Roster Report: Tampa Bay Bucs – New Kings of The South
Earlier I provided analysis on why I feel the Tampa Bay Bucs have set themselves up for a prominent role in the playoff chase for years to come. I detailed how the additions in the defensive backfield will mesh with the superior scheme that saw the Bucs earn the #1 ranking in run defense. Now I will move my efforts towards the offensive side of the ball where an equal amount of talent resides.
One of the off-seasons storylines that really baffles me is the perception of quarterback Josh Freeman. The overtone in “Bucs Country” and throughout the football landscape, has Josh Freeman painted as a QB on the verge of losing his job. In fact, many have speculated that the selection of third round pick Mike Glennon, has signified the beginning of the end for the 25-year old Freeman. If so, this might be the biggest mistake in franchise history (sans that Steve Young trade of course). Freeman is coming off a season where he virtually set career highs across the board (27 TD’s, 17 Int’s – 4,065 yards). Take in account these numbers were achieved in his first year under coordinator Mike Sullivan – whose vertical passing attack is quite the departure from the horizontal pass game that Freeman operated from in his first three seasons in the NFL, and that would make his 27 TD’s (tied for 7th most in the league), and his 7.19 average per attempt (12th) all the more impressive.
If we look at the situation as whole, it’s almost farcical! You have a 25-year old QB, with close to four years of starting experience, who possesses some of the best talent in all of football, (with stats to support his worth) yet is in danger of losing his job to a rookie? The success of third round pick Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks, has a ton of fans gassed up for the next seemingly “outta nowhere” star rookie – who will supplant an incumbent veteran. Some even point out that Mike Glennon was good enough to force a transfer from Russell Wilson at NC State (small world huh?). Put it this way, if this were to happen -it would be a complete travesty!
From the first time I saw Josh Freeman at Kansas State University, I perceived him to be a close replication of Ben Roethlisberger. A big, strapping, athletic monstrosity (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) – with a rocket arm and good enough mobility to extend plays. Both Freeman and Roethlisberger work equally well in the pocket or on the run. The mental aptitude of Freeman is an underrated aspect of his game. His seemingly effortless transition from the horizontal game of former coordinator Greg Olson, to the pure vertical attack of the aforementioned Sullivan – looked to be a foregone conclusion – until the final three weeks of the season!
With the playoffs still in reach for the final stretch of games, Freeman, who at the time sported stats of 25 TD’s opposed to 8 Int’s, seemed to take it upon himself to get the Bucs into the playoffs. Marred in a three game losing streak, Freeman uncharacteristically reverted back to his ways of the previous year – where he rarely met a throw he didn’t like. That losing streak extended another two games where Freeman threw a total of eight interceptions opposed to just one touchdown. When you ask a Buccaneers fan their memory of Freeman for the 2012 season, most point to the back to back losses when the team was still in the playoff hunt, rather the five game winning streak that put the team in the conversation forsaid playoff push. In some ways that’s understandable, being as QB’s tend to receive a lot of praise during the good times. But for Freeman, I never really heard much mention of his remarkable play, but I can’t stop hearing of his horrendous stretch of games. A bit of a sad reality in my opinion.
Looking at the stretch of games, it really boils down to two contests. Back to back losses at New Orleans, and home to St. Louis.
Really digging into the film shows that Freeman was merely part of the problem.
First round draft pick – running back Doug Martin – was a prominent name in the conversation for rookie of the year leading up to these games. Coming out of them it wouldn’t have been astonishing to see his face on milk carton! With nine carries for 16 yards in the 41-0 loss in New Orleans, and 18 carries for 62 yards in the 28-13 home loss to the Rams, Martin looked to be a shell of himself. Without the run game to lean on, the offense became drastically predictable. The defense surely didn’t help either. This playoff letdown was a full team effort, coaching staff included. When you deviate from your game plan in trying times, it begs the question; Did you actually have a plan?
In the game against the Rams, the Bucs played unsatisfactory from an entire team standpoint. Though the blame for the interceptions will be heaped upon Freeman, the film shows that they may be a big mistake. One of the interceptions came from split end Mike Williams slipping and falling. Another came from a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. (Most people blame the QB’s for those, I place it on the o-line. If the lineman fully engages his defender, it makes it hard for them to jump or put their hands up) But one of the more egregious turnovers came from this diagrammed play.
Coming off a play-action where the Rams barely bit the fake, primary target Vincent Jackson runs a route into the teeth of the zone. What is normally meant to be a bit of an option route – Jackson bends his route back in shallow where the defense has a chance to make the play. He should’ve kept drifting and led Freeman into the voided area of the zone. In black is the route he ran. In yellow is the route that would’ve made this a big gainer. Let’s see how this unfolded.
Here’s an endzone view of it. This should be a great play call against essentially eight men in the box.
Right away the play fake works just enough. It made the linebackers including Laurinaitis take one false step forward. Look at the distance Laurinaitis would’ve had to cover had Jackson helped out his QB.
As Freeman completes the play-action and get’s his head around, the scene he surveys looks pretty open. There’s a lot of real estate for the offense to cover, this should’ve fetched an explosive play (20 yards) at the least.
But Jackson breaks his route off as I mentioned previously. Look how many white shirts converged just that rapidly! The NFL is a game of inches, because the athletes are so knowledgeable, reactionary, and plentiful. Freeman may should have come off his primary read, but in a two man vertical route like this, the receivers have to be on their ‘A’ games at all times. If Jackson had run the route in yellow, I could virtually guarantee this would be a completion or incompletion. A turnover would not be in the books whatsoever.
And this is the end result. All parties involved are at fault here. That’s why it can be a bit of a stretch to totally blame the QB’s for all interceptions thrown. There are a lot of moving parts to a play, all it takes is for one cog to not be right and the whole thing could unravel.
In the grand scheme of things, the offense showed itself to very formidable. They found a future superstar in the aforementioned Doug Martin. This workhorse back toted the mail to the tune of 1,454 yards on 319 carries. His 11 touchdowns on land, couple with his one by air, made his total output extremely memorable. Going forward, look for Martin to garner a lot attention on his way to establishing himself as a multi-time pro bowler and future all-pro selection. His ability to mix in power and finesse are uncanny. His blocking ability may be only superseded by his pass catching skills. He’s truly one of the most well-rounded players in the entire NFL. In addition, the Bucs may have drafted the perfect compliment to him in rookie back Mike James, out of the University of Miami. James is a lot like Martin. Which could be a nightmare for opposing defenses, and defensive coordinators alike.
These guys are going to be major players off the strength (literally and figuratively) of their offensive line. Boasting what some pundits believe to be a top three in terms of tackle to tackle talent, the line serves as a benchmark for this powerful, yet graceful Mike Sullivan coordinate scheme. Built to bloody noses, and engage blocks long enough to sustain a true vertical pass game – the health of this line remains paramount! Last seasons injuries to guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph proved to be paramount in the latter stages of the season. When in tandem, this is the best guard duo in the league! Having those guys back to bolster a line stout at every other position may just be the element that puts this team over the top.
In a vertical scheme you must have receivers that stretch the field and can absorb contact. Tampa may have the best player in the league at doing just those things. At 6-foot-5, 23o pounds – Vincent Jackson is peerless from a downfield receiving perspective. His 19.2 yards per reception led the NFL by almost a full yard! The combination of Freeman’s huge arm and Jackson’s receiver acumen – led to a season full of highlight reels. Jackson’s 72 catches for 1,384 yards proved to be the perfect balance for the powerful rushing attack of Doug Martin. Former #1 receiver Mike Williams proved his worth as the #2 option coming up four yards short of his own 1,000 yard season, and his nine touchdowns led the team in 2012. Looking forward to the second year in the system, expect the duo to be talked about more as one of the best. A host of receivers will be looking to fill the third receiver spot, where after Jackson and Williams – running back Doug Martin and former tight end Dallas Clark, ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in overall production. Look for veterans Tiquan Underwood or free agent signee Kevin Ogletree to state their respective cases for the job.
I surmise that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready to play among the elite of the conference. In doing so they will have to get through the toughest division in the whole league. Iron sharpens iron so expect that whoever wins the NFC South will make major noise in the 2013 season. But also expect the the young roster of the Bucs to hover around the top for years to come. They are too talented not to!