Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 Lessons from the First Month of the 2011 Season
The Bucs are 3-1 one month into the 2011 season, but they are certainly not sitting pretty. After more than 100 yards of penalties and some erratic play on offense against Indy last Sunday, it seems clear that the "youngry" Buccaneers are in need of an altered diet plan.
However, before head coach Raheem Morris and his staff can begin cutting calories, he needs to examine what exactly is going wrong and what is going right with his team of youngsters.
The team is not bereft of talent, as their record and the manner in which they came by their wins indicate, but certain problems need to be examined and addressed if the Bucs plan on fulfilling their goal of winning the NFC South.
Slow Starts Will Kill This Team
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Over the first four games of the season, the Buccaneers have scored exactly 20 points in the first two quarters. Total. No team in the NFL can expect to win consistently by consistently playing down at the half.
Sure, Josh Freeman is a comeback wizard, but championship teams know how to take early leads and take them. In fact, it’s Freeman and his offense that are to blame for the slow starts.
Consistent three-and-outs by the offense forces the defense to stay on the field longer, as they did against the juggernaut Detroit offense in Week 1. The Bucs’ defense has performed admirably considering the burden placed upon them.
Slow starts are a symptom of poor preparation, but that’s not to say the Buccaneers are poorly coached. Given their second-half performances both this year and last, Raheem Morris is quite adept in making half-time adjustments.
Freeman prides himself on his devotion to film study and pregame preparation, but there is an obvious disconnect between what Freeman, Morris and offensive coordinator Greg Olson are doing to prepare for games and what happens on the field in the first half.
Quincy Black Was Overpaid
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This is probably the easiest lesson learned. General manager Mark Dominik gave Black a five-year, $29 million contract with $11.5 million guaranteed. Black has earned exactly none of it.
While the defense has not played great football in the first quarter, Black has easily played very bad football. He has missed tackles, blown coverages and has just looked lost on the field. Not knowing what’s happening on the field is not something you want from the guy calling plays for the defense.
What may be worse, at least in terms of the move to pay Black, is that his backup, Dekota Watson, is playing better football. Watson has made some plays as a pass-rushing specialist and has thrived in pass coverage.
Black may return to the solid player he was last year, but he’s already lost his play-calling duties to rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster, who has certainly earned the responsibility. In hindsight, it may have been wiser for Dominik to simply place the franchise tag on Black and let him actually earn the contract he received.
But Michael Koenen Was Not
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Buccaneer fans screamed bloody murder when Mark Dominik’s annual big free-agent signing was former Atlanta Falcons punter Michael Koenen. The armchair GMs of the Buccaneer nation demanded the team dig into the Glazers’ very deep pockets to pay the likes of Nmamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown and Reggie Bush.
Can everyone who said this was a bad move, please come collect your crow? Anyone who has watched him boom a punt with significant hang time knows Koenen is worth every penny.
Koenen ranked fifth best in the league in net yard averages and has an average of 15 return yards on kickoffs, which is good enough for fourth-best.
After years of inconsistency in both the punt and kicking games, the Buccaneers finally have a punter/kicker who can and will pin offenses inside the 20, force fair catches and land his fair share of touchbacks.
Special teams is too often overlooked by the average football fan, and the addition of Koenan made a good Buccaneers special teams unit a great special teams unit. Better yet, they took him from division rival Atlanta, which is sorely missing him at this very moment.
The Passing Game Is Showing Its Age
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The Buccaneers are the youngest team in the NFL, and it shows in the passing game. Josh Freeman is a rising superstar, but he’s made some very bad decisions in the first four weeks of the season.
He’s thrown far too many red-zone interceptions and has made mistakes in protections which, because he often holds the ball too long, has resulted in sacks.
The mediocre passing game does not just fall on Freeman. His receivers have dropped enough passes for the Bucs to be ranked among the league’s worst.
Mike Williams can’t seem to get open, and Arrelious Benn has made as many bone-headed plays as game-breakers (how do you step out of bounds before a 60-plus yard touchdown play, Rejus?)
It is never a good sign when the team’s leading receiver is the third-down back, Earnest Graham, but there is some significance to his distinction. Graham is the oldest player on the offense, dubbed by Raheem Morris as “Insurance Graham.” There really is something to be said for experience.
However, the shortcomings of inexperience are offset by the promise of youth. Young receivers means they can still get better. Preston Parker shows promise, while Arrelious Benn was one mental mistake away from the biggest play of his young career.
Only time will tell whether these players will grow into a productive, cohesive unit. Until then, Williams and Benn need to get better separation on their defenders and catch a ball or two.
This Team Can Do a Lot Better
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The Buccaneers are certainly deserving of this backhanded compliment. As the team showed against Indy, they are often their own worst enemy.
Yellow flags were dropping like they were being thrown to Buccaneers receivers, the defense were looking for tackles on milk cartons, and Josh Freeman was nearly intercepted in the end zone again.
Raheem Morris and his staff must make fixing the slow starts a priority, and Freeman needs to take more calculated risks. Many of these problems are typical of a team loaded with youth, and likewise coached by youth.
The upside is the Buccaneers are on the right track. Clearly, even with all the problems with execution, the team is loaded with talent.
Freeman is a legitimate franchise quarterback, the offensive line deserves more credit for keeping Freeman upright and opening holes for LaGarrette Blount, and the defense is on the rise.
Mark Dominik’s investment in the defensive line is beginning to pay off and Mason Foster already has some fans saying, “Barrett who?” With a little seasoning, Tampa Bay could be on the verge of a return of the championship era Buc Ball played by Brooks, Sapp, and, of course, Ronde.
While the "promise" of this team may only evoke cringes of panic at the moment, the sloppy play of today has the potential to lead Tampa Bay back to relevance.