Tampa Bay Buccaneers' First Half Report: A New Hope

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' First Half Report: A New Hope
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Not a lot went right for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first half of the 2009 season. They were blown out in five of their eight games and they find themselves at the bottom in most statistical categories in the league.

There's been confounding choices by both management and the coaching staff.

With that said, the Bucs may have found a quarterback. With Josh Freeman looking like a veteran tossing three touchdown passes in the Buccaneers' upset of the Green Bay Packers, Freeman looked every bit the part of a franchise quarterback.

There's bound to be good days and bad days with a 21-year old quarterback so it's key for Buc fans to temper their enthusiasm. 

As some fishwrap writers opined, Ryan Leaf and Rick Mirer looked good early on, too.

Still, you felt a different swagger to the football team now that Freeman has assumed his role as starting quarterback.

Things went bad against Green Bay, at times very bad, but the Buccaneers found the resiliency to overcome and rally for the win.

It's a start.

Second Quarter Record: 1-3

Overall Record: 1-7

All the Buccaneers guaranteed at this point is they won't be going 0-16. It remains to be seen whether the Bucs can continue to grow and improve under head coach Raheem Morris.

There remains plenty of challenges. The defense is still hemorrhaging yardage and points while the offense is not going to be confused with the Saints any time soon.

 

Most Valuable Player: Aquib Talib, Cornerback

While Talib has definitely had some off-the-field concerns, you can't argue with the on-the-field production.

Talib is tied for third in NFL with five interceptions and has been every bit the shutdown corner you'd want to see in the NFL.

Facing the top receivers of each team, Talib gave up a few plays early on in the year and he's not invincible, but against him, usually the top opposing receiving weapon is a non-factor.

Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Greg Jennings—a who's who among NFL wide outs that have been erased by Talib.

That's why the Bucs put up with his off-the-field antics.

 

Offensive Player of the Half-Season: Kellen Winslow, Jr., Tight End

Winslow has quietly put together a solid season for the Buccaneers. Playing with three different quarterbacks, the big target is tied for third in the NFL with five touchdown receptions and is in the top ten among tight ends in the league in receptions.

While other players on offense have struggled with drops and injury, Winslow not only has been reliable but has made some spectacular grabs.

The oft-injured tight end has also managed to stay healthy this season, something he hasn't managed since 2006.

With Freeman settling in at quarterback, you can expect Winslow to have a huge second half of the season.

 

Defensive Player of the Half-Season: Aquib Talib, Cornerback

Talib has bee a bright spot in the Buccaneers secondary. His play, along with the return of Free Safety Tanard Jackson has helped the Bucs raise from 32nd in the NFL in pass defense to 15th.

 

Special Teams Player of the Half-Season: Sammie Stroughter/Clifton Smith, Kick Returners

The Buccaneers special teams improved dramatically in second quarter of the season, getting huge, game changing plays in the return game and blocking a punt for a score.

Stroughter brought the Bucs back against Carolina with a team record tying kickoff return for a score, while Smith brought the Bucs back against Green Bay with an 83-yard return that set the Bucs in point blank range.

 

Most Improved Player of the Half-Season: Josh Freeman, Quarterback

When you watched Josh Freeman in preseason, he had a deer-in-the-headlights look about him.

He looked confused, not comfortable and struggled to move the football team against third stringers and guys who didn't make their final rosters.

As Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson worked games, Freeman stood on the sideline, seemingly lost in what was going on.

Then the kid was named starter and shocked everyone with a fantastic opening performance.

What Bucs fans didn't see was Freeman's hard work in the film room and after practice with Offensive Coordinator/Quarterback Coach Greg Olsen.

It at least paid off for one week. Freeman's ascension to his throne makes the remainder of this season all the more intriguing.

 

Most Disappointing Player of the Half-Season: Antonio Bryant, Wide Receiver

Bryant is on the books for $9 million as the Buccaneers franchise player but has rarely seen the field for Tampa Bay in 2009. Bryant wants the big payday, but his troublesome knee has kept him out of action.

While I'd never be one to question someone who is hurt, from comments made by coach Morris and others you have to wonder if Bryant is so injured he's unable to play or just protecting himself for free agency.

If it's the latter, it's hard to blame him—but with his reputation you'd think he'd want to be out there to prove the 2008 season was no fluke.

Sitting at 16 catches for 229 yds and 2 touchdowns, there's no way he's going to command top dollar in the free agent market.

If he burns bridges in Tampa Bay in self preservation mode, you would have to wonder who would take him?

 

Best Game of the Half-season: Tampa Bay 38, Green Bay 28

The pick of this game isn't just because it's the Buccaneers only victory of the season. Just the atmosphere at Raymond James Stadium, the vibe of the crowd, wearing the throwback uniforms and Freeman's first start.

It was a tough, hard fought game that had it's ups and downs throughout.

The Bucs dramatic 11 point fourth quarter rally made it all the more special.

 

Worst Game of the Half-season: NY Giants 24, Tampa Bay 0

In a brutal performance, the Bucs were simply out-manned by the powerful G-men. The Giants pounded out 397 yards on offense (226 on the ground) while the Buccaneer offense managed only 86 yards total.

Tampa Bay didn't register a first down until the third quarter. Most of their yardage came on their final drive when Josh Johnson relieved Byron Leftwich and drove the Bucs down to the Giants five yard line before failing to get it in.

 

Best Coaching Move: Holding out Freeman until after the bye week

There's plenty of wags now questioning Coach Morris' decision to wait on starting Freeman, wasting quality reps on Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson.

I disagree with that sentiment. Freeman wasn't ready at the opening of the season. It was clearly obvious.

Seeing the mistakes Leftwich and Johnson made, learning how to break down film, getting extra reps with Olsen all contributed to Freeman's preparation.

In addition, the Buccaneers were facing a gauntlet of four NFC East teams in the first half of the season. The kind of defenses that can shatter a young quarterback's confidence and ruin him (see Carr, David).

The second half of the season is not as daunting as the first half and the extra preparation allowed Freeman to find a comfort zone.

 

Worst Coaching Move: Hiring Jim Bates

There's a menu of things to choose from in regards to bad coaching moves during the first half of the season, as I mentioned back in the quarterly report in October.

The one that continues to come into the forefront is the hiring of Jim Bates and the changing of the Buccaneers defense from the famed Tampa Two to a more man-to-man style.

The defense can't stop the run or the pass, continues to give up big plays and many times the players just look downright confused out there.

This is not a well coached defense. That falls on Bates and the entire defensive staff.

 

Grades

Quarterbacks: D

Byron Leftwich started out well against the Dallas Cowboys but quickly deteriorated as teams figured out how to attack him. Straight up the middle.

Josh Johnson looked like a speedy Bruce Gradkowski. After teams figured out he couldn't throw down field, they began to bring up nine and ten guys in the box to limit his effectiveness. Johnson became turnover prone toward the end of his run.

Josh Freeman looked every bit the franchise quarterback in his first start—but now teams have film on him. It will be interesting to see how they attack the young quarterback.

 

Running Backs: D

While Cadillac Williams has been a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay, the fading of Derrick Ward has been stunning.

The Bucs top free agency acquisition of the 2009 offseason has averaged less than four yards a carry in five of the seven games he's played. In three of those five games, he's averaged less than three yards a carry.

With just two touchdowns (one rushing), that's not the kind of production the Bucs brass envisioned when paying Ward big bucks to come to Tampa Bay.

Earnest Graham has moved to fullback and his only impact in the running game is his ability to block.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: D

It's still the same story from the first quarter—too many drops, not enough separation, and few big plays out of the passing game has stunted the team's growth.

There have been flashes from the receiving core but unfortunately, nothing consistent from any of the high priced offensive weapons assembled, with the exception of Kellen Winslow—who now has emerged as the team's top offensive weapon.

 

Offensive Line: D

Despite the return of Jeff Faine to the lineup, the Buccaneers offensive line has failed to open any holes for Tampa Bay running backs.

Some of that is due to teams bringing up nine and 10 guys in the box and the Bucs inconsistency at quarterback, but it's still not enough of an excuse.

With Faine back, the Bucs have done a little better job at protecting the quarterback but there's still too much pressure being allowed for a line that is supposed to be one of the better ones in the league..

 

Defensive Line: D+

While gap control remains a problem within the defensive line, the Bucs defense is starting to a better job at pressuring the quarterback with the front four.

Consistency is the issue there as there's periods where the Bucs do not come anywhere near the quarterback.

Other times, they're all over him, as they were in the second half against Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (six sacks in the second half).

The Bucs need to develop more consistency in the pass rush department and finally solve the run gap issues.

 

Linebackers: F

I'm not satisfied with the performance by the Buccaneers linebackers at all. Tampa Bay's issues with the front seven don't just lie with the defensive line. The linebacking core has made very few impact plays.

Other than Geno Hayes, the core is playing without instinct and allowing running backs to penetrate into the Buccaneers secondary.

When Safety Sabby Piscitelli has more tackles than two of your three starting linebackers—something's wrong.

Whether it's by design scheme or just poor play, the linebackers are not getting the job done.

 

Secondary: D+

It's getting better. The secondary is still allowing too many big plays (Elbert Mack, I'm looking at you), but the return of Tanard Jackson and the continued emergence of Aquib Talib has helped stabilize the Bucs pass defense.

Moreover, they're starting to make plays against some of the league's best. This included three interceptions against Rodgers (he had two for the season coming in), two picks against Tom Brady (he also just had two coming in).

Even the much maligned Sabby Piscitelli is beginning to come around.

If the Bucs can sustain a pass rush, the secondary issues may finally begin to subside and the play makers back there can begin to make impact plays.

 

Special Teams: C+

The unit would be A or B if not for the issues at kicker. Both Clifton Smith and Sammie Stroughter have begun to dominate in the return game.

The Bucs kickoff and punt coverages have been solid all season and Dirk Johnson continues to do a solid job filling in for Josh Bidwell.

The Bucs are now on their third kicker this season and still refuse to acknowledge their mistake in letting Matt Bryant go.

 

Coaching: D

Morris and company are beginning to get the feel for this team, but there's still questions about half time adjustments and player management.

The defense run by Jim Bates is not conducive to the current personnel of the Buccaneers. They can't play it, yet the Bucs continue to try to stick the round peg into the square hole.

The one thing you can say is Morris made the right call on waiting on Freeman, allowing his young quarterback to learn the nuances of being an NFL quarterback before throwing him into the fire.

Morris also should be credited for keeping this team together and playing hard despite the 0-7 start.

 

Reasons for Hope: Josh Freeman

Doubted by many to be the franchise QB the team believed they had, Freeman stunned the Packers and the Buccaneer fan base with an outstanding performance in his first start.

He looked every bit the part but has a lot of areas he needs to improve on (accuracy being one). The best part of Freeman is he doesn't think he's "arrived."

He knows he has to get better and that there will be new challenges he'll face every week.

 

Reasons for Suicide Watch: The Bucs must play the Saints twice.

The Saints are one of the dominant teams in the NFC, with the best quarterback and an improved defense. They remain one of the league's two undefeated teams and provide match up problems all over the field for the Bucs.

Those two games may be uglier than any we've seen for Tampa Bay this season.

 

Record Prediction: 5-11

With Josh Freeman now the starter, the Buccaneers offense can begin to grow in earnest.

Defensively, things are beginning to get better.

Despite the Saints remaining on the schedule, the Bucs remaining schedule is definitely not as daunting as the first half of the season.

If Freeman can continue to improve and this young team begins to get some confidence, they can steal some wins and finish the second half of the season strong.

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