The only people who would say that football is BACK are the nerds who want to see what their team is going to look like in the regular season. Everyone else just (correctly) says it’s a bunch of backups and folks who aren’t going to make the team anyway. However, for the Bucs this is a big transition year as they are flush with young talent from 3 solid drafts, a coach in his second year, and growing pressure on the franchise to show some growth and maturity. After watching the first preseason game, I think some questions have been answered.
Last year’s offense was a bit of a hodge-podge of philosophies, with Jeff Jagodzinski being hired as the coordinator and being fired within 8 months. When Greg Olson was promoted from QB coach to coordinator weeks before the season began, he kept most of the tenets of Jagodzinski’s offense and added a few wrinkles of his own. However at times the playcalling seemed uninspired, and I think that can be attributed to 50% Olson not being comfortable calling HIS plays, and 50% personnel issues.
Saturday night’s game at Miami was a great glimpse into what this year’s offense will look like with the coaching staff and personnel in place. Olson wants the offensive line to establish the line of scrimmage and get Cadillac Williams and the Bucs’ ground game rolling. Williams was impressive in ripping off a pair of 8-yard runs and finishing the night with 21 yards on four carries (5.3 avg.). Once the ground game was established and used with some regularity, the quarterbacks took some big shots downfield in a vertical passing game. Josh Freeman hit Mike Williams on a 30-yard fade pass to help set up Sammie Stroughter’s 13-yard touchdown catch two plays later. Josh Johnson threw deep twice to Reggie Brown and Arrelious Benn, but was off the mark on both throws and saw his pass to Brown get intercepted. Rudy Carpenter threw deep down the middle to Chris Brooks, who hauled in a 31-yard pass before fumbling the ball – and the game – away with just over two minutes left in regulation. Freeman finished the game 4-of-4 for 53 yards and one touchdown and that’s exactly what Olson wants to see. If everything goes as planned, Williams’ running will set Freeman up for manageable passing downs, high-percentage passes and a couple deep shots, and touchdowns instead of field goals inside the red zone. This offense isn’t going to be that much different from what we saw when Gruden was in town, honestly. I think the main difference will be that Olson is a bit more patient than Gruden ever was, and I think that’ll lend to a more balanced attack.
The defense looks to be a whole lot of the same if you are used to seeing mostly base cover 2 defense. Gone is the ‘vectoring’ style of defense that essentially funnels running plays to the MLB and forces corners to play straight up man the entire game. This passive style of defense relies of big, strong players to keep everything in the middle of the field, and frankly those players just don’t exist on the Bucs roster currently. So, we’ve gone back to the older style of smaller, attacking, penetrating down linemen with mostly zone behind it. It’s hard to really know what sort of schemes we’ll see going forward since some personnel were missing (Talib, their best corner, being the main one), so I’m curious to see how much we see man coverage this year at all. My guess is we’ll see a very small amount, mostly on plays where we see nickel backs on the field and Ronde Barber bliztes from the slot (that’s still one of their favorite plays). The Bucs did a good job of swarming to the ball, got some pressure on the QB, and forced a few turnovers. However, the Dolphins were able to run up the middle early on at will. I think the interior linemen will be tested early and often until they can prove they can stop that sort of thing. It was the weakness of the defense last year, and something tells me it will be early on this year as 2 of the top 3 DTs are rookies. It’s going to take some time for them to get accustomed to the speed of the league.
Overall, I think that the Bucs had a lot to like about their first game. They actually dominated physically and the first team offense looked really crisp in some awful weather. Freeman was 4/4 with a TD and Caddy was running hard. However, I think one thing you’ll quickly notice about this team is the HUGE dropoff from the first team to the second team. This happens a lot with younger squads who are rebuilding. I think if you look around, the Bucs are maybe one or two players away from having a squad that could, in theory, challenge for a playoff spot. The problem is that they have no depth behind the core they’re building. So, if and when a player goes down with injury, you’re going to see a huge drop off in production. God help them if Freeman gets hurt or another player without a solid backup goes down. If you look at the Bucs roster on paper, they have enough talent to compete with anyone. However, the lack of depth points to a team that will be lucky to win more than 6 or 7 games. I think they’re a year away.
A few other notes from the game this weekend:
- Freeman looks in control. 100%. Good movement in the pocket, doesn’t try to run first. Eyes downfield.
- It’ll be interesting to see how much we see the FB dive with Earnest Graham playing at FB full time now. He could be a valuable weapon.
- Interior run game looks a lot better than sweeps and tackle runs.
- Mike Willliams will be a star in the NFL. Write it down.
- Derrick Ward is terrible. I think Kareem Huggins will beat him out for the #2 RB job. Ward was the ‘speed guy’ in NY, but can’t get outside in Tampa. Defense strings it out and kills the play every time. He has no burst and no power, either.
- The Bucs were flagged seven times for 58 yards.
- TB slowly is becoming one of the best ST teams in the league. Punting and kick return teams will take pressure off of a young offense and put them in position to put points on the board.