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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. If you listened to the media prior to the Bucs vs. Bears game last Sunday, you were spoon-fed information that both teams run the same Tampa 2 defense because head coach Lovie Smith was once a linebackers coach under Monte Kiffin and took the Tampa 2 defense to St. Louis in 2000 when he was the Rams defensive coordinator. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I pointed that out during my Buccaneer Blitz radio show on September 17 prior to the contest.
Come game time, we all saw that firsthand that the Bears are a heavy-blitzing team. The Bucs expected to see a ton of eight- and nine-man fronts in Chicago, and weren’t disappointed. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and offensive coordinator Bill Muir both agreed that the team would have to throw the ball to win because Tampa Bay would almost always be out-flanked in the running game.
Yet out of 84 total plays, including 67 pass attempts, the Bucs faced approximately 57 blitzes by my count. That is an astounding number of blitzes and likely more than any member of Tampa Bay’s offense has ever faced before.
“I’ve never faced that many blitzes before – ever,” Bucs offensive lineman Jeremy Trueblood said.
Muir concurred with his right tackle.
“The most I’ve ever faced? My memory is not that good, but I can tell you that it is an awful lot and it is unusual.” Muir said. “It did not surprise us. They were very much obvious in their pre-game statements that their objective was to stop the run. We figured a great number of men would be at the line of scrimmage.”
According to my calculations after watching the game tape, the Bucs faced a 10-man front on one occasion, a nine-man front 18 times, an eight-man front 22 times, a 7-man front 32 times, a six-man front on four occasions, a five-man front twice, a four-man front on three occasions and two goal-line defenses.
“They were on the line and they made it look like they were blitzing on every snap,” Gruden said. “I really haven’t seen that many blitzes before. That’s why you saw 67 throws. You can try to run into that if you want … but we honestly felt like we could have gotten a lot more out of the passing game. We had six or seven balls dropped. I haven’t seen anything like [the blitzes we faced], but we proved that we’ll adjust if we have to.”
In fact, Chicago blitzed on the first 12 plays of the game, putting Tampa Bay’s offense under the gun immediately. On the flip side of all the blitzes, the Bears defense rushed four defenders on just 27 occasions.
But whether they rushed four or blitzed and sent five or six defenders after quarterback Brian Griese, Tampa Bay’s offensive line held up – not allowing a sack in 67 pass attempts, which is an incredible feat.
“We still have issues,” Muir said of the play of his offensive line. “The truth of the matter is on good days and bad days that protection is a complementary thing across the board. Of course the blockers have to block, if the receivers are running their routes correctly and getting open, and more importantly, if the quarterback gets rid of the ball on time – and they have a built-in timer – that contributes to protection. All of the stars aligned correctly. I credit Brian with the timeliness of getting rid of the ball and the wide receivers and tight ends were getting open and the blockers were doing what they were supposed to do – block. It really was a demonstration of what we are capable of when everybody is playing the same kind of tempo we advocate.”
That tempo helped the offensive line get into a strong pass protection rhythm that helped stymie the Bears’ blitzes.
“They definitely play something a little different,” Faine said. “That’s an awful lot of blitzes, but we handled them well because we had great preparation.”
FAB 2. Here are my observations from watching the game tape from the Buccaneers vs. Bears game:
• Since the New Orleans game on Earnest Graham’s 9-yard gain on a draw play, I have been telling you how potent Tampa Bay’s interior running game will be this season with the addition of center Jeff Faine. We saw Warrick Dunn rip off a 17-yard touchdown on third-and-goal against Atlanta the next week on an incredibly well blocked play. Last week against Chicago, the Bucs’ longest rushing play was an 18-yard run by Dunn on a draw. Once again, the play was blocked superbly as Faine posted defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek to left guard Arron Sears, who finished the block while Faine walled off linebacker Brian Urlacher as Dunn got to the second level. Meanwhile, left tackle Donald Penn charged to the second level and trapped linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Tight end Alex Smith made a great kick out block to the cornerback who was in charge of covering wide receiver Michael Clayton while Clayton went from right to left and served as a lead blocker for Dunn, who was running right up the middle of the Bears defense behind Faine. Clayton crossed Dunn and took out safety Mike Brown with a crushing block. Fellow safety Kevin Payne made the tackle on Dunn after a big run. Expect more draws from the Bucs this season. They’re working.
• The guess here is that cornerback Ronde Barber ends up with five sacks this year. He had one in the preseason as defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is deploying more blitzes this year, as expected. Barber got his first official one of the regular season against Chicago, blitzing on the first third down of the game. One down, four more to go, Ronde.
• Don’t pick on Barber too much for letting Bears wide receiver Brandon Lloyd run wild in the second half. Yes, Barber missed a tackle on his first catch, but on Lloyd’s second reception, quarterback Kyle Orton threw a rare inside fade (similar to the one the Bucs threw to wide receiver Antonio Bryant in overtime) that a leaping Lloyd caught above his head. It was an amazing play. Barber did the wise thing and tackled him after a big gain. If Barber would have gone up for the ball – which he couldn’t have intercepted – and fallen down, it would have been an easy TD for Lloyd. Later on that drive after Forte’s touchdown, Lloyd clearly pushed off on Barber, which created the separation necessary for him to haul in the two-point conversion. On Lloyd’s touchdown catch, he had a step on Barber, who was playing Cover 3 on the play. Barber was tracking the ball, hoping it was underthrown where he could make a play on the ball. Instead, he made a great leaping catch above his head. Yes, Barber could have had tighter coverage on Lloyd, but give the Bears receiver credit for making two amazing, over-his-head catches. Expect a redeeming performance from Barber on Sunday against Green Bay.
• Defensive end Greg White had his third sack of the season on Sunday, but he made an even more impressive play in the right flat while dropping into coverage as Barber was blitzing from the left in the second quarter. Orton dumped the ball off to running back Matt Forte, who was stopped for only a gain of one yard as White dove at Forte’s ankles, corralled him and made a sensational openfield tackle. That was a great demonstration of athleticism by the 272-pound White.
• I think Tim Ryan’s television analysis of Buccaneers wide receiver Maurice Stovall was spot on. Ryan said that for all the Bucs fans that wanted to see more of Stovall, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver has to do a better job of catching the ball. Stovall had two drops on Sunday at Chicago, including a drop in the end zone in the later stages of the game that could have been costly. It’s a shame he couldn’t haul in that pass because he beat cornerback Charles Tillman with a strong swim move and had a great release off the line. Stovall’s other drop came in overtime on a second-and-20. He had the chance to make a 14-yard grab, but the ball went off his hands. Stovall also had a fumble in the second quarter that killed a Bucs drive. That’s the reason why he’s buried on the depth chart behind Joey Galloway (when healthy), Antonio Bryant, Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton.
• Talk about teamwork – the Bucs linebackers demonstrated that term to the fullest on Chicago’s last possession before halftime. Needing a three-and-out in order to get the ball back, Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps rose to the occasion when Orton scrambled on third-and-2. Derrick Brooks came in to slow Orton down and force him to cut back. Then Cato June came in low to undercut Orton while Barrett Ruud came in high and capped him off. Ruud’s hit forced Orton to do a 360-degree helicopter on June’s back and prevented him from picking up the first down. Ruud made a dynamic interception in the second quarter that – coupled with his helicopter blast of Orton – got picked up as highlights by ESPN and NFL Network. Ruud put up great numbers last year as Tampa Bay’s leading tackler. But he’ll need some highlight reel plays to make the Pro Bowl and his two against Chicago served that purpose – thanks to the help of Brooks and June.
• Pewter Report has documented Arron Sears’ struggles in pass protection this season. With 1:28 left in the Chicago game, Sears let linebacker Lance Briggs shoot the A gap and get in Griese’s face as he threw the ball. That caused Griese’s sight line to be impaired and when he tried to throw the ball away he didn’t see cornerback Nathan Vasher, who almost won the game for the Bears with an interception if not for a high throw by Griese. Sears simply cannot allow pressure up the middle in the A gap.
• Fans may have grumbled when Griese was flagged for an intentional grounding call late in the Chicago game, but it was a good call. The reason, even after it appeared as if Griese was outside the tackle box? Well, Griese was not outside the tackle box. He was stepping to his left, but offensive tackle Donald Penn slid to his left just before Griese threw the ball. Griese was past the left hashmark, but so was Penn, which validated the intentional grounding call – even if only by a foot or two.
• Tight end Jerramy Stevens had five catches for 61 yards and a game-tying touchdown at Chicago. Tight end Alex Smith had three catches for 30 yards. So what did former Bear tight end John Gilmore do against his former team? One catch for three yards … and a huge pass breakup. In overtime, Briggs almost had an interception after a pass deflected off Gilmore’s hands. But the tight end was savvy enough to lay a shot on Briggs that prevented the interception.
• Did you realize that Faine held defensive tackle Israel Idonije after Idonije jumped offsides on Bryant’s 38-yard catch in overtime? Faine had his arms wrapped around Idonije’s midsection as Sears was blocking him and was fortunate that he wasn’t flagged on the play that put Tampa Bay in position to win the game.
• The 407 yards of passing offense that the Bucs put up on Sunday came without wide receiver Joey Galloway. Just think about that for a second.
FAB 3. The good news for the Buccaneers is that they have jumped out in front of all three of their opponents this season in the first half, out-scoring foes 41-19. The bad news is that the Bucs squandered a halftime lead in New Orleans and almost did the same thing last week at Chicago.
The reason why both the Saints and Bears were able to retake the lead in the third quarter was because the Buccaneers offense has sputtered coming out of halftime. Of the eight drives that started and finished in the fourth quarter, the Bucs have only had two that have gone beyond 20 yards. Tampa Bay has had two three-and-outs, three offensive holding calls and an offensive pass interference call in the third quarter that stymied the offense, in addition to a sack and an interception.
“The bottom line is that we have to play better coming out in the second half,” Clayton said. “Once we have the momentum at halftime we have to take advantage of it. I applaud our team for putting ourselves in position to win the football games in the fourth quarter even though we’ve lost our leads a couple times.”
The Bucs have been outscored 21-3 in the third quarter through three games this year, which is the only quarter the team does not have an advantage in point differential. Here is the game-by-game breakdown:
ATLANTA DRIVE 1: 6 plays, 12 yards, sack by Babineaux, holding by Zuttah DRIVE 2: 5 plays, 12 yards, holding by Clayton DRIVE 3: 2 plays, 15 yards in third quarter (drive ended in the fourth quarter with a turnover) TOTAL: 13 plays, 39 yards
NEW ORLEANS DRIVE 1: 5 plays, minus-2 yards, holding by Sears, off. pass interference by Bryant DRIVE 2: 3 plays, 8 yards DRIVE 3: 4 plays, 52 yards, 51-yard field goal by Bryant DRIVE 4: 1 play, 1 yard (drive ended in the fourth quarter with a Hilliard touchdown) TOTAL: 13 plays, 59 yards
“We watched the tape and we missed some opportunities in New Orleans,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “Against Atlanta, we had numerous penalties. Last week – hey, you watched the tape – we had an interception and we had some opportunities to make better plays. I have to call better plays I guess.”
Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said the onus for the offensive breakdowns in the third quarter falls on the O-line.
“We haven’t really addressed it, but I’m sure the coaches are addressing it,” Trueblood said of the third quarter woes. “I was thinking about that the other day. Why do we always struggle in the third quarter? I wasn’t really happy about that. We need to focus more at halftime. I think we go in there and try to correct what we need to correct. Maybe we are over-thinking things. I’m not sure. Sometimes it’s hard to keep momentum after halftime. To be honest with you, if you want to keep the lead, you need to come out in the third quarter and run the ball. That’s pretty much on the offensive line then. It’s all about ball control.”
Tampa Bay tight end Jerramy Stevens said that while the Bucs offense has failed to build on halftime leads in the third quarter, it’s not for lack of effort.
“I think that’s a credit to some of the other NFL teams,” Stevens said. “They make adjustments, too. A good thing to focus on is the other team making their adjustments and then us adjusting to what they are doing. Teams may be figuring out what we’re doing and then it takes us a while to figure out what they’re doing and adjust to it. We do need to come out of the locker room a little bit stronger.”
The Bucs have poured it on in the fourth quarter this year, scoring 24 points, which is more points than in any other quarter. Tampa Bay was also trying to run out the clock in a mercy fashion against the Falcons after building a 24-9 lead, and ran it four straight times from Atlanta 12, driving down to the Atlanta 3. Had the Bucs mixed in some passes, they could have perhaps scored a touchdown that could have boosted the team’s fourth quarter scoring this year to 31 points.
Tampa Bay’s defense has held opponents to 17 points in the fourth quarter this year, and that’s good news considering this week’s foe, Green Bay, has scored 38 points in the fourth quarter. However, 14 of those points have come from two interception returns for touchdowns against Detroit. Still, the Packers offense has scored 24 points by itself in the fourth quarter and the Bucs don’t want to get into a situation like last week at Chicago, which turned into a fourth-quarter shootout.
“We expect our defense to hold up in the fourth quarter,” Stevens said. “They are not easy to score on. What happened last week in Chicago and in New Orleans was uncharacteristic for our defense. All we can worry about on offense is going out and being productive and putting up as many points as we can. You never know how the game is going to be played, but we don’t expect to have to come back in the fourth quarter too often. We just have to do our job in the third quarter to make sure it doesn’t come down to that in the fourth quarter.”
Trueblooed echoed Stevens’ sentiment.
“Green Bay is a great team,” Trueblood said. “I wasn’t aware of their fourth quarter feats in terms of points. What we have to do is control the ball and the time of possession.”
FAB 4. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden made a couple of revealing statements to me on Friday. I asked him why former starting quarterback Jeff Garcia had been demoted to third-string instead of the backup job. I asked if Gruden did that because he wanted to send a message to everyone – his team, the media and the fans – that Brian Griese is the clear-cut starter and doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. Here’s Gruden’s response.
“No, I’m not into all that,” Gruden said. “I’m not going to talk about who the number two is. We really don’t have a depth chart at that position right now. Jeff has missed a lot of time and Luke McCown has promise. He’s a good player, too. I’m not in the shoulder looking and all that hogwash.
“Right now, Brian Griese is our starter, we’re working Jeff back into it, and Luke McCown had a really good preseason. He took 42 percent of the snaps in training camp and he played more than anybody in the preseason games. He’s a good player. We like him.”
It sounds like McCown’s stock is on the rise since I reported it was on the decline a couple weeks ago. And that means that Garcia likely won’t be anything more than the emergency quarterback anytime soon.
I also asked Gruden if he had investigated rookie return man Dexter Jackson’s slipping and falling problems that I quizzed him about during Monday’s press conference.
“I have looked into it and it’s a freak deal,” Gruden said. “We had about 13 guys slip in the game the other day. It was very long grass.”
I wasn’t about to let him get away with that response, so I pressed Gruden on the topic as I attempted to do on Monday. I questioned whether Jackson had the toughness necessary to do the job. I said, “I’m not trying to indict him, but …”
And then Gruden cut me off to say, “No, go ahead. We want to see better. We don’t want to see our returner catch and fall. That’s not good. We don’t want to see that. We want to see our returner catch it and go and go towards the other team’s goal line. We want to see more and see it fast. We want decisive decision-making and ball security. If we give him a crack, we think he can get through there. We want to see more.”
The guess here is that despite averaging 3.0 yards per punt return and 23.1 yards per kick return, Jackson gets one more opportunity this week to be the return man with Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton on standby to return punts and kicks, respectively. If Jackson cannot be a competent returner, there is no way the team can justify having a guy on the active game day roster for only six plays per game. And if he’s not active, then you can start calling this second-round draft pick a bust.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5 – after a word from our sponsor.
SR’s FAB 5 SPONSOR: ATTORNEY ROBERT LeVINE ESQ. Please allow me to introduce you to a new section in each SR’s Fab 5, which recognizes one of Pewter Report’s sponsors. I ask you to read this paragraph in each edition as it is these companies that support our efforts and make it possible for you to enjoy Pewter Report’s coverage of the Buccaneers. This week’s sponsor is Tampa lawyer Robert LeVine P.A. Not only is LeVine the attorney for Pewter Report, Inc., but he is also handling a case for me personally. I’m suing my banking institution and have yet to go to trial, but I have been so satisfied with his legal advice that I wholeheartedly recommend him. That’s right. I don’t yet know the outcome of my lawsuit, but I am really impressed with LeVine’s straight-shooting ways and his counsel. Too many lawyers these days are worried about being aggressive and rushing into costly litigation instead of listening to their clients and providing their clients with sound, reasoned counsel. That’s one of LeVine’s many strengths. LeVine specializes in helping individuals, familes and small businesses, and is well-versed and experienced in business law, commercial litigation, construction law, contracts of all kinds, corporations and LLC’s, divorce, employment issues, foreclosures, litigation and appeals, real estate sales and leases, wills and living wills and more. He’s been a loyal Pewter Report subscriber for many years and offers Pewter Report subscribers a discount. Give him a call at: (813) 805-8705.
• One of the unsung heroes from Sunday’s 27-24 overtime win at Chicago was Jon Gruden’s assistant Paul Kelly. At Gruden’s urging, Kelly chucked the red flag from the 27-yard line down to the 11 – that’s close to 20 yards – to signal to the officials, who were down near the Chicago 1-yard line, that the Bucs wanted to challenge Gaines Adams’ interception return for a touchdown. There have been some occasions in NFL games where the red flags weren’t thrown in front of the officials before the start of the play and the play continued, thus negating the chance of instant replay reviewing the play. Kelly made sure that didn’t happen and caught the officials’ attention. “It was one of his better tosses,” Gruden chuckled. “That was a scoring play and they got a good look at it upstairs. Hey, I was going to fight for Gaines. That was his first touchdown.”
• Some media pundits have suggested that the Bucs were “lucky” to win the game at Chicago in overtime due to Charles Tillman’s personal foul penalty that gave the Bucs a first-and-10 at their own 25-yard line instead of having to punt from their own 10. There was some fortune with the call, especially when it looked like right tackle Jeremy Trueblood could have drawn a flag for punching a Bears opponent in a pile on the same play. But after the penalty, the Bears defense had nine plays to stop the Bucs from scoring and failed to do so as Tampa Bay marched from its 25 to the Chicago 3-yard line. The Bucs’ luck ran out after the Tillman penalty. After that it was all hard work for Tampa Bay to march the 72 yards needed for Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal – much to Chicago’s chagrin.
• As many of you know, I’m a college football junkie and Pewter Report’s resident draft expert because I watch and tape 12 college games per week for publication’s draft research. One of the prospects I have targeted over the last two years has been Ball State senior wide receiver Dante Love. In 2007, Love’s 7.69 catches per game ranked seventh in the nation. His 107.54 yards per game ranked fifth in the nation, while Love’s 1,398 receiving yards ranked fourth. In 2008, his 460 yards and three touchdowns on 28 receptions ranked second in the nation through four games. The 5-foot-10, 179-pound receiver had great speed and electrifying quickness and reminds me of a less physical Steve Smith. He has 10 career games of 100 yards or more and three more games with over 90 yards receiving. During his career, Love has caught 199 passes for 2,778 yards and 20 touchdowns, rushed 87 times for 428 yards and four touchdowns and is Ball State’s all-time leading kick returner with 2,129 yards and two touchdowns on 93 attempts. He got off to a great start this year with nine catches for 171 yards and one touchdown, along with three carries for 22 yards and a TD at Northeastern. Against Navy the following week, Love had nine catches for 165 yards and two scores, in addition to 37 yards rushing and a touchdown on six carries. Tragically, Love’s season and his football career came to an end last week in a 42-20 win at Indiana. On his third catch of the night, Love took a helmet-to-helmet hit that broke his neck. I was watching the game live on the Big 10 Network because I was scouting Love at the time and it was so disappointing to see him being carted off the field and taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, knowing that this was a serious injury that could end his dreams of making it to the NFL. Sadly, I have no doubt that Love would have been successful in the pros. Love had surgery this week and is expected to make a complete recovery and lead a normal life. But his playing days are over.
• The Detroit Lions were wise to fire general manager Matt Millen – something they should have done years ago. Perhaps Millen’s best move might have been hiring head coach Rod Marinelli, whose coaching ability supersedes his coaching record. If the Lions are going to keep Marinelli, whose biggest fault is believing in quarterback Jon Kitna, then they would be wise to give him a general manager who he is comfortable working with. Seattle vice president of player personnel Ruston Webster, who used to be a college scout and the director of college scouting in Tampa Bay, or Bucs director of pro personnel Mark Dominik would make fantastic choices. Webster has been apart of the success in Tampa Bay and Seattle, while Dominik’s resume, references and communication skills are outstanding. I’ve chronicled Dominik’s rise within the organization for years, and at age 37, he is truly one of the NFL’s young guns. My feeling is that he will be a general manager within the next five years. Why not Detroit if they aren’t going to give current fill-in G.M. Martin Mayhew, a former Bucs cornerback, the full-time gig?
• And finally, no SR’s Fab 5 next week as we will be finalizing the Pewter Report October In-Season Issue.
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