Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
04 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
One can only imagine what must have been going through Mark Dominik’s head on the afternoon of January 1, 2012. The 41-year-old general manage watched his Tampa Bay Buccaneers get utterly humiliated in a meaningless regular season finale at Atlanta. In a lot of ways, the 45-24 thumping illustrated everything that had gone wrong with Dominik’s 4-12 Bucs and validated the naysayers who had suggested that this team’s 10-6 campaign the previous year was an aberrational mix of overachievement, friendly scheduling and plain old luck.
In the thumping, quarterback Josh Freeman made some mind-bogglingly bad decisions, as evidenced by the three costly interceptions that left him with an NFC-high 22 on the season. Tampa Bay’s running game, led by the plodding LeGarrette Blount, was a nonfactor. The offensive line, built for power, had trouble getting movement and once again looked shaky in pass protection. Often, when things start to go south like this, offenses looks for ways to put the ball in the hands of playmaking receivers. The Bucs didn’t have any.
Tampa Bay’s defense was even more atrocious. Not a single lineman, save for maybe rookie Adrian Clayborn, was able to consistently hold ground. The linebackers did all they could to show why this defense ranked dead last against the run. Behind them, the absence of injured cornerback Aqib Talib left the shallow, mediocre, secondary completely deprived of playmakers. The only reason that unit didn’t get burned was the Falcons were too busy running the ball –- 38 times for 251 yards, to be exact.
The Bucs couldn’t have looked less prepared or less enthused. They looked like a team that had quit. The next day, Dominik did what many suspect ownership (the Glazer Family) had told him to do even a few weeks before: fire Raheem Morris. In doing so, the Bucs tacitly concurred with the legions of insiders who had whispered that the 35-year-old defensive coach simply wasn’t ready to be The Man in Charge.
The next few weeks involved a tedious, if not embarrassing, head coaching search. The Glazers was ridiculed for swinging and missing on Oregon’s Chip Kelly. There were rumors of multiple veteran head coaches turning the Bucs down. Eventually, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano was hired to right this ship. The 46-year-old has minimal NFL experience (he was a defensive assistant for the Bears from 1996-1998), but indications are he’s garnered respect early on by instilling a much-needed sense of discipline in this young team.
In March, to help accelerate Schiano’s reform efforts (and be in compliance when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement’s salary floor goes into effect in 2013), Dominik diverged from his strict build-through-youth mantra and finally started spending some of his team’s abundant salary cap space. He signed Carl Nicks, arguably the best guard in football, to a five-year, $47.5 million deal; he reeled in the top wide receiver on the market, Vincent Jackson, with a five-year, $55.5 million offer; he signed veteran cornerback Eric Wright for $38 million over five years. Two months later, he traded away temperamental tight end Kellen Winslow and signed respected ex-Colt Dallas Clark, which should give Freeman some peace of mind if nothing else.
In April, Dominik continued to build through the draft, addressing weaknesses at safety, running back, and linebacker by spending first-round picks on Mark Barron and Doug Martin, and a second-round pick on Lavonte David. There are still plenty of holes to fill, but in the meantime, the Bucs are focusing on progressing down the right path after clearly being on the wrong one the past three years.
Just because the Bucs spent three years "on the wrong path" doesn’t mean the past three years have been for naught. The Bucs will have still constructed a solid young nucleus as long as the man that nucleus is built around (the nucleus’s nucleus, if you will), can get himself on track. That man, of course, is quarterback Josh Freeman. At this time a year ago, Freeman looked like the second coming of Ben Roethlisberger. Arm strength (heck, just general strength), powerful mobility, and sandlot playmaking prowess gave Freeman an "it" factor that seemed to always show up at crunch time.
The problem is that "it" factors can disappear easily –- especially when a quarterback doesn’t know what he’s looking at from the pocket. That was Freeman in 2012. The physical attributes were still there, but they did nothing for him as he struggled to read coverages and understand his own team’s route combinations. Freeman’s confidence bounced back and forth between "too high" and "too low," and as a result, his decision-making and precision accuracy plummeted.
Who knows what caused Freeman to take a step back in the third year? Lockout shortened offseason? Lack of playmakers around him? Overmatched coaching staff? All that matters is the 24-year-old bounces back in year four. He’ll be working closely with new quarterbacks coach Ron Turner and former Giants quarterback coach Mike Sullivan, whom the defensive-oriented Schiano hired to coordinate the offense. Sullivan, who along with Turner has worked with Freeman on getting stronger in the pocket, ultimately hopes to install a sophisticated passing attack that features sight adjustments and more intricately weaved route combinations.
That’s a long-term building process, though. (It took Sullivan’s last quarterback about seven years to master it in New York.) In the short-term, Schiano prefers a balanced, power-oriented, offense. Hence, the importance of finding a running back early in April’s draft. After his 1,000-yard rookie campaign in 2010, Bucs fans came to view LeGarrette Blount as a rising star. In truth, though, character concerns were far from the only reason Blount went undrafted. At 241 pounds, he can be tough to tackle -– but other times he can also be perplexingly easy to tackle. Blount's heavy-legged, lumbering, upright running style prevented him from being able to redirect. He can’t turn the corner, and his poor hands and atrocious blocking technique make him practically worthless in the passing game. More concerning is that despite his size, Blount doesn’t always run with great power; too often he stops his feet and braces for contact.
When you factor in reports about Blount’s lazy work ethic, it’s no wonder the Bucs traded back into the first round to select Boise State’s Doug Martin this past April. Though not necessarily lauded for his pass-blocking, the 223-pounder is expected to be an every-down back at the pro level. Some say Martin reminds Schiano of his former Rutgers star, Ray Rice. Martin may not quite have Rice’s lateral explosiveness, but he’s a bowling ball runner who can also get outside. If Martin gets say, 18 carries a game, Blount can be fresh for 10-12 carries, which will make him much more effective over a five-month season and make the Bucs better as a whole.
Something many college-turned-pro coaches fail to fully understand is that in the NFL, you have to tailor your scheme to your personnel. In college, each team has about 100 players and the talent discrepancy amongst them is enormous. So, if a college coach wants to have a power run game, he just has to install a bunch of power run plays. It doesn’t work that way in the NFL. Everyone is so good and so smart that your best strengths are your only strengths. If you want a power run game, you’d better have elite power runners. If you don’t, figure out something else.
Schiano may want a power run game, but the Bucs’ personnel suggests a space-oriented rushing attack might be more prudent. Yes, Tampa Bay’s offensive line is big and strong, but what about the other bodies in a power formation? Fullback Erik Lorig has struggled at times to identify his assignments as a lead-blocker. Finesse tight end Dallas Clark has never been a brawny line-of-scrimmage blocker; he’s most effective coming off motion or splitting into the slot. Incumbent tight end Luke Stocker might be a better blocker (the jury is still out on the 2011 fourth-round pick), but no team designs its offense around a No. 2 tight end.
A space-oriented ground game would mean more three-receiver sets. Tampa Bay’s receiving corps isn’t great, but it’s more enticing than the mix of fullbacks and tight ends. What’s more, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, and Arrelious Benn all have enough size to be decent blockers. Considering how the Bucs want to groom Freeman, it’d make all the more sense for their run game to operate at least semi-regularly out of three-wide, single-back sets.
As far as the passing game goes, the addition of Jackson is huge. Even if he was expensive and is somewhat of a character risk, he’s worth it to this team because it’s crystal clear that Williams doesn’t have the consistent speed and explosiveness to draw double coverage downfield. Jackson’s presence gives this passing game a chance to open up.
There still aren’t a lot of proven commodities around Jackson, though. Benn shows potential as a possession receiver with burst and could become a decent No. 2, but he’ll never be a mismatch-creating nightmare. At the back end of the depth chart, Preston Parker doesn’t have a ton of natural fluidity and Sammie Stroughter has never taken full advantage of his opportunities.
What gives the Bucs offense a chance to drastically improve this season is the presence of Carl Nicks at left guard. He’s enough of a beast to make the entire front five better. It’s a front five that needs to get better, too. Though not porous, it’s been a somewhat underachieving group. Left tackle Donald Penn has good feet for a man built like a small house. He’ll never be elite, but with Nicks to his right, Penn should be able to cheat more outside against speed-rushers. Center Jeremy Zuttah, who also has experience at guard, has always been mobile and should settle in now that he can focus solely on playing the snapper position. The Bucs are really hoping he can because only recent waiver claims will be backing him up at center now that Ted Larsen has to slide in for Davin Joseph at right guard.
Joseph can be phenomenal at landing powerful run-blocks on the move, so his loss will be felt in this unit. At right tackle, Jeremy Trueblood is a marked liability against speed rushers. He’s been benched before, but is in the starting lineup due to a paucity of quality depth.
Though Schiano is a "defensive guy," Tampa Bay’s improvement on this side of the ball hinges largely on players simply performing better. Schematically, Schiano’s system is not a whole lot different than Raheem Morris’s. It’s a 4-3, one-gap scheme that will likely mix coverages. Schiano may present a few more wrinkles, particularly in the front seven, but this scheme is still fairly basic. The success of the scheme will come down to players executing, which is why so many of Schiano’s drills have centered around a recommitment to fundamentals.
One thing Schiano does have that Morris never did is, a safety with the potential to be a jack-of-all-traits. The Bucs used the seventh overall pick on Mark Barron because they recognized that a playmaker who can roam anywhere on the field is the fastest way to revamping an entire defense. Barron will have a lot to absorb early on; fortunately, he can learn from 37-year-old veteran Ronde Barber, who is moving to free safety. Though a good tackler when pursuing at an angle, Barber doesn’t have the physical strength to stop runners head up between the numbers. Thus, he’ll play a fairly strict centerfield brand of free safety, leaving Barron as the man patrolling the box.
When the Bucs go to nickel and dime (which will be roughly half the time), Barber will likely slide back to his longtime slot position, where he’s still one of the game’s best in short zone coverage. Replacing him at free safety will be backup free safety Ahmad Black. (Third-year pro Cody Grimm could also be in the mix, though he’s more of a downhill safety and is probably best suited for dime linebacker duties.) On the outside, the Bucs have free agent pickup Eric Wright and fifth-year pro Aqib Talib. Both have the body control to play tight man-to-man coverage and the quickness to jump passing lanes out of zone, but both can also be overly physical and mechanically unsound at times. Nevertheless, Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan have a set of corners who will allow for variations in coverage calls this season. It’s important that Talib and Wright stay healthy and out of trouble (each has been in the news for the wrong off-field reasons before). If they can’t, at least fourth-year backup E.J. Biggers has shown improvement when playing with an attacking mindset on the outside.
Sheridan’s only previous coordinating experience came with the Giants in 2009 -– and it did not go well. It’s fair for Bucs fans to be pessimistic about the 53-year-old assistant, as he doesn’t begin to have the pass-rushing resources here that he had when things fell apart in New York. Dominik tried to buttress the pass-rush last season by spending a first-round pick on Adrian Clayborn and a second-rounder on Da’Quan Bowers. Clayborn has looked good thus far, showing impressive speed and body control. Bowers, however, spent most of his rookie campaign rebounding from a knee injury and will start the season on PUP after injuring his Achilles in May.
Until Bowers returns, Michael Bennett will start at left defensive end. Though a somewhat thin athlete, Bennett has pretty good interior power against the run and pass. Because of this -– and, perhaps, because he doesn’t have a dazzlingly quick first step –- the Bucs may continue to play him at defensive tackle on passing downs. If that’s the case, backup linebacker Dekoda Watson will have to sharpen as a speed-rusher. The Bucs don’t have a lot of other options, as the rest of their defensive end depth is comprised of little-known third-year pros George Johnson and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim.
There is, at least, hope for pass-rushing prowess inside: Gerald McCoy has a scintillating get-off in shooting the gaps. Position changes and injuries have stunted the precocious third-year pro’s development thus far, but if he can play a full 16-game slate, he’ll have a breakout season. McCoy needs nose tackle Roy Miller to step up as a two-gap plugger next to him, though. Miller has shown solid tools off-and-on over his first three years. With underrated ex-Ram Gary Gibson coming aboard, the Bucs don’t need Miller to be a monstrous plugger fulltime, but they do need him to be consistent for 25-30 snaps a game.
We may have saved the most important position for last: Tampa Bay’s linebackers. In short, this defense has no chance if these guys don’t improve. They were horrendous in 2011. You could make a strong argument that all three –- Geno Hayes, Quincy Black and Mason Foster -– needed to be replaced. Only Hayes has been replaced.
To fill the weakside vacancy, Dominik used his second-round pick on Nebraska’s über-productive Lavonte David. David is smart and moves well, but he suffers from the same issue that has made Black a liability in traffic: small stature. Black weighs around 240 but plays smaller than that; David weighs around 225.
It’s likely we’ll see Black in nickel, though David could eventually push him there. Mason Foster will also play in the nickel. He doesn’t have enough quickness or lateral range to stay on the field for passing downs, but the Bucs seem bent on grooming him as a three-down force. Quite frankly, if his 2011 rookie season is indication, Foster shouldn’t be on the field for any downs. He shows no instincts or suddenness in his change-of-direction. He’s strictly an interior stopper -– and an average one at best. Opponents know this, which is why they’ll be eager to stretch plays outside against the Bucs.
Connor Barth landed the third-biggest contract for a kicker in NFL history this past offseason (four years, $13.2 million). Last year, punter Michael Koenen landed a huge deal (six years, $19.5 million). Tampa Bay’s return game will feature Preston Parker, who was not particularly explosive in this role last season. Their fallback option there is Sammie Stroughter.
The Bucs are on the right track after last season’s disaster, and there’s a chance that the young offense can sprout into a top-15 unit. Defensively, a dearth of talent in the front seven will make it very difficult for Schiano to fully maximize his scheme.
6 comments, Last at 06 Sep 2012, 3:23am by dbt