Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. I’ll admit it. I was a big part of the Mike Williams hype machine during the offseason. I know it’s tough for Bucs fans that can’t watch the rookie mini-camp, can’t watch the organized team activities and can only catch a glimpse of training camp to not believe everything they read – even Pewter Report’s offseason reports at times.
But I’ll bet that almost every Bucs fan on the planet saw Williams’ spectacular, juggling 3-yard touchdown catch against Cleveland that helped Tampa Bay trim the Browns’ lead to 14-10 at halftime. If you didn’t see it, here’s your chance.
In an SR’s Fab 5 column from May 16, I revealed the names of five Bucs rookies that had immediately impressed me in my 15 years of covering the team. Those players were defensive tackle Warren Sapp, cornerback Donnie Abraham, fullback Mike Alstott, cornerback Aqib Talib and Williams. For me to put the 2010 fourth-round pick out of Syracuse in that particular company shows you what I thought of Williams at first glance. It also put me out on quite a limb if he didn’t pan out.
This is what I said on May 16:
“And finally, the latest rookie to stun me with his athletic gifts is wide receiver Mike Williams from this year’s draft class. Williams made an immediate impact in my mind at the rookie mini-camp, and within minutes during the first OTA that was open to the media it was easy to see that he is the fastest and most explosive receiver on Tampa Bay’s roster. Putting Williams in the same company as Sapp, Abraham, Alstott and Talib is quite bold, but that’s the type of impression he made on me.”
If you didn’t believe the hype then, I bet you believe it now.
Here’s what Williams had to say about the amazing catch that he sort of shrugged off after the game in the locker room.
“It was a simple slant route and he threw it back shoulder and usually I make those plays with two hands, but I couldn’t get my left hand on it” Williams said. “I tipped it in the air and I knew exactly where I tipped it. I knew where the ball was so I looked down at my feet first and the ball just dropped into my hands.”
Williams discussed his catch with such nonchalance it makes you think that he does this routinely.
Actually, he does.
“Mike makes some spectacular catches in practice and he made some great catches in the game as you can see,” Freeman said. “He’s that sort of athlete. He told me he got one hand on it and he felt it go up and he didn’t even look for it. He had to just get behind the guy and box him out. It was a great play by him.”
There are plenty of receivers that have great speed. There are plenty of pass catchers that have great hands. The trait that few NFL wideouts have is supreme body control and the concentration that goes hand-in-hand with that. Williams possesses that ability along with the likes of elite receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco.
The touchdown catch he made against Cleveland? I’ve already seen three or four similar receptions in practice. As crazy at it sounds, catches like his 3-yard touchdown against Cleveland are rather routine for Williams.
Freeman doesn’t have to throw the ball to him. He only needs to throw the ball near him.
“The play could have been helped out by a better ball, but when you don’t throw a perfect ball, it’s great to have a receiver who goes and gets it like that,” Freeman said. “That’s Mike, though.”
When asked what he said to Williams after the dramatic touchdown catch, Freeman said, “’Thanks man, that was awesome!’ We needed a score there and we needed it bad. Going into halftime 14-10 looks a lot better than 14-3. To have Mike do that, it was a great catch. It could have been a better ball, but when you have guys like Mike Williams that make plays for you like that you just say, ‘Thanks. You really bailed me out on that one.’”
It may not be the catchiest nickname or the coolest, but the term “Bailout” best describes Williams. In practice and last Sunday, the star rookie receiver has bailed out Freeman plenty of times.
There will be plenty of instances this season where Freeman will be under duress and will have to chuck the ball downfield and hope that Williams will make a play. The guess here is that more often than not, No. 19 will indeed make the play.
With Williams already living up to his offseason hype after just one game, I’m prepared to go out on another limb. In the very near future he will make Bucs fans forget that Keyshawn Johnson and Ike Hilliard ever wore the No. 19 jersey. I see Williams not only becoming the Bucs’ best receiver, but also one of the NFL’s best in the next two years.
“As a group, even the guys who didn’t play today, we as receivers hold our standard high,” Williams said. “We want to be the backbone of the team. We want to be out there making plays every time we get a chance. When we get an opportunity we have to take advantage. I was able to do that with the touchdown.”
That touchdown was the first of many for Mike Williams in Tampa.
FAB 2. As good as Mike Williams’ NFL debut was thanks to that dramatic touchdown catch, he only caught five passes for 30 yards (6.0 avg.). Had quarterback Josh Freeman been more accurate, Williams could have caught at least six passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
The one big play that got away came on first-and-10 from the Cleveland 33-yard line when Freeman overthrew a wide-open Williams. Thankfully for the Bucs, Freeman hit Micheal Spurlock with a 33-yard touchdown pass two plays later on third down, which proved to be the game-winning score in Tampa Bay’s 17-14 opening day victory.
The onus will be on Freeman and Tampa Bay’s young receivers to cash in on more big plays as there are so few opportunities to get them during the course of an NFL game. In some ways the Bucs lucked out on Sunday, but against upper echelon teams Tampa Bay will have to convert a much higher degree of big plays to come out on top, especially since offensive coordinator Greg Olson is being more aggressive by calling for more deep passes this year.
“Every week that’s the plan,” Olson said. “We are trying to run the football and take our deep shots. We had six deep shots last week and only connected on one. We need to connect on more of our deep shots. We talked to our players about that. Those are opportunity plays to be made.”
Missed plays like the one to Williams were singled out and highlighted in the Bucs film room during the week.
“We looked at it and showed our players that there was a lot of hidden yardage there,” Olson said. “There was a lot of hidden yardage and big plays that could have been made. The play to Spurlock that he caught for a touchdown, we had the same play up earlier and Josh was going to throw him and the corner was grabbing him so he didn’t throw it. It was an all-out blitz and a sack. We talked on the sidelines and I said, ‘First of all, that guy can’t hold you – he can’t hold you, Spur. You’ve got to do whatever you can do, and if he is holding you, we need Josh to throw it so we can get the flag.”
Olson is convinced that Freeman will react better in those situations and hit more plays once he has sufficient experience as he only has 10 NFL starts under his belt. Still, the experience from a year ago was enough for Freeman to shake off the sack earlier in the game on the play where he was supposed to throw deep to Spurlock, as well as forget the overthrown pass to the wide-open Williams enough to bounce back with the fourth quarter touchdown pass.
“The comfort level of recognition of fronts and coverages is there,” Olson said. “I would have liked to think that a year ago [Freeman] would have recognized the all-out blitz and alerted the post. We also have a short throw in those situations too, to get it out quickly. He recognized it and followed the depth where the free runner was going to be coming from and he understood the protections because he sets the protections now. He knew he could buy a little time to wait on that throw to Spurlock. That results in bigger plays.”
Yet that one big touchdown throw by Freeman wasn’t enough to come close to satisfying Olson, as Pewter Report’s Charlie Campbell pointed out in his PI Quick Hits article on Friday.
“We want a minimum of eight explosive plays in every game,” Olson said. “[Gains of 20 yards or more] in the passing game, and in the running game it’s 12 yards or more.”
How did the Bucs fare on Sunday? Aside from Spurlock’s 33-yard touchdown, tight end Kellen Winslow had a 22-yard catch and running back Cadillac Williams had a 20-yard reception. Williams also had a 20-yard run and Freeman picked up 33 yards on a scramble. That’s five explosive plays – three short of what Olson wanted.
“If it opens up, I’m going to run,” Freeman said of his career-long 33-yard scamper. “It was actually a screen play, so I didn’t have many options. I could throw it at Earnest [Graham’s] feet or try to get around the edge. Luckily for me the linebacker bit on the pump fake and I was able to get around the edge. My athletic ability is not something I’m shy about. If I have the opportunity to pick up a first down with my feet I’m going to do it.”
When the Bucs travel to Carolina on Sunday to face the Panthers, Freeman and the receivers might be licking their chops after seeing New York wide receiver Hakeem Nicks catch three touchdown passes in the Giants’ 31-18 win over the Panthers. Williams could be this week’s version of Nicks for the Carolina secondary.
“We always try to be aggressive,” Freeman said. “Every team, honestly, has weaknesses in the secondary and through film study of watching Cleveland we said, ‘We may be able to get them on this or get them on that.’ There were really a lot of opportunities that I missed that could have been big plays that I have to go back and correct. The addition of Mike Williams and guys that I think can stretch the field extremely well – when you put the ball out there they give you a really good chance of hitting a big shot.”
Spurlock noted that for such a young team, the Buccaneers weren’t satisfied with hitting just one deep shot – even if it was good enough to beat the Browns on opening day.
“Yeah, there were some plays where we could have gotten some yards here or there for sure,” Spurlock said. “After the game it was like, we got the win and congratulations and enjoy tonight, but let’s go to the film room tomorrow and make corrections and make a big jump when we play Carolina.”
A big jump in big plays in Carolina could very well mean a 2-0 start for Tampa Bay.
FAB 3. After being a thorn in the Buccaneers side for years, defensive end Julius Peppers is gone from Carolina. Since notching 15.5 sacks, forcing three fumbles and recording a pick-six in 15 games against the Buccaneers during his Panthers career, Peppers is now a member of the Chicago Bears. So Tampa Bay can breathe a little easier when it heads to Carolina for a Week 2 showdown, right?
Not so fast.
If you watched any of Carolina’s four preseason games you saw the Panthers rack up 19 sacks, which is an astronomical amount compared to Tampa Bay’s paltry four sacks in four exhibition games. The defensive ends that will try to replace the 81 career sacks and 30 forced fumbles during Peppers’ eight-year tenure in Carolina had monster preseasons.
Everette Brown, Carolina’s second-round pick in 2009 and the player that the Panthers traded this year’s first-round pick for, notched three sacks in the preseason and also forced a fumble. Rookie Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick from Ole Miss, also had three sacks in the preseason. Fellow rookie Eric Norwood, a fourth-round pick, recorded one sack and a forced fumble in the preseason.
Carolina’s two starting defensive ends, Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson, had two sacks apiece as the Panthers defensive ends accounted for 11 out of the team’s 19 sacks in the preseason. That certainly caught the attention of the Buccaneers players and coaching staff this week.
“Everybody keeps saying they don’t have Julius Peppers, but just watch them during the preseason,” said Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. “They were getting pressure, pressure and more pressure. In the last game, they did a good job without Peppers against the run and the pass. They have this young guy there in Hardy and they have Brayton and Charles Johnson. I played against those older guys before. They are good and a lot of people keep underestimating them because they don’t have Peppers anymore. I’m not going to let that happen. I’ve seen them on film. They are good. I’m not going to fall into that trap.”
The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Brayton, who is an eight-year veteran, has the most career sacks of any current Panther with 15.5 to go along with five forced fumbles and one interception. He is listed as questionable for the game as he missed Friday’s practice with an ankle injury.
“They have all different types of pass rushers,” Trueblood said. “Hardy is a bigger guy. He’s a good rusher. He looks like he’s going to be a good player. Everette is a good player, too. He’s not a bigger, stronger guy like Tyler Brayton, but he’s quick and has a nice spin move. Charles Johnson has a little bit of both size and speed. They are all good players.”
The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Johnson has 10 sacks and three forced fumbles in his four-year NFL career. But it’s the younger defensive ends – Hardy, Brown and Norwood – that are the most naturally gifted pass rushers.
Brown, 6-foot-1, 256, finished his Seminoles career with 23 career sacks, which ranks fifth all-time in Florida State’s record book. His 13.5 sacks during his senior campaign in 2008 was the third-highest single season output in school history. He had 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles during his rookie season last year.
Norwood’s 29 sacks are the most in South Carolina history. Both Norwood and Hardy are among the SEC’s top 10 all-time sack leaders. The 6-foot-4, 277-pound Hardy finished his Ole Miss career with 28.5 sacks and notched an SEC-leading 10 in 2007. Not only is he a good pass rusher, Hardy and the other unheralded defensive ends can also play the run extremely well, evidenced by the fact that Hardy had four tackles and a forced fumble in his NFL debut.
“Last week a very good running team, the New York Giants, rushed the ball 13 times for [eight] yards in the first half,” said Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “I think that awakened our guys in the meeting room. That’s a very good running team they just went against. You may not recognize these guys. Tyler Brayton is the one guy on the defensive line that these guys have been able to play against the last couple years. They are a new front, but they play hard and are young, aggressive players. They have [Dan] Connor in there at [middle] linebacker and they moved [Jon] Beason out to [weakside linebacker]. They caught our attention by what they did to the Giants in the run game.”
The Giants were able to open up the running game in the second half and finished with 118 yards on 36 carries (3.3 avg.) in New York’s 31-18 win, but Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman will have to be very selective with his audibles as Carolina has the horses up front to stop the run or get after the pass – even without a household name like Peppers.
“They get after it,” Freeman said. “The miss a force in Julius Peppers, obviously, but at the same time they held the Giants [running game] to [eight] yards in the first half. They play with a lot of intensity. It’s a high-motor defensive line. I look for them to get after it on Sunday.”
Carolina quarterback Matt Moore, who faced the likes of Brayton, Johnson, Brown, Hardy and Norwood every day in training camp, likes what he sees out of this group of pass rushers, even if none of them recorded a sack at New York last Sunday.
“I think all of them have the right attitude starting with Tyler being the older guy in that room and setting a good example,” Moore said. “They play fast. They are physical. They have high motors and I think they take pride in being a tight unit. You throw Hardy in there and he’s doing a nice job as a young guy. It’s nice to see young guys contribute in a big way and he’s definitely doing that. Charles and Everette – those guys are as steady as they come. It’s a good group and we’re excited to see the rest of the season how they do.”
Penn knows that after recording 11 sacks in the preseason and then not recording a single quarterback capture in the 2010 season opener, Carolina’s defensive ends will be hungry and fired up with the help of the home crowd on Sunday.
“They are very balanced in their approach and they have a lot of guys that can rush the passer in a lot of different ways,” Penn said. “We can’t underestimate them. We watched the film and those guys were flying around hard. That defense plays with so much intensity and they play to the whistle. The scoreboard might not have shown it last week, but they looked good on film.”
Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood suffered through a myriad of false starts, holding penalties and sacks allowed when facing Peppers, much like Kenyatta Walker before him. Even though the nightmare of going up against a Pro Bowler may be over for Trueblood, he will miss that challenge twice a year.
“Peppers is a hell of a player and I actually liked going up against him,” Trueblood said. “You get to test yourself with how well you are doing in the league against a guy like that. Sometimes you think you are doing pretty well and then you run into a guy like that. It was fun to go up against him, but they still have a lot of good players in Carolina. They can still get after it.”
FAB 4. This may come as a shock to some Buccaneers fans, but they are on the verge of losing their whipping boy. No, I’m not talking about strong safety Sabby Piscitelli, who probably draws more groans from fans than any other Buccaneer after his less than stellar play last year. I’m talking about right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
You know. The personal-foul-in-waiting two years ago, and Mr. False Start last season.
Last year, Trueblood dramatically cut down on the number personal fouls he incurred in 2009, but wound up having 10 false starts last season to lead the league in that dubious category.
Yet lo and behold, Trueblood’s last penalty, which of course was a false start, came at New Orleans on December 27. He avoided drawing a flag in the season-ending contest against Atlanta, was not called for an infraction at all during the preseason and was penalty-free on Sunday in Tampa Bay’s 17-14 win over Cleveland.
Trueblood, who is in a contract year, is coming off his best training camp as a pro and not becoming a target for refs’ flags has definitely been a big part of it. So what has gotten into Trueblood this year?
“I’m just getting older and staying focused a little more,” Trueblood said. “I’ve never had a problem focusing before, but it’s a lot easier to move on from one play to another when you’ve been out there a million times. The continuity at quarterback helps a lot with Josh [Freeman] not changing the rhythm of his voice. He’s doing really well with that. I’m just trying to cut back on penalties and help the team.”
Trueblood and the Bucs had an inordinate amount of false starts last year, and perhaps starting three quarterbacks with three different cadences in Byron Leftwich, Josh Johnson and Freeman had something to do with that. With each penalty that Trueblood picked up he incurred the wrath of even more Bucs fans on sports talk radio shows and Internet message boards like the one on PewterReport.com.
“I really don’t listen to anything anyone else says,” Trueblood said. “It’s hard to listen to that stuff and be a good player. I made it a point to just worry about me, but sometimes you don’t realize the penalties you are causing with penalties unless someone says something. It’s a double-edged sword. What are you going to do? But I try not to pay attention to stuff like that.”
Trueblood will have to try to not pay attention to the crowd noise in Carolina, which has given him problems in the past. And he will also have to try to avoid any extracurricular activities after the whistle with the hated rival Panthers.
After all, in his last trip to Carolina, Trueblood had a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and an obligatory false start.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Carolina’s running game has torched the Tampa Bay defense for at least 150 yards rushing in four of the last five games. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have certainly gotten the best of the Buccaneers over the last two years, combining for 722 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns in 124 carries (5.8 avg.) over four games.
In Carolina’s season-ending victory over Tampa Bay in 2007, Williams rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. After being held to just 27 yards on 11 carries in the Bucs and Panthers’ first meeting in 2008, Williams thrashed Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football for 186 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.
Last year, Williams tormented the Bucs for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in a 28-21 road win at Raymond James Stadium before missing the rematch a few weeks later. In four years against Tampa Bay, Williams has rushed for 545 yards and 8 TDs on 97 carries (5.6 avg.) and caught seven passes for 64 yards. This guy has been a big-time Bucs killer.
• Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith used to be the designated Bucs killer for the Panthers. In his NFL career, Smith has recorded 70 catches for 990 yards and four touchdowns. Yet since Aqib Talib’s insertion into the starting lineup, Smith is no longer the Buc killer he used to be. After recording a combined 15 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns in 2008 prior to Talib’s arrival, the Bucs’ star cornerback held Smith to just four catches for 82 yards and no TDs in 2009.
• Want a sneak peek into the Bucs locker room at halftime of the Cleveland game and after Tampa Bay’s 17-14 win over the Browns on opening day? Here’s what head coach Raheem Morris told his troops at halftime.
“We came in and talked about finishing the football game,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “This is a team built on speed and everything else, but we have a young mindset around here and we have to learn how to finish. That’s all we talked about and we did it. We played great on defense in the second half. We got a bunch of three-and-outs and the offense came together and scored some points. These are the kinds of games I used to win all the time. We won a lot of games around here just like this. It makes me proud of the victory.”
And what did Morris say after the victory?
“Raheem said, ‘Don’t be shocked that we won that game.’ That was his message to us after the game,” Jackson said. “That was our mentality coming in. We are a young team, but that’s no excuse. We were playing to win the game – just like Herm Edwards used to say. Now we’re going on to our next opponent. Mission accomplished, now it’s on to Carolina.”
• Count Bucs tight end John Gilmore as one of those players who saw the significance of Tampa Bay’s victory over Cleveland which gave the Bucs a 1-0 start to the season. Even if head coach Raheem Morris didn’t after the game.
“In the first game of the season, that win is crucial,” Gilmore said. “If you lose, you hear that saying, ‘Well, they’re in for a long season’ – even though there are 15 more games. If you win, that’s the start of some momentum. I think getting a win in the first game of the season is a big deal. There is no secret as to how young this team is. For them to get a taste of winning with this victory, it’s big. It’s only going to help us.”
• After surrendering 87 yards rushing in the first half, what was the key to Tampa Bay shutting down Cleveland’s running game in the second half and holding the Browns to just 17 yards over the last two quarters? It wasn’t clever halftime adjustments by head coach Raheem Morris.
“The funny thing about it is that it’s not always about second half adjustments,” Morris said. “A lot of times it’s just about going out and executing the game plans you originally came up with. In the first half, [Cleveland] got two plays off that we didn’t execute what we’ve talked about on the practice field. We weren’t able to turn it over and take it to the game field, but we were able to do that in the second half. We were able to execute a couple of our game plan issues and it was a lot of fun to see those guys go out there and play. But you’ve got to give the Cleveland Browns a lot of credit for what they’ve been able to do in the offseason and how they were able to get ready for us. There were a lot of things we weren’t ready for, a lot of things we didn’t think we’d see, but that’s what the first game is all about, especially when you have new people as a part of that staff, though not necessarily a new staff.”
Bucs free safety Tanard Jackson agreed, saying that once the Browns showed their run plays in certain formations, Tampa Bay’s defenders were able to recognize what was coming and react to the ball much quicker.
“They had premier looks that they liked to use to get those perimeter runs and we had a check off and we would be alert to it,” Jackson said. “We wouldn’t change the scheme or the play, but we would be alert to it. We would recognize it and react to those run formations faster in the second half. We knew what was coming.
“We just weren’t on the screws and we weren’t in our run fits in the first half. When we make plays stretch out, we’re a fast defense. We like perimeter plays because they work to our advantage. We have linebackers and defensive linemen that can run. That showed in the second half and we shut them down.”