Coming off a 10-6 season in which they finished just a tiebreaker out of the playoffs, hopes were high for the 2011 Buccaneers. But under a tougher schedule and higher expectations, Tampa Bay proved to be more immature than ‘youngry’. After a promising 4-2 start, the Bucs lost their last 10 games by an average of 17.5 points, while showing every sign of a team that had given up on their coach.
Exit player-friendly Raheem Morris, enter disciplinarian Greg Schiano. The former Rutgers coach aims to bring order and accountability to one of the most inexperienced teams in the league. And General Manager Mark Dominik has given him every chance to succeed, splurging for top free agents and drafting two immediate impact players in the first round.
So with new blood in the staff and roster, are this year’s Bucs ready to rebound to respectability? Let’s take a deeper look at their prospects heading into the season.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1) Fixing Freeman
No one player embodied Tampa Bay’s regression last season more than their third-year quarterback, Josh Freeman. His impressive six interception mark from 2010 ballooned to an unsightly total of 22 last season. His accuracy actually improved from 72.0% to 73.6 %, suggesting that the turnover spike was due to bad decisions rather than flawed mechanics. Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan did wonders to fix Eli Manning’s turnover issues last season, and now that he’s the Bucs’ offensive coordinator, there’s hope he can do the same for Freeman.
2) Added Threat
If Freeman does rebound, much of it will inevitably be credited to his new top target, Vincent Jackson. He may not have gotten much publicity down in San Diego, but few wide receivers have been as consistent a deep threat over the past five years as Jackson. His 38 targets on passes over 20 yards tied for the league lead last season, and he converted those passes to 464 yards and six touchdowns. After the Buccaneers signed him to a big deal, all reports say that he is fitting in nicely in Tampa. With opponents focused on Jackson’s 6-foot-5 frame, it could open things up for fellow receiver Mike Williams to rediscover the promise he showed in his rookie season.
3) Knowing Bennett Better
Michael Bennett is a stranger outside of Tampa, but Terrell Suggs was the only defensive end that topped Bennett’s +17.4 run grade last season. The Buccaneer stepped up his pass rush as well, as his four QB sacks and 28 hurries surpassed his total from his previous two seasons combined. Even without his epic performance against the Colts in a Week 4 Monday Night matchup, Bennett was a consistent force on the left side all season. In his fourth year, this undrafted free agent deserves the increased playing time he will see this fall.
4) Impact Rookies
By taking the top safety and then trading back into the first round of this April’s draft to grab a running back, Domonik made it clear that he’s looking for young players that can help Tampa Bay now. Tanard Jackson (-14.7) and Sean Jones (-14.9) both ranked in the bottom six of safeties last season, so Mark Barron will not have to tap too far into his talent to provide an immediate upgrade at that position. LeGarrette Blount broke plenty of tackles en route to some highlight reels runs, and his 59.8 Elusive Rating was only bested by Michael Turner. But he was a non-factor in passing situations, with just 148 receiving yards and a below-average -0.1 blocking grade despite his size. It appears that Doug Martin has won this training camp battle as the all-purpose back that Schiano craves.
5) Culture Change on Defense?
Any new coach brings talk of a “culture change”, but this Tampa defense was desperately in need of one after last season. The Bucs’ pitiful -51.3 run defense grade was by far the worst in the league, and their pass defense and penalty rate was also near the bottom. If he only cleans up the mental errors, the defensive-minded Schiano will have already made a significant impact in his first year as coach.
Five Causes for Concern
1) Missed Tackles
If you tuned into any part of a Tampa Bay game last season, chances are you saw a Buccaneer missing a tackle. The defense had a whopping 169 of them last season, and unfortunately three of the biggest offenders are returning as starters. Linebackers Quincy Black and Mason Foster combined for 27 missed tackles, and Ronde Barber’s total of 22 won’t cut it in his new position at safety. If Schiano can’t teach better tackling to his defense, then running backs will once again run free in the Tampa secondary.
2) The Wright Man For the Job?
In a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, Tampa Bay’s secondary will be tested often. Quarterbacks had a 109.8 passer rating when targeting Aqib Talib’s coverage zone, and the corner’s -3.2 penalty grade revealed that he’s as undisciplined on the field as he is off it. The Bucs gave Eric Wright a big contract, but last year’s -8.3 coverage grade is reason to doubt whether he’s worth the money. Even if he’s healthy, potential nickelback E.J. Biggers (-15.1) did not inspire confidence last season. Shifting from corner to safety will may help Barber improve upon his -12.8 coverage grade from last season, but right now the Bucs surest bet in their secondary may be a rookie. That says more about Barron’s teammates than it does about him.
3) Who Bringing The Rush?
Nothing helps a suspect secondary like a good pass rush. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, their defensive line has some questions of its own. Their two defensive ends, Bennett and Adrian Clayborn, were two of only three Bucs players to have more than 10 quarterback hurries last season. The third, Da-Quan Bowers, tore his Achilles tendon in May and could miss the entire season. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has shown glimpses of the talent that made the Bucs take him with the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, but various injuries have sidelined him for 13 games over his first two seasons. Former Texans first-round pick Amobi Okoye is dealing with some knee issues of his own. And starter Roy Miller’s -8.7 pass rush grade was fourth-worst among defensive tackles in 2011. Schiano would love to see someone step up to give his two defensive ends some help in the pass rush, but right now it’s questionable where that help will come from, if it comes at all.
4) Dealing Without Davin
Tampa made a big addition to their offensive line when they signed standout guard Carl Nicks (28.4) in free agency. However, they unfortunately lost right guard Davin Joseph for the year when he tore his right patellar tendon in last Friday’s preseason game. Joseph’s grade of -6.2 was not great by any means, but potential replacement Ted Larsen (-8.2) was even less impressive in spot duty. The Bucs are left scrambling to fill a hole in their protection.
5) Formidable Schedule
As the Buccaneers try to return to respectability, they’ll get no help from their opponents. Perennial contenders Atlanta and New Orleans, along with up-and-coming Carolina, will ensure that Tampa Bay finds no easy games within its division. Beyond that, the Bucs also have to face the always-formidable NFC East. There are few shortcuts to success in Tampa’s schedule.
What To Expect
After years of hoarding their cap space, the Buccaneers finally made big moves to improve their team this offseason. Top-tier additions like Jackson, Nicks, Barron, and Martin should make a difference immediately, and any discipline that Schiano brings will do wonders for the Tampa defense. If Josh Freeman can resemble the promising quarterback he was in 2009, rather than the turnover-machine he was last year, this Buccaneers team can make a surprise run in a tough division.