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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. So you want Michael Turner, huh? San Diego's blazing backup running back is first and foremost on the minds of Tampa Bay fans that are faced with the prospect of the Bucs' one-two punch in the running game consisting of Earnest Graham and Kenneth Darby.
Don't count on the Chargers parting ways with Turner, who is expected to be an unrestricted free agent in 2008. A Bucs source told me that the Chargers want at least a first-round draft pick to even consider trading Turner, and that with San Diego's upset win at Denver last Sunday, the team still thinks it can win the AFC West and will want to keep Turner for a playoff run in case something happens to LaDainian Tomlinson.
Turner has rushed for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns on 184 carries (6.2 avg.) in his career. His best season came in 2006 when he rushed for 502 yards and two scores on a career-high 80 carries. This year, Turner has 201 yards on 27 carries (7.4 avg.) and one touchdown.
Although it seems the Chargers may not get anything for Turner when the team loses him to unrestricted free agency next March, San Diego will likely get a third-round compensatory pick because he will be the hottest free agent running back, which isn't bad considering he was drafted in the fifth round to begin with.
The Bucs probably wouldn't surrender anything higher than a third-round pick for Turner right now anyways, although they could be very interested in acquiring his services next March. The reason is because Turner would need several weeks to become acclimated to the Bucs' playbook, audibles and pass protection responsibilities.
There is a good chance that by the time Turner was ready to help in a full-time role, Graham will have emerged as a solid runner or Michael Pittman will be very close to returning from his high ankle sprain. It just wouldn't make a lot of sense for the Bucs to surrender a first- or second-round draft selection for a player they could sign in a couple of months without having to lose any picks.
Besides, several backup running backs have yet to go onto greatness in the NFL. Thomas Jones and Priest Holmes are recent examples of success, but there have also been others who haven't delivered on the promise of being feature backs.
Derrick Blaylock and Lamont Jordan are examples of some players who haven't become star running backs yet. Jordan was a hot commodity with the New York Jets as Curtis Martin's understudy, rushing for 479 yards on 93 carries (5.2) and two TDs for the Jets in 2004. Jordan's first year with Oakland in 2005 was deemed successful as he started 14 games and rushed for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns on 272 carries, but only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. He also added another 563 yards and two scores on 70 catches.
But in 2006, injuries limited Jordan to just nine games where he rushed for 434 yards on 114 carries (3.8 avg.) and just two scores, along with only 10 catches for 74 yards. That was disappointing for a player who received a $7 million signing bonus. In fact, the Raiders made Jordan reduce his $4.75 million roster bonus this year to $3 million or they might have parted ways with him. Jordan was having a better a 2007 campaign with 424 yards on 84 carries (5.0 avg.) and two touchdowns, but injured his back in Oakland's last game.
While Jordan hasn't quite been a bust in Oakland, Blaylock, Kansas City's backup running back, was for the New York Jets as he replaced Jordan.
Blaylock rushed for 539 yards, a 4.6 avg. and eight touchdowns on 118 carries in 2004 in Kansas City. He also caught 25 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown. He was a highly sought after free agent and went to the Jets in 2005, playing in just seven games and rushing for 53 yards on 17 carries in '05 and just 44 yards on 25 carries in '06 before being released.
Blaylock had signed a five-year, $11.1 million deal that included a $3.2 million signing bonus. The sixth-year veteran was placed on Washington's injured reserve and was waived injured.
Is Turner the next Holmes, or is he the next Blaylock? The Bucs might find out in 2008 in free agency, but they aren't willing to bet a first- or second-round pick on it.
Instead, look for the Bucs to trade for Minnesota backup running back Mewelde Moore, a player they coveted out of Tulane in 2004 and a player whom Pewter Report had as a Bucs' Best Bet at running back in its Bucs Draft Preview. Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen wasn't finished with the team's running back position after signing fullback Zack Crockett. Not only does the addition of Crockett give the Bucs a player who is familiar with Jon Gruden's offense, it gives Tampa Bay some much-needed leverage when dealing with the Vikings for Moore.
Allen was dealing from a position of strength last week with both Pittman and Graham in the fold after losing starting halfback Cadillac Williams for the season at Carolina with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. But after losing Pittman for 6-8 weeks due to his high ankle sprain, Allen lost a lot of the leverage he had with the Vikings.
The 5-foot-11, 209-pound Moore is a smooth runner who has totaled 1,243 yards and one touchdown on 254 carries (4.9 avg.). But what really appeals to Tampa Bay are his receiving skills. Moore has logged 116 catches for 1,093 yards (9.4 avg.) He also has just one fumble in 370 touches.
Like Turner, Moore, a former fourth-round pick, will be an unrestricted free agent in March 2008. While he may lack the special qualities to be a full-time starter in the NFL, he could be a viable replacement for the 33-year old Pittman, who will also be a free agent next year.
The Bucs have offered a sixth-round pick for Moore, but the Vikings have countered with demands of a third-rounder. Given the fact that Williams may not be able to be ready for the start of 2008, investing a fourth-round pick in Moore, whose skill set matches what Gruden needs in a running back might not only help this year, it could pay dividends next year.
Not only would Moore have half a season's worth of experience in Gruden's playbook, which would further accelerate his understanding of the offense, but Moore's presence could also give Allen increased leverage in negotiations with Pittman next spring. If Tampa Bay spends a fourth-round draft pick on Moore, it would likely offer him a reasonable contract extension prior to the end of the year so the team wouldn't be in jeopardy of wasting a draft choice for half a season's worth of action.
Look for this deal to go down next Monday or Tuesday, which is the NFL trading deadline. I would be surprised if it didn't. With Pittman's age and Williams' injury, Tampa Bay will likely have to look for a running back next year in the draft or in free agency. Instead of spending a draft pick on an unknown commodity, why not use that draft choice on a young, veteran NFL player like Moore, who has already proven himself?
FAB 2. Speaking of running backs, Tennessee has a unique rushing attack that features not one – but two – big backs. You know, the kind of big backs that have historically given Tampa Bay's undersized defense trouble in the past?
Last year, the Bucs held 5-foot-10, 210-pound Giants running back Tiki Barber in check with 68 yards on 26 carries (2.6 avg.) in New York, but 6-foot-4, 264-pound Brandon Jacobs pounded Tampa Bay for 41 yards on seven carries (5.9 avg.). Others that have given Tampa Bay problems in the past include Shaun Alexander, Deuce McAllister, Jamal Lewis, T.J. Duckett and Jerome Bettis
Typically, teams might bring in a big back for a change of pace, as the Giants did last year with Jacobs, but not Tennessee. LenDale White, who is generously listed at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, when in fact he closer to 245 pounds, is the starter, while Chris Brown, a fifth-year veteran, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, but is closer to 230 pounds, is the backup.
"They hit you with one hammer, and then a bigger hammer," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We know what we have to deal with. It will be one of those hard hat days. You go in prepared knowing that you'll have to hit a big-ass dude a lot of times. That's just a mentality you have to adjust to, and it's one that I think this defense is willing to step up and accept. If not, then we'll struggle in the run defense. I think guys will be geared up this week to stop the run."
Tennessee boasts the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack, led by White, a former second-round pick out of USC, who rushed for 244 yards on 61 carries (4.0 avg.) as a rookie, and has produced 212 yards on 62 totes (3.4 avg.) this year, along with two touchdowns. Brown, who has rushed for 274 yards on 52 carries (5.3 avg.) and one touchdown this year, has rushed for 2,569 yards and 12 touchdowns on 593 carries (4.3 avg.). His best seasons came in 2004 when he logged 1,067 yards and six touchdowns on 220 carries (4.9 avg.), and in '05 when he rushed for 851 yards and five TDs on 224 carries (3.8 avg.) and had 327 yards and two scores on 25 catches.
"They're going to have two fresh, big backs. Eddie George was the guy that carried the mail for them for a long time," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "LenDale White is not big – he's huge. He's a big, bangin' back. Brown does have straight-line speed. He has some elusiveness. He has made some long runs. If you look at the Jaguars game, he won the game for them with a long run. He's not a classic plodder. He's a guy with elusiveness and breakaway speed. And he can run over you, too. He sure can. The inside game and the hidden yardage game that comes after contact will come into play."
Added Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon: "We're going to have to have the same game plan of gang-tackling and getting them on the ground. We need to keep their gains to one or two yards and not let them get a head of steam and get 10-yard gains on us."
Tampa Bay defenders were very upset that they allowed unheralded running back Kenton Keith to rack up 121 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries (4.3 avg.) in his first NFL start last Sunday at Indianapolis, so expect a renewed vigor in stuffing the run this week.
"What we've done this year is tackle well in the secondary and not give up big plays in the running game," said Barber, noting that the longest run the Bucs have surrendered is a 22-yarder. "They haven't gotten those big, breakout runs. Our safeties have been good tacklers. But if we're going to stop these two guys, it's going to start up front. Our ‘undersized defensive front seven' is going to have to be on its game and play as good, if not better, than it has played all season. Tennessee is a great offensive football team and Vince Young does a lot for them in the running game, as well. We know it is a lot easier for any team to turn and handoff the ball. That's where it has to start for us.
"Even though Peyton only threw for 256 yards, we gave up over 100 yards rushing. We knew they were going to go in and try to establish the run and they did. They didn't shy away from it because Joseph Addai was injured. They just banged it out and banged it out and took advantage of the opportunities. You never want a loss like that to become a blueprint for other teams. We'll correct our mistakes this week."
If not, a Buccaneers defense that is already allowing 124 yards rushing per game, could be on the field as much as it was last week at Indianapolis, which racked up 77 plays on Tampa Bay.
FAB 3. The Titans ground game is averaging 153.3 yards per game, but that stat is aided by the rushing yards of mobile quarterback Vince Young, who has 123 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries (4.2 avg.). Not only is the scrambling Young dangerous on the ground in a similar fashion to Michael Vick, but he is becoming an accomplished passer. On the season, Young has completed 62 percent of his passes and has three touchdowns and five interceptions.
The fact that Young is a dual threat presents some real challenges for Tampa Bay's defensive line this week, especially ends Greg Spires, Kevin Carter, Patrick Chukwurah and rookie Gaines Adams. Tampa Bay defensive line coach Larry Coyer will be preaching, "Contain, contain, contain" this week so that Young doesn't have an open running lane on the perimeter.
"I don't think we can let anyone get to the perimeter, especially a guy of this caliber," Coyer said of Young. "We've played some guys that could run a little bit, but this guy is special. He's a special player. It's critical that you stay alive in the pass rush and stay after him. Keep him from working those edges."
Tampa Bay's pass rush hasn't shown much improvement over a year when it recorded only 26 sacks. Through five games, the Bucs have only notched eight sacks and were held sackless last week at Indianapolis.
"I think we're improved," Coyer said. "To say that we have a great rush right now isn't true. We are effective right now, but we have to get better. We went a whole game without a sack. That's not good enough. I don't care who you are playing. It's not good enough. Did we do some good things? Yeah, but we didn't finish. The whole deal about pass rushing is finishing. You've got to finish."
When rushing Young this week, especially from the outside, Tampa Bay's defensive ends need to walk a fine line between being aggressive and too aggressive, which could allow Young to escape contain and break off a 20-yard run down the sidelines.
"We're not going to be cautious," Coyer said. "We'll be smart. Smart is different from cautious. He's completing 62 percent of his passes. You've got to rush him, but you have to rush him smart. He knows what he's going to do to try to counteract you. If you are cautious, he's going to eat you up. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The key player on defense for Tampa Bay this week could be Adams, who may have played his best game as a pro at Indianapolis last week with two knockdowns against Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning. Adams will have to balance his quest for his first sack with remembering his containment responsibilities. The key will be to take the proper angle to the quarterback and not to rush too far upfield that it creates a natural running lane for Young to scramble, especially out of the shotgun formation he often lines up in.
"It's very important to keep containment," Adams said. "Very important. As a defensive end, you are the last man on the line on the outside and you have to contain. Having a guy like Vince Young, who is very mobile and very fast, he is a very good athlete. All of our defensive ends will just have to be on our games and contain him. You have to use every advantage you can. If you have the sideline or the proper pursuit angle, you have to take him down and keep contain any way you can. But you can't go into the game thinking, ‘If he gets outside of me, this can happen and that can happen.' You just have to come out and play your defensive and be fundamentally sound."
Adams, Tampa Bay's first-round pick this year, is itching for his first NFL sack and is among those who are disappointed that it hasn't happened yet.
"I didn't think it would take this long," Adams said about not getting a sack yet. "Young guys like myself, we come in wanting things to be picture perfect, but obviously it doesn't always happen. It's Week 6 and I haven't got a sack. That's why they brought me here – to get sacks. I just have to stay focused and not change the plan and it will happen. I've been trying to force things and make things happen instead of letting them come to me. I just need to calm down and focus.
"I'm making progress each week. I just have to come out and work hard this week and get better. I just need to keep working and good things are going to happen."
I think it will happen this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against Young. Adams has the speed to hunt down Young and he might benefit from having Young roll right to him. Regardless of how he makes it happen, I expect Adams will beat either left tackle Michael Roos or right tackle David Stewart to notch his first career sack.
If Tampa Bay's defensive ends are doing their job by containing Young and the Bucs secondary is doing its job in coverage, Young may look to find a running lane in the interior of the Bucs defense. That means Tampa Bay's defensive tackles must maintain gap integrity and rush with a disciplined approach this week.
"We have to contain him in the pocket, too," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "You can't just deny him the perimeter. You have to deny him the opportunity to step up and tuck the ball and go. Certain coverages can make you vulnerable. If the tight end carries you down the seam and you go to cover the back in the flat, if you don't contain the pocket this guy can run for 20 or 30 yards on you. If you blitz, you better have your contain handled on your blitzes, too. You just have to use good judgment, be smart and be very, very careful with this guy. He's good."
FAB 4. Tennessee quarterback Vince Young has been good, according to Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, but Jeff Garcia has been great for the Buccaneers. Garcia is the driving force behind Tampa Bay's 3-2 start to the 2007 season thanks to a turnover-free performance thus far. Last year, Bucs quarterbacks had thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions through five games and had a 1-4 record as a result.
Garcia has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 914 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions this year. That gives Garcia a QB rating of 103.6, which is the highest of his career.
Projecting his averages over the course of the 2007 season would see Garcia complete 243-of-361 passes for 2,924 yards with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Now it would be a little far-fetched to see Garcia go an entire season without throwing a pick, right?
Well it's been eight games since Garcia threw his last pick. One hundred sixty-five passes without an interception to be exact.
He had one against Miami when defensive end Matt Roth made a great play at the line of scrimmage in the preseason, but of course that game didn't count. And I think Garcia threw a couple (literally) in training camp that I recall witnessing, but considering the multitude of interceptions thrown by Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Luke McCown in OTAs and training camp, Garcia's were barely noticeable.
Think about all of his throws through the first five games of 2007. Can you think of a Garcia pass that has come close to being picked off this year? I can't. In fact, since he came to Tampa Bay in March, I think I've only witnessed two or three interceptions from Garcia – period.
So what I wanted to do this week is ask some of Garcia's teammates if he ever throws interceptions in practice, because as they say – practice makes perfect. Here's what I was told:
Bucs LB Ryan Nece: "Honestly, I can't recall him throwing too many interceptions. I've seen a couple here and there, but given the amount of times he throws in practice and the amount of times we pick him off, it is a very, very, very small percentage. Not turning the ball over is huge. A lot of people talk about how great our defense is playing. Our defense is playing great because of our offense is playing well, getting first downs and sustaining drives. Those things help our defense play better. Not turning the ball over and not throwing interceptions definitely helps us."
Bucs CB Sammy Davis: "I don't think so. I can't recall him throwing any in practice. I can't recall him throwing one, either. That was a great question! He just makes great reads and gets the ball out of there. He knows where he wants to go with the ball and he knows what the defense is trying to do. That allows him to know what to do with the football."
Bucs CB Phillip Buchanon: "He rarely throws picks in practice. Now that I think about it, I can't remember the last pick he threw in practice. Jeff is an older, veteran quarterback who knows how to handle certain situations. Jeff is a competitor who wants to win."
Bucs SS Jermaine Phillips: "They are far and few between. He does a great job of taking care of the ball and we've always said that if we have a guy that takes care of the ball and doesn't turn it over, we'll have a chance to win. Turnovers are big momentum plays in the NFL and he's done a great job of not making them. He doesn't fumble, either. He really takes care of the ball. The past three or four years he's in the top three in the NFL in taking care of the ball. It's a credit to him and knowing when to take those shots and not to."
Bucs LT Donald Penn: "I can't remember the last time he threw a pick in practice. I don't watch him during 7-on-7 because I'm doing other drills, but I can't remember any in team drills. He's a special guy. He's a real special person. I love the guy. I can't believe so many teams have passed on him throughout his career. He's a great quarterback. He's smart. I love playing with him."
His teammates tell me the reason why Garcia doesn't throw interceptions is because he creates a perfect storm of knowing where his receivers are going to be on the field, knowing what coverage the defense is in, anticipating receivers coming open and throwing the ball with tremendous accuracy.
Here's how Garcia explains it.
"It's really a combination of things," Garcia said. "I think first of all it's everyone being on the same page. That starts with the offensive line, running backs, receivers and tight ends; everybody understanding what we are trying to do as far as a scheme is concerned. For myself and my own standpoint, it's understanding defenses, what they are trying to do. Believing in our protection schemes, having confidence in our offensive line, our running backs that they are going to pick up certain blitz schemes and then making the right adjustment, the right throw, an accurate throw and giving our guys opportunities to make plays. I think that's what I have to attribute it to is just an overall confidence and knowledge in our offense and in our scheme and when the play starts to unfold being able to make a quick, accurate, smart decision. That's where I've been fortunate this year and I've been fortunate because everyone has been right there with me. They haven't left me hanging out to dry sometimes, haven't run the wrong route when I was thinking something else. Everybody has been able to do the right thing and that enables us to do the right things and not create negative plays."
Garcia will have to be careful of Tennessee's linebackers this week as they have accounted for four of the team's seven interceptions. Keith Bullock has three picks and David Thornton has one. With more of the offensive game plan likely falling on Garcia's shoulders this week due to Tampa Bay's inexperience at running back, Garcia will have to be on top of his game in throwing the short and intermediate pass routes that are the staple of Gruden's offense. Otherwise Garcia's interception-less streak will come to an end after eight games.
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR's Fab Five:
• Bucs left tackle Donald Penn was able to get a confidence boost by going up against Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney and faring quite well in his first NFL start. "I went up against Freeney and Freeney was good," Penn said. "I went in on Monday after the game to look at my mistakes. I'm going to try to focus on my mistakes and try to fix them so I can keep getting better. It was a great game for me in a great environment. I just need to build on that."
• The key matchup this week, according to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden? Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth versus his guards – rookie Arron Sears and Davin Joseph. "Haynesworth has a reputation for dominating games, but I've never seen him play this good," Gruden said. "It will be Sears a lot of the time and it will be Joseph some of the time. Wade might have a chance to help out, I don't know. But hell, he took the game over last week against Atlanta. If you watch the goal line snap, he just jumped over the line and intercepts the handoff. He's a 340-pound man. Yeah, our guards have their work cut out for them." The good news for the Bucs is Haynesworth might not play Sunday due to the fact that he's been nursing his injured ankle, an injury that has kept him out of two straight days of practice.
• Interesting note from the Bucs-Colts game: Tampa Bay only ran one blitz against Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. The result? A touchdown pass on a slant route to Reggie Wayne who created separation by giving cornerback Phillip Buchanon a double move around the goal line.
• One of the reasons why the Bucs were so excited to sign Kevin Carter, aside from adding a 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman? Carter was seen going over to the locker of running back Lionel Gates, who joined the Bucs practice squad on Wednesday, and welcoming him back to Tampa. Most guys on the practice squad mind their own business and have little interaction with the veterans until they prove themselves. Carter is one of the classiest players on the team – in the class of Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber – and is one of the reasons why the team chemistry is so good this year in Tampa Bay.
• Bucs middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter will be activated for the first time since he joined Tampa Bay in September due to Barrett Ruud's sore knee. While he may not possess Ruud's speed and coverage ability, the Bucs may want to have his stoutness and physicalness in the middle of the defense against Tennessee's powerful interior running game. There is also a chance that reserve defensive tackle Ryan Sims could be active this week for the first time, too, due to the Titans' big backfield of LenDale White and Chris Brown. Jon Gruden's acknowledges that the extra beef from the 255-pound Trotter and the 320-pound Sims could come in handy against White and Brown, but may put the defense at a disadvantage in getting after mobile quarterback Vince Young. "You can't have both [speed and size]," said Gruden. "We've had some pretty good defensive outings, so I don't foresee any radical changes in anything we're doing unless we have a guy hurt. We've been playing well on defense. We've seen Steven Jackson, we've seen Shaun Alexander. It's not like we've seen cupcakes. We've been seeing good backs every week, and we'll see two more backs this week along with a pretty good quarterback."
• Just how good of a season is new starting Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud having in 2007? Ruud has a team-leading 67 tackles through five games. That's an average of 13.4 stops per game. Project that number over the course of a season and you wind up with 214 tackles (actually, it's 214.4 – but there's no such thing as fourth-tenths of a tackle). Not only would that be an obvious career high for Ruud, but it would also tie the franchise record for a single season. In 1993, former Bucs middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson posted 214 stops. And how about that over-the-hill linebacker who has lost a step? I'm talking about weakside ‘backer Derrick Brooks, of course. Brooks is second on the team with 60 tackles, an average of 12 per game. He's currently on pace to record 192 stops, which would also be a career high. Brooks' highest tackle total was 189 in 1998.
• Pewter Report has set up another Tampa Bay player autograph signing at the Sports Fan-Attic at Westshore Mall. Meet Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud on Saturday, October 28 from 1:00-3:00 p.m. Ruud is doing a charity autograph signing and for just $15 you can get up to two autographs. That's the day before the Bucs' home game against the Jaguars, so it's a great day to stock up on some new Bucs gear, too. If you want to avoid waiting in line on the day of the signing to purchase an autograph ticket, you can stop by any Tampa Bay area Sports Fan-Attic store and purchase a $15 autograph ticket in advance.
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