Homers vs. Haters, Tampa Bay edition

In the last decade, Tampa Bay has been known for one thing--defense.  Their defense used to say, "Give us 17 points, we'll give you a victory."  But those days are gone, and gone in an abrupt manner.  

Last November the Bucs were riding high at 9-3, with a share of first place in the NFC South and in possession of the tiebreaker with the Carolina Panthers.  Then long-time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffen announced that he was leaving at the end of the season to coach with his son at Tennessee.  The Bucs consequently fell to Carolina on Monday Night Football, in an embarassing manner where they surrendered 299 yards on the ground.

The following week they lost to Atlanta, and allowed Michael Turner 175 rushing yards in the process.  Then the Chargers threw the ball at will against them, the Raiders got a grudge win, and the Bucs were out of the playoffs just like that.

Coach Jon Gruden lost his job, and the Buc's front office tapped secondary coach Raheem Morris to take over.  His first first decision was to affect a change in the philosophy of the franchise. For years Tampa Bay had been able to effectively plug holes in their defense with veteran free agents, but those players had a tendency to wear down at the end of the season.  This resulted in decent, but not great seasons, and early exits when they made the playoffs.

Morris felt that if Tampa wanted to be a contender, they needed to rebuild with young players.  So he began the purge by dumping Derrick Brooks and Cato June, and he left starting cornerback Phillip Buchannon leave in free agency.  Just like that, the Bucs were without most of their leadership on defense.

Morris then went out and got Jim Bates to run things on that side of the ball, and they scrapped the Tampa 2 in favor of a more aggressive, in-your-face defense.  Morris' final step in the big shake-up was in the draft, where he got Tampa's quarterback of the future in Josh Freeman.

So the transition is in full swing, and at first glance it isn't pretty.  To an outside observer, it looks like it's happened with a lot of miscalculations along the way.  The defensive line isn't as good as thought.  The linebackers are making most of the tackles, but they're also lost at times in the new defense.  The quarterback situation is awful.  The offensive line can't block, the receivers can't catch, and the kickers can't kick.  In sum, it's a mess.

The Bucs may be wearing their throwback jerseys for this game.  Given their level of play recently, that's pretty appropriate.

Josh Freeman proved during the preseason that he still needs time to develop as an NFL quarterback.  Until he's ready, Josh Johnson (43-82, 382 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs) has been handed the keys to the Buc's offense.  This came after Brian Leftwich failed to put a lot of points on the board, but Johnson has not responded particularly well.  In two starts he's completed just 52% of his passes, fumbled twice, taken six sacks for 28 yards, and earned a quarterback rating of just 57.1 on the season.  On the bright side, he's scrambled well, rushing 13 times for 96 yards.  If he continues to play poorly versus the Panthers, Morris may insert Freeman anyway, just to get him some experience.

Homer says,
"Josh Johnson, or JJ as the fans know him, has two good characteristics.  He makes quick reads, and he's mobile.  That's about it, he hasn't shown any accuracy to speak of, Philly showed that he doesn't react well to pressure, and Washington showed that he doesn't react well when he's not pressured.  He's shown about everything you would expect of a Division One player who was the first player from his college program ever drafted.  In other words, not a lot..."

Hater says,
"No team has less room to discuss the opposing quarterback than the Panthers.  Johnson was making his second NFL start and threw fewer INTs against the Eagles than Jake did.  The kid makes great reads, and delivers the ball with authority.  In college he threw for 43 touchdowns against ONE interception his senior year, and still ran for 73 yards per game.  If the coaches can convince him to calm down and take the time the Panthers will give him to collect himself and throw, he's going to have an amazing day.  The only way to rattle this guy is to pressure him, and the Panthers don't have the skill to do that.  Mobile quarterbacks have always given them fits, and he's moreso than most."

Running Backs
2008 starter and workhorse Earnest Graham is sitting on the bench with a sore hamstring, leaving Derrick Ward (32 carries, 133 yards, 1 TD) and Cadillac Williams (48 carries, 199 yards, 1 TD) to split carries for the Buccaneers.  Either of them is capable of breaking a long run, both have 25+ yard gains this year.  Williams is the starter, but Ward will get almost as many carries.  The Bucs have run 112 times for 473 yards this year, a 4.2 yard per carry average.

Homer says,
"Hollis Thomas was the missing link for the Panthers against Clinton Portis, and Tampa doesn't have anyone that talented.  Now that Thomas can occupy the guard and center, Beason is once again free to meet the runners at the line, and stop them in their tracks.  At last check, the Buccaneers don't have Graham back and their lead blocker is still B.J. Askew.  They're getting 20 yards per game less than they did in 2008, and they'll be lucky to meet their numbers Sunday.  Their current backs have also never been able to run well against Carolina. Lifetime numbers for Graham are 22 for 59, a 2.7 yard average, and 83 for 245 for Williams, a 3 yard per carry average.  Those numbers aren't going to scare anyone."

Hater says,
"Hollis Thomas can be stopped in his tracks by a single chicken wing, provided ample hot sauce is provided.  One fat guy in the middle turns the Panthers into the steel curtain?  In Washington the fullback hated the running back so much that he actually went backwards on purpose at the goal line.  Tampa Bay still has some unity, and the Panthers still give up a whole lot of yards on the ground.  Between Williams and Bradshaw, Thomas will look like a bad break-dancer out there--spin around, fall down, flap your limbs, and repeat.  And Ward put up over 100 yards on the Panthers in a single quarter last year, no doubt he's looking forward to this game."

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Bucs are not known for their receiving corps, but they do have one of the best young Tight Ends in the game in Kellen Winslow (26 receptions, 257 yards, 4 TDs).  Winslow leads all Bucs in receiving, and figures to be the best outlet for Josh Johnson again Sunday.  Winslow runs routes like a wide receiver, he can split the seam and he can run any pattern in the playbook. He's also a tough blocker in the running game.

At the Wide Receivers, the Bucs field Michael Clayton (10 catches, 145 yards) and Antonio Bryant (12 catches, 141 yards, 1TD).  Clayton is a big-body receiver at 6'4", but after looking like a potential star in 2004, his rookie year, the former first round pick has instead been a perennial disappointment to Tampa Bay fans.  This year the only category he leads anything in is drops, with eight.  The smaller but faster Bryant is starting to look more like a favorite for Josh Johnson, and will likely get most of the first looks.  Maurice Stovall (4 receptions, 93 yards) will also get more looks Sunday, particularly if Clayton continues to struggle.

Homer says,
"How bad are the Buc's starting receivers?  Clayton leads the league in drops, but his 10 receptions is good enough for him to tie for the 131st spot in the league.  Only half of his catches have gone for first downs.  He also has 0 touchdowns, which ties him with Hollis Thomas.  And Bryant isn't a lot better.  He's tied for 104.  All told, the starting Buc's receivers have 22 receptions between them, which is good enough for last place in the league.  When you're that bad, you're that bad."

Hater says,
"When you have Kellen Winslow, you have an extra receiver at all times.  He's caught 26 balls by himself, and reserve Sammy Sloughter has another 10.  The Bucs are disappointed in Clayton, but they have some talent to catch the ball and a quarterback who can deliver it.  The Panthers need to be less concerned about how the Bucs receivers are playing and more about how they're going to stop the tight end and screens out of the backfield.  Add those two elements in and Tampa Bay starters have caught 41 balls, which ties for 16th in the league and is decidedly better than the kitties."

Offensive Line
The Bucs are like the Panthers in that they have a line that's long on reputation and short on results, at least in 2009.  Jeremy TrueBlood, Davin Joseph, Jeff Faine, Jeremy Zuttah, and Donald Penn make up a line that's young and talented, but this year they've had trouble opening holes in the running game.  Center Jeff Faine has missed time to a triceps injury, but should be back for the Panthers. That will make things a little better for this group, as he's the one calling plays.  But for all the criticism this unit has endured, it's worth noting that they've surrendered just five sacks.  Tampa Bay is 26th in rushing, but the team's rushing average of 4.2 yards per carry is 12th in the league.  

Homer says,
"Last year the Bucs powered their way to a whopping 15th place finish in rushing against a slate of cupcakes, and managed 111 yards a game against the Panthers.  Of course, that was with Warrick Dunn doing the heavy lifting, Williams went 9 for 22 and Graham 5 for 11.  Right now they're one of the worst rushing teams in the league, and that's not just because the backs suck.  This unit has no cohesion and it's shown not just in the way they allow quarterback pressures.  They're just not opening holes."

Hater says,
"The line has had it's problems, but most of them have been in the middle where Sean Mahan was filling in for Jeff Faine.  In their first game Faine was active and the entire line was together, and Tampa rung up 174 yards rushing on a stout Dallas defense.  Having your playcaller in the middle makes a difference, and Faine is one of the best.  This group already protects well, and it's about to re-ignite the running game.  The Panthers will need to score some points Sunday, because they won't be able to stop the Bucs' offense."

Defensive Line
On defense the Buccaneers are a mere shadow of their former selves.  They no longer run the Tampa-2; new Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates has replaced that system with a more aggressive, blitzing, matchup-oriented scheme that favors press coverage and man-on-man in the secondary.  The system is designed to take advantage of speed and athletic ability, which the Bucs have, but in it's implementation they've gone from a perennial top 10 defense to one mired in the bottom of the league, statistically.  

Tampa Bay now has the 28th worst defense in the league, and the reasons start on the defensive line.  Without a pass rush, there's no way the new defense can succeed. In any defense, if a quarterback is given enough time in the pocket, he will eventually find a target. In a system like Bates', where the corners are isolated in one-on-one coverage, they get exposed quickly.  The pressure must start on the line, and it's not there.  Defensive End Gaines Adams (10 tackles, 1 sack), the fourth overall pick in 2007, takes most of the criticism due to his lofty draft position, but he's not alone.  Defensive Tackles Ryan Sims (12 tackles) and Chris Hovan (10 tackles) are unable to collapse the pocket or stop the run this year.  Defensive End Jimmy Wilkerson (20 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) has been the lone bright spot for this unit.  At this pace, the Bucs will finish with just 24 sacks, which would be their fewest since they had 20 in 1994.

Homer says,
"Gaines Adams brings a smile to the face of any Panthers fan every time you mention him.  What could be sweeter than to see a division rival boast not one, but two top-five draft busts at the same time?  Along with Williams, Adams neatly showcases the draft futility of the Gruden era.  And with this year's reach for Freeman, it looks like that tradition will remain in Tampa.  

Kiffin used to send his tackles through the gaps, relying on speed and penetration to generate pressure off the line.  Bates does something... different.  Not sure what it is, but boy this unit looks bad now.  It's like he's taking Nick Hayden and asking him to play Kemoeatu's position and thinking it will work or something.  The DTs in Tampa aren't built to stuff the run, and that's going to be painfully evident on Sunday."

Hater says,
"The Buccaneer line held Clinton Portis under 100, and he has just about as many yards as Williams and Stewart combined.  They held Marion Barber to 79, and Donovan McNabb was Philadelphia's leading rusher with a whopping 30 yards.  And these are teams that run the ball a lot better than the Panthers do.  Don't look for a repeat of 2008 in this game, Carolina has forgotten how to open holes and Williams has forgotten how to find them.  The book on the Panthers is easy to follow, stop the run and make Jake beat you.  Fortunately, stopping the run will be easy for this unit."

Derrick Brooks was unceremoniously dumped in the offseason, which sent a real message to the Tampa Bay Defense.  Mainly, the new regime doesn't care a bit about history, they want to look to the future.  Right now history looks a lot better.  Brooks had lost some of his speed, but not his ability to quickly diagnose plays and get in position to make a difference.  Current outside linebackers Geno Hayes (30 tackles) and Quincy Black (26 tackles, 1 sack) are young and athletic, but their inexperience shows in missed tackles and poor positioning.  Middle Linebacker Barrett Ruud (49 tackles) is a great player, but he can't do it all himself and too often this year he's been swallowed up by an opposing guard while trying to defend the run.

Homer says,
"Geno Hayes is a lot like Derrick Brooks, only without the famous instincts and experience.  In other words, he's undersized for his position.  Rosario and King are both going to look great against him.  And Stewart will happily carry the entire unit on his shoulders for a few yards after contact all day long.  Jim Bates' defense likes to funnel plays to the pursuit, and let his linebackers make the plays.  Well, the Panthers are going to oblige--because of the weak defensive line play the Tampa linebackers are going to get a long day of running backs with full heads of steam, and tight ends running over the middle.  It should be a fun day in Carolina."

Hater says,
"At least it's the linebackers making stops for Tampa Bay, in Carolina they let opposing players get all the way into the secondary before engaging them.  The Tampa Line stuffs the middle and spills the running play to the edges, where the linebackers are in a position to make plays.  That's the plan, and it's working as designed.  The Bucs need speed and athleticism from their linebackers, and have that to spare.  Maybe if Carolina had a running game there would be cause for concern, but that's just crazy talk."

At Cornerback the Bucs offer both talent and experience.  Aquib Talib (20 tackles, 3 INTs) is a big, fast, physical player who has the potential to develop into a shut-down corner someday, but he's still making mistakes in the new system.  Ronde Barber (19 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) is still playing at a high level in the new system.  Free safety Tanard Jackson (4 tackles) served a four game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the Bucs sorely missed his nose for the ball and physical play.  In his place Tampa Bay has gone with Jermaine Phillips (11 tackles) and Sabby Piscitelli (27 tackles, 1 INT), both of whom have struggled in coverage.  Paired with Will Allen (17 tackles), the lack of a ball-hawking presence in the middle of the secondary has allowed opponents far too many big plays this year.

Homer says,
"Ronde Barber should have retired with his brother, last year he had clearly lost a step and he's not what he once was.  The only reason he looks comfortable out there is because people just have the rest of the Tampa secondary to compare him against, and they're largely responsible for Tampa's 28th ranked defense.  Talib can be good when he's not punching out cab drivers, but the safety play has been terrible.  Tampa Bay has given up 16 passing plays over 20 yards and a league-leading eight over 40.  When you have a long ball threat like Smith, this is the kind of defense you look forward to playing."

Hater says,
"Tampa likes to line up their secondary with one safety playing high, and it's true that they've been burned by that this year.  Phillips and Piscitelli are both good in run support, but they aren't big on coverage.  Unfortunately for Carolina, The Bucs now have Tanard Jackson back, and he's good enough that he's often used as a third cornerback.  With him playing center field, the Bucs are the team looking at this matchup with anticipation.  After all, if you're hoping to increase your interception total, what quarterback would you rather face than Jake Delhomme?"

Homer says,
"Everyone started slowly last year on the Panthers, the difference between then and now is that they were 3-1 instead of 1-3 at this point.  But the team still started really coming together in their fifth game and that can happen this year as well.

The Bucs are a team that the Panthers know well.  They're in a bit of disarray themselves, with poor safety play, tentative linebackers, and a defensive line that hasn't adjusted to the new scheme well at all.  That's going to give the Panther linemen a real opportunity to start playing like they did last year.  They'll be in familiar territory, and will be able to relax and focus on what each of the others are doing.

Don't expect Jake to be sacked, and look for Williams to have a break-out game.  Each game this year a different unit has stepped forward and regained their 2008 form.  After Philly, Jake started playing like he did last year.  After Atlanta, the pass defense really stepped it up.  After Dallas, the defensive line came together.  Now it's after Washington, and it's the offensive line's turn.

When Carolina has the ball, they'll run it at will.  Early on Tampa Bay may show a little resistance, but Jake has outlets in Rosario and Smith if he needs to pick up a first down.  The Panthers should be able to get touchdowns on a couple early possessions, and from that point forward they can just pound the rock the rest of the afternoon.  Delhomme probably won't throw more than 20 times, but Williams and Stewart will combine for over 30 carries.

On defense, the Panthers will immediately shut down the Tampa Bay running game and force Josh Johnson to beat them.  This is his third pro game, and while he's shown flashes of ability there's no indication that he can carry the team by himself, particularly without any talent at the wide receiver position.  Harris will provide run support and free Godfrey up to focus on Winslow, while Davis chases Johnson around all day.

Tampa may be able to move the balls between the 20s, but when the field gets smaller they'll get slower.  They don't have anyone who can punch it into the endzone, and that's going to be the story of their game.

Carolina 20, Tampa Bay 6"

Hater says,
"Tampa Bay has had a lousy season, there's no doubt at all about that.  They're a talented team that just hasn't gotten their game together yet.  But they're young, athletic, and they have faith in their system.  They've had the poor fortune to play a very difficult opening set of games, but now they've reached the point in their schedule where the winning can begin.

The Panthers are not a good team.  They're 1-3 and lucky to have that one victory at that.  They're disfunctional on offense, and the defense yields big plays and can't stop the run.  They also have a historical tendency to get burned by good Tight Ends.  And finally, they've never played well against quarterbacks who can run.

Josh Freeman is the future in Tampa Bay, but if JJ continues to improve as he has over the past two games the future could be a long ways off.  When given time, he's accurate and makes good reads.  You can't judge him on the Philly game alone (where has a Carolina fan heard THAT before?), but if you did you would have to look at his eight yards per carry and 40 yards running.  He also had to throw the ball 50 times, which isn't a good thing for any quarterback.

When Tampa has the ball they'll be pounding it against the Carolina line all day, and when they need to throw for a first they'll have Winslow over the middle.  As a last resort there are always Johnson's legs.  They won't need the receivers for much, other than to keep Carolina honest in coverage.  

When Carolina has the ball look for more of the same.  Tampa Bay has the talent to force the Panthers to run outside, and that's where they'll be met by the linebackers.  The Bucs will bring Will Allen in close for run support and force Jake to throw.  With Tanard Jackson's return, that's going to put the ball exactly where the Bucs want it.  Talib and Jackson will both get INTs, and the Panthers will get into panic mode and throw even more.

Don't look for touchdowns early, but as the game progresses and Hollis Thomas starts regretting the all-you-can-eat buffet from the night before, the Panther's famous "bend but don't .... oh hell, not again!" defense will make another appearance and Tampa can pound the ball over the goal line.  Until then, it will be a kicking contest, one in which the Panthers will ultimately lose.

Tampa Bay 23, Carolina 13"
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