SR's Fab Five appears regularly on PewterReport.com 

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Copyright 2006 PewterReport.com 

Here are five things that caught my interest this week: 

FAB 1. More evidence is surfacing on Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms’ batted balls at the line of scrimmage. I’ll cover that in the first two sections of this SR’s Fab Five column.

Yes, we know this is a copycat league and opposing defensive linemen are locked in on Simms’ unfortunate trend of deflected passes and literally stopping their pass rush, reading the quarterback’s eyes, anticipating his delivery and getting their hands up in Simms’ passing lane. But there has to be more to it, right? There is.

Simms leads the league in pass deflections at the line of scrimmage, which now stands at seven after four more batted balls in the Atlanta game by defensive linemen. Do you want to take a guess at how many passes Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen had collectively in the 2006 season?

Did you guess 30? How about 20? Surely, at least 15, right?

No. Between defensive ends Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Dewayne White and defensive tackles Anthony McFarland, Chris Hovan, Ellis Wyms and Jon Bradley, Tampa Bay’s defensive line produced just 10 pass deflections. That’s it.

The 6-foot-5 Rice was the most active at the line of scrimmage, batting down five passes. That means only five passes were defensed between the rest of the six defensive linemen. McFarland, who started 15 games last year, didn’t have any batted balls.

It’s not really a knock on the Bucs’ defensive linemen though. As two team sources told me off the record on Wednesday, it’s not really a part of Tampa Bay’s game, evidenced by the fact that not one defensive linemen has deflected a pass through two games this season.

“Trying to knock down passes is the last thing on our list of things to do along the defensive line,” said one source.

“We’re trying to get upfield and penetrate,” said another source regarding the defensive line. “We don’t practice batting balls down in practice. That’s not our style. We practice penetrating our gaps.”

The key phrase in the last statement though is quite telling, and could be a key to Simms’ struggles with batted balls: “We don’t practice batting balls down in practice.”

Perhaps Tampa Bay should, but the reality of the situation is that with McFarland and Hovan both being about 6-feet tall (the 6-foot-3 Wyms is the tallest of the Bucs’ defensive tackles), players like McFarland and Hovan probably wouldn’t be too effective trying to get their arms up in the passing lane.

Why? Because neither player has the wingspan of a taller player like Rice, and it’s no surprise that he led the D-line in batted balls. The other reason is that opposing centers and guards who are say, 6-foot-5, have almost a half-foot height advantage and it may be difficult for Tampa Bay’s short and undersized defensive tackles to see the quarterback behind the linemen and know when he is going to throw the ball.

But because I suspect that Simms isn’t seeing his passes batted down in practice from Wednesday through Saturday, he gets quite a shock when his spirals get rejected on Sunday.

On Wednesday I asked Simms the question that hasn’t really been posed to him yet, “Do you ever get your passes batted down in practice?”

His answer, which based on the defensive line stats I pulled from last year, was not surprising: “I never get batted balls in practice. Never.”

Credit head coach Jon Gruden for breaking out the PVC pipe dummy at training camp to attempt to help Simms throw over outstretched arms. But it didn’t work. The dummy was immobile and didn’t jump up to swat the balls.

If the Bucs are serious about getting Simms to overcome his penchant for deflected passes, they need to try a practice method that actually works. Simply going against a defense that doesn’t make the attempt to block his passes in practice isn’t helping. Some coaches in both the pro and college ranks have armed defensive linemen with small brooms and tennis rackets in an effort to alter a quarterback’s release point and trajectory by force. Perhaps that is worth a try.

A quicker release might also combat defensive linemen getting their hands up in passing lanes, but unfortunately for Simms, he just doesn’t have a quick release.

FAB 2. So if Bucs quarterback Chris Simms isn’t getting any help from his scout team defense in terms of trying to (or perhaps failing to) swat down his passes in practice, which is ridiculous, is there any other way to help end these bothersome occurrences aside from Simms not telegraphing his passes and having such a slow, windup delivery?

The answer may be found in the second half of Tampa Bay’s 14-3 loss at Atlanta last week. With three batted balls in the first half of the game for the second straight week, it got so bad for Simms and head coach/offensive playcaller Jon Gruden that Gruden had to abandon his trademarked quick, rhythmic passing game that features the three-step drop in the second half and go almost exclusively with five- and seven-step drops to get Simms further away from the line of scrimmage.

Against Atlanta, who played without the services of injured defensive ends John Abraham and Patrick Kerney last Sunday, the five- and seven-step drops actually worked. Simms, who played in a downfield passing game at the University of Texas that featured a lot of seven-step drops, looked and felt more comfortable when he wasn’t in three-step drops. He even admitted such on Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place.

Simms moved the ball, and made bigger plays downfield against Atlanta’s zone coverage in the second half because a seven-step drop allows routes more time to develop downfield.

“In the five- and seven-step drops, we were protecting very well,” Simms said. “They weren’t blitzing a whole lot. Coach realized that they were playing some deep zones and we had to get some guys down the field if we wanted to be aggressive in the passing game. We did a pretty good job of it. It was nice to push the ball down the field a little bit.” 

The problem for Simms is that that’s not the style of offense Gruden wants to run or feels comfortable running. And against a more lethal pass-rushing team like this week’s opponent, Carolina, who can apply pressure with its front four, seven-step drops, deeper drops can be dangerous because it puts pressure on offensive linemen to hold their blocks longer.

That might be bad news for Anthony Davis and Kenyatta Walker, who have to square off against the Panthers’ deadly defensive end duo of Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. It doesn’t get any easier for Tampa Bay’s interior linemen who must battle the talented trio of Kris Jenkins, Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis.

The three-step drops get Simms in trouble because he’s so close to the line of scrimmage. There’s only so much Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen can do to help Simms, too. Gruden admitted that the Bucs’ pass protection was great last week against Atlanta, and the film backs up that statement as Tampa Bay surrendered only one sack.

One of the problems the line faced last week was that Atlanta’s defensive linemen were actually backing away from the line of scrimmage if they didn’t get any penetration initially. On one pass deflection Darrell Shropshire was actually a yard off the line of scrimmage when he batted down a Simms pass.

The problem in those situations is that the Bucs offensive linemen can’t go attack a defensive lineman who disengages and actually takes a step or two back from the line of scrimmage. The minute a center, guard or tackle crosses the line of scrimmage on a pass play that will get whistled for an ineligible lineman downfield penalty.

As long as Simms is the Bucs starting quarterback, Gruden will have to adjust by calling more five- and seven-step drops and hope his pass protection holds up – or keep losing three or four pass attempts to deflections per game.

FAB 3. The good news for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week is that running back Cadillac Williams is not listed on the injury report with back spasms. The bad news is that he doesn’t appear to be the same running back as he was last year.

Can the Bucs’ run blocking improve? It absolutely needs to. Williams’ longest carry of the season is just seven yards and he’s only rushed for 59 yards on 23 carries (2.6 avg.). But even though he’s only gotten a handful of good looks on his 23 carries, Williams doesn’t seem to be running with the same authority and power as he was last year.

I posed this question to Jon Gruden at his press conference on Monday, but he said he thought Williams was running the ball with authority. But something just doesn’t look right about Williams this year.

This is a guy who missed the first training camp practice due to back spasms. Shame on Pewter Report and the rest of the local media for failing to make a bigger deal out of the fact that Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham logged far more carries in training camp than Williams, the team’s starting running back, did. I suppose we all assumed that the team wanted to keep Williams injury-free and fresh for the regular season and that’s why we overlooked reporting it.

Williams is either hurting due to his back, or simply out of rhythm due to a lack of activity and reps in training camp and the preseason. Remember he only ran the ball in one game – at Jacksonville – and had three yards on four carries. Granted Tampa Bay’s offensive line looked overmatched in the running game against Jacksonville’s defensive front, but Williams looked out of sync as a runner with just three yards on four carries. He also looked tentative against Jacksonville, and you could state the case that that trend has continued into the regular season.

So if my theory is correct and Williams is not 100 percent due to his back, why hasn’t he been a mainstay on the Bucs’ injury report? Keep in mind that the Bucs have been plenty secretive about injuries in the past.

Long snapper Dave Moore was actually listed as questionable last Wednesday although the guy was hospitalized with broken ribs and a supposed collapsed lung. Questionable?!

Defensive end Greg Spires played all of last year with a torn biceps on his right arm, yet wasn’t listed on the injury report.

During the Bucs’ Super Bowl run in 2002, quarterback Brad Johnson had a cracked vertebrae that wasn’t fully disclosed.

And that’s just a few of the many examples that I could list. After talking with a few people who suffer from back spasms, the real problem is that the back could flair up at any time, which is not good news for Tampa Bay. Although his back was never reported as a problem last year, Williams was supposedly held out of the Senior Bowl due to back spasms.

Then he missed the first day of training camp with back spasms, didn’t get a lot of reps in practice at camp (go back and re-read our Inside Bucs Camp articles and see how few times Pewter Report mentions Williams compared to Pittman and Graham). Then Williams is held out of three of the four preseason games. Then Williams misses a practice last week after missing the second half of the Baltimore game with back spasms.

Something isn’t right with Williams’ back. Whatever it is, it needs to get fixed quickly if the Bucs’ fortune this season is to turn around. I just hope it isn’t a degenerative spinal condition.

FAB 4. Speaking of degenerative conditions, Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly disclosed this week that he has a degenerative toe condition. He’s been battling turf toe for about three years now and it’s not getting any better. Degenerative conditions typically don’t.

Credit general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden for making cornerback a priority and drafting Penn State’s Alan Zemaitis this year in the fourth round. And yes, drafting a cornerback in the fourth round is actually considered a priority. Because of its tendencies of playing a lot of zone coverage, Tampa Bay will likely never draft a cornerback in the first round. Usually first-round corners possess solid man coverage skills.

Corners just aren’t that valuable in the Tampa 2 scheme. They are important, but good ones can be had in the middle rounds. Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber and Dwight Smith were all third-round picks. Kelly was actually a second-round pick in 1998.

Kelly is one of the toughest players on the team. He tried to play with a torn pectoral muscle at San Francisco in 2003 until the pain became so unbearable that he was forced to go on injured reserve.

Kelly turned 30 in January and given the fact that chronic turf toe injuries halted the careers of players like Larry Czonka and Deion Sanders, the guess here is that he might play out his contract with the Buccaneers and then retire if there is no significant improvement in his condition after the 2006 season.

The problem with turf toe, which is actually a painful toe sprain, is that it is impossible to heal without rest. Because cornerbacks use their toes to plant, pivot, turn and run more than any other position, Kelly will not be helping his turf toe by practicing or playing in games. But he won’t be helping his team without practicing and playing games.

Zemaitis had a good preseason in Tampa Bay and should develop into the team’s nickel back within a year or two, and possibly a starter within two or three years. That may coincide with Kelly’s retirement at the age of 31 or 32 if the turf toe condition persists to the point where he is missing practices and games on a regular basis. Chances are good that Kelly might be out for Sunday’s game against Carolina.

With Kelly, Ronde Barber and Juran Bolden all 30 years of age or older, expect Tampa Bay to once again spend a premium pick, likely a third- or fourth-rounder, on a cornerback in the 2007 NFL Draft to team with Zemaitis in the future.

FAB. 5 Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:

• There were an awful lot of Buccaneers fans who were strongly suggesting that Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen “lock up” quarterback Chris Simms to a long-term deal to keep him off the restricted free agency market and avoid having him hit unrestricted free agency in 2007. All winter I maintained that this wouldn’t happen and shouldn’t happen, and after two games we’re seeing why. Credit Allen for making a wise and cautious decision to only sign Simms to a one-year deal in February. But should Allen take some heat for not keeping quarterback Brian Griese, or at least attempting to re-sign him once he was made a salary cap casualty? At first glance, yes, especially given Simms’ poor play through the Bucs’ 0-2 start. But go back and really look at the situation. Despite being off to a 5-1 start behind Griese, he had thrown seven interceptions along with seven touchdowns, with many of those picks getting returned for major yardage. That prompted some calls from fans and the media for Griese to be benched and for Simms to take over. That became a moot point against Miami when Griese tore knee ligaments and was out for the year. The problem with keeping Griese or re-signing him is that it is a clear signal to Simms that he is not the Bucs’ quarterback of the future – even after a 5-1 record in the NFC South. The Bucs had seen enough of Simms to be tempted, but not enough of him to commit long-term. There was some politics in the decision to keep Simms and let Griese go. Although both Allen and Gruden wanted Griese, keeping him at a higher price tag would likely have turned off Simms and he wouldn’t have stayed this offseason.

• Bucs general manager Bruce Allen would be wise to place a call to his counterpart in Chicago, Jerry Angelo, to inquire about former Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese. Griese knows Jon Gruden’s playbook and is a very accurate passer. The problem is that Angelo gave Griese a $5 million signing bonus and Griese is guaranteed to be paid $6 million in 2006. If Chicago traded Griese to Tampa Bay, the Bears would have to eat that signing bonus and hope that starter Rex Grossman, who has been very injury-prone, stays healthy. Second-year QB Kyle Orton played well last year in leading the Bears to the playoffs, but he lacks the NFL experience that Griese offers. Chicago plays Tampa Bay later this year, so that, coupled with Griese’s signing bonus, would likely prevent a trade. If a trade were to occur, Angelo would insist on Allen paying a premium price, likely a second- or third-round draft pick. It’s doubtful Allen would pay that much for a player he cut in the offseason for salary cap reasons.

• NFL Network has reported that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be interested in trading for Jacksonville backup quarterback David Garrard, whom Jon Gruden has been a big admirer of for some time due to his mobility and play-making ability. Pewter Report listed Garrard as the Bucs’ Best Bet at quarterback in 2002. Garrard signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract extension with the Jaguars, including a $2 million signing bonus, on April 21, 2005. His base salary is $1 million for 2006 and ’07, and $1.25 million in 2008. There are a couple of reservations about any possible trade for Garrard, however. First, he suffer’s from Chron’s disease, which is incurable and causes blockages in the intestines. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever and weight loss. Garrard has been able to treat the disease enough to play football, but had to undergo an operation on May 27, 2005 to remove part of his intestine. He has rebounded from this illness, but it could flare up at any time. The second issue regarding Garrard is the fact that Gruden’s playbook is foreign to him, so how much would he be able to help the Buccaneers out in 2006 if a trade was made? The third issue is that given his importance to Jacksonville due to Byron Leftwich’s frailty (Garrard started five games in 2005 and two games in 2004), it would cost the Bucs a first- or second-round draft pick to pry Garrard loose from the Jaguars. For a player who has only completed 56.4 percent of his passes over his five-year career, that appears to be too much to give up right now, especially without Garrard being able to help much during the 2006 campaign. With only Quinn Gray on board to back up Leftwich, Jacksonville is not eager to deal Garrard.

• What is Tampa Bay’s biggest problem against the run this year? The fact that three out of the team’s four top tacklers are defensive backs. Cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks lead the team with 22 tackles apiece, followed by safeties Jermaine Phillips (19 tackles) and Will Allen (12 tackles). Although nose tackle Chris Hovan has 10 stops, under tackle Anthony McFarland has just six. Starting defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires have only five tackles apiece. Defensive end Dewayne White is making a push for more playing time with four tackles, two sacks (the only two from the defensive line this year), one tackle for loss and one blocked field goal despite limited snaps on Sundays.


Copyright 2006 PewterReport.com 

This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.  

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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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