Here are a few things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The Buccaneers’ early bye week comes at a perfect time this season for two reasons. First, Tampa Bay is the second-youngest team in the NFL and there are several key contributors – wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, running back LeGarrette Blount, cornerbacks E.J. Biggers, safety Cody Grimm and defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price – that have already played in six or seven games when you include the preseason. That’s either half or just over half of a college football season – and there are 13 more games to go.
“The NFL season is like two college seasons back-to-back,” Benn said. “The bye week comes at a great time for rookies like me so we can settle in mentally and physically. We’ve already played seven games and we’re used to playing 12 in college. It gives us a chance to just go in there and watch more film and catch your breath a little bit.”
The second reason the Bucs’ bye week comes at a great time is for head coach Raheem Morris and his staff to get some of the first- and second-year players that are going to be key contributors over the next 13 games plenty of reps in order to have them play catch up.
“The beauty of this early bye week is the fact that we have young, ascending players on the rise,” Morris said. “This is a great advantage for us to get those young guys caught up to speed. I watched LeGarrette Blount take every rep at halfback. I watched Arrelious Benn as our starting Z [receiver] and get a lot of production today. All those young, ascending players that are able to be a part of our second of the season after the bye will be more productive and more confident because they actually got the chance to do that.”
There will be some depth chart changes occurring over the bye week on both offense and defense. Let’s address the offense first.
It took six carries for 27 yards, a 4.5-yard average and a touchdown for Blount to be moved up to the second team as Cadillac Williams’ backup. If Blount keeps running like he’s running and Williams keeps averaging 2.5 yards per carry (55 carries for 139 yards through three games), it won’t be long before he’s a starter.
The Bucs veteran players were excited to see Blount make the most of his opportunities and are eager to see more.
“I told him after the game, ‘Bro, you did the same thing I did. You got your opportunity and you answered the call. Stay humble and keep working,’” Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn said. “That’s what Luke Petitgout told me when I got my shot. I told Blount the same thing. Just keep working hard and be humble. He’s been through a lot. I think he’s learned that and he’s going to do that.”
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman is impressed by the fact that Blount has only been a Buccaneer for three weeks and he’s already made an impact. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik claimed Blount off waivers from Tennessee during the first week of the season.
“He’s a big, physical running back,” Freeman said. “I don’t think people realize quite how big and how physical he is. There was one play where I handed it off and went around on a boot and looked and turned around and I saw [Steelers linebacker James] Harrison on a crash course with Blount. I thought, ‘Ugh, this is going to be ugly.’ But he just kind of ran into him and bounced off. You don’t see that often.
“Blount came in and he provided a spark for us. He came in and was hitting the holes hard and breaking tackles. It was good team see him. Honestly, that was only the second time I have ever handed off to LeGarrette Blount. I did it once in fundamental period and I did it [on Sunday]. It was great to see him come out. He knew what we were trying to do. He understood where he was trying to go with the ball and he did a good job.”
The soft-spoken Blount is following Penn’s advice and staying humble despite a ton of media coverage following his impressive debut.
“It was my first game. It was the only game I’ve been out there for,” Blount said. “Pittsburgh probably didn’t know I was playing, so they didn’t have time to game plan for a running back like me. The only guy they had a game plan for was Cadillac. I don’t know if I am going to be up next week. I hope so. This off weekend and the week after will be a big for me to catch up on a lot of stuff.
“This bye week is definitely important for me. I definitely have to get in my playbook and learn as much as I possibly can to be more of an asset to this team. I know most of the playbook. I’ll just continue to plug away and learn as much as I can as soon as possible.”
The biggest thing Blount needs to work on is his pass protection. On Wednesday, Morris was saying that his 6-foot-2, 240-pound back knows that the coaches have to be able to trust him to recognize defensive fronts and pick up the right blitzer before seeing more playing time.
“I’m willing to be patient,” Blount said. “I’m not going to rush anything, especially if I am not 100 percent comfortable with the offense. If I were 100 percent comfortable with the offense then it would be a different story. As long as I am not 100 percent comfortable with the offense they are not going to take a chance. They have a multi-million quarterback that doesn’t need to get hit.”
While the coaches may feel more confident with Williams’ pass blocking abilities and may pull Blount off the field on obvious passing downs, the plan is to use Blount in obvious running situations due to his tackle-breaking ability and his propensity to fall forward for positive yardage.
On his NFL first run, which went for 12 yards, Blount was one tackle away from taking it the distance and scoring on his initial pro carry. After running over Pro Bowl linebacker Lamarr Woodley, Blount got dragged to the ground by Pro Bowl safety Troy Palomalu, who had a hold of the running back’s ankle.
“Polamalu just wouldn’t let me go,” Blount said. “He wouldn’t let me go. I was definitely looking forward to going in there and making an impact when I found out I was playing. I tried my best to do what I could and I was hoping I could break that tackle so I could break off a big run. I just wanted to contribute any way I could.”
What got fans and the Buccaneers coaching staff excited was the fact that after getting stuffed for no gain while diving for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Blount was able to score on the next play on fourth down on a power run reminiscent of Mike Alstott.
“I did the same thing I tried to do the first time and power it in, but instead of leaving my feet and try to go over the pile, I put my pads down,” Blount said. “Trying to stop 240-plus pounds is hard to stop coming down hill. I put my pads down and ran full speed and didn’t stop until I scored.”
Blount was too much for Woodley again, who made contact with the bruising back before bouncing off and crumpling to the ground as Tampa Bay got its first and only touchdown on the scoreboard. That determination made Morris declare him as one of two options in short yardage and goal line situations – the other one being fullback Earnest Graham.
But Blount won’t be the only rookie seeing more time on offense after the bye week. Benn figures to see more time at flanker and may usurp Sammie Stroughter as the starter. Benn caught three passes for 33 yards in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 38-13 loss to Pittsburgh.
“You wouldn’t think that getting catches late in a game like that would be a confidence-builder, but it is,” Benn said. “When you go out there in the regular season and you go out there with all of the regular season guys it feels good to make things happen. I went in there prepared like I should be and did everything they asked me to do and do it as best I could. You’ve just got to be ready for the opportunity to come your way because it will come.”
The Bucs are concerned that the 5-foot-10, 189-pound Stroughter wears down too easily and may be better suited for part-time duty at the slot instead of full-time duty as a flanker. Last year, Stroughter broke his foot and missed the last month of the season. Last Sunday against Pittsburgh, Stroughter had to leave the game twice because he was cramping up.
Benn has been coming on strong since the preseason finale against Houston where he caught two touchdown passes. The rookie from Illinois took all the reps at flanker on Wednesday and if he continues to progress it will only be a matter of time before his role increases and he becomes a starter.
“You always look at the bye week for the week to capitalize on getting healthy and getting the young guys into the playbook more and getting them more prepared,” Benn said. “I think it’s a boost for us. We’re going to get ready for the Cincinnati game and continue to develop.”
FAB 2. Aside from elevating LeGarrette Blount and Arrelious Benn up the depth chart, the Bucs will also be making some changes to the defensive side of the ball. Sources tell PewterReport.com that defensive end Kyle Moore will not only be demoted from the starting left defensive end position, but that he might be inactive against Cincinnati.
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said that defensive line coach Todd Wash has had a few heated meetings about the lack of production in the defensive line’s pass rush. That’s a good thing. The fact that there will be a lineup change is a great thing.
I warned about this during the offseason in a previous SR’s Fab 5 when Moore was simply handed the starting left defensive end job without actually earning it. Months ago I suggested that Tim Crowder, who had 47 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, should get an opportunity to start because he has a track record of being more productive.
As it turns out, Crowder, who leads the Bucs this year with two sacks and has 10 tackles as a reserve, will supplant Moore, who has nine tackles and no sacks, as the starter heading into the Bengals game. And perhaps more importantly, second-year defensive end Michael Bennett, who led the Bucs in sacks during the preseason with two, will be active for the first time this season.
“I’m pretty happy about that,” Bennett said. “I’ll be out there helping us pass rush and do whatever I can to help the team.”
While Bennett, who is believed to be the best athlete among the defensive ends, was inactive for the first three games of the 2010 regular season, the Bucs managed to go without a sack in two of their first three contests. Tampa Bay did rack up four sacks at Carolina, but must be more consistent in getting to the quarterback.
“All around, we have to get to the quarterback,” Bennett said. “It’s not just sacks, it’s hits. The last game against Pittsburgh we hit the quarterback zero times. Against Cleveland we only hit him twice. To be a great defense and a great defensive front we have to hit the quarterback. Every great defense starts with the defensive line. If we are penetrating and getting hits the defense will be better. We are doing okay, but we need to do better. We talked as a defensive line and we know we have to get better.”
Bennett said Wash was pretty fired up in the defensive line meeting, showing clips of every Buccaneer who got a one-on-one match-up – and lost. That made an impact with the rookies and veterans alike.
“We need to get to the quarterback more – that’s the message,” Bennett said. “We’ve talked about the guys they had here before and how they got to the quarterback. We need to bring that back.”
Bennett was crushed to start the season inactive. After demonstrating that he was the team’s best pass rusher during the preseason, he not only felt like he secured a roster spot, but also earned some playing time. However, through the first three games that was not the case.
“It’s been very difficult,” Bennett said. “There are plays I know I could have made. It’s been disappointing not being out there. I want to help the team. I know I can help.”
The Texas A&M product has done a phenomenal job of getting into shape this year. After bulking up last year to play in Jim Bates defensive scheme, which favored bigger linemen, Bennett has dropped 15 pounds, which has allowed him to regain his burst off the edge.
“I weigh 265 now,” Bennett said. “Last year I was at 280 because they wanted everybody big. I’m quicker now and that helps my pass rush. But I did well against the run, too. I’m just doing what they are asking me to do. One day my role will grow, and then it will grow more until I become a complete defensive end.”
With the Bucs facing two back-to-back passing teams in Cincinnati and New Orleans with gun-slinging quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Brees, Tampa Bay is making the right call by bringing up one of its better pass rushers and making Bennett active on Sundays.
“If those quarterbacks get into an early rhythm they will be throwing it all day,” Bennett said. “You have to get to them. If you don’t get to those guys early it’s going to be a long day. The Rams and Lions are throwing the ball. Even the 49ers are throwing the ball, I think they threw it 45 times the last game. A lot of the teams we’re going to be facing are throwing the ball this year. We have to get after it.”
Bring on Bennett. Also, expect to see less of veteran defensive tackle Ryan Sims and more of rookie defensive tackle Brian Price. Price is playing too good against the run and the pass whereas Sims is too one-dimensional as a run stuffer. Against pass-heavy teams like Cincinnati and New Orleans, Sims may be inactive.
FAB 3. I’m excited to see Buccaneers defensive end Tim Crowder get the chance to see more action after the bye week. I did a story last week about how Crowder didn’t care if he was a starter or not, and that he just wanted to make impact plays. However, when a player like Crowder makes an impact like he did against Carolina with two sacks and a forced fumble, the coaches are likely going to put that player in the starting lineup whether he likes it or not. So look for Crowder to emerge as a starter.
It was good to see head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris use Crowder as a defensive end against Carolina and Pittsburgh instead of a stand-up outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme as he did against Cleveland in Week 1. In that game, he was charged with the responsibility of covering tight end Benjamin Watson, who picked up 10 yards on third-and-6 in the first half, and then surrendered a 49-yard gain to tight end Evan Moore in the second half along with strong safety Sean Jones, who was also in coverage.
“The second play I just got a little winded and I just missed a tackle [on Moore],” Crowder said. “I should have made the play – we both should have made the play. But those guys get paid, too. I did have a pass breakup against Cleveland, so you can’t knock me too bad on my coverage skills! Whatever they call I feel like I’m able to execute it. I’m confident in my abilities. I mess with Quincy Black all the time. I tell him I can cover just like a linebacker if they’ll let me.”
Well, not quite, Tim. Crowder does share the dream of every defensive lineman, which is to drop in coverage and return an interception for a touchdown.
“Absolutely,” Crowder said. “My real dream is a sack, forced fumble and a scoop and score – all in one play. That’s my big dream, but I really would like to have a pick-six. I scored on a fumble recovery my rookie year, but a pick-six, that would be kind of nice just to show my wheels a little bit! You know us D-linemen we always get told that we’re slow. I’m pretty fast. I want to show my wheels off.”
Aside from above average quickness and burst off the ball, Crowder is also quite adept at using his hands as weapons to help disengage from offensive linemen and assist his pass rush. Over the past few years, Crowder has spent his offseason back in Texas working with 2011 draft prospect, defensive end Sam Acho, a fellow Longhorn. The two are close friends and work out together, although not just doing traditional football drills.
“I do both boxing and karate,” Crowder said. “My instructor, Vince Dye, is my neighbor and he did a lot of point-fighting. He coached high school football, but he played football in college at Arizona State. I think he was a safety. We do a lot of point fighting. I don’t like telling people this because they may try to steal it from me, but I give him his props.
“Point-fighting is kind of the same thing as kick-boxing. I really study the practice of it. A lot of times when you talk to someone in karate or kick-boxing they can’t incorporate it to football. They can’t relate it to the game. But since Vince coached football before he’s teaching me how my karate moves can be incorporated into the game. If the tackle oversets, I can deflect his hand and come inside.”
Crowder has been sharing his newfound love of karate and kick-boxing with Acho, who has five career forced fumbles and 16 career sacks, including three this year, when he travels back to Texas.
“He’s very talented,” Crowder said. “I really like Sam. We do a lot of stuff together in the offseason to work on our hands. We do boxing and some other things to take his game to a new level. The thing about college football is that guys don’t use their hands well enough or often enough on defense. When you do boxing, karate and kick-boxing like I do, you kind of get coordinated and it becomes second nature. Moving your hands becomes a reflex. You throw your hands up to deflect the tackle’s hands. You have to see things out of the corner of your eyes. A lot of time you can’t just look at your guy. You have to look at the quarterback and the guys in the backfield. You need to work on your peripheral vision. He’s doing a good job of developing that.”
Acho, who is more of a rangy speed rusher like Simeon Rice, would look great in red and pewter next April. If he can achieve double digit sacks he is projected to be a first-round pick.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Crowder, a former second-round pick from the Denver Broncos four years ago, believes that his size and athleticism makes him a versatile defensive end that can attack offensive tackles and tight ends in different ways.
“I can do speed and I can do power,” Crowder said. “I like to mix it up. I’m kind of like a thief. If I see something that works, I’m going to steal it. I watch a lot of tape of a lot of guys. I was watching Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. I like Mathis a lot and I’m working on stealing some of his moves.”
Crowder isn’t overly concerned about being a starter, although his production makes him deserving of that role. Instead, he takes more pride in gaining the respect of his opponents.
“I felt like that’s one of things that hurt me early on in my career,” Crowder said. “I was worried too much about being a starter instead of just playing football and making an impact in the game. Being a starter, that will come in time. I really don’t think about it too much. I just want to make an impact in the game like I did on Sunday. I want the other tackle to look on our depth chart and say, ‘You know what? That No. 96, we have to worry about him.’ If I’m doing that, that makes me happy.
“After the first game, Joe Thomas, who is one of the best tackles in the game, came up to me and said, ‘Man, you’re a really good player.’ That means a lot. This guy has been to the Pro Bowl ever since he’s been in the league. Just to hear that makes me feel like I’m doing something right. That’s all that matters to me now. I really don’t even think about starting anymore.”
FAB 4. Although Tampa Bay didn’t have the opportunity to use its 3-4 defense and 3-3-5 Redskin scheme against Pittsburgh, who often deployed two tight ends, Bucs head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris will undoubtedly break out those formations against passing teams, such as Cincinnati and New Orleans, who are on the slate next. Morris believes that when the team goes to a defensive line alignment that has Tim Crowder, Brian Price and Gerald McCoy on the field with linebackers Quincy Black, Barrett Ruud, Geno Hayes and Stylez White, the Bucs have the speed to strike from any where to put pressure on the quarterback.
Crowder is a big fan of Morris mixing up his defensive fronts instead of playing just a 4-3 defense.
“It’s good to mix it up because they really can’t get a bead on you,” Crowder said. “With four defensive linemen they can kind of scheme you. They can leave the tight ends in to block. But when it’s three down linemen, they don’t know who is coming. Maybe Quincy is coming or maybe Geno is coming or maybe it’s me. You just don’t know. It confuses them. Then you come back with a 4-3 and you get pressure with a four-man front. It’s a lot to throw at an offense from an offensive standpoint. It’s good to have that confusion.”
The Panthers were certainly confused when Morris deployed his 3-3-5 Redskin package on third down in the third quarter. McCoy, who was at left end, was triple-teamed by the right tackle, the tight end and the running back, while Black looped inside up the middle and had a wide open hit on quarterback Matt Moore for a 10-yard sack.
Playing different defensive alignments and moving players like McCoy, White, Black and Crowder around make it incredibly difficult for opposing offensive linemen to prepare for the individual match-ups they will be facing come Sunday.
“There is no way to study four or five possible opponents and get all their tendencies down,” Crowder said. “For me to go in and play both left and right defensive end, play inside and play some outside linebacker – that’s a lot to study in a week’s time. Stylez and I are two totally different pass rushers and we use two totally different techniques. When we go against the same left tackle, Stylez and I are built the same so he might be thinking we’re the same type of rusher, and we’re not. We get to catch guys off guard that way.”
Of course to truly unleash the pass rush and use all of the fancy 3-4 and 3-3-5 schemes, the Buccaneers have to put their opponents in passing situations. That means getting an early lead and forcing their foes to play catch-up. Through three games, the Bucs have only had one halftime lead and that was against Carolina, 14-7.
Currently, the Bucs are being outscored 49-30 in the first half. If the offense can generate more points and the defense can do a better job of holding opponents to field goals, Tampa Bay would be able to get into pass rush mode much quicker. Unfortunately for the Bucs, their defense has allowed seven touchdowns and no field goals in the first half of three games this season.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Punter Chris Bryan needs a big game against Cincinnati if he wants to remain a Buccaneer. Bryan’s punting was absolutely dreadful against Pittsburgh. He averaged 31 yards on five punts with a net of 29.4 yards. The Bucs are chalking Bryan’s bad day up to a bad game by the entire team, but he is on a short leash.
Bryan punted well in the first two games and was averaging 41.8 yards per punt with a gross of 38.8 heading into the Steelers contest. If he has another awful game, look for the Bucs to bring in a host of punters for try-outs, including Brent Bowden, who was the team’s sixth-round pick this year.
Bryan’s bright spot is that he has four punts downed inside the 20 and no touchbacks through three games.
• Not everyone in the building is sold on the notion of starting rookie Cody Grimm at free safety. There are some at One Buc Place that would like to see Sabby Piscitelli get another shot in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, it appears as if some bad blood between Piscitelli and defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake may still exist over Piscitelli’s blow up in the media over losing his starting job to Sean Jones during the preseason.
The problem with Piscitelli’s game is that he doesn’t have one thing he can hang his hat on. He had his struggles stopping the run last year with an NFL-high 19 missed tackles, and he can be a liability in pass coverage at times, too. However, the addition of some competition by bringing Jones into the fold has made Piscitelli a better player in the eyes of this reporter.
The one thing Piscitelli has going for him is 20 games worth of NFL starting experience. Yet despite that experience, he is still good for a mental lapse in coverage from time to time and that doesn’t exactly foster trust and confidence from the coaching staff.
• One overlooked statistic that is definitely in the Buccaneers’ favor is the fact that Tampa Bay leads the league in interceptions with six. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber each have two, while cornerback E.J. Biggers and linebacker Quincy Black have the other pair.
The Bucs had 19 interceptions last year, an average of 1.1875 per game. This year, Tampa Bay has recorded two interceptions in each of their three games. If they keep up this pace, the Bucs will finish the 2010 season with 32 interceptions, which would tie the franchise record.
Do you know which year the Bucs set that mark? No, it’s not 2002. The Bucs only had 31 regular season interceptions that year. The team record of 32 picks was set in 1981.
• Did you see offensive coordinator Greg Olson call for wide receiver Micheal Spurlock to throw a pass off an end around against Carolina? Unfortunately, the Panthers defenders got on Spurlock too quickly before he could get off a good pass. Don’t be surprised if the Bucs try that play again later in the season.
Spurlock was a quarterback at Ole Miss and he can really throw the ball well. In fact, the whole receiving corps can throw it quite well, so Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams or Sammie Stroughter may be asked to rifle a pass downfield on a reverse or an end around at some point.
• Speaking of receivers, Dezmon Briscoe, a rookie from Kansas who was signed to the practice squad after being cut by Cincinnati, has looked amazing in practice. There is already some buzz about him and some sources tell Pewter Report that he is already the third best wide receiver behind Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn in terms of talent and ability.
Briscoe’s playing style is reminiscent of Williams’, although he is just a tick slower than Tampa Bay’s starting flanker. General manager Mark Dominik is a KU alum and has had his sights set on Briscoe for the past two years. He wanted Briscoe so bad after the Bengals released him that he is paying the rookie receiver a full minimum base salary instead of the traditional practice squad salary, which is about five teams more money. That will ensure that Briscoe will remain a Buccaneer. It will only be a matter of time before Briscoe is activated to the 53-man roster.
• According to most national and local pundits, Tampa Bay wasn’t supposed to be 2-1 heading into the bye week. Apparently the Bucs didn’t get the memo.
“You know you’re not supposed to be a lot of things in life,” said Bucs defensive end Tim Crowder. “But the reality is that we’re 2-1, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We still haven’t played our best game. We can get so much better. That’s the scary thing. We left so much out there. That’s the good thing. We can go out there and get better. We’re going to go out there and grade each other and get better from it.”