SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:FAB 1. SPENCE COULD BE THE STEAL OF THE DRAFT FOR BUCSThe fourth round of the 2013 NFL is where Tampa Bay’s draft started to fall apart for a good deal of Buccaneers fans. After the exciting pick of Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round, and the surprising selection of North Carolina State QB Mike Glennon in the third round, the choosing of Illinois nose tackle Akeem Spence took the wind out of the sails for many following Tampa Bay’s draft.
The Bucs had veteran nose tackle Gary Gibson returning, and just signed defensive tackle Derek Landri prior to the draft. To make matters worse, the Bucs traded up in the fourth round for a junior defensive tackle that had just 3.5 career sacks at Illinois. The drafting of Spence lacked imagination and sizzle, and several draft pundits, including PewterReport.com, initially didn’t like the pick.
Nearly five months later, Spence’s play in training camp and during his rookie preseason has dramatically changed opinions. The 21-year old Fort Walton Beach, Fla. native has become a real force in the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense playing the tilted nose tackle position. The muscle-bound Spence won the state weightlifting title in the heavyweight division as a senior in high school and already has become the strongest Buccaneer on the team in the weight room.
“I don’t know my absolute max on bench,” Spence said. “I know it’s over 500 pounds. I’ve just never put it all on and actually did [a max bench press]. It’s over 500, though. As for power clean, I could probably go in there right now and hit about 420. As for a squat, I’ve never fully maxed out. I could probably do 600 – almost 700. Closer towards 700 – maybe 680.”
Spence was one of the top performers on the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine, benching 37 reps of 225 pounds. Bucs kicker Derek Dimke, who played with Spence at the University of Illinois, marvels at his strength.
“Watching Akeem mature when he was at Illinois was awesome,” Dimke said. “He had to lift by himself. There was one guy that could kind of keep up with him in the weight room at Illinois. He has to lift by himself here, too. He’s that strong.”
Tampa Bay Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy calls Spence “ridiculously strong.”
The rookie’s combination of strength and quickness has enabled Spence to move into the starting lineup, which has been his goal all along.
“For me, that would be like my ultimate goal,” Spence said. “I was told that I had the chance to start when I got here and I’ve been running with the [first team] since Day One in training camp since Gibby [Gary Gibson] went down. It would be big to start. That’s been my dream since I was little.”
What helps Spence is that he’s playing next to McCoy, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season after notching five sacks. McCoy is coming into his own as a pro player and will serve as a good mentor to the rookie nose tackle.
“Our relationship has evolved pretty good, but I’m still learning how to play off G,” Spence said. “He’s so quick and fast. He makes his move into the A gap so fast and I have to wrap and cover him up [when we stunt]. I really have to go and get off the ball as fast as he does. I have to continue to work off him and build that relationship with him. I think when we get to midseason we will start to hit it.”
Spence is no stranger to lining up next to great defensive linemen. He played with his share of talented defensive linemen at Illinois.
“Akeem played next to [defensive end] Whitney Mercilus and [All-American defensive tackle] Corey Liguet – guys that were first-round NFL Draft picks,” Dimke said. “He also played with [defensive end] Michael Buchanon, who is up in New England. We had a great line, but Akeem really anchored it. He’s an animal. The good thing is that he’s a nice guy off the field. He’s one of the nicest guys you could ever talk to, and you like to see guys like him succeed.”
Despite the draft status of those great Fighting Illini linemen, Spence said that McCoy has the quickest first step of anyone he’s played with.
“It’s definitely at the top,” Spence said. “I’ve never seen a three-technique tackle get off the ball so fast. I’ve played with some real good [defensive linemen at Illinois], and I thought I had a good get off – but not compared to Gerald. I think he’s up there with some of the best in the league – definitely.”
Spence’s play has been ascending since the very start of training camp. He’s been one of those players that has just gotten better and better with each practice. Spence credits the extra week of training camp practice just for the rookies as the program that kick-started his meteoric rise up the depth chart past Gibson and Landri.
“The rookies were here a week ahead of the veterans,” Spence said. “The coaches were letting us try to get ahead of the game and get conditioned. We had a few light practices and then we had camp and the preseason games. I never thought we would be in camp for four weeks. We went in full pads so much … I was so tired. But once it got to the game week – that’s when it started to become fun. When we went up there to the Patriots and practiced with them – that was a great experience. Watching Tom Brady work was cool.”
Spence not only watched Brady – and rushed after him – but he also watched Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Even though the Patriots play a 3-4 scheme, which is much different than the Bucs’ 4-3 scheme, which features a tilted nose tackle, Spence was able to see a true professional go about his business up in New England.
“That dude is a beast,” Spence said. “When he decides to go, he can really go. There are some times in practice where he’ll let up on the gas a little bit. But when he decides to go – he can really go. For a man of that size, he has a great get-off.”
Spence has a pretty quick burst off the line, too, evidenced by finishing the preseason with a team-high four tackles for loss. But for all of the splash plays Spence has made in August, he must continue to work on his technique and maintain gap control.
“That’s your gap, and you don’t give that up, period,” Bucs head coach Greg Schiano said. “But he’s getting better at it. It used to be he’d give it up four, five times in a stretch, now maybe once. So he’ll get there, there’s no doubt. He’s got all the skills to do it, and he wants to, and hes eager to. He’s got a great leader right on his other side of the center in Gerald. If he stays healthy, this guy is going to be a good player.”
Not only has Spence made a favorable impression on Schiano and the coaching staff. He has quickly earned the respect of Tampa Bay’s veteran players, including Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph, who is sometimes charged with the responsibility of blocking the rookie.
“Right now he’s really finding himself and building his confidence up,” Joseph said. “You can see it every day in practice. He’s continuously getting better. He’s taking to the coaching and he’s really developing into somebody that you know you’re going to have at nose guard for a long time, and that is really going to be a rock for our defense. You see the effort. You really see the focus. You really see the hard work with him from Day One in training camp until now. He’s continually working on his craft.”
Anytime a team can land a productive starter –especially as a rookie – in the fourth round that’s a huge win for the scouting department. The Bucs felt so strongly about Spence that the team moved up in the fourth round to make sure they could select him.
“We felt Akeem was a powerful, very strong, very long tilted nose,” Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said. “He was playing his finest at the end of the season, and consistent throughout. He’s really a force inside, which is such an important aspect. That’s why we made the move to make sure we didn’t miss him.”
It’s early, but Spence looks like he’s going to be a big hit in Tampa Bay.
FAB 2. SPENCE MASTERING THE TILTED NOSEWhen former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy brought his defense to Tampa Bay in 1996, one of the caveats of his 4-3 Cover 2 scheme was having the nose tackle play tilted – or cocked – to target the shoulder of the center and attack the A gap. The titled nose technique began when Dungy was a cornerback for Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and nose tackle “Mean Joe” Greene first used it as a way to quickly penetrate the A gap and get by the center. Dungy incorporated that into his defensive scheme when he became a defensive coordinator in Minnesota, and carried on that tradition in Tampa Bay.
The beauty of this style of play was that it put an incredible amount of stress on the center during each play. Despite the lack of any disguise or stealth while playing that technique, tilting the nose tackle enabled players like Brad Culpepper and Anthony “Booger” McFarland to more quickly attack the center by lining up cocked towards the center’s shoulder.
When defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left the Bucs after the 2008 season, the tilted nose technique disappeared under former head coach Raheem Morris from 2009-11 before resurfacing last year under Morris’ replacement, Greg Schiano.
Bucs rookie Akeem Spence, who replaces Roy Miller, who left in free agency to sign with Jacksonville, admits that playing the tilted nose technique has taken some getting used to, but likes the results. Spence finished the preseason with seven tackles and four tackles for loss, which is tied for the team lead.
“The process as a whole in terms of playing is leading with your hands,” Spence said. “My whole life I’ve been taught to gain ground with my first step. Now I’ve got to shoot my hands first and then let my feet catch up. Going through camp and getting that process down and then finally seeing how it works in games, it’s been good. Coach Schiano just really stresses getting my hands on the center, and getting in the A gap. When I get up on the center I just try to climb right into his neck and choke him out. If it’s a reach block by the center, he’ll just push me right into my gap and I will be able to cut the ball off and the ball will not be able to come back at the defense.”
Spence attacking the near shoulder repetitively will result in lulling the center into a false sense of security. Then the change-up occurs when Spence flashes in front of him and attacks the A gap on the far shoulder of the center.
“When I move across the center’s face, it’s just the element of surprise,” Spence said. “Most of the time I’m just playing my base technique and getting my hands on him and getting into his neck. When I do move and flash in front of the center it surprises him and that’s when I start making my plays.”
Tampa Bay center Jeremy Zuttah goes up against Spence on a daily basis and says playing against the tilted nose technique is a real challege.
“It’s not fun,” Zuttah said. “It’s all about beating up the center. I think it helps me in practice because his only focus is me, until he does other things. His main focus is just to get his hands on me. It really helps me concentrate on my pad level and firing my hands. I don’t see it too much outside of practice, so it’s a little bit easier for me on most Sundays.”
Because Zuttah has seen the tilted nose technique every time he line up in practice for the past two years he knows how to best handle it, which really makes Spence work hard to improve.
“Out here in practice I don’t always come clean into my gap because the guys here know the technique,” Spence said. “But going against somebody new and throwing it at them – I see what the coaches are talking about. If I do it right, those are the plays I am going to make. When I move like that, that is where my plays come from. Those are the plays I have to make.”
The 6-foot-1, 307-pound rookie has adapted quickly to the tilted nose technique and Zuttah has seen his quick progression firsthand.
“I think he’s coming along,” Zuttah said. “The technique that he’s playing – it’s different. There are not too many people that play it the way we play it here. It takes a while to get used to. It just took him some time to get used to, but as he’s getting more comfortable you can see it in the results.
“He’s strong. You see him in the weight room and he’s throwing around a lot of weight. I think what helps him even more than the strength is his leverage. He’s got natural leverage from being vertically challenged.”
Despite the fact that he produced just 3.5 career sacks in his 38 starts at Illinois, the Bucs feel that Spence, who is quicker and more athletic than Miller, can use benefit from the tilted nose technique to generate more sacks. Culpepper had 8.5 sacks in 1997, nine sacks in 1998 and 6.5 sacks in 1999. McFarland had 6.5 sacks in 2000, which was his first year as a starter, and had 3.5 sacks the next season.
Schiano believes that Spence, whose NFL career is off to a great start, has a chance to be a very good player in the league.
“He has a chance,” Schiano said. “I’m not ready to ordain him Joe Greene yet, but he has a chance. He’s definitely playing at a high level.”
FAB 3. PRESEASON WAS SUCCESSFUL FOR REHABBING BUCS LIKE JOSEPHAlthough the team kept it under wraps for much of the preseason, Tampa Bay’s goal was not to let Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks and Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis play in the preseason to avoid any setbacks as they recovered from their respective injuries. Joseph and Revis were rehabbing season-ending knee injuries from 2012, while Nicks was coming back from a season-ending toe injury.
By going along at a gradual pace, Revis is right on schedule to play in the season opener against his former team, the New York Jets. Unfortunately for Nicks, he contracted a MRSA virus, which was unrelated to his surgically repaired toe, and his status for Week 1 is in jeopardy.
“That was one of missions, one of our goals,” Schiano said of keeping his trio of Pro Bowlers from having setbacks in their rehab processes. “And in that area, pretty decently I think. Carl’s thing was kind of a freak thing that you can’t predict.”
Joseph responded so well to the graduated workload during training camp that he was medically cleared to play early in the process in the third preseason game at Miami, and decided to get two series worth of reps in to shake off any rust that the year-long absence from the game might have created.
“It was positive,” Joseph said. “It was a chance to get better against a team that is a really good team – a team that we’re going to see later in the season. Whether it was going to be five, 10 or 15 reps or however many reps it was going to be, it was the opportunity to get better. I couldn’t pass that up.”
Joseph admits he’s not 100 percent yet, but is making positive strides to get back to his elite playing style.
“I’m close, real close,” Joseph said. “I’m just working on the little things. This year in training camp I’ve really had to pay attention to how our coach is coaching the other guys and try to learn and take that into my drills. It really helped me when I was able to come back and do live action in practice and in the preseason game against Miami. I’m just trying to get better and push myself with conditioning and my focus, and get a deeper understanding of the offense.”
FAB 4. GLENNON HEADS TO THE BENCH, BUT FOR HOW LONG?The promising preseason of Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Mike Glennon quickly came to an end on Thursday night in the team’s final exhibition game. After starting the game 0-of-5, Glennon completed just 7-of-16 passes for 63 yards with a fumble and an interception in the Bucs’ 30-12 loss to the visiting Washington Redskins.
Glennon’s preseason comes to an end with him completing 33-of-70 passes for 397 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in nearly eight quarters of action. While his completion percentage of 47.1 raises eyebrows, Bucs head coach Greg Schiano was pleased at how well the intelligent, 6-foot-7 quarterback handled himself and the offense.
“I thought he was solid,” Schiano said. “I thought he learned and got better. Last night wasn’t his best performance. I told him once in a while you’re going to have one of these – just don’t have too many. This guy’s not your typical rookie, but you know, he didn’t have a great night.”
Glennon feels comfortable enough in the offense to go out and execute the game plan if necessary. But if all goes according to Tampa Bay’s plan, Josh Freeman will start all 16 games, lead the Bucs to the playoffs and earn a lucrative contract extension in the offseason.
That means that Glennon may not take another snap under center in a game situation until next August in the 2014 preseason. Glennon has resigned himself to that fate.
“I understand the situation here and I understood the situation at N.C. State,” Glennon said. “I had a great player ahead of me at N.C. State in Russell Wilson, and likewise here. I just have to approach it like I’m going to be the guy and be ready to go if I’m needed.
“My dad was telling me that Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for four seasons. [Preseason] was his season, and for me right now it’s the same way. I want to make the most of my opportunities and stay ready at all times. Who knows? This could be my last bit of playing time for the year, or it might not be. I’ll look forward to next preseason and then the season after that.”
It’s an interesting dynamic for quarterbacks who have been starters for years in college to have to come to the NFL and ride the pine. Glennon appears to have the patience and intelligence to handle the role of a backup quarterback and develop behnd the scenes through film study and classroom work.
Glennon has a ton of promise, but definitely needs a full season of watching and learning through mental reps, combined with an offeason’s worth of work to improve his accuracy and get a better feel for the NFL game. The thinking here is that he has the tools, talent and temperament to develop into a starting-caliber QB. But if Glennon has to play in 2013 due to Freeman’s ineffectiveness or an injury, don’t count on the Bucs making a playoff run.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• When asked which linebacker was the fastest on the team, Buccaneers middle linebacker Mason Foster couldn’t decide between the players vying for the starting strongside linebacker role – Dekoda Watson and newcomer Jonathan Casillas.
“I think Dekoda or J.C. because they’re freaks,” Foster said. “Their straight-ahead speed is ridiculous. They’re running over receivers. Just watching them rolling down there on kickoff or something, they’re beating everybody down there. It’s great to be a part of this group and we’re definitely really competitive about everything, video games, or anything, you know guys are trying to be the best so it’s great to be around those guys and we all push each other. They definitely compete at a high level.”
Both Watson and Casillas will make the 53-man roster and use their speed to star on special teams in addition to helping Tampa Bay’s defense. Casillas’ emergence meant the end of the road for long-time special teamer and reserve linebacker Jacob Cutrera, who wasn’t as fast as Casillas.
• Count Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson as one of Josh Freeman’s biggest supporters. Goldson can’t understand why Freeman has come under fire from the likes of Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who called the Bucs quarterback “god-awful,” and other critics.
“Everybody got an opinion, but that’s just them I guess,” Goldson said. “Josh is definitely a guy I like. Josh is a confident player man, I think he’s a good football player with a strong arm. He uses his great frame and moves around the pocket well to be that big. He does a good job of getting in and out of checks. He’s been throwing a lot in practice and if he gets it down, it’ll be easier for him come Sundays.
“He just has to stay focused. I tell him to stay focused on the bigger picture. He knows what he is and he got here for a reason. He’s a good quarterback and he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL – the National Football League – and that says enough.”
• Don’t be surprised to see running back and return specialist Jeff Demps report to the Buccaneers from track season after Week 1. By doing so, the Bucs will have a week’s worth of a roster exemption to see how Demps looks in practice to decide whether to keep him on the active roster or waive him and see if the team can sneak him on the practice squad.
• If Tampa Bay reserve safety Cody Grimm doesn’t make the Buccaneers’ 53-man roster, don’t be shocked to see him surface in Washington. Grimm, who is a native of Northern Virginia where his day, Russ, played offensive line for the Redskins, is a favorite of Raheem Morris, who is Washington’s defensive backs coach. Grimm was selected by Morris in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft when Morris was Tampa Bay’s head coach.
• Despite being a muscle-bound, 6-foot-1, 307-pound rookie who looks every bit like an NFL defensive tackle, Akeem Spence admits he has gotten intimidated during his first preseason in the pro ranks.
“I told Will Gholston this the other day – sometimes I psych myself out on film,” Spence said. “I’ll look at the linemen on film and they all look so big until I actually get out there. Then I realize they’re not that big – except for Baltimore. Except for the center, those were big guys. But it’s just weird how I get psyched out [in the film room].”
Once he builds a reputation in the league, it’s likely that the super-strong Spence will be the one who will do the intimidating around the NFL.
• Here’s my take on Tampa Bay’s uninspiring preseason, which featured an inefficient offense, sloppy tackling on defense and a lack of discipline on special teams that resulted in a lackluster 1-3 record. Due to the talent on the Buccaneers roster, it’s possible for the team to flip the switch and dominate – or at least prevail – rookie quarterback Geno Smith and the New York Jets in Week 1.
But there’s just something that seems amiss with this team right now. There isn’t much swagger or rhythm. Not one unit looked in sync during the preseason.
Is it poorly coached? No one inside the walls of One Buccaneer Place believes that, yet the offensive line surrendered way too many sacks, the receivers couldn’t get open, defensive end Da’Quan Bowers didn’t develop into a starter in August as expected and the top two quarterbacks, Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon, completed less than half of their pass attempts in the preseason.
The Bucs offense and defense went ultra-vanilla in the preseason with the play-calling, especially considering the fact that the team will play both New England and Miami in the regular preseason. But Tampa Bay had trouble executing even the most basic of plays in August.
I believe we haven’t seen the best of the Buccaneers yet by a long shot. But when will we see that? With only 16 games on the schedule, it needs to come in Week 1. If Tampa Bay needs to use regular season games to fine tune itself and shake off the rust that should have been shaken off during the preseason, this team could be 1-3 heading into the bye week, which would be difficult to recover from given the quality of the opponents over the final 12 weeks of the season.
Heading into the preseason I wanted to believe that a 10-6 record was possible and attainable, but the lackluster showing of the starters in the inconsistent training camp practices and the preseason games tell me that the ceiling for this team might be 9-7 and that an 8-8 or 7-9 record isn’t out of the question, unfortunately.
• And finally, here is a reminder to listen to the Pewter Reporters on 98.7 The Fan in the Tampa Bay area on a daily basis. I’m on with former Bucs nose tackle Booger McFarland and Rich Herrera (Booger and Rich) on Mondays and Fridays at 4:20 p.m. ET, and also with Kirk McEwen, Chris Dingman, Roxanne Wilder and Special Ed (Kirk and Dinger Morning Show) on Thursdays at 8:00 a.m. ET.
Pewter Report editor-in-chief Mark Cook is on Tuesday nights on 98.7 The Fan at 9:20 p.m. ET and Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. on Fan Interaction with Justin Pawlawski, Jim Lighthall and Jeff “Pants” Pantridge. If you can’t tune into the live shows be sure to listen to the podcasts on PewterReport.com.
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd 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 enjoys 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 protected]
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