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Why Hasn't Smith Been As Explosive In The Return Game?
Much of the criticism tossed in the direction of One Buccaneer Place after Tampa Bay's 0-3 start has been directed towards the team's offense and defense, which rank 26th and 31st, respectively, in the NFL.
With so much attention on those two units, some haven't noticed that Tampa Bay's special teams return game hasn't exactly thrived, either.
Bucs return specialist Clifton Smith has posted decent numbers, averaging 10.4 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return through three games.
But Tampa Bay ranks near last (12th) in the NFC in average starting field position (24.5-yard line). That's below the NFC average of 25.6 and well below Minnesota's average of 35.5 thanks to rookie Percy Harvin, whom the Bucs passed on in the first round of the draft despite needing help at the wide receiver position.
But the Bucs didn't believe they needed a return specialist after the year Smith turned in last year. The undrafted free agent managed to average 14.1 yards per punt return and 27.6 yards per kickoff return while scoring two touchdowns en route to the Pro Bowl.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Smith is a player opposing special teams coverage units are game-planning for, according to Bucs head coach Raheem Morris.
"They're playing us different this year," Morris said of the return game. "First of all, everybody tries to kick touchbacks, and when you have the wind that's easier to do. But with Clifton, he's getting one to two shots a game, if that, whereas last year he had more. Now we're getting a bunch of sky kicks, so you're seeing guys like [linebacker] Matt McCoy and [defensive end] Tim Crowder have to field kickoffs. They're doing some different things to try to keep the ball away from Clifton, which is smart. You're seeing them kick some ground balls to us. We're getting good field position because of it. Clifton is a factor, even when he doesn't necessarily touch the football, and that's a credit to him."
But one can't help but wonder if Smith hasn't fared as well as he did last year because of the way the team decided use him in preseason, which was on a limited basis.
Last year, Smith was attempting to fight for a spot on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster. He didn't initially get it and spent the first half of the season on the practice squad before being called up to replace Dexter Jackson.
But this year, Smith didn't really have any competition. The Bucs spent an extraordinary amount of time on special teams in training camp, and gave wide receiver Sammie Stroughter quite a few looks, but Smith was never in danger of losing his job.
In four preseason games, Smith returned just three punts for 41 yards (13.7 avg.), and did not have a kickoff return.
While teams are playing Smith differently this year, the player they call "Peanut" admits he's in the process of shaking off rust that came with not seeing much action in preseason.
"I begged them, but they wouldn't let me," Smith said of fielding punts and kickoffs in preseason. "They really wanted Sammie to get in there and see what he could do in live situations. But I was definitely up for it.
"Without the reps in preseason, I kind of used the first few games to feel things out and see how everything was. We feel like the return game has been improving each week."
Morris doesn't seem to have any regrets regarding how much special teams playing time Smith received during the preseason.
"I'm sure he's feeling the amount of rust because he isn't getting as many reps in the season. If he was he wouldn't feel that way," said Morris. "That's just a player holding himself to a higher standard, and I have no problem with that. If he feels he needs to shake off some rust, go ahead and shake it off in some games."
Last year, Smith spent a significant amount of time fielding punts and kickoffs before and after practice while Jackson was handling those roles on game days. That extra work helped him avoid any rust, evidenced by his debut against Dallas in '08, when he averaged 16 yards per punt return.
Perhaps Smith spoiled people with his explosive debut and consistent playmaking ability in the return game as a rookie. While he cautions fans to temper their expectations, Smith also believes it's just a matter of time before the rust is completely off and things open up in the return game.
"We're always ready to try and create a spark somewhere and somehow," said Smith. "Sometimes things don't work out that way, but I would love to create a spark for the team. They always say the special teams unit is the lifeline of the team. If we can create something on special teams it will lift everybody up.
"People expect you to score each time you return the ball, and that's the goal, but realistically it doesn't work that way. You just keep pounding it and pounding it, and sooner or later it's going to open up to the point where something really good happens."
Bucs G Johnson Making Progress
The sooner Tampa Bay center Jeff Faine returns to action from a triceps injury the better off the Bucs offense will be.
But Faine isn't the only player the Bucs offense is missing right now. Tampa Bay also wishes it had guard Arron Sears, whose absence and personal issue(s) remain a mystery.
The Bucs invested a second-round pick in Sears in 2007. He started 31 games before going AWOL. Tampa Bay thought it had an insurance policy in Jeremy Zuttah, a 2008 third-round pick out of Rutgers. Zuttah played well in five starts last year.
Although Zuttah is extremely athletic and considered by some to be a good fit for Tampa Bay's new zone blocking scheme, he has not been a consistent player in 2009.
Zuttah obviously is at a disadvantage playing alongside backup C Sean Mahan, but Tampa Bay's ground attack has stalled over the past two games, producing just 85 yards in that department. Needless to say, the run blocking from Zuttah and Co. has been a problem.
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris benched quarterback Byron Leftwich after Tampa Bay's 24-0 loss to New York. If he doesn't play better, could Zuttah be in danger of being replaced by newcomer Marcus Johnson?
The Bucs don't appear to be seriously considering such a move, but the option is available to them.
The 6-foot-8, 320-pound Johnson originally joined the Bucs on Sept. 2. He started 18 of the 47 games he played with Minnesota. After a short stint with Oakland this year, Johnson signed with Tampa Bay, and he's apparently making strides in Greg Olson's offense.
"His progress has been great," said Morris. "He came in here late in preseason and jumped right in our lineup and make himself one of our 45 guys on game days. He's been a valuable asset up and down the line of scrimmage. He can play tackle and guard. He's huge and brings a big presence out there. He might be the only guy bigger than Donald Penn, maybe other than Demar Dotson. He gives us presence and plays calm. Having a crafty veteran like that has been very helpful."
The 2005 second-round pick was quite familiar with zone blocking before his arrival, which has helped accelerate his learning curve in Tampa Bay. In fact, that's one of the main reasons why the team acquired Johnson and center Jonathan Compas, who has also made significant progress.
"That was the huge part," Morris said of Johnson's familiarity with zone blocking. "He worked with [Raiders head coach] Tom Cable and I'm sure some of the plays were called similar. I'm sure some of the terms were very similar in terms of how they used them and what they meant. Both he and Jonathan Compas were ready to jump right in there and learn fast."
Added Johnson: "Zone is zone, whether it's inside zone or outside zone. There's only so many plays any team can run. It's just matter of learning the language."
Johnson didn't have the luxury of spending an entire offseason, training camp and preseason working with Bucs offensive line coach Pete Mangurian, but he has been taking some reps in practice each week. Mangurian has Johnson playing both right and left guard.
While he's anxious to play, Johnson admits he's more comfortable on one side of the line as opposed to the other.
"I'm more comfortable on the right side," said Johnson. "Right guard and right tackle is all I've played in this league. It's a matter of timing for me to get as comfortable on the left side. I haven't done it much in my life. If I had to pick which one was more comfortable, I'd definitely say playing on the right side."
Would Johnson's comfort level on the right side play a role in whether the Bucs decide to replace Zuttah should he not show more consistency? Johnson, who was nursing an ankle injury this week, said he's ready to play if given the opportunity.
"The NFL is a league where you have to be ready week in and week out no matter the circumstances," said Johnson. "We're all one play away from being in there, and you have to be ready."
The Bucs lost a significant amount of depth due to Sears' absence. Faine's injury hasn't helped, either. But Johnson and Compas appear poised to give Tampa Bay some much-needed depth along its offensive line.
"Well, they're on my 45-man roster on game days, so I have to say [they're ready to play]," Morris said of Johnson and Compas. "Those guys are the next ones in. The looks they give on scout team and the looks they give on the live team have been outstanding. I've got nothing but positive things to say about Johnson and Compas."
Youth & Inexperience Aren't The Only Issues For The Bucs
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are rebuilding. If you didn't believe that before, there probably isn't a doubt in your mind after watching the Bucs start the 2009 regular season 0-3.
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have said on more than one occasion that their team is young and in some cases inexperienced.
That's true, but only to a degree.
Sure, the Bucs have young and inexperienced players in starting linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black. Safety Sabby Piscitelli and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack can even be mentioned in the same conversation.
However, Tampa Bay's defense ranks 31st in the NFL with several experienced players as well, including defensive linemen Gaines Adams, Jimmy Wilkerson, Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and cornerback Ronde Barber. That means just over half of Tampa Bay's defensive starters are considered experienced.
The Bucs should also be careful not to pull the young and inexperienced card on the offensive side of the ball too much when attempting to explain their recent woes. This unit, including the team's offensive line, which is supposed to be a strength of the team, is actually quite seasoned in the NFL.
Take a look at the player, age and experience for yourself.
Tampa Bay's 2009 Starting Lineup (Offense)
QB Byron Leftwich, 29 – 7th season
RB Cadillac Williams, 27 – 5th season
RB Derrick Ward, 29 – 6th season
RB Earnest Graham, 29 – 6th season
FB B.J. Askew, 29 – 7th season
WR Antonio Bryant, 28 – 7th season
WR Michael Clayton, 26 – 6th season
TE Kellen Winslow, 26 – 6th season
TE Jerramy Stevens, 29 – 8th season
RT Jeremy Trueblood, 26 – 4th season
RG Davin Joseph, 25 – 4th season
C Jeff Faine, 28 – 7th season
LG Jeremy Zuttah, 23 – 2nd season
LT Donald Penn, 26 – 4th season
It's no secret that the Bucs have sorely missed Faine, and one could even throw Bryant in the mix since he's not completely recovered from preseason knee surgery. But this unit dropped from 4th to 26th overall in the NFL last week due to one of the worst offensive performances in league history, where Tampa Bay produced just 86 yards of total offense in a 24-0 loss to the New York Giants. Even the Bruce Gradkowski-led Bucs never had an offensive performance as bad as that one.
The Bucs invested a significant amount of money in upgrading the offense in free agency. That included franchising Bryant, trading for Winslow, re-signing Clayton and Stevens, and inking Leftwich and Ward to deals.
The plan Morris and Dominik had heading into this season was to see what the younger players could do, identify the players that could play/start and build around them going forward to 2010.
The season still is young, but Morris and Dominik have to be shell-shocked by how few players on their current roster have shown consistent playmaking ability. One can't dispute the fact that the Bucs are young and inexperienced in certain areas, but at what point is that legitimate circumstance tuned out? At some point, you are what you are, and right now the Bucs are bad.
Even though they have more salary cap room than any other team in the NFL, and next year could be an uncapped season, the amount of players that have struggled thus far has to be worrisome to Morris and Dominik. Assuming they survive this season, Morris and Dominik can only add so many pieces in one offseason, and next year the pressure for the Bucs to show dramatic improvement would be on.
Unless there's some sort of drastic turnaround and sign of improvement in the latter part of the 2009 season, Morris and Dominik will have quite a bit of work to do and pieces to replace in 2010. This team is young and inexperienced in certain areas, but what it is sorely lacking right now is talent.
Quote Of The Week
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Bryant on rookie WR Sammie Stroughter.
"My thing with the young players, especially with a guy like Sammie Stroughter, he's a very, very encouraging guy to be around. He's a young dude, but he has no limitations because knows nothing other than what he sees. For some guys you got out there and make plays and that builds their confidence that they can go out there and master that or do even better. The best part about Sammie is he's not poison. He's not worried about getting no check, he's not out there talking about to coaches and he doesn't have an opinion about the plays. He's just doing what he's told to do."
Longest Current Losing Streaks In NFL
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost seven straight games dating back to the 2008 regular season. The Bucs are just 1-10 during that stretch if you count the team's 2009 preseason (1-3).
The Detroit Lions' 19-game losing streak ended with a 19-14 win over Washington last Sunday. The Bucs currently rank tied for third in the NFL for longest losing streak in regular season play.
St. Louis – 13
Cleveland – 9
Kansas City – 7
Tampa Bay – 7