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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting offense underwhelmed you in the first three weeks of the preseason? Quarterback Chris Simms has completed only 13-of-24 passes for 112 yards with his longest completion being a 26-yarder to Michael Clayton.
Rest easy, Bucs fans. Based on what I’ve seen from the Buccaneers offense at training camp, Simms and his teammates will play better on offense this year. The key? Two tight end sets and maximum protection schemes.
That’s not exactly what Jon Gruden wants to run all the time, but that’s what got Cadillac Williams 1,000 yards and kept Chris Simms upright and allowed him to find 1,000-yard wide receiver Joey Galloway for big plays in 2005. Gruden wants what Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren and any other West Coast offense playcaller wants – five eligible receivers out on pass patterns. In other words, he wants his five offensive linemen to provide enough pass protection that his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs can be utilized as weapons in the passing game.
Newsflash. The offensive line ain’t there yet.
A quick recap of the first half of the Jacksonville game tells Gruden what he doesn’t want to hear – the Bucs aren’t ready for three wide receiver sets yet. They need to run two tight end sets and keep backs and tight ends to help the shaky offensive line in pass protection.
In the first half, Tampa Bay ran three wide receiver sets a total of 10 plays. Here are the results:
Cadillac Williams 10-yard catch. Chris Simms’ pass batted down by John Henderson. Michael Clayton 18-yard catch. Michael Pittman minus-2-yard run. Williams minus-1-yard catch. Simms minus-5-yard sack. Simms’ pass batted down by Reggie Heyward. Maurice Stovall 6-yard catch. Edell Shepherd drop. Simms’ pass batted down by Henderson.
To summarize, a total gain of 26 yards. However, three plays went for negative yardage, including a sack, and all three of Simms’ batted passes occurred in three wide receiver sets off of three-step drops. Out of 10 “Zebra” personnel groupings, the Bucs only ran the ball one time.
What does this mean for defenses when they see the Bucs in a three-receiver set? It’s likely going to be a pass and it will likely be out of a three-step drop if the distance to go for a first down is less than eight yards. Those are keys for the defense to A) rush the passer and B) get their hands up if they can’t get to Simms in time.
On Simms’ second batted ball of the first half, he telegraphed his throw so much that not only did defensive end Reggie Hayward quit rushing and jump up to bat it down, but safety Donovin Darius was also reading Simms’ eyes and jumped up to bat it down about seven yards away from the line of scrimmage.
If the Bucs run two-tight end sets with greater regularity, as they did last year, they will likely have more success for two reasons. First, Simms and the offensive line typically get the help of at least one tight end in pass protection situations. Secondly, the Bucs have success running and throwing out of this set and lining up with two tight ends doesn’t tip off the defense if the play is going to be a run or a pass.
The Bucs have two personnel groupings that feature two tight ends – “U” which is a two-tight end, two-back, one-receiver set, and “Tiger” which is a two-tight end, two-receiver, one-back set. Tampa Bay also has a three-tight end set called “Dawg,” which features Anthony Becht, Alex Smith and Dave Moore. The Bucs used all three against Jacksonville in the first half and had more success than they did with “Zebra” personnel – but really only when a tight end stayed in to help the offensive line block.
Here are the results from these multiple-tight end formations against Jacksonville:
Dawg bunch – toss to Williams minus-2-yard run. Tiger – Mike Alstott 1-yard run. U – Alex Smith 9-yard catch (both tight ends out as receivers). U – Williams 5-yard run. Dawg – Alstott 2-yard touchdown run. Tiger – Simms sack minus-7 yards (both tight ends out as receivers). Tiger – Joey Galloway 26-yard catch. U – Williams 2-yard run. Tiger – Simms sacked minus-15-yard loss (both tight ends out as receivers). U – Pittman 3-yard run. U – Simms 3-yard run. U – Pittman 2-yard run. Dawg – Pittman 2-yard run.
To summarize, the Bucs got their biggest offensive play of the night – a 26-yard catch by Galloway – out of a multiple-tight end set, and the starters scored their only touchdown out of that personnel grouping. Simms did take two costly sacks in this set, but both tight ends went out as receivers on those plays and didn’t stay in to block. Simms was also guilty of not throwing the ball away on the second sack. He has to know that he can’t run backwards and must only scramble laterally to avoid a big loss. The lost yardage contributed in Matt Bryant missing a 45-yard field goal at the end of the drive.
The Bucs gained 31 yards out of these 13 plays, but lost 15 on a sack that shouldn’t have happened. Not great numbers at all, but Tampa Bay accounted for more than half of its 62 first-half yardage with at least two tight ends in the game.
So what does all of this mean? It means that Gruden would be wise to scale back the use of “Zebra” personnel and focus more on “U” and “Tiger” and even “Regular” (two receivers, two backs and one tight end) personnel groupings. And when he does so, he should keep at least one tight end in to block rather than sending both out as receivers.
Both of Tampa Bay’s pass interference penalties came out of “Regular” personnel. The first one, a throw to David Boston that wound up being a 25-yard penalty on Jaguars defensive back Rashean Mathis, came with the tight end and both backs staying in to block in a maximum protection scheme. On the next play, the Bucs again used “Regular” personnel, but the tight end and both backs all went out as receivers. The result was that Simms almost got sacked, but did manage to get off a deep ball to Boston that drew a 37-yard pass interference penalty on Mathis.
Until Tampa Bay’s offensive line can become more sound in pass protection and Simms can develop better pocket awareness and reduce the amount of sacks and batted balls, Gruden will need to reduce the amount of three-receiver sets and keep a tight end (or two) or a back in to help pass protect. It’s not what he wants to do — it’s what Gruden has to do to win football games. Hey, it worked well last year.
FAB 2. Despite all of the preseason buzz that Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has generated, he’s not going to beat out Shelton Quarles for the starting assignment. Not in 2006 anyway, and Saturday night’s game at Jacksonville was a prime example.
After sitting out last week’s game against Miami, Quarles was everywhere in Jacksonville, recording a team-high six tackles, sacking Byron Leftwich and forcing a key fumble that would set up Tampa Bay’s first touchdown. Ruud, who was the Bucs’ defensive star last week against the Dolphins, played most of the second half and finished the game with three tackles. Ruud was good, but not great, and actually got bowled over a couple of times by running back LaBrandon Toefield.
Earlier in the week, I asked Tampa Bay linebackers coach Joe Barry if the plan was to give Ruud a certain number of snaps to continue his development and keep the 34-year old Quarles fresh throughout the season. Barry did this with backup Nate Webster, who played a quarter of the defensive snaps while Jamie Duncan started in 2001. Webster also continued this practice in 2002 and 2003 as Quarles was recovering from various injuries.
“That’s not the plan right now,” Barry said. “The good thing is that a backup is one play away from being a starter and Barrett is continuing to prove that he is worthy of being a starter. But we feel that we have the best Mike linebacker in the NFL in Shelton Quarles. As a coach, it does make you feel good that if, God forbid, something happened to Shelton that we have Barett Ruud to put in.”
The key phrase in Barry’s comment is “we feel we have the best Mike linebacker in the NFL in Shelton Quarles.” That means the Bucs plan on playing Quarles as much as possible. After watching Tampa Bay’s game at Jacksonville, that seems like a good idea because Quarles is still on top of his game.
Remember, Quarles was Tampa Bay’s best linebacker last year – not Derrick Brooks. And Quarles led the team in tackles with 196 stops. That’s 22 more tackles than Brooks collected.
Ruud can play as well as he can, but until Quarles shows signs that he can’t do what is asked of him, Ruud will have to be a patient backup and continue to develop.
“We put a premium on players’ development from their first year to their second year. It’s got to be big,” Barry said. “Barrett was a good player last year, but you can really tell that he’s improved this year. We’re excited about where Barrett Ruud is right now.”
The same can obviously be said about Quarles, too.
“Where we are with Derrick, Shelton and Ryan (Nece) right now, we’re not at the point where we say that Barrett and Jamie Winborn are going to go in on the third series and play,” Barry said. “But as a coach, if it is a 120-degree heat index when we open up at 1:00 p.m. against the Ravens, and I see Shelton sucking wind out there and he’s dying, I’m not afraid to put Barrett it now for five snaps to let ‘Q’ get his breath back. I might ask Barrett to go in and hold down the fort until Shelton gets right again, but then when he’s okay, Shelton’s going back in.”
FAB 3. With the start of the 2006 regular season around the corner, let’s take a look at how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ opening day foe, the Baltimore Ravens, have fared this preseason.
Baltimore’s addition of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair has given the offense plenty of confidence and a proven playmaker. McNair has been razor sharp this preseason and has completed 31-of-40 passes (77.5 percent) for 273 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also has three carries for 19 yards (6.3 avg.) and a touchdown.
Former Titans receiver Derrick Mason has been McNair’s favorite target as he has hauled in nine catches for 82 yards.
The byproduct of McNair’s arrival has forced Kyle Boller to improve his game. Boller, a former first-round pick, has also had an impressive preseason, and now Baltimore has a strong, 1-2 punch at the quarterback position.
The fact that McNair has been so efficient could be troubling for Tampa Bay’s defense. McNair has completed a lot of short passes and check down throws that have kept him from getting sacked and kept opposing defenses off balance. Third down conversions will be key in the Bucs vs. Ravens season opener. If Baltimore can keep the chains moving due to McNair’s precision passing, it could be a long day for the Bucs defense – especially in the heat.
If the Ravens’ rhythmic passing game doesn’t give the Bucs’ defense fits, perhaps its running game will. Former Pro Bowler Jammal Lewis is a big back with speed and could give Tampa Bay problems if he’s healthy, but the one Baltimore back who is really having a great preseason is backup Musa Smith, a former Georgia star. Smith is averaging 10.25 yards per carry and has 123 yards rushing on 12 totes, while ripping off 43-yard and 37-yard touchdown runs. Smith also has six catches for 53 yards, including a 36-yarder.
If Buccaneers fans haven’t heard of Smith before, they will on opening day.
Tampa Bay’s starting defense has been playing great football during the preseason, but it will need help from the offense in the season opener. The Bucs must establish their ground game and eat up a significant amount of clock time against the Ravens defense to keep their own defense fresh. Expect the Bucs to be wearing all white while the Ravens will be forced to wear their dark purple uniforms and black helmets, which could tire out the Baltimore defense even faster in the Florida heat, especially for a 1:00 p.m. kickoff. But the fact that the Bucs’ starters have had difficulty in getting its ground game going in the preseason is a concern for opening day.
Another concern is the play of defensive end Terrell Suggs, who will be matching up against left tackle Anthony Davis. Suggs has 11 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery in three preseason games. Baltimore has recorded 10 sacks in three preseason games. That’s not what Chris Simms wants to hear as his offensive line has had pass protection problems in consecutive games against Miami and Jacksonville.
Pewter Report is still picking the Bucs to beat the Ravens on opening day, but they’ll have to win the battle of third down conversions and establish the ground game against Baltimore. Then the Florida heat can help wilt the Ravens defense, just like it did to Buffalo’s defense last year in the home opener in Week 2.
FAB 4. The 2006 college football season is almost here, and for those draftniks out there like myself, that means it’s time to start preparing for the 2007 NFL Draft. The number one position the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to target is defensive tackle, which could be one of the weakest positions on a strong Bucs team from a pass-rushing perspective based on last year’s results. A quick look back at 2005’s sack totals bears the bad news for the Bucs.
Starting nose tackle Chris Hovan – no sacks.
Backup nose tackle Jon Bradley – no sacks.
Starting under tackle Booger McFarland – two sacks.
Backup under tackle Ellis Wyms – two sacks.
Backup swing tackle Anthony Bryant – no sacks.
In front of the media, coaches often downplay the importance of sacks, saying how they are just one play out of 60 in a given game. Yet, in practice and in team meetings behind closed doors, sacks are emphasized. If they weren’t important, coaches wouldn’t spend hours drilling defensive linemen in pass rush drills and coaching the art of the sack-fumble.
The bottom line is that sacks are important. They are plays for negative yards. Sacks can swing momentum and energize the home crowd. They can be drive-killers and they can produce turnovers when coupled with forced fumbles. Sacks get players drafted and into the Pro Bowl. They are also so important that contract incentives are often tied into the number of sacks a defensive lineman produces.
While McFarland and Hovan are stout against the run and played a big role in improving Tampa Bay’s run defense from 19th in 2004 to sixth last year, both starters need to provide more pass rush and register more sacks. McFarland is having a great preseason, registering sacks in back-to-back games against Miami and Jacksonville. That trend needs to continue when the games count for real.
Last year, McFarland looked dominant in the season opener at Minnesota where he recorded a sack. He recorded his second and last sack of the year nine weeks later at Atlanta. In other words, don’t get too hyped up over McFarland’s preseason production. Let’s wait until the regular season to get excited.
In obvious pass rushing situations, Wyms and/or defensive end Dewayne White will replace Hovan, and at times, McFarland, in the lineup to generate more QB pressure. Wyms got a sack against Jacksonville in the third preseason game replacing McFarland. Due to their respective salary cap values, both McFarland and Wyms are essentially in contract years and need to record more sacks.
While the days of legendary under tackle Warren Sapp notching 16.5 sacks in a season are over due to the fact that the West Coast offense and other systems that feature more of a rhythmic, three-step drop passing game reduce the number of sack opportunities for Tampa Bay’s defensive tackles because quarterbacks get rid of the ball so quickly, there is no reason why McFarland, who started 15 games last year, should finish with just a pair of sacks.
McFarland faces his share of double teams, but he also gets plenty of opportunities against a guard in a one-on-one situation. The way the Bucs defense is designed, the nose tackle plays a one-technique and attempts to draw a center-guard double team on every play, thus hopefully leaving the under tackle in a one-on-one. Because of the amount of money he is making, if McFarland doesn’t register five or more sacks in 2006, Tampa Bay may want to look elsewhere for a new under tackle.
The bad news for the Buccaneers is that the 2007 draft class is a weak one at defensive tackle. One of the most active pass rushing senior defensive tackles is Penn State’s Jay Alford. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Alford is undersized, but size hasn’t always been the issue in Tampa Bay. The last time we saw Alford, he was busy recording 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and forcing a fumble in the Nittany Lions’ 26-23 triple overtime win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Alford doesn’t carry a first-round grade right now, but if he really comes on in 2006, he could really elevate his draft stock. Last year, Alford recorded 37 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and forced one fumble while recovering another. Those are good numbers to build on. Without Tamba Hali around this year, Alford will be counted on to provide the pass rush at Penn State.
Two juniors to keep an eye on this year include LSU’s Glenn Dorsey and Texas’ Frank Okam, who is rated as a first-rounder if he leaves school early by some early draft pundits. The 6-foot-2, 299-pound Dorsey recorded 28 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks (against Tennessee, Florida and Miami) last year as a sophomore. Dorsey, who played behind current NFL rookies Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams last year, had two sacks in the LSU spring game and appears ready to burst onto the scene.
At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Okam has imposing size and is a pretty active player. He saw significant playing time during his freshman season, recording 22 tackles, nine quarterback hurries, six tackles for a loss, five pass breakups, two sacks an a fumble recovery, and started 12 games as a sophomore in 2005. Last year, Okam increased his production with 48 tackles, 11 quarterback pressures, two pass breakups, two fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown) and one sack, which came against Matt Leinhart in the national championship game. Okam does need to develop his pass rushing skills and become a more productive sack artist to become a first-rounder.
Miami’s Baraka Atkins and Florida’s Marcus Thomas and Ohio State’s Quinn Pitcock are among the top-rated senior defensive tackles, but that’s not saying much right now as no one has emerged to be a dominant prospect.
One thing is for sure, though. Tampa Bay has neglected the defensive tackle position long enough on draft day. The Bucs haven’t spent a first-day draft pick on a defensive tackle since drafting McFarland in 1999. Unfortunately, in a year when Tampa Bay needs to address the position, the pickings might be slim.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Due to the ferociousness that Tampa Bay’s defensive line is playing with, it appears as if the defensive linemen are really buying into new defensive line coach Jethro Franklin. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has also had a big influence on the defensive line, spending a lot of time with the unit at training camp and during the team’s mini-camps. Anthony McFarland has two sacks, Simeon Rice has notched a sack, Ellis Wyms has one and Dewayne White has forced a fumble in preseason play. If this group can keep this type of production up during the regular season, Franklin may be Pewter Report’s Assistant Coach of the Year.
• With all of the hype that running back Reggie Bush is getting in New Orleans, don’t overlook one of my favorite runners in college football, who also just happened to enter the NFC South – Carolina’s first-round pick, DeAngelo Williams. Williams won’t start in front of DeShaun Foster in Carolina, but he should get 10-12 touches per contest and enter the game as a change of pace back. I know it sounds like lofty praise, but I view the speedy Williams as one part Emmitt Smith (vision) and one part Barry Sanders (acceleration). If you saw him effortless rip off a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on Thursday night, you know what I mean. As a running back, Williams has a modest 21 carries for 69 yards (3.2 avg.) in the preseason, but watch out for this kid. He’s going to be special.
• I like first-round draft pick Davin Joseph, and think he’ll be a fine right guard for the Buccaneers in time. But he will make his share of costly mistakes (holding penalties, giving up sacks, etc.) this year. I think Tampa Bay is rolling the dice by starting the rookie in Week 1. The safer route would be to start Jeb Terry, who has performed well enough to start, in my opinion. Granted, riding the pine won’t be doing anything to accelerate Joseph’s learning curve, but it may keep Chris Simms off the ground in 2006. What’s more important – getting a first-rounder experience so he can develop quicker, or having an efficient offense? The fact that a rookie is starting next to shaky right tackle Kenyatta Walker would make me very nervous if I were Simms. In my estimation through three preseason games, Joseph has already made more mistakes and penalties than Dan Buenning, last year’s starting rookie left guard, did.
• Don’t be surprised if outside linebacker Antoine Cash pulls the upset and beats out Marquis Cooper for a roster spot. I know that I just made Pewter Report’s 53-man roster prediction and have Cooper beating out Cash, but Cash is healthy and making plays. Cooper got hurt on the opening play against Miami and missed all of last week’s game in addition to the Jacksonville game. There’s an old NFL saying – “You can’t make the club in the tub.” If the Bucs do cut Cooper, it won’t be because they are punishing him for being hurt. Tampa Bay would just be rewarding Cash for playing well.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org