Tampa Bay's New-Look Bucs Hope To Hit the Ground Running

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Tampa Bay's New-Look Bucs Hope To Hit the Ground Running
(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, long known for Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa Two” defense, will debut new coaches, new players, and new playbooks next season on both sides of the ball.

First-year head coach Raheem Morris wants his team to play “violent football,” citing the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars as comparisons to the team model he would like to build in Tampa.

The man in charge of the Bucs’ offense this season is former Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski. For Jagodzinski, violent football translates into a run first, zone-blocking scheme featuring newly acquired running back Derrick Ward.

Ward, who will be complemented by Earnest Graham and hopefully a healthy Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, is familiar with the system after rushing for over 1,000 yards in the New York Giants’ zone scheme last season.

According to players, the new offense is simpler than the West Coast system brought to Tampa by former head coach Jon Gruden. Many attributed Gruden’s bulky playbook and complex terminology over the years to the slow development and limited production of Buccaneer rookies.

To the contrary, Jagodzinski says the Bucs will have variations of no more than 10 running plays this season. Specifically, the Tampa Bay running game will transition from a drive-blocking scheme to a stretch outside zone-blocking scheme.

Whereas the West Coast offense uses the short passing game to create running lanes and opportunities down the field, the Bucs will revert to a more traditional theory this season—establishing the run to set up the pass.

Morris believes an aggressive downhill running game will set the tone and create favorable matchups for a capable group of receivers, led by Antonio Bryant on the outside and tight end Kellen Winslow between the hashes.

Though off-the-field issues are a concern, Winslow immediately upgrades the tight end position for Tampa Bay, who acquired Winslow through a trade with Cleveland. If the Bucs can establish the run effectively, Winslow should be a staple out of play action, create mismatches in coverage, and free up Bryant and others on the outside.

Wide receiver Michael Clayton, going into his sixth season with the Bucs, is also expected to be a bigger part of the offense this season.

Clayton enjoyed a promising rookie season with Tampa Bay in 2004, but a combination of dropped balls and injuries landed the wide out in Gruden’s doghouse. His role was reduced accordingly.

Jagodzinski, however, likes Clayton’s size and ability as both a target and a physical blocker down field.

Clayton says the new coaching staff has done a good job of getting everyone involved in the offense, and likes that Jagodzinski’s quarterbacks don’t hesitate to throw the ball down field.

With a smaller playbook and more of an open-minded approach this season, it’ll be interesting to see if Morris and Jagodzinski can get more production from a slew of young Buccaneer receivers.

Second-year speedster Dexter Jackson, 6’5”, 220-pound Maurice Stovall, and rookie Sammie Stroughter should all be available for the Bucs this season.

Tampa Bay certainly gets younger at the skill positions as the team chose not to re-sign veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia and released running back Warrick Dunn and receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.

Without Garcia’s knack for buying time in the pocket and making plays down field, undoubtedly the quarterbacks will be asked to do less this season. Whether it's Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, or rookie Josh Freeman, certainly more emphasis will be placed on establishing the run and taking what the defense gives them from there.

Regardless, Ward and others say they’re excited for what they believe will be a balanced and explosive offense under the new coaching staff.

For the Bucs—who finished last in scoring within the division in 2008 by a total margin of 30 points—the offense will almost have to be explosive if they hope to compete in the NFC South this season.

Meanwhile, the burden of holding opposing offenses in check will fall on the new-look Tampa Bay defense.

The Bucs have brought in 17-year NFL veteran Jim Bates to implement his run contain system this season. While both systems rely on speed, Bates’ defense varies considerably from the cover two scheme Kiffin introduced in 1996.

Bates’ system requires stalwarts at defensive tackle and speed at the outside linebacker positions in order to funnel opposing offenses toward the middle linebacker—in Tampa’s case, standout tackler Barrett Ruud.

The middle linebacker has run responsibilities on almost every play, and the system aims to herd ball carriers toward the heart of the defense—the ultimate goal being to force opposing offenses to throw the football and become one-dimensional.

Having the right personnel is key to execute the run contain system, and while the Bucs may not be a perfect fit in 2009, the team seems to be putting the pieces together.

The Bucs have moved veteran strong safety Jermaine Phillips to linebacker, and also acquired free agent Angelo Crowell. Crowell recorded 126 tackles with the Buffalo Bills in 2007 before electing to sit out the 2008 season to surgically repair an ailing knee.

Having released the team’s second and third leading tacklers in Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks and veteran linebacker Cato June, the coaching staff must believe Phillips and Crowell are a good fit for the new system.

Morris and company also chose not to take a linebacker in this year’s draft. Instead, the Bucs took a couple versatile defensive linemen with their second and third picks—Texas’ Roy Miller and Southern California’s Kyle Moore, respectively.

Defensive tackles are key to Bates’ defense, and thought to be the biggest weakness at the moment in terms of the Buccaneers’ personnel. In Bates’ system, the tackles must be especially big and strong in order to hold the line of scrimmage and free up the team’s linebackers.

Bucs fans will also see a change in strategy in the secondary. Bates’ defense calls for more aggressive bump-and-run coverage on the outside, as opposed to Kiffin’s cover two, which allowed corners to sit back in coverage and make plays on the ball.

At 6’1” and 205 pounds, the Bucs believe second-year corner Aqib Talib will fit the system nicely. Morris also likes seventh-round draft pick E.J. Biggers who showed promise with his ability to play the bump and run at Western Michigan.

Bates’ system often uses outside linebackers and defensive backs in blitz packages to complement the pass rush provided by the team’s defensive ends.

It’s no surprise that Bates will be looking for speed from his ends as well, and if everything goes according to plan, the Bucs’ Gaines Adams could be in for a big year in Bates’ scheme.

Altogether, between the coaching changes, the new playbooks, and the addition of a few new faces on both sides of the ball, Bucs fans will have a lot to watch for this season.

Whether Tampa Bay’s 2009 campaign proves to be an early surprise or a grueling rebuilding process, it should make for an interesting year in the franchise’s history.

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