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It’s been a while (since September 1 to be exact) since my last SR’s Fab Five. Forgive this column for its tardiness. The reason? Well, there are several, but I’ll take the time to share a couple with you to keep the lynch mob of angry Pewter Insider subscribers at bay – especially after all of the sincere e-mails I’ve received from loyal readers over the past few weeks who have had uplifting messages, such as “Get off your lazy ass and get us a Fab Five!”
I can honestly say that I haven’t worked harder than I did in the month of August with two big issues of Pewter Report to produce and a ton of training camp stories for PewterReport.com (when it was actually up) during the hottest training camp in my 10 years of covering the Bucs beat – not to mention a lot of other business-related headaches. One of those headaches has been the failed technology and hosting of our PewterReport.com site. Having the outages since training camp started naturally upset our visitors, but it took a far greater toll on me stress-wise, I’m afraid. It literally gave me an ulcer, which has been quite uncomfortable for the past few weeks.
I’m not looking for any sympathy, and due to frequent trips to the doctor, I’ll soon be on the road to recovery. The great news is that I’ve lost 20 pounds. The bad news is that I’ll have to miss out on the beer and brats this weekend up in Green Bay. That stinks.
So why hasn’t Jim Flynn been similarly affected? Because he’s in better physical shape, I’m six years older than he is, and he hasn’t gone through fatherhood yet and I’ve got two little rugrats that scream, cry and holler at home. That’s my guess.
All kidding aside, I know Flynn has been deeply affected by the ills of PewterReport.com and he and I have spent a lot of time dealing with our new webmaster and E Solutions and formulating the game plan for the new and improved PewterReport.com. It’s just been a bit distracting and has prevented me from delivering a new SR’s Fab Five – until now. The good news is that I’ve racked up a ton of inside scoop over the last few weeks, so I’ll be cranking out a couple more SR’s Fab Fives in rapid fire fashion over the coming weeks. Enjoy.
Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Why are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers off to a 2-0 start? It’s rather simple to explain. They are finishing.
Last year, games that should have been salted away with the running game where instead given away on fumbles or costly interceptions. Drives that should have ended in field goals against Tampa Bay’s defense instead wound up being touchdown drives. Field goals that should have been made wound up being field goals that were missed.
In 2005, the Bucs are doing all of the things they should have done in 2004. The win at Minnesota was a prime example of Tampa Bay finishing in all three phases of the game. If Matt Bryant misses his lone field goal attempt in the second quarter, the Vikings could have pulled to with 14-13 before Carnell “Cadillac” Williams’ 71-yard touchdown put the game out of reach.
Plus, it is difficult to imagine the deflating effect of Bryant missing his first field goal in a Bucs uniform after all of the trials and tribulations that Tampa Bay went through last year with Martin Gramatica’s woeful misses. Bryant continued to “finish” by drilling another field goal this past week against Buffalo.
Then there was Williams’ run on third-and-1 at Minnesota, and the two runs before it that netted nine yards. Last year, the Bucs probably don’t convert the third down and have to punt the ball away if they didn’t fumble it away. With Williams, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has a finisher on offense.
Last week against Buffalo, Williams didn’t have to finish off the Bills in the fourth quarter. They were already finished by then thanks to the damage that he and Tampa Bay’s offensive line did in quarters 1-3 by pounding the rock.
Tampa Bay’s defense finished off the Vikings when cornerback Brian Kelly produced the team’s fourth turnover of the game by picking off Daunte Culpepper late in the fourth quarter to set up Williams in the closer role. After the Bucs increased their lead to 24-13 over the Vikings, linebacker Derrick Brooks stepped up and ended the game with yet another theft of a Culpepper pass.
Against Buffalo, the Bucs extended their string of not allowing a touchdown on defense to three games, dating back to last year’s 12-7 defeat at Arizona. By halftime, Bills quarterback J.P. Losman was finished. He was 2-of-9 for 13 yards passing and had already given up a safety to Tampa Bay middle linebacker Shelton Quarles.
Thus far, the Buccaneers defense has been amazing. Out of 22 series on defense through two games, Tampa Bay has forced opponents into three-and-out situations a whopping 11 times. Five other series have ended in turnovers – all in the Minnesota game – and one series against the Vikings lasted just one play prior to the end of the first half. That means that the Bucs’ opponents have had just four “meaningful” drives in two games, and only three of those drives ended in points – three field goals to be exact. That is domination.
According to Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, the players had to buy into the concept of finishing after reviewing the reasons why they lost so many close games last year.
“We definitely did and we had to because we looked at our losses last year and looked at our deficiencies and those were it,” Barber said. “Putting the emphasis on it was the right thing to do and I think everybody embraced it. In the preseason with the turnovers and the way we were finishing some drives, it is kind of a testament that things that you practice and the things that you prepare for will carry over when it is time to really go, and that’s what has happened.”
If there was one constant message that Gruden and the coaching staff pounded into the players’ heads during the offseason and training camp, it was finishing on offense, defense and special teams.
“It is the difference between last year and this year,” said Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton. “Coach Gruden says it all the time, ‘Finish, finish, finish.'”
According to Kelly, nothing creates more team unity and team chemistry than every phase of the game doing its part to achieve victory.
“It feels good in this locker room right now,” Kelly said. “It’s going to give us a lot of confidence, but not overconfidence. Everyone still has a level head. Being 2-0 doesn’t get you anything, but it’s the way we’re winning games that matters. Winning a game late (at Minnesota) and then coming back and pounding the run. Those were two things we weren’t able to do in the past.”
Added left tackle Anthony Davis, “All during the offseason and training camp Coach Gruden stressed tempo and finishing. We’ve got to continue to finish games on offense and defense. I think we’re off to a good start.”
FAB 2. Not only has Tampa Bay’s newfound dominant running game had such a positive effect on the offense in terms of setting up play action passes and the ability to move the chains to keep potential scoring drives alive, it has also had a profound effect on the Buccaneers defense by keeping that unit fresh to wreck havoc in the fourth quarter.
As much as head coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Brian Griese love having Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and this physical, revamped offensive line around, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his cohorts may actually benefit even more.
“We love having this running game now,” said Bucs defensive lineman Dewayne White. “The more (our opponents’) defense plays, the less we play. By the time the fourth quarter comes, their defense is tired and we’re fresh. We’ve been doing it the last couple of weeks and I think this can be the winning formula for us.”
With the 29th ranked running game a year ago, Gruden had to pass the ball more than he wanted to due to an offensive line that couldn’t get much push off the line of scrimmage and a running back in Michael Pittman who couldn’t create on his own. By having Griese drop back to pass with greater frequency, the chances for interceptions and sacks went up dramatically. And the result of sacks or incomplete passes only put the Bucs in difficult downs and distances, such as third-and-10 or third-and-17. This scenario resulted in frequent three-and-outs for Tampa Bay’s offense, which meant that the defense was back out on the field without the benefit of rest.
“Great defenses are defenses that stay off the field,” said Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips. “If we can keep getting off the field and our offense can keep putting together drives, it’s going to be a great season.
“We’re getting our rest while the other defense is still on the field. As long as we keep going three and out and the offense keeps putting drives together we’re working together to make each other successful. That wasn’t the case last year.”
Former Bucs secondary coach Herman Edwards once said that Tampa Bay’s defense was built for 55-60 plays due to the undersized, speedy players that this defense was constructed around. Historically, after 65-70 plays the Bucs’ undersized defense has shown a propensity to wear down. That’s usually when teams have had the lead and start running the ball right at the gut of Tampa Bay’s defense.
Through the first two games of the 2005 season, the defense has been on the field for 53 plays at Minnesota and just 51 plays against Buffalo.
“We had what,  plays in the first half against Buffalo?” said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber. “And we had 19 in the first half last week at Minnesota? We talk about finishing all the time, and when you are not expending yourself for the first 30 minutes of the football game, you are giving yourself a good opportunity to be fresh in the fourth quarter.”
The Bucs’ strong running game has allowed Tampa Bay to hold a 19:33 to 10:27 time of possession advantage in the first half against Minnesota, and a 20:44 to 9:16 time of possession advantage in the first half versus Buffalo.
“That allows our front four to stay out there and not have to rotate a lot because they are getting a lot of rest on the sidelines,” said Kelly. “In the secondary, our legs feel fresh out there. We’re able to play a good four quarters and make key plays late in the game.”
FAB 3. When Tampa Bay’s 2005 season first started, some were a bit shocked to see such a lopsided roster that included 28 players on offense, but just 23 players on defense. When it was revealed that the Bucs would keep just five linebackers and only eight defensive linemen – instead of the nine that the team has carried in previous years – it was an even bigger surprise, especially because the Bucs cut up-and-coming player Josh Savage and were left with just three defensive ends.
But that’s where the “Marinelli Math” comes into play. When asked if he was concerned about the fact of having just eight defensive linemen – especially after watching three defensive tackles land on injured reserve early on in 2005 – and only three ends on the roster, Bucs defensive line guru Rod Marinelli said no.
“I was able to keep the best eight players,” Marinelli said. “It would be tough to keep five tackles and three ends, but Ellis (Wyms) can swing between tackle and end. That helps us out a lot without question. The way I look at it, I’ve got six tackles (because Dewayne White can go inside) and four ends (with Wyms going outside). So out of eight guys, I’ve really got 10 guys – due to flexibility.”
Getting six defensive tackles and four defensive ends out of just eight players – that’s “Marinelli Math” for you.
One thing that hasn’t quite added up since the Buccaneers put the pads on this season has been the lack of production in the sack department. Tampa Bay only had four sacks in the preseason, and none of them came from anyone on the starting defense. Through the first two games, the Bucs defense has notched four sacks, with defensive end Simeon Rice leading the way with two, and Anthony “Booger” McFarland and linebacker Shelton Quarles each producing one.
Marinelli said he isn’t concerned about the lack of sacks thus far because the pressure put forth by Tampa Bay’s front four and blitzers has resulted in three interceptions and multiple incompletions that have contributed to opponents only converting 36 percent of their third downs.
“You’ve got to look at everything,” Marinelli said. “Look at the Miami game (in the preseason). They had a lot of runs and they had a quick (passing) game. The opportunities for sacks go down. I always look at anything that is a five-step drop. I look at the one-on-ones that our front four is getting. They have to have opportunities. That’s how you have to look at it.
“You can look at the Denver game last year. You might say, ‘(Tampa Bay) didn’t get a lot of sacks against Denver.’ They called a lot of boots in that game. It’s pass, right? But they faked the run, so we’re going to go that way, and then we have to run back the other way to chase the quarterback. You’re trying to contain a guy in those situations. Those are the things I look at when we go into a game. Certain things we have to dominate. Certain things we cannot control. I’m not concerned, no. If we weren’t rushing hard, I’d be concerned.”
FAB 4. Including a playoff loss during the 1997 season, Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks has had to endure eight straight defeats at Lambeau Field at the hands of the Brett Favre-led Green Bay Packers. Brooks is one of just 12 Bucs players left – including cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, defensive linemen Simeon Rice, Anthony McFarland and Ellis Wyms, tight end Dave Moore, fullbacks Mike Alstott and Jameel Cook, safety Dexter Jackson, right tackle Kenyatta Walker and linebacker Shelton Quarles – with NFC Central roots that haven’t won at Lambeau Field. For many of the team’s veterans who are nearing retirement, this may be their best and last shot to chase away some of the Packer demons that have denied the Bucs a chance to claim the NFC Central title or advance in the playoffs.
“I can’t think of anybody on this football team that has won up there,” Barber said. “Obviously, 1989 is the last time the Bucs have won up there. That’s a special place for everybody to play in. It’s a fun place to play up there. Their fans really get into it.”
With Tampa Bay off to a hot 2-0 start and Green Bay reeling off of an 0-2 start, including a harrowing home loss last week to Cleveland, chances are favorable that Barber and Co. will get that elusive win at Lambeau Field, especially since there is no forecast for frozen tundra on Sunday. Should the Bucs prevail, the victory will be much sweeter for the dozen elder statesmen on the team than it will be for younger players such as receiver Michael Clayton and running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who have not yet seen the Lambeau Leap or heard the obnoxious chants of “Go Pack, Go!” from the Cheeseheads.
“Their first foray up there won’t mean nearly as much to guys who have been up there about six times and lost,” Barber said. “For the NFC Central guys who have never won up there, it is something we have never done and it is something that we would like to accomplish.
“Green Bay is always a formidable opponent and they have a Hall of Fame quarterback and some good guys on offense. It’s just a matter of us continuing to play the way we play.”
The fact that Barber and the NFC Central gang on the Buccaneers will get one last shot at Favre, who may be playing his last season in the NFL, means something, too.
“You never know,” Barber said. “Favre’s a special guy to play against. It would be nice to take away a victory from him up there at least once.”
The Bucs will have that chance on Sunday, and the chance to start off 3-0, which is even more important.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• When the Tampa Bay front office was paring down its roster to the final 53 players earlier this month, it was safe to say that perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks was probably the first player the Buccaneers put down on their roster. But on the current roster, which player is number 53? No Bucs offical will actually confirm that, but it’s a safe bet that the player is a rookie – perhaps wide receivers J.R. Russell or Paris Warren. The guess here is that it could be strong safety Donte Nicholson, who made just three tackles on defense and two stops on special teams in the preseason and didn’t make one single big play in any of the four exhibition games. Tampa Bay assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris didn’t deny that Nicholson failed to light it up in the preseason. “He’s raw, but he’s a talented kid,” Morris said. “He’s got a lot of potential and he’s got a lot of growth to do. He’s done of lot of growing already on the practice field by just not making mistakes. He’s just got to learn how to play fast and let it go. Once he does that, if he ever does it, he’ll turn it on and you never know what he could be. He could end up being Jermaine Phillips in two years, or he could be somebody who has come and gone quickly. I talked to him about that and his work ethic. He needs Blue Adams’ work ethic and he’ll have a chance to be good. Will he get there? We’ll have to wait and see. When he first got here we thought he was more of a ‘in the box’ guy. But he showed great grass ability when he got here. We didn’t know he could run nearly as well as he did. He could cover grass and numbers-to-numbers really well. I’m not worried about him there. I just want him to turn it on and play fast when it comes to being in the box and making plays – making splash plays.”
• Of all that there is to like about sensational Tampa Bay rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the thing his teammates appreciate the most is his toughness. The 5-foot-11 rusher added 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason to increase his playing weight from the 205 pounds he played at during his career at Auburn to the robust 217 pounds he plays at today. But after spraining his arch in the first half against Buffalo last week, Williams showed a lot of toughness and moxie by going in the second half and breaking off a 19-yarder and a 31-yarder en route to a 128-yard effort. “Everybody is hurt out there, but on the field, certain players feel no pain,” said Bucs receiver Michael Clayton. “He’s definitely one of those guys who fights through it. He keeps his head focused and he’s able to keep his vision. When you have a back like that, we feed off that.”
• Tampa Bay’s improved ground game has rushed for 337 yards on 71 carries through its 2-0 start. That computes to an impressive 4.7-yard average. However, upon further inspection, the Bucs’ running game is actually doing a bit better. If one were to take away the end-of-game kneel downs and the scramble or two by quarterback Brian Griese, who statistically has rushed for minus-4 yards on five carries, and a reverse by receiver Joey Galloway that netted zero yards, the Bucs would be averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
• One of the keys to winning football games is making big plays on offense. Through last year’s 0-2 start, the Bucs produced just five big plays, which are defined as runs over 10 yards and completions over 20 yards. Quarterback Brad Johnson had a 24-yard pass to Rickey Dudley against Washington and a 20-yard pass to Michael Clayton versus Seattle. Chris Simms’ 35-yard pass to Charles Lee against Seattle was the longest pass through two games, while Charlie Garner’s 25-yard scamper against the Seahawks was the Bucs’ longest run. Through this season’s 2-0 start, Tampa Bay has more than doubled its big play output by generating 11 big plays – six runs of 10 yards or more along with five passes longer than 20 yards. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams has runs of 19, 19, 23, 31 and 71 yards, while Michael Pittman has added a 24-yard run of his own. Brian Griese has thrown 30- and 36-yard completions to split end Joey Galloway, 34- and 41-yard passes to flanker Michael Clayton and a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alex Smith. The Bucs are averaging about five big plays per game on offense this season. Expect that many or even more against Green Bay’s suspect defense this Sunday.
• Aside from the league-leading amount of penalties Tampa Bay has incurred thus far in 2005, the only other big disappointment for the Buccaneers is failing to start fast on offense. Head coach Jon Gruden has been preaching to his team about getting the lead early in games, but Tampa Bay has yet to score any points in the first quarter in its first two games. The Bucs have actually been outscored 7-0 in the first quarter, but the good news is that they have owned the second quarter by 26-3 margin through the first two games.
• Here’s a little 2006 draft scoop for you (and I’ll have some more next week). If you haven’t had a chance to watch Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil yet, you are really missing out. Dumervil, who led the Cardinals with 10 sacks last year as a junior, notched a school-record six in Louisville’s win at Kentucky two weeks ago. Last week against Oregon State, he added three more to push his 2005 sack total to nine, which is an NCAA two-game record to start a season. Dumervil, who flip flops from left end to right end, has also forced and NCAA-leading four fumbles this season, too. At 6-foot, 256 pounds, the biggest knock on Dumervil is his size. But that’s what NFL scouts were saying about Syracuse’s Dwight Freeney before he became Indianapolis’ first-round pick in 2002. “It’s not up to me to decide if he’s big enough, but he’s 6-foot, 255-260 pounds,” said Louisville alum and Tampa Bay defensive lineman Dewayne White. “He’s very strong and athletic. He runs a 4.6 and he’s very fast. Sure, he could make someone’s team.” Dumervil has Greg Spires’ power game and the burst off the edge of the late, great Derrick Thomas. In fact, Dumervil, a Miami native, wears number 58 in honor or Thomas, who was also from Miami. Another stud along Louisville’s defensive line is 6-foot-2, 321-pound nose tackle Montavious Stanley, who already has 2.5 sacks this season after posting 4.5 sacks a year ago. “The guy is huge,” White said. “He’s 320 pounds and he is very fast. I think he ran like a 4.8 at about 290 pounds when I was there. He’s put on some weight, but he’s still fast.” Brandon Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 218-pound linebacker, also has NFL scouts’ attention after notching 84 tackles, two interceptions and a sack a year ago. The senior has also blocked four punts during his career at Louisville and scored twice off blocked punts. Last week against Oregon State, the rangy Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown in Louisville’s 63-27 blowout win.The Bucs have had their eye on Louisville’s defense for sometime with the drafting of White and the signing of linebacker Michael Brown, who was brought to training camp in 2004. Tampa Bay also liked safety Kerry Rhodes, who was drafted by the New York Jets in April. The Bucs also have their eye on this year’s crop of Cardinals, too.
• Finally, here’s a parting comment from Bucs defensive lineman Dewayne White when asked if there was less pressure on the team due to its 2-0 start after starting out 0-2 a year ago. “Actually, it is more pressure because you want to be 3-0,” White said. “The other teams want to give us our first loss. Now we are motivation for other teams. We’ve just got to come out like we did our first game.”
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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: [email protected]
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