stupid. I like his mentality, all right? And I encourage it under the proper description. But sometimes you have to walk away from things.
“This macho [crap] gets you in trouble. Penalties cause you to lose football games. They had no timeouts left. It was a typical veteran ploy. The only way they can stop the clock is if we get a penalty. Maybe it was just spiteful at the end. Maybe they just wanted to be [expletive], do you know what I mean? But you can’t fall in that trap. It’s a giant [expletive] trap with a big piece of cheese. You bite it, you get your neck snapped.”
Muir loves Trueblood’s competitiveness, but wants him to strike a balance between playing aggressive and being overly aggressive to the point where he gets penalized. The key is playing smart.
“There is a time and a place where you come off and you are aggressive,” Muir said. “There is even a time and place where if a guy did you wrong you find the place to pay him back. But usually it is not out in front of everybody. It’s good to be aggressive, but you need to control your aggressiveness in certain situations. We emphasize two things around here. Number one, penalties cause you to lose. Penalties are their fault. The other thing is that we want to be a smart football team. You can be aggressive. You can be a rolling ball of butcher knives, but you have to be smart. In a couple of instances, I don’t think he’s been so smart.”
Muir is proud of Trueblood’s development over his first two years, but doesn’t dish out a lot of praise because he says some of his players can’t handle success. One of those players is left tackle Donald Penn, a second-year player who has stepped in for the injured Luke Petitgout and played quite well.
“One of the reasons that he made the team and one of the reasons we have confidence in him is that we can see some pass protection potential in him,” Muir said of Penn. “Quite frankly, if you assess his abilities and assess where he is in his game now, he’s shown some pass protection ability. If you are going against good pass rushers, that’s obviously where you would like to start. There are many things in his game that we need to improve upon. But obviously, he’s been forced into a situation and he has been competitive. I know I’m not satisfied and I certainly hope that he’s not satisfied because the arrow is pointing up. He can certainly improve. That’s about all the praise I’m going to give him right now.”
Rookie left guard Arron Sears has started all 10 games this season after being a second-round draft pick out of Tennessee. In my opinion, he has played exceptionally well in the run game and has improved his blitz recognition and stunt recognition ability, which has helped his pass protection skills. What does Muir think?
“He’s done some nice things,” Muir said. “He’s a big, physical man who is still learning this game. Obviously he is playing well because he is starting. He has a lot of growing up to do in terms of learning technique and how to face experienced defensive linemen and the individual match-ups he sees. He’s progressing, but I’m not satisfied yet.”
One player I have not been overly impressed with is right guard Davin Joseph. I don’t think Joseph is playing up to his potential or his first-round draft status this year. Is Muir satisfied with what Joseph has put on tape in his second season in the NFL?
“No, it ain’t ever what I want it to be, to be honest with you,” Muir said. “He has the physical capability from the standpoint of size, strength and athletic ability to be dominant. Until he is, I’m not satisfied.”
So how close is he?
“You watch the tape so you should be able to answer that yourself,” Muir said. “He’s not there yet. He has to challenge himself. There’s a question of do you want to be good or great? It’s easy to say you want to be great, but that’s a line you have to cross and you have to make sacrifices. I’m not saying he’s not willing to do that. I’m saying that he hasn’t done that yet.”
Last year I went on record saying that Muir should have been fired at the end of the season because the offensive line underperformed and contributed mightily to the team’s abysmal 4-12 record. But I have to give Muir a lot of credit for coaching up second-year players in Trueblood and Joseph and first-year starters Penn and Sears.
Firing Muir last year would have been a mistake. I’m glad I was wrong. Now he has some handpicked, young, talented players to work with. The sky appears to be the limit for this offensive line with Muir at the helm.
FAB 3. There were several big plays in Tampa Bay’s dominating, 31-7 victory at Atlanta last week. You saw them. I saw them. We saw them again on the highlight shows and on NFL.com. So let’s go beyond the big plays in this week’s X’s and O’s installment. Let’s look at the little things – the details – that coaches often harp on that often times are the difference between winning and losing.
• Tampa Bay sefensive end Gaines Adams is getting much better as an NFL player and you don’t have to look at his splash plays, such as his two sacks and a forced fumble at Atlanta, to see why. Good NFL players make big plays, but great NFL players make the little plays, too. A case in point came on Atlanta’s third play of the game on second-and-9 with 13:43 left in the first quarter. The Falcons ran a running play utilizing a zone blocking scheme to the right. With the offensive line stepping to the right in unison, the play is designed for the linemen to get a double team block on the under tackle and leave the right defensive end free for pursuit from behind. The idea is for the running back, in this case Warrick Dunn, to hit the hole in the “A” gap between right guard and center before the end can make the pursuit play. But in this instance, Adams immediately recognized run and diagnosed the play. But more impressively, he showed great technique and running down the line of scrimmage behind the offensive line, who had won battle at the line and got quite a push against Tampa Bay’s defensive line. Adams targeted Dunn and ran down the line of scrimmage with his left shoulder cocked towards the ballcarrier. Adams was almost running parallel to the line of scrimmage. If Adams had not used this proper technique, he would have been in position to only make an arm tackle. Instead, the proper technique was used and as Adams lunged towards Dunn he got enough shoulder and 260-pound body onto the 188-pound running back to bring him to the ground for a 4-yard gain. The play was blocked perfectly by Atlanta, and by being unblocked on purpose, the play was Adams’ to make, and he did. If not, Dunn would have easily had a 7-yard gain. That would have set Atlanta up for a third-and-2, instead of a third-and-5, which forced Atlanta to throw the ball. On third-and-5, Byron Leftwich’s throw was incomplete and the Falcons were forced to punt. That’s what the Bucs coaches want to see from their first-round draft pick.
• Tampa Bay strong safety Jermaine Phillips is easily the most improved player on this Buccaneers defense. Not only has he shored up his tackling and caused more turnovers this year, he has really become a John Lynch-type enforcer across the middle. Lynch was known for his trademark right forearm shiver and the way he would explode into receivers who dared to roam the middle of the field. But the thing that gave Lynch a reputation for his hard-hitting style wasn’t just laying into receivers who caught the ball. It was nailing them quickly even if there was an errant throw. We are seeing Phillips, who used to pick and choose his spots to lay big hits, now developing the same style Lynch has. With 11:07 left in the first quarter on first-and-10 from the 50, Leftwich threw a pass to an open Roddy White, who ran a skinny post pattern. White didn’t catch it, but was that because the throw was a little behind him, or because White thought he heard Phillips’ footsteps from watching all of the Buccaneers game film during the week? Either way, as the ball bounced off his hands, Phillips rammed White. It wasn’t an overly vicious hit, and White popped right up, but it served as an early reminder that Phillips would be laying the wood every single time the Falcons receivers went across the middle. Phillips’ reputation and hits like that helped force Atlanta pass catchers to drop eight balls against the Buccaneers.
• In a few years once both young players mature, Tampa Bay may have two of the strongest, most powerful guards in the NFL. Rookie Arron Sears is a massive man with great power in the run game and a solid base in pass protection. Davin Joseph is still getting by with his raw tools like Sears, but he must develop better technique, which will come with more practice time and game experience. But if you are looking for just how strong Joseph is, he picked up Atlanta’s Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Keith Brooking after he recovered Michael Pittman’s fumble and threw him down like a rag doll. Keep in mind that Brooking is 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, not some undersized, 220-pound linebacker. Once players like Joseph and Sears become technicians, look out NFL. They are going to go from being good players to great players.
• On Wednesday, I was asked on my weekly radio show on WDAE 620 AM – the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz hosted Steve Duemig and yours truly, about whether Bruce Gradkowski would ever develop into a successor to Jeff Garcia. Gradkowski has the mobility and short-range accuracy that quarterbacks have to have in Jon Gruden’s offense. Gradkowski also has the arm strength and accuracy to make most intermediate throws. But as we all saw in 2006 when Gradkowski started 11 games as a rookie, he failed on numerous occasions to produce big plays down the field with speedy wide receiver Joey Galloway. As I told the caller on my show, the biggest noticeable difference between this year’s Buccaneers offense and last year’s Buccaneers offense is the fact that Garcia can hit the downfield throws, evidenced by his 44-yard touchdown to Galloway against Atlanta. I doubt Gradkowski would have been able to hit Galloway downfield after a pump fake, much less hit him in stride as Garcia did. Even more impressive was the fact that Garcia didn’t step into the throw and was actually throwing off his back foot. Garcia launched the pass from the 50 and Galloway hauled it in at the 16 right in stride. Until Gradkowski can learn to make these types of plays downfield on a regular basis, I will continue to question his ability to ever be a starter in the NFL. And so will the Buccaneers.
• With the score 31-0 at the 9:56 mark of the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay started substituting liberally in the game on offense and defense. We saw Gradkowski come in at quarterback, in addition to Anthony Davis replacing Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle. Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall replaced Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. Rookie Byron Storer replaced B.J. Askew at fullback and Earnest Graham sat down in favor of Michael Pittman. On defense, Kalvin Pearson and Will Allen replaced Phillips and Tanard Jackson. Cornerback Sammy Davis replaced Brian Kelly, Ryan Nece replaced Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker and Patrick Chukwurah substituted in at defensive end. On his weekly radio show on WDAE 620 AM, linebacker Derrick Brooks wisely said that the key to success of the Tampa Bay defense this year is the job that general manager Bruce Allen (and also director pro personnel Mark Dominik) did in stockpiling this team with better depth. Brooks didn’t give any examples, but having former first-rounders like Davis and Sims as reserves, in addition to a four-time Pro Bowler like Jeremiah Trotter is huge. In addition to having better depth than a year ago, the other difference Brooks pointed out about this season is the fact that a lot of players have played, especially on the defensive line. Under defensive Rod Marinelli and Jethro Franklin, Tampa Bay would play four starters throughout most of the game and use two players – a tackle and an end – as subs. Under new defensive line coach Larry Coyer, the Bucs are using all eight defensive linemen who are active on game day. Not only is this system keeping all eight players, including the starters, fresh, it is getting all eight players experience so in case there is an injury to a starter, the backup has the playing time to draw from to help him out. Smart approach. It also insures that the players will max out when their number is called because each defensive lineman isn’t getting 60 snaps per game.
• And finally, I was really impressed with Tampa Bay rookie fullback Byron Storer’s lead blocking in the fourth quarter of the Falcons game. He hit the hole with good speed, found his target, kept his hands inside when he engaged the enemy and kept his feet moving, driving the defender backwards. He was assignment sound and threw a key block on Pittman’s 21-yard run in the fourth quarter. Storer stayed on his blocks and was tenacious, which was good to see. His reward? Jon Gruden called his number on a play-action pass out of the backfield on fourth-and-5. Storer, who had difficulty holding on to the football during training camp and the preseason, caught a 2-yard pass before getting knocked out of bounds. This type of playing time in an NFL regular season game is invaluable. If he continues to build on the experience he got from an impressive showing in Atlanta, he could stick around permanently as B.J. Askew’s backup. But he must continue to work on his receiving skills. With Askew playing tremendously and a rookie like Storer showing some promise, it’s all but assured that Mike Alstott has played his last down as Buccaneer.
FAB 4. A lot of pundits, including yours truly, keep harping on how Tampa Bay needs help at the defensive tackle position. Yet under tackle Jovan Haye and nose tackle Chris Hovan have played exceptionally well. Will either player become a Pro Bowler, perhaps not, but it’s not like defensive tackle has been a weakness in 2007, either.
Haye is the fifth-leading tackler on this team with 68 stops and four sacks. Hovan is next with 64 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. And the Buccaneers have some promising young players in reserves Ryan Sims, a former first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Greg Peterson, who has 1.5 sacks as a rookie.
Haye keyed the defensive line’s fabulous day in Atlanta with a hit against Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, which caused him to throw a wounded duck to Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.
“It was key to get something started, being on the road,” Haye said. “We’re getting better. In the last game [against Arizona] we stepped up and got a lot of pressure and it paid off with a big win. This week we turned that pressure into sacks and turnovers. We’re starting to turn the corner.”
What was interesting was that Haye was actually playing nose tackle on the play while Hovan was playing the three-technique at under tackle.
“I’ll play some nose tackle. If Sims is in and Ho is out, he’ll play the three-technique and I’ll play nose, too. I play a little nose tackle, but I prefer playing the three. I was surprised I got such a shot because every time I’m at nose I’ve got to think a little harder because I’m not used to getting double-teamed like that. I don’t practice it too much during the week, but I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Defensive line coach Larry Coyer has been known for frequent substitutions along the D-line this year, mixing and matching personnel on almost an every down basis. Haye agrees that Coyer’s frenetic substitutions present problems for opposing offenses.
“At one point against Atlanta, it was a whole different group of four linemen we put in there. You have to start game-planning for different players and different combinations of players if you are the offensive coordinator. They don’t know what to expect from us.”
Haye even dropped into pass coverage on a zone blitz against Atlanta at the 11:24 mark of the fourth quarter on a second-and-10 situation from the Tampa Bay 44. Haye was unable to make a play on the ball, but was able to tackle Falcons wide receiver Michael Jenkins before he got a first down.
An interception for a defensive lineman is the Holy Grail. D-linemen are expected to get sacks and recover fumbles, but rarely get a chance to pick off quarterbacks. So when it appeared that Hovan intercepted a Leftwich pass (before the NFL statisticians overturned it on Wednesday and credited him with a fumble recovery), Haye was happy for him – especially since he didn’t drop it after bobbling it several times.
“He did a good job or holding on to it. We gave him some trouble about holding on to it and asked him if he was trying to get a touchdown. He said he was just trying to hold on to the ball. It was a hell of a play. That’s my dream right there. Interceptions are big for defensive linemen. I dropped back in coverage couple of times on Sunday. I’m waiting for my pick. Throw the ball my way! Then again, knowing me, I would just drop it. Interceptions are big. They just don’t come our way very often.”
Not only was Haye upset that he didn’t have a chance to get a pick against the Falcons, but he lost his sack lead to defensive end Greg White, who had two sacks to push his season total to 4.5. Haye, who did not record a sack on Sunday, currently has four.
“I gave him some trouble on the plane about that. I’ve been sitting on four for a while. I’m pulling for him … but I’ll also take my sack lead back this Sunday, too!”
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab 5:
• Do you want to know what it means when Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber points to his back with his thumb when he scores touchdowns? In case you don’t, I wanted to get Barber on the record about him. “I can’t tell them what that means,” Barber said of the PewterReport.com readers. I said, “You are pointing to your name plate that says Barber.” “Well it has some other connotations besides that,” Barber countered. “Does it go back to 2002 when you got the Pro Bowl snub,” I asked. “Well, maybe. You could say that. It also dates back to me being the ‘other Barber,’ too,” Barber said about his headline-grabbing brother, Tiki, who was a Pro Bowl running back for the New York Giants and is currently a commentator on NBC Sunday Night Football. “It’s evolved over time and now I just kind of keep doing it.” Now you know, Bucs fans.
• Tampa Bay defensive end Greg White had the best game of his young pro career in Atlanta with two sacks and two forced fumbles. So how did he do it? Lasik surgery. That’s right. During the Bucs’ bye week, White, who always sported glasses around the locker room, had corrective lasik eye surgery between the Arizona and Atlanta games and he credits his improved vision for his performance. “It definitely improved my vision. I still want to wear my glasses sometimes because I’m scared my new eyes are going to fall out. I don’t know what they did to my eyes, but it’s definitely an improvement.”
• Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden has craved mobility from the quarterback position since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2002. Brad Johnson didn’t have it, rushing for a total of 86 yards on 43 carries (2.0 avg.) from 2002-04. Chris Simms rushed for 52 yards on 30 carries (2.7 avg.) and one touchdown from 2004-06. Bruce Gradkowski, who timed in the 4.6 range during the Indianapolis Scouting Combine, managed to rush for 161 yards on 41 carries (3.9 avg.). But Jeff Garcia is on the verge of rushing for the most yards for a quarterback under Gruden. Through 10 games, Garcia has rushed for 116 yards on 32 carries (3.6 avg.) and has one rushing touchdown. That puts him on pace to record 186 yards on 51 carries. Which Buccaneers quarterback has rushed for the most yards within the last 10 years? Shaun King. In his second year in the NFL, King carried the ball 73 times for 353 yards (4.8 avg.) and five rushing scores.
• Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway is on a Pro Bowl and record-setting pace this season with 40 catches for 711 yards (17.8 avg.) and six touchdowns. He is on pace to catch 64 passes for 1,138 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 10 scores would tie the Bucs’ franchise record, which he set in 2005, and Galloway would become the first player in Tampa Bay history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
• According to some Tampa Bay sources I spoke with, the Bucs should have had at least six sacks against Atlanta. Tampa Bay finished with five sacks now that defensive end Gaines Adams got credited for a sack and a fumble instead of forcing an interception, which Chris Hovan had until the NFL statisticians took it away. At the 10:05 mark of the fourth quarter of the Falcons game, defensive end Kevin Carter came free from the left side against Atlanta right tackle Tyson Clabo. Carter showed his age a bit by missing a sack on quarterback Joey Harrington, who stepped up into the pocket. Then nose tackle Ryan Sims had a great shot at a sack on the play, if not for guard Kynan Forney, who held Sims on the play.
• And finally, Pewter Report is the first to get Jon Gruden on the record about whether he or his agent, Bob LaMonte, has discussed a contract extension with the Glazers. Gruden is in the second to last year of the contract extension he signed in 2004. He becomes a free agent coach after the 2008 season, and the last time he was heading into a “lame duck season,” LaMonte helped orchestrate a trade from Oakland to Tampa Bay when Raiders owner Al Davis refused to extend Gruden’s contract with one year remaining on his deal. So have any extension talks begun between Gruden and the Glazers? “No, and I’m not really even interested in talking about all that, really,” Gruden said. “I have nothing to report, nor will I ever.” Hey, at least I tried.
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