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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. In our 2008 Season Kickoff Issue, Pewter Report predicted that center Jeff Faine would be the Offensive MVP this year. While there are 14 games left in the 2008 campaign, Faine has earned every penny of his six-year, $37.5 million contract thus far. As expected, Tampa Bay’s running game has vastly improved because of the ability of Faine to not only hold up well at the point of attack due to his aggressiveness and technique, but also due to his mobility.
Faine has the athleticism and quickness to get outside and lead block on perimeter running plays in addition to quickly getting to the second level to trap linebackers and open up big holes in the interior of opposing defenses. Tampa Bay’s interior running game showed a few new wrinkles on Sunday that took advantage of Faine’s skill set.
Tampa Bay ran a shovel pass to Warrick Dunn out of a shotgun, split-back set in the second quarter. The play went for 12 yards on a third-and-10 situation. A few plays later, the Bucs ran a draw with Dunn on a third-and-goal situation from the Atlanta 17. Dunn’s creative running allowed him to find the end zone, but the play was also extremely well blocked.
Again, out of the shotgun, split-back set, Dunn took the handoff and followed Earnest Graham, who was the lead blocker, through the hole. Faine and Graham quickly reached the second level and sealed off the Falcons’ linebackers. Left guard Arron Sears got off a great punch on defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and shoved him to the left at the snap of the ball. Then he drove right end John Abraham to the middle of the field, creating a running lane to the left. Left tackle Donald Penn peeled back and blocked Babineaux, who overran the play and was in hot pursuit from the backside of the play. Wide receiver Joey Galloway got in the way of cornerback Chris Houston, which sealed off the left side and allowed Dunn to find an opening and score.
“It’s a really good change up for our running game,” Faine said of the draws and shovel passes. “With those plays, it’s really some hidden yardage in our running game. We set those up like we’re going to pass and the defense is in pass rush mode. We’d like to get the hardball running game going a little better, and that is something we have been working on the past couple of weeks.”
The reality of the play call on third-and-goal from the Atlanta 17 was that it was called to move the Buccaneers into even better field goal situation with a slim chance that it would go for a score.
“I have had a draw where I broke it for a touchdown, but I don’t know if it was third-and-17,” Dunn said. “It was just good blocking.”
Like Dunn, Faine was surprised by the success of the play and the execution.
“Honestly, that was the first time I’ve ever been a part of draw that worked that well,” Faine said. “It was a really, really good run by Warrick, and it was blocked pretty well, too. It’s something that now we’ve seen it’s possible, I think it’s something we need to work on and keep doing.”
With Faine’s ability to move and head coach Jon Gruden’s creativeness when it comes to designing plays, expect a multi-faceted running game from the Buccaneers this year. In 2005, the Bucs got most of their yardage and big plays running to the left behind tackle Anthony Davis and guard Dan Buenning with right guard Sean Mahan pulling and serving as a lead blocker. In 2006, Tampa Bay did not enjoy a lot of success running the ball and took yards wherever they could get them. Last year, the Bucs had a lot of production off the right side behind tackle Jeremy Trueblood and guard Davin Joseph with Arron Sears pulling from his left guard position.
Through two games in the 2008 season, the Bucs have shown that they can run the ball from anywhere on the field, evidenced by the fact that Tampa Bay is averaging 155 yards per game, which is good for the seventh-best running game in the NFL.
“We had some good runs,” Gruden said. “The toss to Earnest Graham where he scored was a well-blocked play. We had some great runs later in the game. We had some sloppy play early in the game with individual mistakes. You run a draw on third-and-17 when you are going to get a pass rush. If you catch them in the right coverage where they are doubling this guy or that guy, they don’t have primary support on the play. If you get on your blocks with a guy like Dunn, who has done this forever – it works.”
Football is a team sport and the credit for the early success of Tampa Bay’s running game should be spread around to the offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers and fullbacks, in addition to the runners themselves. But the addition of Faine brings an added dimension to the rushing attack that will make the Bucs’ ground game harder to game plan for and defend.
“It’s huge having him here,” Gruden said of Faine. “Getting to the second level and on the perimeter with blocking is huge. We’d like to get the ball outside late in the game, which we did on a key audible to the left side. We got a big first down prior to Graham’s touchdown. Faine is unbelievable. He’s a great athlete. No disrespect to any other centers we’ve had here, but this guy can snatch some shade. He can reach block. He can dive out and get to the second level and get it done. He’s the reason why we should be excited about the position and our running game.”
Faine’s teammates, such as Penn, have already seen the difference he brings to the team on Sundays.
“As an offensive line, we love to run the ball inside,” Penn said. “That’s where you pound it and find out if you are a man. Faine has really given us a lot of versatility to run inside. Now we’re opening it up even more inside with him here.”
FAB 2. Here are my thoughts and observations from watching the game film from the Bucs’ 24-9 win over the visiting Atlanta Falcons in Tampa Bay’s home opener last Sunday:
• Did you read Pewter Report’s Season Kickoff Issue? Did you notice how we picked free safety Tanard Jackson as the player most likely to have a sophomore slump based on a very quiet preseason? Oops. Jackson has had a very strong start to the 2008 campaign and he had a stellar outing against Atlanta. Jackson had eight tackles and two pass breakups in the season-opener, and seven tackles, including one for loss, and two more pass breakups against the Falcons.
Among Jackson’s big plays were stopping Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas on a 33-yard reverse. Jackson was the one who pushed Douglas out of bounds to end the play and that effort saved a touchdown. Jackson also made a great tackle on running back Jerious Norwood that went for a 3-yard loss on third-and-3 that forced a 27-yard field goal attempt, and he nearly came away with a couple of interceptions. No sophomore slump in sight for T-Jack.
• Perhaps the player we should have picked was right guard Arron Sears, who had three penalties at New Orleans and allowed too much penetration from Jonathan Babineaux last week against Atlanta. With 7:22 left in the second quarter, tight end Alex Smith was wide open in the left flat, but Griese’s pass was short due to Babineaux penetrating on the play and lunging for the quarterback’s legs.
Sears also gave up a sack to Babineaux at the 12:54 mark of the third quarter when the Falcons defensive player used a swim move to shuffle inside. In the fourth quarter, Babineaux beat Sears inside to tackle Earnest Graham for a 2-yard loss. Sears has played much better against the run than he has against the pass this season, and he still has Gruden’s support.
“He’s had some suspect snaps,” Gruden said. “He’s had some penalties. Fundamentally, he’s still an outstanding player and one of the strengths of our team. But he’s had some uncharacteristic and maybe some overly aggressive sets. Babineaux is not bad. We over set him a couple times and maybe he thought he was going to have more help than he did at times. There are still some growing pains going on with the guy. He’s got a new center and a new quarterback to work with. We have a lot of things going on. We have no concerns about him. He’ll be fine. He’s stellar. He would be one of the first guys I would pick to start a football team.”
• Sears wasn’t the only offensive lineman to struggle. At the 12:02 mark in the second quarter, rookie right guard Jeremy Zuttah almost allowed a sack up the middle. Then on the next play, he was guilty of a false start. On the first play of the second half, Zuttah should have been flagged for holding defensive tackle Jason Jefferson on a completion to Smith, but he wound up being flagged for that infraction on the very next play, which was even more blatant than the first. Zuttah has played well in place of injured starter Davin Joseph, but still has plenty of things to clean up in his game.
• Tampa Bay played a 3-3-5 defense on a couple of occasions against Atlanta. The first time occurred in the first quarter and featured Gaines Adams at left end, Jimmy Wilkerson at nose tackle and Greg White at right end. Quincy Black was the left outside linebacker, Cato June and Barrett Ruud were inside linebackers and nickel corner Ronde Barber essentially served as the right outside linebacker. All three linebackers (excluding Barber) blitzed on the play, forcing quarterback Matt Ryan to quickly throw the ball, which was almost picked off by Jackson.
The other 3-3-5 defensive alignment came on a third-and-12 situation at the Atlanta 14-yard line at the 6:03 mark in the third quarter. Wilkerson played left end, Ryan Sims was at nose tackle and White was at right end with the same complement of linebackers. On this particular play, Ruud, June and Jackson came on a blitz. Ryan was able to get the pass off, however, and receiver Roddy White went for 12 yards and a first down.
• After posting just one tackle in the season opener, Adams had a huge game with six stops and two sacks against Atlanta en route to being named PewterReport.com’s Player of the Game. At the 10:15 mark of the first quarter on a second-and-8 situation, Adams made a big tackle on Ryan as he scrambled up the middle after being flushed from the pocket.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Adams showed great awareness in converging on Ryan with fellow end Kevin Carter for a sack. There was confusion between Ryan and running back Michael Turner, who missed the handoff on the play. It would have been easy for Gaines to just follow the running back, but he had his head on a swivel, noticed that Ryan still had the ball and didn’t hesitate when advancing towards the quarterback.
Adams’ only solo sack of the game was a thing of beauty as he came around right tackle Tyson Clabo and then beat fullback Jason Snelling to take down Ryan from the left end position shortly before halftime. Adams’ final half sack came on a three-man rush from the left end with Sims at defensive tackle and White at right end. Adams and White converged on Ryan while defensive tackle Jimmy Wilkerson dropped into coverage.
• Like Adams, White had an impressive game and finished with three tackles and 1.5 sacks. On fourth-and-14 from the Atlanta 25, the Bucs ran a TEX game to perfection. A TEX game is a stunt that involves a tackle (T) and an end (E) crossing like an X with the tackle going first in pass rush. Wilkerson was lined up at defensive tackle and dashed outside at the left tackle, while White lined up at right end and looped inside behind Wilkerson. White was able to come free up the middle and sack Ryan for a turnover on downs on the play. With 1.5 sacks for the game, White now has 2.5 sacks on the year, which leads the team.
• Cornerback Phillip Buchanon had a very solid game and is playing like he is in a contract year (which he is). P-Buc had great coverage down the deep middle of the field against rookie receiver Harry Douglas, and also down the deep left side of the field against receiver Michael Jenkins.
His only gaffes in coverage were not playing Roddy White closer on a third-and-13 situation that Atlanta converted with only 36 seconds left in the first half, and a third-and-12 situation in the third quarter that ended up being a first down. Buchanon was also guilty of playing a little too soft in coverage on a 21-yard grab near the sidelines by Douglas in the second half.
In two games, Buchanon is the fifth-leading tackler with 12 stops, has one interception and is tied for a team-high four pass breakups.
• Expect the Atlanta Falcons to be ready for revenge at the Georgia Dome on December 14. Why? Because Ryan, Atlanta’s first-round draft pick, took a beating against the Bucs with shots to the head from cornerback Elbert Mack, Adams and White. Mack was fined and suspended by the league for his helmet-to-helmet hit, but White’s hit looked even worse. White wasn’t fined for the hit, but he was penalized 15 yards.
You can imagine the outrage the Falcons were feeling after watching the game film on Monday. The next time these two teams meet, expect some real chippy play, more personal fouls, some fights and perhaps an ejection or two.
• One of the Bucs’ best running plays on Sunday was a 10-yard run on a toss play off left tackle. Quarterback Brian Griese audibled on the play and center Jeff Faine quickly got to the second level to cut off any pursuing linebackers or safeties on the backside of the play.
Sears pulled around left end and rolled through linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, while left tackle Donald Penn opened up the perimeter by bowling over cornerback Chris Houston at the marker to allow Graham to pick up the first down.
• Wide receiver Antonio Bryant had two drops on throws that were placed a little behind him. He’s got to come through with those catches because we’ve seen Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton all make those type of grabs before. Bryant keeps getting propped up in press conferences by head coach Jon Gruden and has been given starting opportunities ahead of Clayton and Maurice Stovall, but sooner or later, he’s going to need to make some plays in the passing game.
Even Gruden realizes that. But it isn’t like Bryant didn’t contribute to the Bucs’ first win of the season. His block of cornerback Brent Grimes started a chain reaction that opened up the right side of the defense and allowed Graham to embark on a career-high 68-yard touchdown run.
Smith sealed defensive end Jamaal Anderson from the tight end position, Bryant pushed Grimes down to the ground. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood got a great surge off the ball and drove Boley five yards off the line. Boley had to maneuver around Grimes, who was still on the ground, and couldn’t take the proper angle on Graham.
Safety Erik Coleman actually tripped over Grimes and almost took out Boley, too. With Graham hitting the sidelines, Bryant took off down field as an escort, shielding the Bucs’ runner from safety Lawyer Milloy. Around the 10-yard line, Milloy tried to cut back and tries to get Graham from behind, but winds up taking out Boley, who was in hot pursuit from the rear.
Then Bryant finished off Houston near the goal line. Without Bryant’s block near the line of scrimmage, the play doesn’t even go for a first down. Without his block of Milloy and Houston, Graham’s run is only a first down and not a touchdown. It was about as perfectly blocked as Gruden could draw it up.
Even though Clayton is the designated blocking receiver but wasn’t in on that play, he took pride in Bryant’s blocking.
“It grows and it’s contagious, man,” Clayton said of the receiving corps’ blocking prowess. “That’s one of the things that we highlight on the film in the meeting room. Wide receiver blocks on the perimeter are the difference between a run for a first down and a touchdown. I love to have the ball in my hands, but I also love to hear my coaches and teammates say, ‘Great block, 80.’ I’m glad to see everybody buy into that concept.”
The muscle-bound, 6-foot-1, 205-pound Bryant finished the game with zero catches, but his three blocks on one play led to a touchdown, which is just as fulfilling.
“I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Bryant said. “I wanted to make sure that when we looked at the film, that the receivers were doing what we were supposed to be doing. When I came here and watched some film from last year, if they would have had one or two blocks on certain plays, the backs could have broken several long runs. I was just trying to capitalize on that.”
FAB 3. How do you think Bucs left tackle Donald Penn played against Atlanta? Remember that he gave up a key sack to defensive end John Abraham in the fourth quarter that snuffed out a potential scoring drive at the Falcons’ 9-yard line? That was about the only time Abraham had his number called all day. According to the post-game statistics, Abraham was credited with only one other tackle aside from the sack, in addition to a quarterback hurry.
Now that sack was huge because it resulted in a turnover, but out of the 61 offensive plays Tampa Bay ran, Abraham was largely a non-factor due to Penn’s superb blocking. Still, Penn was in no mood for a pat on the back this week at One Buc Place.
“I gave up a sack for a fumble, so that overshadows everything in my book,” Penn said. “In every game I’ve played, Abraham has always gotten a sack on me, so in my head, that’s not good. I have to take my hats off to Warrick [Dunn], Earnest [Graham] and Alex [Smith] for giving me help on every chance they did by chipping Abraham. He’s a great player. He’s gotten a sack in each game I’ve gone against him and that really ticks me off. I probably had a good game, but I gave up a sack and that’s still in my head. I should have protected Brian Griese a little longer on that play so he could scramble and find somebody downfield.”
Penn has officially given up two sacks this season, but the first one, which happened against New Orleans, occurred when quarterback Jeff Garcia backed up into Saints defensive end Will Smith instead of stepping up in the pocket.
The third-year pro will be starting his 15th NFL game at Chicago, and I have a policy of considering players rookies in the NFL until they have achieved 16 starts – no matter how long they have been in the league. Penn will face a stiff test this Sunday in Chicago against the blitz-happy Bears.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Penn said. “They have a great blitz package – probably one of the most complex blitz packages that I’ve seen since I’ve been a Buc. We have our work cut out, but you have to understand, Jon Gruden has a complex pass protection scheme, too. We’ll have to be on our toes this week. They have a good front four and good linebackers. It’s going to be a battle, but we like those battles. We’re going to have to go out there and be physical and they like to run to piles. We’ll have to make sure we run to the piles and clean up the piles before they do. It’s going to be a good challenge.”
Through two games, the Bears have five sacks, including two from right defensive end Alex Brown, whom Penn will square off against on Sunday. To keep Brown and the other Bears defenders at bay, the Bucs will have to continue their success of running the ball. That means a healthy dose of running back Earnest Graham, who has 207 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries (8.3 avg.).
“He’s one of the premier backs in the league, yet he’s so underrated,” Penn said. “You don’t hear anything about the Tampa Bay running game, but that’s the way we like it. We’ll just keep it that way – keep it quiet – and keep getting better. The more blocking we are doing for him, the more our quarterback stays clean.”
FAB 4. One of the interesting byproducts of Jeff Garcia’s demotion from starter to third-string quarterback is the fact that former third-string quarterback Luke McCown is now Brian Griese’s backup. The Bucs don’t envision Garcia starting again this season and all current indications are that the team is ready to turn the page on the 38-year old quarterback and not re-sign him when he hits free agency in 2009.
But Garcia won’t be the only quarterback on the free agent market. McCown is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year. He has seen the quarterback carousel in Tampa Bay spin almost out of control during his four years with head coach Jon Gruden, going from Griese to Chris Simms to Bruce Gradkowski to Tim Rattay to Jeff Garcia to Gradkowski to McCown to Garcia and finally back to Griese.
Does he really want to be a part of that? That’s the question I posed to McCown.
“Certainly,” McCown said. “As far as being a part of the Buccaneers organization and wanting to continue to contribute to this team and help them win. Obviously, my goal is to be a starter and I’d like to have that opportunity at some point. But to be a part of this organization has been fantastic over these four years and I’d love to be able to be a part of it much longer.”
Even if it means foregoing free agency to re-sign with Tampa Bay before McCown hitting the open market?
“We’ll see. There is a lot that can happen between now and then,” McCown said. “There are a guaranteed 14 weeks between now and then. We’ll see how it all plays out. I love the organization and would love to remain a part of it. There’s a lot of time between now and then.”
It’s obvious that McCown is holding out hope that he’ll get an opportunity to start this season, or at least some assurance that there may be an open competition for the starting job next year. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound quarterback received playing time in 3.5 games last year, including starts at New Orleans, at Houston and against Carolina, and he was 1-2 in those games.
Statistically speaking, McCown has played good football, completing 94-of-139 passes (67.6 percent) in Tampa Bay for 1,009 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions while compiling a QB rating of 91.7. The athletic quarterback also rushed for 117 yards on 12 carries (9.8 avg.), but had two costly fumbles. While his numbers are solid, McCown owns a 1-6 record as a starter, which includes four games as a Cleveland Brown in 2004.
The significance of McCown being the number two quarterback right now instead of Garcia could pay some dividends when it comes time to re-sign him. In last week’s SR’s Fab 5, I reported how McCown didn’t have many allies at One Buccaneer Place who believed in him. But once a few members of the Bucs’ brass read that, they came out of the woodwork to refute the story and show their belief in him. It’s now safe to say that McCown has his supporters and his detractors at One Buccaneer Place and that his chances of re-signing with Tampa Bay appear to be greater than I reported last week.
When asked if McCown’s camp and the Buccaneers are having dialogue about a contract extension, he was rather coy with his answer.
“Possibly. I have my agent to focus on those things while I focus on football,” McCown said. “My agent handles all that and I really don’t get involved in it. When he hears something, he lets me know. When something comes up, we talk about it. That’s about all I can say about it right now.”
I know that McCown has his faults. He needs to do a better job of anticipating receivers coming open before they do. He needs to make quicker decisions and not take unnecessary sacks. He also must avoid the catastrophic fumble or interception that he has been prone to in his limited time under center in red and pewter.
But I also see a young quarterback with off-the-charts athletic ability, a strong arm and going on five years worth of experience in Gruden’s offense. The Saints gave up on Jake Delhomme too early when they had Aaron Brooks. At age 27, McCown is too young and too good to give up on. I could see him developing into a Delhomme-type player down the road for another team.
However, that call is ultimately up to Gruden. Despite the rocky relationships Gruden has had with Simms and Garcia, McCown is still a true believer.
“I think I have pretty much made that known. I love playing for him,” McCown said of Gruden. “I have the utmost respect for the man. I don’t think there is another coach in the league that will do for you as a football player what he’ll do as far as preparation goes. I don’t think there is. I would love to continue to play for him.”
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.
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• Are you as frustrated as I am with Dexter Jackson’s kick and punt returns? In the first two games of the season, Jackson has slid down to the ground on at least three occasions, which is quite a few considering he has fielded seven punts and six kickoffs. The results have been less than spectacular as Jackson is averaging a respectable 24.2 yards per kick return, but a rather disappointing 4.1 yards per punt return. “I’ve heard some things and people have been saying that I fall down and this and that, but mainly, I’m trying to protect myself for the most part. If I can get a couple of extra yards, that’s fine, but if there are four or five guys in front of me it’s a lot easier for me to just get down. The primary reason that sometimes I’m slipping is because I am protecting myself and getting what I can get before they come.” Uh, Dexter … that’s what shoulder pads and helmets are for. As someone who covers football for a living, I’d rather see players fight for an extra yard or two than curl up in the fetal position as soon as a would-be tackler approaches. With the exception of an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown at Houston in the preseason finale during which he was untouched, I have yet to be impressed with Jackson’s return ability. To me, the way he “attacks” the coverage unit has resembled Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony – both of whom seemed to be allergic to contact during their Buccaneers days. Jackson has a lot of bravado, but needs to back it up: “I feel like I have all the talent to be capable of doing what [Devin Hester] has done, but I won’t say that I’ll be another Devin Hester. I feel like I can be the best Dexter Jackson I can be.” Yeah, but the difference between Hester and Jackson is that Hester runs with a fearless attitude. The same can’t be said of Jackson – yet.
• So does the fact that rookie return man Dexter Jackson has already returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason take any pressure off him and give him the confidence to do it again? Not necessarily. “I feel like it kind of makes me more anxious because everybody knows what I can do now,” Jackson said. “A lot is expected out of me, especially with my special teams coaches and the fans. I just have to be more patient back there and believe in my unit, wait for the creases and hit them as hard as I can.”
• It will be interesting to see what transpires on offense for Tampa Bay this week at Chicago. The Bears will be blitzing quarterback Brian Griese like crazy and the Bucs will need to keep tight ends and running backs in to help block and pick up the blitzers. But Griese is most comfortable checking down to the tight ends and backs in an effort to move the chains, evidenced by the fact that 20 out of the team’s 42 receptions have gone to those two units. Do the Bucs run the risk of letting the blitzers come free and having Griese hit tight ends and backs who are running hot routes, or are the Bucs better served to be in a max protect situation and put the onus of getting open squarely on the wide receivers’ shoulders? It’s a safe bet that the tight ends will get a few passes thrown their way, and don’t be surprised if John Gilmore is leading the way. Gilmore, who was Griese’s teammate for two years in Chicago, had two catches for 41 yards last week, including a 5-yard touchdown and a 36-yard gain down the seam. “I think Brian is a big fan of the tight ends, period,” Gilmore said. “I think he likes that position. I think he likes big targets. Obviously, you’ll see us in the role of a check down option for him. He likes tight ends, especially guys that he has confidence in, and I do have a rapport with him. I’ve put in a lot of work in with Griese because back in Chicago, he and I were running the look team against our defense all the time. I feel pretty good about him and he feels pretty good about me.”
• One would think that former Bears quarterback Brian Griese and tight end John Gilmore would be interrogated by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and head coach Jon Gruden to divulge any secrets or tips that may help Tampa Bay this week as they travel to play at Chicago on Sunday, but that hasn’t been the case. “They haven’t come to me,” Gilmore said. “They do a pretty good job of game-planning on their own. You would be surprised that when you come into a new system how fast you de-program. Especially coming here – you have to de-program real fast and start learning a bunch of new stuff. Nobody has come to me asking for any tips or advice yet. I think they have that pretty much covered.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org