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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. The last time the Buccaneers played the Saints it was a crazy affair that saw Tampa Bay come out on top due in large part to a fumble recovery by under tackle Jovan Haye that occurred on a questionable reverse as New Orleans was trying to run out the clock to victory. Aside from Haye’s timely takeaway, another big reason why the Bucs not only claimed a 27-23 win – and essentially the NFC South title – in the Superdome was because of the play of Tampa Bay’s tight ends.
Yes, the biggest and most visible play was Jerramy Stevens’ 4-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 14 seconds remaining. But keep in mind that Anthony Becht also had a 1-yard touchdown and that Earnest Graham and the Bucs had 172 yards rushing with a lot of that real estate on the perimeter thanks to the blocking of Becht, Stevens and Alex Smith.
The tight ends ruled the day for the Buccaneers in New Orleans as Tampa Bay ran the majority of its plays out of two- and three-tight end sets. Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs come out with a similar game plan on Sunday as these two teams tussle to start the 2008 season.
And with Stevens on the sidelines for this game due to an NFL suspension, it might be unheralded tight end John Gilmore that emerges as a factor on Sunday. Gilmore had an impressive debut in red and pewter in the preseason opener at Miami with three catches for 25 yards, finishing the month of August with four receptions for 31 yards.
Gilmore, who was brought to Tampa Bay due to his blocking prowess, proved to be more athletic and fluid running routes than Anthony Becht, his predecessor.
“John has been everything we’ve hoped for,” Bucs tight ends coach Bob Casullo said. “He’s doing all the right things and he’s picked up the offense very quickly. This is a different system than what he was accustomed to in Chicago, but he’s a student of the game. He studies really hard and he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s a tough, strong kid. He’s much more athletic than you would think. Your initial reaction is that he’s a blocking tight end, but he is much more athletic than that.”
In six NFL seasons, Gilmore has caught only 21 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns with his best year coming during his rookie season in 2002 in which he hauled in 10 grabs for 130 yards. With more recognized weapons like Smith and Ben Troupe in the game, the Saints may just sleep on Gilmore, thinking he is a one-dimensional tight end.
“I’m sure that comes into play and I’m sure Coach (Jon) Gruden knows that,” Gilmore said. “He puts us all in position to make plays and do what we do best. I think there are some opportunities for me in this offense to do what I am capable of doing in the pass game. It will be interesting to see how many snags I can get. I’ve had a career-high of 10 catches in a season, so we’ll see if I can do better than that.
“My opportunities were limited in Chicago and it’s a better opportunity for me down here with as much as they use the tight end. Funny enough in this league, when you get a label, you’re not really allowed to do anything else. I noticed that as a rookie. [The Bears] looked at me as a pure blocking tight end and that’s it. I’ve never had a knock on my hands. Obviously, I block a little bit better than my route running, but that’s not to say that I’m not a receiving tight end.”
That could make Gilmore a bit of a secret weapon on Sunday against the Saints.
“He’s a much more complete player than people give him credit for,” Casullo said. “Therefore, that makes him a much more effective tight end. He’s not limited in what he can do. Jon doesn’t have to change the play calls because he’s in the game. He’s versatile enough to where he can move around on the line, off the line, down the line, in the backfield. He can move, motion and shift. He is a very versatile athlete. I don’t know if he’s a secret weapon, but maybe he’s a little underestimated. That will change by the end of the season.”
Like Becht, the reason why Gilmore came to Tampa Bay was to become a much more complete tight end and shed the stigma that he could only block. While Becht had a handful of touchdowns in his Buccaneers career, he had a hard time getting open and catching the ball with consistency. Don’t expect Gilmore to have the same fate.
“One thing I learned in this offense, and I learned it real fast, is that anybody can get the ball in this offense,” Gilmore said. “You better go out there with the idea that you are number one in the progression each time because the ball could be coming your way. The tight ends here have to have their head on a swivel and need to be ready to catch the ball at all times.”
Gruden’s sales pitch to Gilmore, who was one of Tampa Bay’s first free agent acquisitions during the offseason, was that the Bucs use a lot of tight ends in their offensive schemes. In fact, the tight ends caught more touchdowns than the Bucs wide receivers did last year – nine to eight – a fact that was lost on Gilmore.
“No, I didn’t know about that statistic,” Gilmore said. “It could happen again, though. At the tight end position, even though we are four guys out there performing, we perform as one. A touchdown for one of us is a touchdown for all of us. Hopefully we can utilize everybody’s talents this year. Going with U personnel and playing with all of those tight ends, that seems like a pretty popular set and there are plenty of opportunities for all of us.”
The advantage the Bucs have this year is that if they come out with two tight ends against the Saints (or any other foe), opponents cannot just key on Smith and forget about the other tight end like they did last year with Becht. Tampa Bay has an entire unit of tight ends that can literally do it all, although Gilmore has already established himself as the best perimeter blocker.
“I don’t think Jerramy Stevens ever started a game last year, but in his time in Seattle, I don’t think he ever missed a start,” Casullo said. “Yet the productivity has always been there. It’s the quality of snaps that count – not the quantity. Somebody might be playing 40 snaps, but the other guy might only play 10 snaps and he might have five catches or three key blocks for us, or the game-winner for us in New Orleans. That’s what makes it fun for us.
“I can’t speak for other programs, but for me, it’s a pleasure to work for Coach Gruden because every day is a challenge. He’s always throwing these things at you – three tight ends, two tight ends or one tight end. You’re mixing it all up. Jon lets us sort it out. In other words, he leaves it up to me and the players to sort it out. Which player is playing where? That goes back to the versatility we’re talking about. We don’t have to have John Gilmore as the blocking tight end or Jerramy Stevens as the receiver. Any combination of guys can do the job. I let them sort it out and line up. We have fun with it.”
If the Buccaneers go with U personnel (two tight ends) and Tre personnel (three tight ends) on Sunday in New Orleans, the Bucs could have a lot of fun once again and start the season 1-0.
FAB 2. When Tampa Bay takes the field against New Orleans to kick off the 2008 season on Sunday, it could very well have one of the most talented pair of gunners on punt coverage since the dynamic duo of Dwight Smith and Cory Ivy in 2002. Ivy and Smith led the Super Bowl XXXVII team with 23 tackles and 20 stops, respectively, but they may not have anything on the tandem Tampa Bay will throw out this year.
The Bucs are expected to trot out the most physically imposing set of gunners (Tampa Bay calls them flyers) in the NFL with 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver Maurice Stovall and 6-foot-3, 224-pound safety Sabby Piscitelli.
“Well we hope so,” said Bucs coach Jon Gruden “I think we have other candidates to play those positions, depending on what Mo does at wide receiver and what Sabby does at safety and how it all unfolds. Sabby’s got a punt body though; he can play in the protection unit he has the size to block and the tenacity to cover. We do have two big guys if that is where they end up. We also think they have the versatility to play elsewhere too.”
Cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon, Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack are also candidates to play the flyer positions, depending upon the match-ups that special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia wants to see. But with their combination of size and speed, Piscitelli and Stovall create obvious mismatches.
“Yeah, they come in all sizes – those flyers,” Bisaccia said. “They played together a little bit early last year and we got some good play out of both of them. Mo actually got better as the year went on. We’re looking forward to them having a good year for us.”
Stovall had 18 tackles, which ranked second on the Bucs, before winding up on injured reserve with a broken arm in the second to last game of the 2007 season. Piscitelli got two tackles in the first two games before being placed on injured reserve due to a broken foot after Week 3. Stovall and Piscitelli can’t wait to team up for an entire season to see how much damage they could do against opponents.
“Sabby is a great athlete,” Stovall said. “He’s a very physical safety. He’s physical and fast and I think that’s why Coach Bisaccia and (assistant special teams coach) Dwayne Stukes are putting him at flyer on special teams. He’s great with his hands getting off releases and I think he’ll play a big part on special teams, along with myself, at the flyer position this year.
“Every time we watch film, we’re seeing who gets to the punt returner the fastest. Sometimes when we’re punting into the red zone, I have to be behind the returner and he has to be in front of the returner, or vice versa. We do that to stay competitive and to make our team better.”
Stovall became such a dominant special teams player at the end of the season that it took two and sometimes three players to block him due to his imposing size and physical style of play. Piscitelli possesses the same physical traits and intensity that Stovall brings to the table on fourth down.
“I think we’re the biggest tandem in the league,” Piscitelli said. “Mo did an incredible job for us last year at that position, so I’m going to hopefully come out on the other side and complement him, make some plays and take some of the pressure off him. Having two big guys going down there for our punt team will be huge.
“I’m a big guy, but I can run, too. I try to use my speed and my strength to my advantage. Most of the guys that are covering me aren’t as big as me. It’s a real man game out there. It’s two guys – mano a mano – competing. Who is the bigger man? Who is the better the man? I think it’s fun to race down there.”
Regardless of who ends up getting down the field first – Stovall or Piscitelli – it won’t be fun for the punt returner.
FAB 3. Sticking with special teams, the Buccaneers named reserve safety Will Allen the team’s special teams captain this year. For years, the Bucs have had unofficial special teams captains, but for the first time in franchise history, they will officially recognize a special teams player with a “C” on the jersey.
Allen recorded 15 special teams tackles last year and had two fumble recoveries. In his four-year career, Allen has 41 special teams tackles, including 31 solo stops.
“It’s an honor, man,” Allen said. “I’ve been playing special teams since I got here and I’ve been contributing since I got here. It makes you more motivated. I just thank God that I’ve had another year to play with the Bucs.”
With the play of starters Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson, in addition to second-year phenom Sabby Piscitelli, it’s no surprise that Allen is a backup and the fourth safety on the roster. That’s not to say that Allen can’t play on defense. He was tied for the lead in tackles during the preseason with 13 and started all 16 games at free safety in 2006.
But Allen knows that his primary contributions this season will be covering kicks and punts and he will be in charge of those units.
“There’s not a lot on my shoulders, I just have a little bit more responsibility,” Allen said. “I’ve tried to be a natural leader on the field. Now I have a more specific role and a different title out on the field. I’m just going to try to keep doing what I’ve been doing and step it up a little bit and increase everybody’s level of play around me.”
The reason why Allen’s role as a captain becomes so important this year is because Ryan Nece and his 73 career special teams tackles are no longer in Tampa Bay. That’s why special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia turned to Allen to fill the void.
“Rich doesn’t have to say much,” Allen said. “His presence and what he brings as a coach are enough. You want to go out there and play for that guy. He doesn’t have to say much about the ‘C’ on my chest. I know what that’s about and what that means.”
Like Nece, Allen is a player who is long on intelligence, but short on athleticism. But he seems to be following Nece’s footsteps, and Allen knows that a player can build a career with stellar special teams play.
FAB 4. The fact that Michael Bennett will likely be inactive for the season opener at New Orleans speaks volumes about Bucs coach Jon Gruden’s confidence in starting running back Earnest Graham – and Warrick Dunn. Bennett led the team in rushing during the preseason with 203 yards and one touchdown on 45 carries (4.5 avg.), while Dunn had 24 yards on eight carries (3.0 avg.) and Graham had 20 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries (2.0 avg.)
Dunn, who has rushed for 10,181 yards and 47 touchdowns while averaging 4.1 yards per carry over his 11 years in the NFL, turned 33 this year and has seen his days as a starting running back that has shouldered the load come to an end. Dunn may get an occasional start and may wind up with 20 carries in a game or two this year, but chances are he will be a complementary back to Graham this season.
“The nature or spirit of any guy is to be the guy to help your team,” Dunn said. “For me, I’ve proven a lot over the years. If the opportunity presents itself where I can be the guy consistently, then I’ll rise up to the challenge. But I think we’re going to try to utilize every guy’s skills and athletic ability. The pressure is really on the coaches to put us in position to be successful.”
During the offseason, Dunn told me he could still run fast, just not run fast all day like he used to a decade ago. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden will use Dunn strategically this season as a runner, a receiver and as a pass protecting, blitz picker-upper. Dunn will have to get used to not being on the field on virtually every snap like his good friend and teammate Derrick Brooks had to adjust to last year when he was replaced on some third downs in the nickel defense by linebacker Cato June.
“Sometimes as players we are so accustomed to doing things for so long that when someone comes in and kind of changes it, we get kind of flustered,” Dunn said. “Sometimes you have to take it with a grain of salt and trust the guys who are running the show. Hopefully that puts you in place to be successful – not the first part of the year, but the second part of the year, which is more important.”
While Brooks didn’t like watching third downs from the sidelines last year, he admitted that it did keep him fresher in the fourth quarter of games and later in the year, too. That’s what the Bucs are thinking when it comes to planning Dunn’s touches this year, and the former Florida State star is okay with that.
As for Bennett, who was showcased in the preseason and proved he could carry the load if needed, don’t be surprised if he is traded at the trading deadline in mid-October. If both Dunn and Graham are healthy, and the team believes Cadillac Williams is ready to come off the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after the sixth week of the season, Bennett could become expendable.
I’m not saying that is the right move. I believe Bennett is the only running back on Tampa Bay’s roster that can break off a run longer than 30 yards – let alone take a run the distance. I think he should play at New Orleans rather than sit due to his hot hand in August. But his tenure in Tampa Bay may be short-lived if Dunn and Graham take care of business over the first six weeks of the season and remain healthy. The Bucs will need a roster spot to activate Williams, and Bennett’s sterling preseason will be studied by running back-needy teams around the NFL.
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: SPORTS CITY’S BARRETT RUUD AUTOGRAPH SIGNING 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 once again the Sports City Channelside location, which is hosting Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud for a charity autograph signing on Saturday, September 13 from 12:30-2:00 p.m. Want to meet the Bucs’ leading tackler from 2007? Autographs cost just $15. This is a Pewter Report-sponsored event and the Pewter Report editorial staff will be on hand to meet subscribers and Bucs fans, too. For more information or to order a Bucs item from Sports City to have Barrett sign and get shipped to you, call (813) 225-3475. While you are at Sports City, gear up for the home opener with some of the new Buccaneers merchandise.
• Look for the Buccaneers to use defensive end Greg White on the left side during run downs and then put the team’s leading sacker from 2007 (eight sacks) back at his familiar right side on third-and-longs or obvious passing downs. After trying White at left end during the preseason, the Bucs wisely pulled the plug on this disastrous experiment. No one is happier than White, who felt uncomfortable rushing from the left side while Gaines Adams was moved to right end. “It’s just like old times,” White said of pass rushing from the right side of the defense. “The proof is in the pudding. They know what I’m capable of doing on the right side and they know what I’m not capable of doing on the left side. As of right now as far as pass rushing goes, I’m on the right side. I think it will help the team and me – in that order. It makes sense, but I don’t make decisions. My personal goal – which comes after our team goals – is to get double-digit sacks.”
• After missing most of training camp and all of the preseason with a groin injury, Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye can’t wait to suit up against the Saints. “My groin injury was very frustrating,” Haye said. “I hate missing practice. I’ve never missed practice before. Ryan Sims played real well in there, but I took it real hard. I told myself that when I get back there would be no lagging behind. I’m going to tear it up. I’ve got a lot of pent up energy.” That’s not good news for New Orleans. Haye has played exceptionally well against them.
• Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims is coming off a sensational preseason and has earned some playing time behind Haye and nose tackle Chris Hovan. Like Haye, Sims is in a contract year and is looking to cash in. The Bucs, who traded for Sims last year, definitely see the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder in their future plans and have already had preliminary discussions with Sims’ representatives, but it appears as if no deal will be reached until January or February. “They have called my agent, but at the same time, I’ve told my agent that this is not the time to be talking about that,” Sims said. “I’ll save that for the offseason. When I do what I do on the field that will handle all of that. That’s the way I’m looking at it right now.” Meanwhile, Sims is focused on helping Tampa Bay get off to a hot start. Not only is Tampa Bay starting off the 2008 campaign with a road contest and a home game, but both New Orleans and Atlanta are NFC South division opponents. “We won the championship last year, so we have a championship schedule. We need to go out there to prove it or we’ll disprove it. In Kansas City, we would always start out with Denver, so I know about starting against a rival. We’ll know where we stand after the first two weeks. It kind of sets us up. If we go out there and do what we can do and win these two games, we’ll be sitting pretty. It will really set us up for the rest of the season.”
• The main reason why the Buccaneers traded for former Tampa Bay offensive lineman Sean Mahan instead of keeping Dan Buenning, who was traded to Chicago, is because of new center Jeff Faine. Faine, who roomed with Mahan at Notre Dame, is a technician that relies on quickness the way former Bucs center Jeff Christy did. Buenning is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds and is built like former center John Wade, who was not as mobile. Bucs coach Jon Gruden has already designed his offense around Faine’s game, which allows him to run traps and screens. If Faine were to miss time with injuries, Mahan, who has more NFL experience at center, could still run the offense. Playing Buenning would force Gruden to have to eliminate several plays from his game plan because his playing style is too much like Wade’s.
• And finally, the fact that Chris Simms remains unsigned two weeks after he was released by the Buccaneers is proof that no NFL teams were beating down the door trying to trade for the fair-haired lefty. Pewter Report’s team sources insist they fielded no solid trade offers during the draft or during the preseason for Simms, despite reports in both the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times that suggested otherwise. This appears to be the latest erroneous report from the Tampa Bay area papers that have reported that: Monte Kiffin was low-balled (he wasn’t) on the day that he signed a contract extension with the Bucs; Tampa Bay had an interest in trading for defensive end Jason Taylor (it didn’t); quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was running neck-and-neck with Luke McCown for a roster spot (he wasn’t and Gradkowski was cut the day the story came out); free agent running back Kevin Jones was scheduled to visit the Bucs for a workout (he wasn’t); and of course, Brett Favre was a lock to be traded to Tampa Bay (didn’t happen and wasn’t as close as it was reported, either). Is it any wonder that subscription and advertising revenues are in the downward spiral at the newspapers, that they have had to slash their payrolls and reduce their staff to mitigate losses? Newspapers are a dying a fast death, folks, and the erroneous reports don’t help their credibility and only speed up their demise.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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