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Here are a few things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. What will it take for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to beat the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card playoff game on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium? Well, aside from improved red zone play by Tampa Bay’s offense and defense – as I’ve mentioned this past week on TV, on radio and on PewterReport.com – it is going to take stellar play from the Buccaneers defensive line.
Yes, Tampa Bay’s offensive line has to step up and protect quarterback Jeff Garcia from the Giants’ fearsome pass rush, but I believe the Bucs defensive line has to play just as well – if not better – than the Giants defensive line to win the game.
The key to the defensive line’s performance won’t just be to pressure Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Its first priority has to be stuffing the gaps and stopping big running back Brandon Jacobs at the line of scrimmage before he gets going.
“We don’t necessarily have to make the tackle, we just have to force him to go east and west instead of north and south,” Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye said. “Then he’s not building up the head of steam. We don’t have to make the tackle. It would be good if we make the tackle, but we just can’t have him running downhill on top of our linebackers.”
Allowing the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Jacobs to get to the second and third level where he easily out-sizes Tampa Bay’s smaller group of linebackers and defensive backs is a recipe for disaster for the Buccaneers.
“We see guys just bouncing off him and getting four or five yards just because of how big he is,” Haye said. “We need to get him down early. You definitely have to gang tackle and hustle to the ball like we’ve been doing and I think we’ll be all right.
“But they are very physical. They like to punish guys. They are a north-south team. They like to get Brandon Jacobs going. He’s a great player. Then they get Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress going and try to stretch the field. But it all starts up front with the running game.”
In 2007, Jacobs rushed for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns while averaging an amazing 5.0 yards per carry in his first year as a starter, replacing Tiki Barber, who retired during the offseason.
“We’re going to have to go out there and stop a physical football team – I can’t emphasize that enough,” Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan. “If you saw the Buffalo game or the New England game, myself and the defensive line are going to have to play a light’s out game this week. We’re going to have to stop his momentum because he is going to run downhill. That is the onus of their offense. They love to run the ball downhill. They have to run the ball to set up play action and get it to their big-play guy, Plaxico Burress.
“I’ve never seen a running back who is 6-foot-4, 265 pounds who can run the ball like Brandon Jacobs. He’s a special guy. He can go power and he can also go outside. He and Ahmad Bradshaw – that guy is fast. He’s a good change-up back. Brandon will run downhill and then they put Bradshaw in and all of a sudden, he’s gone. If you watch the Buffalo game, they’re a nice one-two punch.”
As someone who grew up in Kansas in the 1990s, I remember watching Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, who was 6-foot-2, 260 pounds. Jacobs reminds me of Okoye, who was nicknamed the “Nigerian Nightmare.” The way to stop Okoye was to make him go east-west, and that’s the way to stop Jacobs. It’s up to the Bucs defensive line to make that happen.
“They are bringing their powerhouse team to our house and we’ve got a powerhouse team, too,” Haye said.
The Buccaneers’ young defensive line has shown much improvement over a year ago. Not only does Tampa Bay have the second-ranked defense in the NFL, it has improved its sack total from a year ago. Last year, the Bucs recorded 24 sacks with 19 of them coming from the defensive line. In 2007, Tampa Bay has produced 33 sacks with 31 of them coming from the D-line.
With all of the talk about New York’s vaunted defensive line – featuring double-digit sackers in defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, as well as future Hall of Famer Michael Stahan, who has nine sacks on the year – expect Tampa Bay’s young, unheralded defensive line to want to come out and make a statement.
“We can’t take anything away from them,” Haye said. “They’ve earned it with 54 sacks. They’ve put up the numbers. They’ve been in the national media and we haven’t had one national game, so this weekend gives us a chance to showcase what we have and I think we have a lot. We’re starting to jell and I think we’re starting to make some noise. We’ll see this Sunday.
“We don’t want to show everybody a bad product. We want to show that we can play well in this league. Our rankings speak for themselves. Now we get the chance to show everybody what it took to get those rankings. We’ve been doing it all year, so why not continue doing it?”
Yes, Tampa Bay’s offensive line will have its hands full and will give up some plays to New York’s defensive line, but it’s up to the Bucs’ front four to match them play for play. If Larry Coyer’s unit can step up big and perform well, the Bucs could come out on top. Stopping Jacobs puts the game in Manning’s hands and that’s where Tampa Bay’s improved pass rush comes in to play.
FAB 2. On offense, Tampa Bay must receive solid, mistake-free play from quarterback Jeff Garcia and the offensive line, but I believe the Giants defensive line will make some plays. They’re just too good. But the offensive unit that must do its job to limit New York’s defensive line will be the tight ends. The tight ends will be the biggest key to Tampa Bay winning the Wild Card game on offense.
Why? In the passing game, Garcia will be harassed by New York’s blitzes and the tight ends will become outlet and check down receivers as Tampa Bay’s quarterback will look to get the ball out of hands quickly. The tight ends will also be counted on to pick up some of those blitzing linebackers, such as Reggie Torbor, a former defensive end from Auburn.
But there will also be those situations when Tampa Bay will go into some max protect situations with U personnel (two tight end sets) and Dawg personnel (three tight end sets) to help contain Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.
“I know Mike pretty well,” Bucs tight end Anthony Becht said of Strahan. “We hung out together for a while in New York when I was with the Jets and we text each other quite a bit. You’re going to have ask Mike what he thinks about me. I definitely respect him and I think he definitely respects me. I think he would rather pass rush and go against the tackles than get doubled. It’s always a good match-up. These are the match-ups you want. You want to go up against the feature guys in the NFL. Osi and Michael are a tough duo. Osi is a smaller guy with a lot of speed and a lot of quickness, but you can’t sleep on his power. He’s got a good bull rush, too. Mike brings everything to the table. You have to be ready for everything with him. I’ll study the tape, but it’s really who wants it more? In playoff games, everybody is kind of laying it on the line out there. Every play, every block, every ball you catch, everything is magnified. I love it.
“I respect my opponent. When the opportunity is there you really have to win. I really don’t expect any less. If I get 10 plays, I have to win every single one. That’s just the way I go. I would be disappointed if the rest of the tight ends in the room feel the same. Jerramy Stevens has a lot of experience in the playoffs and going to the Super Bowl. I’ve been in the playoffs and Alex was there two years ago. We all know what the prize is and we all know what we have to do. It’s been great that Jerramy has been getting a lot of work these last couple of weeks because he is primed and ready to go. It’s going to be hard-nosed. I’m putting aside who I am playing against. It’s going to come down to who wants it more? I tend to scratch numbers off people’s chests and scratch their names off their backs and just block them. It’s got to be like that across the board from us and it’s got to be 11 guys winning. If we do that in this offense, we will be successful. There’s no question about that. When everyone is on the same page this is a very good offense. The question is, are we all going to be there? I tend to think we will. It’s going to be a different atmosphere.”
Stevens, who has played in a handful of playoff games with Seattle, including a forgettable performance in which he dropped several passes in Super Bowl XL, will rely on his postseason experience this Sunday as he prepares to do battle with Strahan and Umenyiora.
“The thing to do is give them their respect because they are great players, but don’t go into the game fearing them,” Stevens said. “The mistake that I’ve made in pass protection against guys like Strahan and Umenyiora in the past is waiting on them to make their move. You’ve got to get on them quickly and fight them for the whole down. That’s pretty much all you can do. Get on them, fight them and stay on them the whole down. They are going to make some plays, but you just have to keep fighting.”
Strahan and Umeniyora aren’t overly big defensive ends, weighing 255 and 261 pounds, respectively. But according to Stevens, both players possess a power game to complement their speed and quickness.
“When I see tackles getting beat by them it’s because they are waiting,” Stevens said.
”They are scared of their speed and then they get overpowered because they are waiting on a speed move. They just do a good job of mixing it up. Strahan is not a heavy as he used to be, but he’s still overpowering guys and he has all of that veteran knowledge. We’re going to be looking for help from the tight ends and the backs. It’s going to be an all-day fight against those ends.”
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden would love nothing more than to go with three wide receivers against New York, but he knows that those opportunities will be limited due to the Giants’ pressure-packed defensive fronts. That means the Bucs could be using a lot of multiple tight ends like they did in New Orleans.
Should Tampa Bay have the lead late in the game, the tight ends will then be counted on to power the Bucs’ running game and seal the victory.
“You can study an opponent all you want. You can find out what they do, what they lack,” Becht said. “But what it comes down to on game day is who wants to step up and beat their guy? It’s a one-on-one contest. We can’t have a few guys doing it and a few guys not doing it. It’s going to be a mindset. It’s going to start on the first play and it has to continue with each and every play. My attitude going into the playoffs is that each play is my last play. If I can push that on to our young linemen and some of our young players than I’ll say it. You have to sell out on every play because it is a very detailed time of year. Every inch counts. You never know … that little extra push, that little extra block – that might be what it takes for the tight ends to win the day.”
FAB 3. I’ve have some X’s and O’s for you after the Bucs’ playoff run ends. I’ve gone back and reviewed the game film from the San Francisco and Carolina games, focusing on the team’s new and younger players, such as defensive tackle Ryan Sims, linebackers Adam Hayward and Quincy Black and cornerback Sammy Davis among others.
But for now, the X’s and O’s segment of this column will focus on the overall play of quarterback Luke McCown, who started three games down the stretch for Tampa Bay (at New Orleans, at Houston and home versus Carolina) in addition to playing the second half of the San Francisco game. I wanted to get the perspective of Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett on how McCown has performed in his first regular season action as a Buccaneer and I asked him what his initial impressions were of seeing the young QB out there in pewter and red.
“I think he’s a premier athlete at the position,” Hackett said. “That’s the thing that jumps out at you in college and also here in pro football. Even the four games he played for Cleveland, he just moved very, very well. Then on top of that is that he threw the ball well on the move. I think anytime you have that athleticism, it merits taking a close look. When you throw as many passes as he did in college, he obviously was a very good passer. You feel like there is an awful lot of potential there. What Cleveland didn’t like, we liked, in a sense. I felt that getting him in this system with his movement skills would give him a leg up. It does add a dimension because he has speed. Not only is he a good athlete, he’s fast. I think that’s the thing that surprises defenses once he gets out, he’s able to accelerate faster than you think. That’s what caught our eye in that there are some unique skills, and certainly they have to be refined and developed over time. But he’s in his fourth year. Jeff Garcia could not even get a tryout in the NFL in his fourth or fifth year. No one would even give him a try out. I think Luke has some real skills that we can develop and work with.”
I asked Hackett, a man who has helped develop several successful quarterbacks from Joe Montana to Chad Pennington, if McCown reminded him of another player.
“Not really because he is so tall,” Hackett said. “That’s the big thing with him, I think. There are guys that have those kind of movement skills, but they are not 6-foot-3. They are mostly 6-foot, or 6-foot-1. Steve Young is 6-foot tall. Jeff Garcia is obviously not 6-foot-3. That’s where it’s a little different. There aren’t many tall, skinny guys that can move and play that way. He’s sort of his own man in a way.”
Hackett and I talked about how he can make big plays with his legs – McCown has the Bucs’ longest run of the year (31 yards) and has five carries over 20 yards – but how his scrambling can get him into trouble, too. He wasn’t fast enough to elude Saints defensive end Will Smith, who sacked him for a safety in New Orleans, nor was he quick enough to evade San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, who sacked him and forced a fumble outside the pocket.
“This is the downside of that athleticism,” Hackett said. “You feel like you can run and do it all and get away all the time. What you learn as you get older and wiser is that there is a fine line between doing too much and doing the maximum that you can do. I think he’s learning that. The safety was a bonehead decision by him. I think the fumble against the 49ers was inexcusable. Yet he was out doing his thing – the thing that he has done very well in terms of throwing on the run and picking up yards on the ground. It’s just like anything when you are in your fourth or fifth game, you have a lot of growing and a lot of maturing to do.”
I noted how out of the five games that McCown has played in – at Seattle, at New Orleans, at Houston, at San Francisco and versus Carolina – only one of those contests came at the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium.
“No doubt,” Hackett said. “I think the performance at New Orleans to put us in position to win at the end of the game, and the performance at San Francisco put us in position at the end to win the game. Now that one we didn’t, but the New Orleans game we did. That says a lot. It’s that foreign crowd and that noise and all of those things that go on to distract you that you have to be centered to go on the road and win as a young player.”
One of McCown’s blunders this year was actually losing his voice after the Houston game. Thankfully, starting quarterback Jeff Garcia was ready to return from a back injury otherwise the Bucs would have had to start Bruce Gradkowski against Atlanta because McCown couldn’t verbalize the play in the huddle or make an audible at the line of scrimmage. With Garcia taking all the reps in practice prior to the New Orleans game, the mild-mannered McCown hadn’t been doing a lot of yelling out on the field. Then he practiced for two weeks with the loudspeakers blaring artificial crowd noise and then played in two domed stadiums and quickly became hoarse.
“With people who use their voice like singers do, you don’t think of a quarterback using his voice for a living, but they do,” Hackett said. “This was the first time for him that the demand was put on him to be loud and deal with the crowd noise – not only in the game, but also in practice. I think you’re right. It’s like everything else that exists with young quarterbacks. They have to work their way through everything. The one thing you can’t forget about Luke was that he blew out his knee and missed a whole year of football. What he has done already has been quite satisfying.”
McCown finished the year completing 94-of-139 passes for 1,009 yards (a team-leading 67.6 completion percentage) with five touchdowns and three interceptions. His 91.7 QB rating was right up there with Garcia’s 94.6 QB rating and he even out-rushed Garcia by a yard 117-116. Those 117 yards came on just 12 carries as McCown averaged a gaudy 9.8 yards per carry. But McCown was also sacked 15 times in limited duty, compared to Garcia, who played most of the season was only sacked on 19 occasions.
Four of those sacks came on Sunday against Carolina in a game in which McCown had a chance to throw a career-high three touchdown passes if not for a costly interception at the Carolina 7-yard line in the fourth quarter. He finished the game completing 21-of-28 passes for 236 yards with two touchdowns, one pick and a QB rating of 108.6.
“Well, he didn’t do well enough for us to win,” Hackett said. “If you turn the ball over, you can’t expect to win. The most important job of the quarterback is to win the game. It was disappointing, but I think there has been a lot of progress made in the games he has played in. Obviously, he has a lot of skills we can build on, but he should have thrown the ball in the back of the end zone where the only one who could have caught the ball was Kenneth Darby. Instead, he was thinking that Darby might come back and get it. He was throwing the ball at Darby instead of leading him to the back of the end zone. You have to have better judgment than that. You have to throw the ball in the back of the end zone. He just lobbed it and the other guy caught it. Not good. Too bad, because he did some good things.”
Hackett marveled over the fact that McCown had an 11-yard run and a 31-yard jaunt to lead the Bucs in rushing with 47 yards on five carries last Sunday, but was also discouraged by the four sacks he took.
“He’s going to make those plays in the course of the game,” Hackett said of McCown’s 31-yard scramble. “The thing he has to do is do a better job of throwing the ball away and not taking sacks. It’s a tradeoff. You have so much confidence in yourself that you are going to escape and run for yardage, but sometimes you don’t have as good a judgment as you would like to have in terms of getting it out of your hands and getting rid of it. We can’t have the sacks he took, but it was a nice run and he has the ability to make things happen.”
I think McCown is the guy that can be developed into a good starting quarterback down the road – more so than Chris Simms or Bruce Gradkowski. Remember, McCown has started seven NFL games whereas Simms has 20 starts and Gradkowski has 11. His mobility makes him a much better fit for Jon Gruden’s system than Simms does, and his accuracy and arm strength give him the edge over Gradkowski.
There’s no way to accurately know how many games the Bucs would have won if McCown had stepped in for Simms last year instead of Gradkowski, who was a rookie. Had McCown not torn his ACL during the June OTAs, he may have had the type of success he had this year during the 2006 season.
The mobility, the arm strength, the accuracy and the poise. Those are the traits that Hackett spotted in McCown at Louisiana Tech and those are the traits that made him stand up on the table in the Bucs’ war room on draft day and convince Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen to pull the trigger on a trade that would send a 2005 sixth-round draft pick to Cleveland in exchange for McCown, who was a fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft.
“I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we were looking for some more young guys to develop and bring here,” Hackett said. “Jon is a big believer that you have four or five quarterbacks that you are working with all the time and developing. Once I laid out the fact that I thought he had the skills, now I didn’t know how he would accept our offense and his work ethic and all those things. It was just his athleticism, but my thinking has always been, if you have the athleticism, I have enough confidence in myself and in Coach Gruden’s system that a young guy is going to thrive with it. What it came down to was that there was a need, and here was a candidate. I knew a lot about him because I had worked very hard to try to get him with the Jets. They chose not to do that. But we got him as a Buccaneer.”
FAB 4. There will be those pundits and observers who will be highly critical of Bucs head coach Jon Gruden if the Buccaneers lose this Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game to the New York Giants. The reason? If the veterans he rested over the last two weeks come out rusty and inconsistent, it will look like a terrible move to have sat them down over the last game and a half.
Gruden rolled the dice and opted for healthy starters over momentum, which is something the Bucs don’t have much of after dropping three of their last four games, including two in a row. But because the Bucs – like all teams – dress only 47 players on Sundays, some of the starters have to play. That was true of the offensive line, and rookie guard Arron Sears had his ankle rolled up on Tampa Bay’s first possession. Linebacker Cato June also suffered a serious foot injury in the first quarter.
But shouldn’t he have played all of his starters for a couple of series, you might ask? Well tell that to Jeff Garcia, who got hurt on the first play from scrimmage against Washington back in November.
As painful as it was to watch the Bucs lose two games they probably would have won if this team was at full strength, Gruden made the right call. Tampa Bay doesn’t beat New York without players like Garcia and Joey Galloway. If the Bucs lose to the Giants, he will catch some heat because this was his plan and he has to be accountable for it. But at the same time, it will be on the veteran players who didn’t go out and execute like professionals should.
Gruden is trusting his veteran players. He’s trusting that they will prepare hard all week and not come out rusty against the Giants. In my opinion, a loss to the Giants would be more on them, and not as much on Gruden. Now if the play-calling stinks from a play choice perspective instead of an execution perspective, Gruden should – and will – catch some grief.
“I wish we could have won these last two games, but we know what Coach Gruden was trying to do,” Bucs running back Michael Pittman said. “He didn’t want to get anybody hurt in these games that are – I don’t want to say meaningless, but we are already in the playoffs. We won the NFC South. We need all of our starters healthy and ready to go. We need all of our great players to try to beat the New York Giants.
“Last week against San Francisco and this week I believe if our starters were in the entire game we would have won both games.”
So aside from believing that Tampa Bay’s defensive line and tight ends have to come through with a big game on Sunday, here’s how I see the game:
• At the start of the week, I thought the Giants were going to win because of Tampa Bay’s struggles in the red zone offensively and defensively. That’s my biggest concern.
• Tampa Bay’s pass rush has been a little spotty down the stretch and recorded only one sack against Carolina and four sacks in the last three games. That’s a concern against a physical Giants offensive line.
• The Bucs’ running game – or lack thereof – concerns me. Tampa Bay has rushed for 100 yards only once in the last four games (not including Sunday against Carolina in which Luke McCown’s 47 yards accounted for much of Tampa Bay’s 107 yards on the ground). “The last couple of weeks we didn’t run the ball well against San Francisco and we didn’t run the ball well against Carolina,” said Bucs running back Michael Pittman. “We played two teams with big fronts. If there is any concern I have is our running game right now.”
• I’m also concerned about the size mismatches that Giants running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Plaxico Burress present Tampa Bay’s defense.
• I think the production of Tampa Bay’s tight ends against New York’s linebackers in the passing game could be a big plus. Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens should have big games.
• I also like how Jeff Garcia will be able to hit Joey Galloway with some big pass plays when New York blitzes. Galloway eats up man coverage (see games against New Orleans and Atlanta).
• It’s favorable that a few Giants got nicked up on Sunday, most notably center Shaun O’Hara and cornerback Sam Madison.
• If Eli Manning can get rattled early, he’ll have a hard time overcoming that late in the game. That’s a plus for Tampa Bay.
• I like the fact that the kickoff temperature could be as high as 77 degrees. That could wear down the wintry Giants, who are used to living in and playing in frigid temperatures over the past two months.
• I also like the energy from Raymond James Stadium. Too many Bucs fans sit on their hands, don’t make enough noise and leave games early too often for my liking (that’s another column for another day), but the crowd has really gotten into the last two game home games against Atlanta and Carolina. It was loud, boisterous and “The Wave” was going in the second half of both of those games. I expect Ray-Jay to be on fire come Sunday.
So who wins this game? I’ve heard the Bucs have been focused, pumped up and very sharp in practice this week. Playing at home should give them the edge.
I don’t like the fact that half the offense (Jeremy Trueblood, Davin Joseph, Arron Sears, Donald Penn and Earnest Graham) have never started a playoff game before. The same goes for half or the Bucs defense (Barrett Ruud, Greg White, Gaines Adams, Tanard Jackson and Jovan Haye). Garcia’s experience can overcome this a bit – but only if this young offensive line can give him time to think, throw and escape.
So who wins this game? Tampa Bay should win. I picked the Giants, but now I’m undecided after spending a week around this confident Buccaneers team. I’ll have to think about it some more. Be sure to check the Staff Picks on PewterReport.com on Saturday as I’ll go public with my final selection.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR's Fab 5 arrives:
• As good as Tampa Bay’s defense was in 2007, there were two notable and somewhat negative statistics this season. First, linebacker Derrick Brooks did not record an interception. That’s the first time since 1996 that Brooks, who has 24 career INTs during the regular season, did not record a pick. The second anomaly for Monte Kiffin’s crew is that his linebackers did not record a sack for the first time since 1996. And this coming off an offseason in which Kiffin tinkered with using the 3-4 defense in an effort to get more linebackers on the field and after the quarterback.
• Barrett Ruud had a very good year in his first season as Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker. But if Ruud wants to go to the Pro Bowl, he’ll have to not only have a great season, he’ll have to have a monster season. The reason? The competition at middle linebacker is as fierce as ever in the NFC. Lofa Tatutu, a three-year NFL veteran who was drafted after Ruud in the second round by Seattle in 2005, will be making his third trip to Hawaii after the 2007 season. He’s already a household name. Brian Urlacher, a five-time Pro Bowler has an even bigger name than Tatupu due to his commercials and Super Bowl appearance last year. But Urlacher was unseated as a Pro Bowler this year by likely NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Patrick Willis, the first-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers. That’s three fantastic NFC middle linebackers not named Ruud that will be vying for two Pro Bowl spots every year for the foreseeable future. Ruud will need to make a name for himself in the playoffs this year and in the Bucs’ nationally televised games next year to have a chance to take over Tatupu’s or Willis’ Pro Bowl spots.
• I don’t think Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman returns to the team next year. Pittman will be an unrestricted free agent in 2008. No real inside info on this one, just a gut feeling. The Bucs probably recognize that Pittman, who will be 33 next August, is the third-oldest running back in the league, and Pittman probably recognizes that head coach and offensive play-caller Jon Gruden gave a lot of carries to Earnest Graham (222) and newcomer Michael Bennett (41) this year. Pittman, who missed six games and was hampered in many others with a high ankle sprain he suffered at Indianapolis, finished the season with 68 carries for 286 yards. This season marked the first in which Pittman did not score a touchdown, although he came close in the season finale against Carolina when he couldn’t run underneath a Luke McCown deep pass in the fourth quarter. “That’s the story of my season,” McCown said. “I’ve been so close all year long, or I’ve been on the shelf for a majority of the year. Luke just let the ball go a little too strong and it went just out of my fingertips. The play is called ‘Halfback Sluggo’ and I was supposed to sell the slant and then go. I was open, but we couldn’t hit the play.” Should this season be Pittman’s last in Tampa Bay, it was a pleasure to cover him. Pittman was great to deal with from a media perspective and the consummate team player for the Buccaneers through the years. A very underrated and underappreciated Buccaneer. I’ll miss him.
• An interesting take on preparing for the postseason from Buccaneers tight end Jerramy Stevens, whose four touchdown catches in 2007 is second on the team behind Joey Galloway: “One of the things I learned going through the Super Bowl run was the fact that you want to prepare just like you would for the other games. One of the mistakes I made was trying to change a lot and try to do a whole lot more. Obviously, you have to be prepared and be ready, but over-preparation and maybe putting too much emphasis on things that you are already good at can be a detriment. You need to be ready, but not do too much. Don’t over-think yourself too much. We have a great coaching staff here that won a Super Bowl, so obviously they know the formula. We just have to go out and execute.”
• Tampa Bay head coach and offensive play-caller Jon Gruden gave Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants defense a few wrinkles to prepare for from the Carolina game. The first of which was a perfectly executed perimeter screen pass to running back Michael Bennett, who took it 23 yards down the right sidelines for a touchdown. The Bucs rarely run screen passes during games and when they do, it is typically middle screens to backs or tight ends – not perimeter screens. “It was a great call by Coach Gruden,” Bennett said. “We set it up beautifully and we haven’t really run screens all year at all. For him, it was the perfect call at the right time. I got the ball in my hands and the O-line got enough of the guys to where I could make a few moves and get into the end zone.” The other play was that wacky, tricky formation in which the offensive line was spread out all. Receivers Chad Lucas and Michael Clayton were split out wide to the right while offensive tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears flanked center John Wade. Fullback Byron Storer was in the backfield while Bennett was flanked out to the left behind guards Davin Joseph and Matt Lehr and tight end Alex Smith. At the snap of the ball, quarterback Luke McCown threw a quick slant to Clayton, who dropped the pass, ending what looked to be like an exciting play. “The play is called ‘Star Wars,’” Bennett said. “If we had snapped the ball right on time, we could have had it – gone. They didn’t know what we were doing at first. Fortunately for them they saw it quick enough and got in the formation for it. But it is one of those things where Coach Gruden is a creator and a mastermind of offensive plays. He put it together. The ball went to Clayton or it could have gone to me with a whole convoy down the field. There are about 10 different plays we can run out of that formation. We have some pretty exciting stuff we can get out of ‘Star Wars.’” Coughlin and the Giants might not see ‘Star Wars’ on the field this Sunday, but the fact that Tampa Bay showed it last Sunday means that New York had to dedicate some precious preparation time in the film room and on the practice field to possibly defend it, in addition to the perimeter screen pass.
• While New York Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora have the big-name reputations heading into Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game against Tampa Bay, the one player who really concerns the Buccaneers offensive line is reserve defensive end Justin Tuck, who also lines up inside at defensive tackle on obvious passing downs. Trueblood remembers Tuck from their Boston College-Notre Dame battles a few years back. “Tuck is a heck of a player,” Trueblood said. “He also lines up as a three technique and gives a lot of guards a lot of problems. I played against him in college when he was at Notre Dame, so I remember him. He was good then, but he’s gotten a lot better and he’s redefined his game since then. He was a heck of a player and had all the tools athletically. He was a little raw back then, but he’s had some good coaching and he’s been around Osi and Michael Strahan apparently.”
• I want to acknowledge the fact that former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp has retired after 13 years in the NFL, but I’m out of time and out of room in this week’s SR’s Fab 5. He was the baddest football player I’ve ever witnessed – in the best sense of the term. He and linebacker Hardy Nickerson were the spitfires that gave this Tampa Bay defense the identity and attitude it needed to turn from the Yuccaneers to the Buccaneers. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, strong safety John Lynch and fullback Mike Alstott were also key components of the turnaround and leaders in their own right, but Nickerson and Sapp ruled the locker room and the practice field with an iron fist. More on Sapp next week. A not-so-great a person, but definitely a great player worthy of praise and admiration for what should be a Hall of Fame career.
• And finally, yes. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did roll over $13 million worth of leftover salary cap room from 2007 into 2008. But they didn’t sign any Buccaneers to contract extensions. Not Greg White. Not Earnest Graham. Not Donald Penn. Not Jerramy Stevens. Not Matt Lehr. Not Michael Pittman. The Bucs have yet to extend the contracts of anyone (they are trying and those efforts will only intensify in January up in Mobile at the Senior Bowl). So how did general manager Bruce Allen and his front office manage to do it? Cap rollovers typically come in the form of outrageous LTBE (likely to be earned) incentives, such as throw for 7,000 yards or score 40 rushing touchdowns in a single season, when players are signed. The Bucs were unsuccessful in extending any contracts … but they did sign a couple of players to the active roster over the last month. Did you know that on November 28 when running back Lionel Gates was signed to the active roster he was given a LTBE bonus of $6 million (which he’ll never hit, thus allowing the Bucs to roll that unused bonus money into 2008 cap room)? Wide receiver Chad Lucas was given a LTBE bonus of $7 million with the same rollover principles applying when he was signed to the active roster on December 26. Rookie Kenneth Darby had a portion of his signing bonus ($606,912) rolled over into next year as well. Tampa Bay will now have approximately $30 million in cap room thanks to approximately $13.6 million in cap room rolled over from the 2007 season. Shockingly (or perhaps not after seeing what transpired in Tampa Bay in 2003 and in Atlanta from 2004-08), rolling over leftover cap money is something that former general manager Rich McKay never did, a Bucs official confirmed to Pewter Report.
• As Pewter Report enters its 20th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I want to say thank you to our Pewter Insider and Pewter Report subscribers for the overwhelming amount of gift subscriptions we received in the month of December. You are Pewter Report’s ambassadors and we thank you for turning others on to our unique Buccaneers coverage. As many of you long-time PR subscribers know, our offseason coverage simply rules. The offseason is where our contacts in the front office, the coaching ranks, the locker room and the agent community allow Pewter Report to deliver the best free agency and NFL Draft-related inside scoop there is on the Buccaneers. It all starts in a few weeks at the Senior Bowl. If you know of any Bucs fans (family, friends, co-workers) that aren’t Pewter Report-Pewter Insider subscribers, now is the time to encourage them to sign up and help us educate and inform more Buccaneers fans. Happy New Year!
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