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. BRACE YOURSELF FOR A SLOW START BY TAMPA BAY’S OFFENSE
The Buccaneers have the 30th-ranked offense and scored a total of 24 points in just two preseason games. The starting offense has only accounted for just seven points, which came at the start of the second quarter of last week’s 20-14 loss against Miami.
At the heart of any real productive NFL offense is a great offensive line, and the Buccaneers don’t have one right now. Tampa Bay has spent the entire offseason and all of training camp trying to find two competent guards to play next to offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Demar Dotson and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. It’s still a work in progress, and until the guard situation has been settled the offensive line won’t gel and find the chemistry it needs to be successful.
Without a successful offensive line, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin won’t have the holes he needs and quarterback Josh McCown won’t have the pass protection he deserves to find open receivers and tight ends in the passing game. The Bucs offense will remain a work in progress for at least half the season as the unit has a new offensive coordinator, a new playbook with new terminology taught by new assistants to new players.
In other words, don’t be surprised to see Tampa Bay’s offense struggle – sometimes mightily – between now and the Bucs’ bye week on October 19, which comes in Week 7. Until the offensive line comes together and finds consistency, third down percentages will suffer and points will be at a premium. But that doesn’t mean the Buccaneers can’t have success and win some games in the process.
The term “Buc Ball” started when former head coach Tony Dungy was at the helm and current head coach Lovie Smith was on his staff as the team’s linebackers coach. “Buc Ball” was coined from the belief that Tampa Bay’s stout defense could create takeaways and limit point production of the opposing team’s offense to help offset the team’s struggling offense.
“Buc Ball started off with great defense,” Smith said. “Defense expecting to win the football game, get takeaways and all that good stuff with special teams. Our version of Buc Ball is that: great defense, great special teams but with a productive offense. You want your quarterback thinking that way, knowing that he’s got to protect the football and that’s what Josh McCown was talking about as much as anything.
“When you get an opportunity, Josh McCown knows we got that takeaway, you couldn’t settle for a field goal there. You need to get a touchdown, you have to capitalize on those types of things. Josh knows he’s going to run ball. He knows when to pull the throttle, press it down a little bit more and when to make great decisions.”
The Bucs offense never ascended to more than a competent level under Dungy during his tenure from 1996-2001 and Tampa Bay was forced to play “Buc Ball” to get to the playoffs during that era. The Bucs also relied on playing “Buc Ball” during Jon Gruden’s first year in 2002 because half of the players on offense were new, as was the West Coast Offense and it took half a season to put it all together.
History suggests that Smith will need the team to engage in “Buc Ball” once again in 2014, especially with four new starting offensive linemen lining up next to Dotson. The last two notable times in team history – the 2002 and 2004 seasons – where there have been at least three new offensive linemen in one season the point production has suffered.
During the 2002 season, the Bucs moved left tackle Kenyatta Walker to right tackle and inserted free agents Roman Oben and Kerry Jenkins in at left tackle and left guard. Despite established veteran star players like quarterback Brad Johnson, running backs Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman, tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley and wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, Gruden’s offense struggled out of the gate until the line became a cohesive unit.
The Bucs started the season 5-2 in 2002 en route to winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl trophy due in large part to Tampa Bay’s stellar defense, which scored four defensive touchdowns in the first seven games and allowed an average of under 10 points per game during that stretch.
Tampa Bay’s First 7 Games In 2002
Week 1 – New Orleans (home) – 26-20 Loss
Week 2 – Baltimore (away) – 25-0 Win (Bucs had a defensive TD)
Week 3 – St. Louis (home) – 26-14 Win (Bucs had a defensive TD)
Week 4 – Cincinnati (away) – 35-7 Win (Bucs had a defensive TD)
Week 5 – Atlanta (away) – 20-6 Win
Week 6 – Cleveland (home) – 17-3 Win
Week 7 – Philadelphia (away) – 20-10 Loss (Bucs had a defensive TD)
The Bucs offense scored 125 of the 153 points in Tampa Bay’s first seven games that season for an average of 17.8 points per game. But it should be noted that the offense only scored more than 20 points just once in the first seven games and that was against Cincinnati in a blowout win over a bad Bengals team.
In 2004, the Bucs offense featured three new offensive linemen in left tackle Derrick Deese, left guard Matt Stinchcomb and right tackle Todd Steussie and really struggled out of the gate. Steussie was injured after the first five games and was replaced by Walker, who had been demoted at the start of the season.
Tampa Bay started 2004 with four straight losses and was just 2-5 in the first seven games of the season en route to a 5-11 campaign. It could have been worse if not for three defensive scores in the first seven games of the season, including a key touchdown by cornerback Ronde Barber in the Bucs’ 20-17 win at New Orleans, which was the first victory in 2004.
Tampa Bay’s First 7 Games In 2004
Week 1 – Washington (away) – 16-10 Loss (Defensive TD)
Week 2 – Seattle (home) – 10-6 Loss
Week 3 – Oakland (away) – 30-20 Loss (Defensive TD)
Week 4 – Denver (home) – 16-13 Loss
Week 5 – New Orleans (away) – 20-17 Win (Defensive TD)
Week 6 – St. Louis (away) – 28-21 Loss
Week 7 – Chicago (home) – 19-7 Win
The Bucs offense scored just 88 of the 109 points in the first seven games of the 2004 season for a paltry average of just 12.6 points per game. The fact that the defense allowed 17.7 points per game wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Tampa Bay’s struggling offense.
The Bucs are hoping to buck the somewhat recent trend of struggling with offensive consistency and point production when starting three new offensive linemen at the start of a season. But history suggests otherwise as we take a look at the scoring defenses for Tampa Bay’s first seven opponents.
Tampa Bay’s First 7 Games In 2014
Week 1 – Carolina – 15.1 ppg. (ranked 2nd)
Week 2 – St. Louis – 22.8 ppg. (ranked 13th)
Week 3 – Atlanta – 27.7 ppg. (ranked 27th)
Week 4 – Pittsburgh – 23.1 ppg. (ranked 14th)
Week 5 – New Orleans – 19 ppg. (ranked 4th)
Week 6 – Baltimore – 22 ppg. (ranked 12th)
Week 7 – Bye Week
Week 8 – Minnesota – 30 ppg. (ranked 32nd)
Five of the Bucs’ first seven foes ranked inside the top 15 in scoring defense last year, including two (Carolina and New Orleans) inside the top 5.
Brace yourself for a rough start to Tampa Bay’s offense.
FAB 2. BUCS’ O-LINE WILL FACE STIFFEST CHALLENGE IN FIRST 2 GAMES
The fact that Tampa Bay’s offensive line will be a work in progress into the start of the regular season is not good considering which teams the Bucs will face right out of the gate. We’re talking about Carolina and St. Louis at home in Weeks 1-2.
With four new starting offensive linemen next to right tackle Demar Dotson it might take a month or so to get the necessary chemistry together to become a formidable unit. And that’s if Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh stay at left and right guard, respectively, and there aren’t any more lineup changes throughout the preseason.
“We are building some chemistry,” Dotson said. “That’s what training camp and the preseason are for. We’ve gotten used to every guy on this offensive line and there has been some rotating at guard. I think every guy on this team brings a different thing to the table. It’s going to be Pat’s second week there, and he’s been doing a good job.”
If Omameh can lock down the right guard spot, Tampa Bay’s offensive line will have the chance to at least play a couple of games together before the Panthers and their pack of pass rushers come to town in Week 1, followed by the Rams’ dangerous front four in Week 2.
Here is a look at Carolina’s front four, key reserves and their stats from 2013:
Panthers’ Starting Defensive Line
LE Charles Johnson – 6-2, 285 – 11 sacks, 1 FF
DT Colin Cole – 6-2, 330 – 1 sack
DT Star Lotulelei – 6-2, 320 – 3 sacks
RE Greg Hardy – 6-4, 275 – 15 sacks, 1 FF
Panthers’ Key Reserves
DT Kawann Short – 6-3, 315 – 1.5 sacks, 1 FF
DE Kony Ealy – 6-4, 275 – rookie
Here is a look at the Rams’ front four, key reserves and their stats from 2013:
Rams’ Starting Defensive Line
LE Chris Long – 6-3, 268 – 8.5 sacks, 1 FF
DT Kendall Langford – 6-6, 313 – 5 sacks
DT Michael Brockers 6-5, 326 – 5.5 sacks, 1 FF
RE Robert Quinn – 6-4, 264 – 19 sacks
Rams’ Key Reserves
DE William Hayes – 6-3, 278 – 5 sacks
DT Aaron Donald – 6-1, 285 – rookie
“I think it will only make us better to go out and face good teams,” Dotson said. “Every guy on this offensive line wants the opportunity to go against the best in this league and show who you are. We get that right out of the gate. It doesn’t get any harder than Carolina and St. Louis. I think the whole year is tough. Going against Miami and Buffalo just gets us ready for those guys.”
Led by franchise player Greg Hardy, who had a career-high 15 sacks, Carolina finished the 2013 season ranked second in scoring defense and total defense, allowing just 15.1 points per game and 301.2 yards per game, respectively. Hardy isn’t just a matchup problem for new Tampa Bay left tackle Anthony Collins, though.
“They put Greg Hardy inside and rush him sometimes,” Cousins said. “I’ve watched a little bit of tape on those teams. They both have a great front four. We’re definitely going to be on top of our film study.”
Carolina’s starting front four accounted for 30 sacks of the team’s NFL-leading 60 last year, and featured two double-digit sackers in Hardy and left end Charles Johnson, who had 11 sacks last year.
St. Louis’ defensive line might be more potent when it comes to rushing the passer as it featured the league’s top sacker in left end Robert Quinn, who had 19 in 2013. The Rams’ starting front four totaled 38 of the team’s 53 sacks last year, which ranked third in the NFL.
The Buccaneers are facing the league’s second-ranked team when it comes to sacks last year in Buffalo this Saturday. The Bills defense, led by Mario Williams, had 57 sacks in 2013. The 6-foot-6, 292-pound Williams recorded 13 sacks and one forced fumble last year.
Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who will face off against Cousins on Saturday, notched 10.5 sacks last year and will provide a good challenge to Tampa Bay’s left guard, who is currently trying to hang on to his starting job.
“Every week it’s a challenge,” Cousins said. “There are no easy days for us. The first week of the season isn’t easy. Neither is this Saturday up in Buffalo. We’re just focusing on us getting better and taking things one day at a time, and right we’re focused on this Saturday and getting better.”
How the Bucs’ offensive line holds up in Buffalo could be an indicator of how much – or little – success Tampa Bay will have up front at the start of the 2014 campaign.
FAB 3. BUCS’ PASS RUSH NEEDS TO COME ALIVE IN BUFFALO
While the Buccaneers are worried about the pass rush of opposing teams there is some concern within One Buccaneer Place about Tampa Bay’s own ability to get to the quarterback. After all, the Bucs ranked tied for 23rd in the NFL last year with 35 QB captures – led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s 9.5, and addressed the defensive line in free agency with the acquisition of defensive end Michael Johnson and nose tackle Clinton McDonald.
But through two preseason games, the Bucs have just two sacks – one from McCoy against Miami and another from reserve defensive end Steven Means against Jacksonville. Even though the starters have only seen roughly two quarters of action, the pass rush has simply not been good enough.
“It’s disappointing,” McCoy said. “Our D-line coach said we lead the league in run defense in the preseason, but we don’t lead the league in sacks in the preseason. We’re trying to build on it and it’s a point of emphasis this week – getting to the quarterback.”
Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel will be the target, and he was sacked seven times and picked off four times by Tampa Bay last year in the Bucs’ 27-6 home victory.
“We’re playing a mobile quarterback this week, who is actually growing,” McCoy said. “I don’t know if you’ve watched him, but he’s getting better. We have to be conscience of our rush lanes and go all out to get to the QB.”
While several players have gotten pressures on the quarterback this preseason, McCoy said that defensive line coach Joe Cullen isn’t satisfied with that.
“A sack is a sack,” McCoy said. “We could say, ‘Well we got pressures …’ but we have to get him on the ground. And if we get him on the ground we have to take the ball away.”
That’s what McCoy did last week to Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, forcing a fumble on his sack that was recovered by Johnson at the Dolphins’ 25-yard line. That takeaway directly led to the Bucs’ first touchdown of the game.
“We have to [be the driving force for the team],” McCoy said. “Because if the other team can’t score they can’t win. Who is to say we can’t win the game on defense? I’m not taking anything away from our offense. Our offense is awesome. Who says we just can’t win the game on defense? Let’s say our offense isn’t having a good day. Who says we can’t take the ball away twice and put it in the end zone? There’s no rule in the rulebook that says that can’t happen. That’s what we’re working towards.”
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Johnson’s fumble recovery last week has been the lone bright spot to an uneventful start with the Buccaneers this preseason. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson is an athletic specimen, but needs his production to match his ability.
McCoy isn’t worried about Johnson’s slow start in a Tampa 2 defense that he is adjusting to.
“Michael is doing more than people give him credit for,” McCoy said. “The thing about Mike is that this is sort of a new scheme for him, too. He’s really understanding more of what he needs to do. Day by day he’s understanding more, and week by week you’ll see improvement until he’s that dynamic player that everybody expects. I think he’ll be that guy. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be that guy. He’s just trying to figure everything out and taking steps moving forward.”
Johnson signed a five-year, $43-million deal with Tampa Bay after coming off a 3.5-sack season as the Bengals’ franchise player. In 2012, Johnson had a career-high 11.5 sacks, and that’s the type of production Bucs head coach Lovie Smith expects from him.
“I’ve seen good play from Michael, but the dominating play that I feel like we’re going to get? No, we haven’t seen that,” Smith said. “But we haven’t seen that from any guys on our football team. Gerald McCoy has been dominating. But I would say, around the league, a lot of the players that will end up playing great ball during the season haven’t played this great ball during the preseason. So I don’t look into too much from the preseason on how guys play. One thing, of course, is stay healthy and get the defense down and we’ll turn them loose from there. I’m very pleased. No disappointment in Michael Johnson.”
The Bucs have been desperate to find some semblance of a pass rush this August, bringing in a host of defensive ends, including the likes of Larry English, T.J. Fatinkun, Ryne Giddins and James Ruffin, who was cut earlier this week. Those players were brought in to help shore up the depth at defensive end given the groin injuries that sidelined Da’Quan Bowers and Means for the Dolphins game. Means, who is Johnson’s backup, has had a good start to training camp and provided speed and quickness off the edge.
Because he has yet to secure a roster spot, Means is hoping his injured groin heals up by Saturday so he can prove he can be one of the pass rushers Smith needs on this team.
“It’s going good,” Means said. “God is working. God is working a miracle. I’m further a long than I expected. I was born and raised in Buffalo, so that’s my hometown. That’s where my family is. I definitely want to play in this game. God is at work. He’s going to provide for me.”
Means, last year’s fifth-round pick who saw very little playing time on defense, says that Cullen has been pretty explicit in team meetings about the need to get to the quarterback this week.
“It’s a blessing for me to have one of our two sacks,” Means said. “In the meetings we’re just talking about having a coordinated rush – four men working together. Right now we’re getting off the ball, but we’re not getting on the edges and we’re not working together with a good, coordinated rush. At the same time, it’s only been two preseason games, so we’ll be ready to go.
“It’s been encouraging to watch the film and see the opportunity we do have and to try to capitalize on those opportunities next time. We’re just doing little things wrong. We’re not too far off.”
Being close doesn’t count when rushing the quarterback. And the fact that the Bucs only have two sacks in 62 pass attempts this preseason is a clear indication that Smith needs more from his defensive line. McCoy can’t be the lone productive pass rusher like he was a year ago if the Bucs want to position themselves for the playoffs. The Tampa 2 defense is predicated on a strong four-man rush upfront.
“In my mind nothing has changed,” Smith said. “Of course nothing has, I still believe as much now as I did then, that you can’t just rely on [blitzing] – and we will blitz. A misnomer a little bit is that we’re a Tampa 2 team and that we never blitz – we’ll blitz. I like to blitz about a third of the time, but we want to be able to rush and get pressure based on a four-man rush and blitz because we want to, not because we have to because we can’t get pressure up front.
“Our guys know that when in doubt if we don’t get the call in, the defensive line assumes that it’s green, which means just pass first rush up the football field. Until we can do that, we’re not going to win any football games. Players know that and we insist on it.”
Getting a few more sacks – or seven – against Buffalo on Saturday would ease a lot of minds at One Buccaneer Place – and in the Bucs’ fan base.
FAB 4. AFTERNOON PRESEASON GAME IS IDEAL FOR BUCCANEERS
For the first time in quite some time Tampa Bay will play a preseason game in the afternoon as opposed to a typical evening affair. In fact, I can’t remember the last time the Bucs had an afternoon matinee in August.
But it’s a clear advantage to the team to play Buffalo at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday as Tampa Bay’s first regular season contest is at home against Carolina at 4:15 p.m. on September 7.
“It gives us the opportunity to go through the same game day routine that we will have against Carolina,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. “I’m sure Coach [Lovie] Smith will put it the same way we’ll do it against Carolina, so that let’s us know what to expect and how to prepare for that Carolina game.”
The Bucs will catch a break with the weather against the Bills, as the temperature at Ralph Wilson stadium is expected to be 79 degrees with cloudy skies and a 40 percent chance for rain. That’s a far cry from the 93-degree forecast in Tampa on Saturday. While the temperatures in Buffalo won’t nearly be as hot as it will be in Tampa come September 7, going through a routine with an afternoon game will have its benefits.
“Any time you can mimic what you’re going to do it’s a good thing,” Bucs quarterback Josh McCown said. “It’s going to be the same start time for us [in Week 1] and it’s a good dress rehearsal. There will be some advantages to it. We aren’t playing Carolina in Buffalo, so the temperatures won’t be the same, but at least your body’s mechanics and from a timing standpoint, it’ll be a good thing.”
Buccaneers left guard Oniel Cousins said Tampa Bay has to be able to play football no matter what time it is.
“It’s good for us to play in the afternoon, but it really doesn’t matter what time it is,” Cousins said. “We have to go out there and perform. If it helps us, it does. We’re just going out there to play. We’ve got to get better against Buffalo and get ready for Week 1.”
FAB 5. SR’S BUCS SHOTS
• Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson will play with whoever lines up next to him, but he admits he’s grown very comfortable with Patrick Omameh at right guard. Omameh got his first NFL start last week against Miami and played well enough to earn a second start against Buffalo this week.
“I think he’s got a great opportunity to get that spot,” Dotson said. “I enjoy playing with Pat. He’s smart, tough and physical. He’s young and hungry, too. I told him before the game I was looking forward to the opportunity of playing next to him. This week against Buffalo he’ll be even better.”
• Tampa Bay will have a chance to square off with a familiar foe on Saturday in Buffalo wide receiver Mike Williams, who was traded to the Bills in the offseason after off-field problems became too much of a distraction to head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht. Williams, who has three catches for 49 yards this preseason, is battling Robert Woods for the right to start opposite Sammy Watkins, the team’s first-round pick.
“Mike was a great guy here,” Bucs nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson said. “I went against him for two years in a row in practice. We competed against each other, so it will be good to go against him again and hit him for real. I’m excited to compete against him. I’m sure there will be plenty of trash talk. Mike is a guy with a big personality. I’ve never played against him on the football field, so I don’t know what it’s like to go against him on a game day. Mike is a great guy to be around in the locker room, and trash talk is a part of the game. If he does it, you take it and run with it.”
Williams’ good friend, Bucs middle linebacker Mason Foster, is looking forward to jawing with the gregarious receiver on Saturday.
“It’s going to be cool going against Mike,” Foster said. “He’s a great athlete and a great receiver. It’s going to be fun. The guy is a competitor, so he’s going to be out there talking. He would always go it during practice so I would expect nothing different out there on Saturday. At the end of the day, he’s a good friend of mind and I wish him the best. But if I have to lower the boom on him across the middle, so be it.”
• Newly acquired Bucs defensive end Larry English got his feet wet at defensive end last Saturday against Miami after playing his first five years in the NFL as a stand-up, outside linebacker with San Diego, which selected him in the first round of the 2009 draft. Although he only recorded 11 sacks with the Chargers, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound English was a productive pass rushing defensive end at Northern Illinois where he notched 30 sacks in his career.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith has liked what he’s seen thus far, and wants to give English a look with the starters at some point on Saturday.
“Probably exactly what you would want to see from him when he came out, he was drafted so high,” Smith said. “We brought him in here – we’re always looking for outside pass-rushers and we brought Larry in hoping that he could give us some of that. In practice, from the first day he was okay. The next day he was better, so we’re anxious to let him play. You might see him early in this game, we want to see him against good competition to see exactly what he can do.”
If you aren’t familiar with English, check out this highlight video from his days at NIU.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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