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Bucs go from bluster to blueprint to become the NFL's biggest surprise

TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber would feel the same momentary adrenaline rush as his teammates last year when new coach Raheem Morris addressed them the night before games. How could he not? Morris has a flair for public speaking. His personality is larger than the conference rooms his team occupies on Saturday nights, and his rapid-fire speech and colorful expressions can take you back to Sundays in church or childhood afternoons on the playground.

Still, there were times when Barber would walk away from the meetings needing more. You don't last 14 years in the NFL, as Barber has, by relying solely on emotion. He needed to hear not only what the Bucs were going to do to an opponent, but also how they were going to do it.

More blueprint, less bluster, if you will.

"Raheem is from Irvington, N.J., and he approaches life and football like a kid that's from the streets," says Barber, who at 35 is one year older than Morris. "It's great with the players because they all relate to him one way or another, but there's a lot more to this game than the hype or the energy that you put on your team. It's about how you structure your team, how you structure their attitudes toward going to play on Sunday."

The Bucs, who travel to Baltimore for a showdown between 7-3 clubs Sunday, are the biggest surprise of the season not only because their young players are quick-studies, but also because their head coach is a fast learner. He realized midway through last year's 3-13 disaster that the team lacked a defined plan for success, that he couldn't simply will it to victory through tough talk and brash statements.

So instead of having an offense, defense and special teams that were playing as independent units -- living under the same roof, but in separate rooms -- he fired his defensive coordinator and took over the play-calling duties. Then he gave veterans such as Barber just what they had been looking for: a detailed plan for success.

The Bucs would be built around their defense, run the ball on offense, play field position on special teams, and try to keep the score close so they could make a play in the fourth quarter to win. Damned if that hasn't happened.

Second-year QB Josh Freeman has 10 wins since moving into the starting lineup midway through last season. Six of them have been via fourth-quarter comebacks.

"Early on, from the outside, I was trying to marry all three phases of the game without being hands on," Morris says. "It wasn't working, so I had to do something. Once I put myself into the defensive phase of it, I started managing the game and the team through a defensive mentality."

Last season, the Bucs surrendered 33 or more points in five of their first 10 games with Jim Bates at defensive coordinator. They allowed more than 20 only once over the remaining six games. In typical Morris flair, he says he was unwilling to stand on the street and watch the Bucs' house burn down. "I needed to get an ax," he says, "and go in and try to put out the blaze."

He started by going back to the Tampa 2 scheme with which so many players were familiar. As the defense regained its confidence, Morris began adding his own twists and coverages. Some defenders now refer to it as the Tampa 2.1."

"Our character really changed when Raheem took over the defense," says veteran linebacker Barrett Ruud. "He started playing to our strengths. We don't have a lot of size, so we have to play to our strengths. We had to start using what we had. He did that. We started playing more zones and letting guys like Ronde and (cornerback) Aqib Talib be greedy. They're both smart players and they can jump routes and read routes. And we added a couple of D-linemen that are extremely athletic. We're getting more and more versatile, which is what we want."

The Bucs success is even more remarkable when considering they have the league's youngest team, with an average age of just under 26. They started six rookies and two second-year players in last week's 21-0 spanking of San Francisco, and the week before they started seven rookies and played 12 overall in a victory over the Panthers.

General manager Mark Dominik and his personnel staff have been unrelenting in their quest to find quality youngsters. They've brought in 21 players since Sept. 4, when final roster cuts were made, and a handful have made major contributions.

Running back LeGarrette Blount is one. Since being claimed off waivers from Tennessee he leads all rookies with an average of 63 yards rushing a game and is tied for first with four touchdowns. Rookie guard Ted Larsen is another find. He has started five games since being claimed off waivers from New England.

Toss them into a rookie mix that includes wideout Mike Williams, who leads all first-year receivers with 681 yards and is tied for first with six TDs, and defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, who has played every position up front and taken nearly every snap since being drafted third overall in April, and you have the makings of a solid foundation.

"The success that we're having is a combination of good talent and good coaching," says Dominik. "Our coaches have really bought into what we're trying to do in terms of the youth movement. They really know how to work with young guys and we're seeing the rewards of that right now."

Critics point out that the Bucs are 0-3 against teams with winning records and were blown out by 25 points against both the Steelers and Saints, but viewing the Bucs' season through such a narrow prism is folly at best. Tampa knows it still has a ways to go. Its players aren't beating their chests and talking Super Bowls.

All they're doing is working hard and trying to get better. They leave the talking to their coach, who took some heat a few weeks ago when he called the Bucs the best team in the NFC prior to playing the NFC South-leading Falcons.

You can take the man out of Irvington, but you can't take Irvington out of the man. Or can you? Privately some wonder if Morris sounded off in a calculated attempt to put the focus on him and not his young team that week. That it was more blueprint than bluster. Barber has seen a definite difference in Saturday night team meetings.

"Raheem has done a great job of evolving," he says. "Over the course of a year he has become more structured in his approach. He has toned back his street cred (chuckles). It's more of an administrative deal now, the way he approaches meetings. I remember the first game last year, the team meeting was like a rah-rah speech. Not high school, but how you would talk to your boys. Like you're out with your guys and you're getting ready to play a pickup game or something, and y'all are getting fired up and you're talking trash. That's kind of what it was like.

"Sometimes he'd let the emotion of it overweigh the real mental aspect of the game. But you know this: It's not like you just go out and play on Sunday. There's a lot more that goes into it. It's not all emotion. He's done a good job of managing his emotions with a young football team. It's one of the reasons we are where are. He deserves a lot of credit."

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