With a first-rate secondary and the league's best ground defense, Tampa Bay will be postseason bound for the first time since ’07 if QB Josh Freeman protects the ball and transforms into a star
Greg Schiano doesn’t mind ruffling feathers. Since his first day as the Buccaneers’ head coach, the former Rutgers football czar has adopted a Belichickian method of dealing with the media and a Parcellsian method of dealing with players. This has not engendered warm cuddly relationships around One Buccaneer Place, but it has instilled a stricter, more disciplined culture, something which most of the team’s millionaires haven’t experienced since their amateur days.
Schiano’s heavy-handedness will be tolerated as long as the Bucs are winning. They did so seven times in his debut 2012 season, which was a respectable jump from a four-win 2011 campaign but won’t be satisfactory for 2013.
The second-year coach is old school. He’s made it unequivocally clear that his team is going to win the ground battle on both sides of the ball. Indeed, his Bucs jumped from 30th in run offense to 15th last season. Astoundingly, Tampa’s run defense jumped from 32nd to 1st. That’s the only such worst-to-first turnaround in NFL history, and it didn’t just stem from opponents choosing to throw instead of run; the Bucs’ 3.5 yards allowed per carry also ranked best in the NFL. Of course, if NFL games were still decided on the ground, Tampa Bay’s improvements would have yielded more than seven wins. Schiano isn’t dense—he understands that most outcomes in today’s NFL are determined through the air.
General manager Mark Dominik understands this, too. That’s why he collectively spent a first- and second-round draft pick this spring plus some $40 million in de facto guaranteed money to reconfigure a secondary that had allowed a league-worst 297 passing yards per game in 2012. Dominik’s investments have left the Bucs with a potentially scintillating starting quartet: cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks, safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron.
There were significant decisions made about the pass offense, too. After spending $26 million guaranteed on free agent wideout Vincent Jackson last season, the Bucs spent another $15 million guaranteed this summer to extend No. 2 receiver Mike Williams long-term. More importantly, they made no effort to extend the expiring contract of quarterback Josh Freeman. Instead, they drafted Mike Glennon in the third round, creating a passive aggressive competition at quarterback and a make-or-break season for their fifth-year starter. That’s fitting, as Freeman’s performance will also make or break this team’s season.
Josh Freeman is a tease. Still only 25 (younger than Colin Kaepernick and the same age as Christian Ponder and Jake Locker), he has the size (6-6, 240), throwing power, functional mobility and, at times, the playmaking prowess of a star. In his first full season as a starter (2010), Freeman led five fourth-quarter comebacks or game-winning drives, throwing 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. But in the two seasons since, he has tied Ryan Fitzpatrick with a league-high 39 interceptions, the bulk of which stem from bad decisions. At times it’s impossible to even guess what Freeman might think he’s seeing on the field. Additionally, his mechanics tend to waiver—particularly his dropback, which can be sloppy and slow. And though he’s big, strong and athletic, Freeman will show obvious discomfort when sensing pressure. This is when most of his turnovers occur.
The majority of Freeman’s mental mistakes can be chalked up to misreading defenses; after all, the passing system he plays in is not all that complex. Nor does it need to be. In Vincent Jackson, a fluid 6-5, 230-pound stallion, and Mike Williams, a brawny 6-2, 212-pound leaper, the Bucs have a pair of outside targets tailored for winning on downfield isolation routes. Neither is fast—Williams can even look sluggish at times—but with their ability to high-point the ball, they don’t need to be lightning quick. And Freeman doesn’t necessarily have to exhibit pinpoint accuracy when targeting them.
The paucity of inside receiving weapons on this roster spells a continued focus on downfield isolation routes for Tampa Bay’s passing attack (according to Pro Football Focus, 89 of the Bucs’ pass attempts last season traveled at least 20 yards in the air, third most in the NFL). There’s hope that swift-cutting newcomer Kevin Ogletree can jump-start the slot, but if the 26-year-old could be counted on consistently, he’d still be a Cowboy. Freeman was comfortable throwing inside to Tiquan Underwood in some fairly clutch situations last season; it wouldn’t be surprising to see the (albeit up-and-down) 6-1 incumbent remain the No. 3. It may come down to who is comfortable outside given that the Bucs will use Jackson in the slot at times.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see opposing defenses stifle Tampa’s tight ends with just a linebacker in coverage. New starter Luke Stocker has been mostly an additional blocker over his first two seasons. That’s also what new backup Tom Crabtree was in Green Bay (more an on-the-move type than in-line type). Tampa’s most fluid pass-catching tight end might actually be ex-Jaguar Zach Miller, who has played just four games over the past two years.
At least the Bucs have serviceable receiving outlets in the backfield. Backup running backs Peyton Hillis and Brian Leonard (two men few people will be able to tell apart in uniform) are both proficient dumpoff receivers—Leonard especially on screens. And starter Doug Martin snagged 49 balls for 472 yards as a rookie last season.
Martin’s forte, of course, is running in traditional downhill designs; 1,122 of his 1,454 rushing yards have come out of a two-man backfield. He averages 5.3 yards per carry when chaperoned by a lead-blocker versus 3.3 yards per carry when working out of single-back or shotgun. (The contrast here is extra remarkable considering that 79% of Martin’s two-back carries came on first-and-10 or second-and-8-or-less—situations where the defense can expect run.)
For Martin’s sake—and the rest of the offense’s—fullback Erik Lorig must expand on the laudable progress he made as a point-of-attack blocker last season. The only way the fourth-year pro won’t play at least 40% of the snaps again is if Schiano decides to splash the element of surprise into the run game by putting capable ball-handler Peyton Hillis at fullback with Martin.
Martin accumulated 911 of his rushing yards last season in November and December. That, too, is fairly remarkable given that Pro Bowl guards, Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, were both on injured reserve by that point. Nicks and Joseph can make this powerful man-blocking front five one of the most mobile in football. But first, Nicks must get over a staph infection related to his injured toe. Sandwiched between the guards is center Jeremy Zuttah, who has good movement skills and an improved sense for angles on second-level blocks. At left tackle is Donald Penn who, though a top-heavy and rotund 340 pounds, is more of a finesse blocker than a mauler. Penn occasionally requires pass-blocking help on an island. That may not be available too often this season as it will often go to starting right tackle Demar Dotson, a fifth-year pro who, at 6-9, has a difficult time generating leveraged power.
There were two catalysts behind Tampa Bay’s resurgent run defense: radically enhanced linebacker play and philosophical changes in defensive line technique.
First, the linebacking. It was galvanized by rookie weakside stud Lavonte David. The 2012 second-rounder from Nebraska has supple athleticism in traffic and a tremendous knack for eating up ground in pursuit. It’s incredibly rare to see a Will backer lead his team in tackles by a 40% margin. David’s arrival coincided with—or maybe propagated—commendably improved awareness from Mason Foster. After being the NFL’s worst starting Mike backer in his 2011 rookie year, Foster became a smarter and faster all-around player in 2012. He’s by no means a stud, but the Bucs can at least compete with him.
The next step for this linebacking unit—which will also include either the mediocre Adam Hayward or, more likely, Dekoda Watson at Sam—is to sharpen up against the pass. Opposing offenses last season had way too easy a time completing underneath dumpoffs and play-action passes against this group. Adding fast-attacking nickel backer Jonathan Casillas might help (he would replace Foster against three-receiver sets), though really the ex-Saint is more adept at blitzing than covering receivers.
With the remade secondary, Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan might be able to call more blitzes in 2013. Ideally, though, they’d like their front four to create more pressure on its own. That’s essentially what happened against the run last season. Schiano, Sheridan and defensive line coach Randy Melvin installed a litany of crash and stunt concepts that capitalized on the line’s collective athleticism and confused opponents’ blocking structures.
They should be able to conjure that run-stuffing magic again this season, though the loss of nimble nose tackle Roy Miller and laterally dexterous end Michael Bennett could hurt. Miller offered good width and quickness lined up over the center; replacement Gary Gibson has an active motor and underrated initial jump, but he’s more effective shooting gaps than clogging them. Same goes for unheralded backup Derek Landri, who was a genuine difference-maker playing first and second downs off the bench in Philadelphia. Starting ahead of Landri and next to Gibson is Gerald McCoy. The fourth-year pro has the type of explosive initial burst and powerful body control that you’d expect from a former No. 3 overall pick. Equally as important, he’s coming off his first full 16-game season and is in sleeker shape than ever before.
The Bucs are betting that Darrelle Revis will recapture his status as the best shutdown corner since Deion Sanders.
Taking Bennett’s place will be Da’Quan Bowers who, now fully recovered from an Achilles injury in May 2012, will be expected to exert his power on an everydown basis. Bowers is an impressive run crasher from the edge; it remains to be seen if he can also be a viable speed-rusher. He’ll have the luxury of facing right tackles most of the time. Working opposite Bowers will be rising star Adrian Clayborn, who is coming off a September ACL injury.
Knowing that his young defensive ends could be anything from stars to injury-marred busts, Dominik drafted depth at the position, selecting William Gholston in the fourth round and Steven Means in the fifth. Gholston, a project, is built more for playing the run than the pass. Means, at 6-3, 257, projects more as an outside rusher, though presumably he’ll take a backseat this season to fourth-year reserve Aaron Morgan. Morgan is willowy but plays low and uses his quick hands well. He might be capable of sliding to the defensive tackle spot that Bennett used to occupy in nickel. So might finesse backup end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who is built like a linebacker but has seen snaps inside. There’s also fourth-round rookie Akeem Spence, who offers an intriguing blend of size and surprise quickness but is by no means a sure thing.
Having a long list of possible contributors doesn’t mean the Bucs’ defensive line is overflowing with great options. Most likely, Schiano and Sheridan will indeed have to manufacture pressure through blitzes. Their players were sometimes inconsistent with blitz timing and execution last season, and the coaches were irregular in pressure calls, vacillating between prolonged bouts of aggression and passivity. That won’t be the case this season, as they’re now armed with a secondary they can accentuate instead of hide.
The Bucs are betting that Darrelle Revis will recapture his status as the best shutdown corner since Deion Sanders. Perhaps he can, though we may not see it until 2014. While marquee stars like Wes Welker, Jamaal Charles and, of course, Adrian Peterson have recently come back stronger than ever from major knee surgery, they’ve all played positions predicated on proactive movement. As running backs or wide receivers, they know (most of the time) what their next step will be. Cornerback is the one position that constantly demands reactionary movement. This requires a deeper level of trust in a surgically-repaired knee.
Let’s say, hypothetically, it takes Revis time to readjust and, for this season, he’s not up for covering opposing No. 1 receivers. The Bucs can still gain a substantial tactical advantage by putting Revis on opposing No. 2 wideouts. Second-round rookie Johnthan Banks—who at 6-2, 185 has the size to spar with big NFC South targets like Julio Jones and Marques Colston—can cover a team’s No. 1 from an underneath trail position with safety Dashon Goldson helping over the top. (Goldson made his name playing this sort of “two-man” coverage in San Francisco.) This arrangement would still present the numbers advantage that’s required for Mark Barron to roam around more freely. The hard-hitting 2012 first-rounder needs to be cast in this sort of aggressor role; he was far too average, maybe even below average, in read-and-react assignments last year.
The new starting defensive backs won’t instantly fix all of Tampa Bay’s coverage woes. With troubled corner Eric Wright now gone, there’s an unsettling lack of depth in this secondary. Leonard Johnson started late last season but didn’t impress. Danny Gorrer played ahead of Anthony Gaitor at No. 3 corner down the stretch, but only being comfortable on the outside doesn’t make the fourth-year journeyman all that attractive as a fulltime nickelback. Newcomer Michael Adams is another contender, but he was never great in Arizona.
Since being fired by the Giants in 2009, Sheridan has seen his former defense ride an nontraditional three-safety—i.e. “big nickel”—package to great heights. Unfortunately, that ploy is not an option here, as Tampa Bay’s backup safeties, Cody Grimm and Ahmad Black, are even less appetizing than the backup corners. The Bucs’ best bet for nickel this season would seem to be an impassioned plea for Ronde Barber to come out of retirement.
With Connor Barth tearing his Achilles in July, the Bucs hope they can count on the less reliable though adequately experienced Lawrence Tynes for kicking. However, with the former Giant battling a toe problem (of all the places for a kicker to have problems), ex-Bill Rian Lindell has been brought in for a look. He’ll compete with undrafted youngster Derek Dimke. The punting will likely still be done by Michael Koenen, though his 37.2 net average last season was fifth worst in the league. A dearth of speed at the offensive skill positions leaves the Bucs low on options in the return game. Don’t be surprised if it takes them until Labor Day to settle on someone.
If Josh Freeman can recognize his star potential, and if both sides of the ball can stay healthy enough to mask this team’s lack of depth, the Bucs can compete for a playoff spot. Of course, these are very big ifs.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.