SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. BUCS LINEBACKERS MAKING AN EARLY SPLASHWhile the Buccaneers’ 0-2 start to the 2013 season is wrought with disappointment already, the play of the team’s linebackers has played a huge part in the fact that Tampa Bay has only lost those two games by a combined three points. Through the first two weeks of the season, Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps has made just as many splash plays as the unit did in all of last year.
During the 2012 campaign, the Bucs linebackers collectively recorded four sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries through 16 games. Here’s the breakdown:
WLB Lavonte David – 2 sacks, 1 INTMLB Mason Foster – 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FRSLB Quincy Black – 1 FR
Black played just over half the year before a season-ending injury occurred against San Diego. Adam Hayward and Dekoda Watson, Black’s replacements, failed to record any turnovers or sacks.
In the first two weeks of the 2013 NFL season, Tampa Bay’s linebackers have already surpassed the number of splash plays and have 14 games to go. Here’s the breakdown:
WLB Lavonte David – 2.5 sacks, 1 INTMLB Mason Foster – 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FFSLB Dekoda Watson – 1 sack, 1 INTSLB Jonathan Casillas – 1 FF
The Bucs linebackers are off to an incredibly hot start with a combined 5.5 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles already. Foster credits the tight bond between the linebackers for the sensational play to start the season.
“Me, Lavonte and Dekoda, we hang out all the time,” Foster said. “After practice all we do is talk about football. That’s how we hang out. We play video games, we talk about football and we talk about what [our opponent] is going to do. I feel like it’s helping us. The way that we’ve played has shown that us studying together is working. It’s pushing us. We’re pushing each other and competing. Dekoda got his pick [against New Orleans], and I said, ‘It’s about time I got myself a pick.’ Lavonte got his sack [against the Saints], and then we all were trying to get ours.”
Each of the three starting linebackers have made as many splash plays – or more – than they did a year ago.
“That’s one thing I’ve been working on during the offseason – learning even more about this defense so I can make more big plays,” David said. “I’ve been working on it in the offseason and it’s paid off. Hopefully it will carry on throughout the season.”
In the last seven games dating back to Tampa Bay’s 31-23 loss at Denver in 2012, David has recorded two interceptions and 4.5 sacks. In the first 11 games of his career David recorded neither.
The Bucs’ second-round pick in 2012 had a great season opener against New York with eight tackles, a sack and an interception before a huge mistake – a 15-yard personal foul for pushing Jets quarterback Geno Smith to the ground when he had stepped out of bounds – played a role in Tampa Bay losing that game to a late field goal. Like the pro that he is, David bounced back against New Orleans the next week with six tackles, 1.5 sacks and helping Foster tackle running back Mark Ingram at the goal line on fourth down just before halftime.
“Lavonte and I talk all the time,” Foster said. “That’s one of my best friends. We talk all the time about doing whatever we can to help the team win. If we make as many plays as we can and try to play lights out all the time we’ll give our team a good chance to win. Whether we are making tackles, rushing or covering, we have to make a play.
“It was crazy on that play. I knew Lavonte was going to make the play. I just had to go help and cap him off. I knew Lavonte was going to slow him down. I just had to cap him off. He and I have been working real well together and helping each other.”
And when Foster picked off Drew Brees in the fourth quarter and returned the pick 85 yards for a touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 14-13 lead it was David that helped lead the way with a block on the quarterback.
“Lavonte made a great block,” Foster said. “I knew I had to stay on my feet no matter how tired I was. The whole defense was right there with me. I knew I could give the offense good field position.
“Lavonte is a great player and a great person. Anytime you lose – both of us take it really hard. He came out in practice really hard. We were in the film room a lot this week to make sure things like that don’t happen again. Even though I don’t think he was to blame in the first place, he took it tough and bounced back and showed he’s one of the main reasons why this team is the way that it is.”
Watson knows the Bucs linebackers are loaded with talent and are living up to their potential with the rash of big plays to start the season.
“We have a promising linebacker corps,” Watson said. “I’m not trying to brag on us or say we’re the best thing, but we have a lot of potential. We have to continue to work hard. We can’t let none of this stuff get to our head. We have to continue to make plays and stick together. We have to discipline ourselves because we are the quarterback of the defense when it’s all said and done.”
Although Watson gets the start at strongside linebacker, Casillas impressed enough in the preseason to warrant playing time. The two have combined for 11 tackles through the first two games, in addition to Casillas’ forced fumble and Watson’s sack and interception. Both strongside linebackers have every incentive to play well this season as they are in a contract year.
“It’s great problem for us to have,” David said. “Those guys complement each other, too. We have guys like that play hard down in and down out. Either one of them can do the job we need them to do.”
As well as the linebackers have played to start the season, this unit was on the field for the final minute of each of Tampa Bay’s two losses.
“We’re very close,” Watson said. “We can talk about how close we are all day, but if it doesn’t come true [with a victory] and we don’t make it happen, all of that is irrelevant. The ball can be on the 50 or the ball can be on the 1. We’re the defense and we’re supposed to stop them no matter what happens.”
For the most part, Tampa Bay’s improved linebacker corps has done it’s job in stopping opposing offenses.
FAB 2. IS BARRON-FOSTER COMBO JUST AS GOOD AS KUECHLY?Many Bucs fans and media members were aghast when Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik traded down with Jacksonville from the fifth overall spot to the seventh overall pick to select Alabama strong safety Mark Barron in 2012. The Bucs desperately needed help at cornerback, and with former LSU defensive backs coach Ron Cooper on staff, most believed Tampa Bay would draft Tigers cornerback Morris Claiborne.
But when the Bucs traded down, Claiborne was selected next by Dallas, who traded up to No. 6 to draft him. The Bucs never wanted Claiborne, who had serious deficiencies in tackling, run support and his level of toughness. The next logical option on the board was middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, but the Bucs skipped over the Boston College tackling machine and opted for Alabama strong safety Mark Barron instead.
Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano wanted Barron over Kuechly for several reasons. The first of which was that Barron was a higher-rated player. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock loved Barron and called him a future Pro Bowler.
The second reason why Barron became a Buccaneer was that safety was a more pressing need. Sean Jones wasn’t re-signed and the loss of Tanard Jackson, who was waived by the team in the offseason, made the safety position so weak that cornerback Ronde Barber had to move to free safety from cornerback just to help out.
And finally, the Bucs decided not to draft Kuechly and choose Barron was because they believed in Mason Foster, who was entering his second year as Tampa Bay’s middle linebacker. Drafting Kuechly would have meant moving Foster, a third-round pick in 2011, to strongside linebacker where he would only play about 50 percent of the snaps because of all of the nickel and dime defense Tampa Bay plays, which takes a linebacker or two off the field.
So when Barron only had a handful of great performances last year as a rookie when he totaled 88 tackles, 10 pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble, and Bucs fans watched Kuechly lead all rookies in tackles with 187 tackles, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries and nine passes defensed there were grumblings that Tampa Bay drafted the wrong guy.
Yet through the first two weeks of 2013, Barron’s play has grown by leaps and bounds, and the same could be said of Foster’s in Year Two of Schiano and Bill Sheridan’s defense. Barron has notched 17 tackles in two games to lead the Buccaneers, and has also produced half a sack and a pass breakup. Foster has been a playmaker, notching 15 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception that he returned 85 yards for a touchdown.
Through two games, Kuechly has 23 tackles and an interception, but made a costly pass interference penalty on third-and-6 with just 21 seconds left in Carolina’s 24-23 loss at Buffalo last week. The Bills were at the Panthers’ 31-yard line and Colin Jones had picked off rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, but a pass interference call on Kuechly moved the ball to the Carolina 11 and gave the ball back to Buffalo. Two plays later, Manuel threw the game-winning pass to Stevie Johnson for Buffalo’s comeback win.
Now Kuechly is a fine player, and has a future full of Pro Bowls. But if Barron continues to be a force in the secondary and Foster keeps making big plays, the Buccaneers’ decision to believe in Foster and draft Barron will be proven to be the correct one.
FAB 3. THE SPEEDY DEMPS SHOULD STAY IN RED AND PEWTERLast week saw the long-awaited arrival of Buccaneers running back Jeff Demps, who finally reported to the team after missing training camp and the preseason while running for the U.S. track and field team. Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano aptly referred to the Olympic silver medalist and former collegiate sprint champion as the fastest player in the NFL.
The Bucs were given a roster exemption to allow the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Demps to practice with the team and gauge his progress as he has been out of football for a year after being placed on injured reserve in New England last August. Now Tampa Bay will have to decide whether to activate the player they shipped LeGarrette Blount to New England for, or whether to release him with the hope of sneaking him onto Tampa Bay’s practice squad. Even though he is admittedly not ready to play yet and is still rusty, Demps wouldn’t clear waivers.
“It takes time for it all to come back,” Demps said. “I’ve still got a lot of rust on me. As each day goes on I’m just getting a little bit better.”
There is enough intrigue in a speedster like Demps, who runs a 4.2 in the 40-yard dash and had a successful career as a running back at Florida for several teams to put in waiver claims for him should the Bucs release him. The idea of putting Demps on the practice squad is a good one, as he served as a great stunt double for New Orleans’ Darren Sproles on the scout team for the Bucs defense.
In fact, Demps took one run 40 yards to the house and blew by all 11 Bucs defenders in practice.
“He outraced the whole defense,” said Bucs free safety Ahmad Black. “It was a realistic play and he just outran everybody. He gave us a great look and that’s what he’s here for. I’m happy he’s out here with us. He’s a talented guy.
“I’ve played with him for a few years at Florida. Ever since I’ve known him he’s always done what is asked of him. He always tries his best to help the team.”
While he gets back into football shape, Demps loves being a part of the team and helping Tampa Bay’s offense and defense prepare.
“Practice has been going pretty good,” Demps said. “I’ve been learning on the run. Doing a lot of scout team stuff and getting our defense and offense a good look.”
Demps finished as Florida’s eighth-leading rusher with 2,470 yards on 367 carries, a 6.7 average, and 23 touchdowns on the ground. As a receiver out of the backfield, Demps caught 57 passes in his career for 481 yards, an 8.4 average.
“He’s not a track guy playing football, he’s a football guy running track,” Black said. “You don’t lose football. He may be a little rusty, but he hasn’t lost it. He shouldn’t take him too long to get back into football shape.”
Will the Bucs be patient? The team lost defensive tackle Derek Landri for several weeks with a torn MCL in his knee, but will keep him on the roster and await his return rather than place him on injured reserve. The team is also without cornerback Michael Adams for several weeks due to a knee injury, and tight end Tom Crabtree for at least another week due to a high ankle sprain. Can the Bucs afford to keep a rusty Demps on the 53-man roster even though he is still learning the playbook?
The answer is yes. Demps can help the punt rush unit, in addition to the return game on special teams. Tampa Bay will have to release a player in order to make room for Demps on the roster, and that player might be backup running back Peyton Hillis, who is very inexperienced on special teams and hasn’t covered kicks and punts since high school.
While Tampa Bay has plenty of weapons, including wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, in addition to running back Doug Martin, adding a player that has the speed to go the distance on any play could only help the Bucs’ struggling offense.
“I’ve never played with or against anyone faster than [Demps],” Black said. “Not at all. It’s not even close. I can’t wait to see him get out there for us.”
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik would be wise to keep the player he has been after for well over a year now that he has him on the roster.
FAB 4. BUCCANEERS PLAYERS STAND UNITED – FOR NOWTampa Bay has had a horde of headlines during the first two weeks of the NFL season – but for all the wrong reasons. There have been stories about the Bucs’ players-only meeting prior to the start of the season, a supposed tampering of the captaincy vote, Josh Freeman potentially seeking a trade and Darrelle Revis supposedly being unhappy with how he’s being used in Greg Schiano’s defense.
There have been reports, such as this one and this one on PewterReport.com, stating how the team doesn’t favor Schiano’s hard-line coaching style and how there has been a disconnect between the coaches and the Bucs players.
There have been reports, such as this one in the Tampa Tribune, second-guessing Schiano’s end-of-game coaching decisions – a problem that has dated back to last year with the former Rutgers head coach. The Tampa Bay Times has had plenty of them, too.
There have been reports, such as this one on ESPN.com, about how Schiano is ruining Freeman.
Folks – despite the denials by Schiano, Freeman and Revis – where there is smoke there is fire. And there is plenty of smoke coming out of One Buccaneer Place right now.
To their credit, the Buccaneers players are united and there is no finger-pointing in the locker room. How could there be? Despite solid play by the defense, it has been that unit on the field in the last minute of the team’s first two losses of the season – even though Freeman has underwhelmed and the offense’s scoring and yardage production has hurt the team. A stop or a turnover by the defense and the Bucs could be 2-0.
“I’m not going to sit here and point fingers [at the offense],” Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson said. “When it’s our time to step on the field we have to go out there and make sure we perform to the best of our abilities. There’s nobody that we can point our fingers. We just have to continue to ball.”
Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster agrees with his teammate.
“It’s tough – anytime you lose it’s tough, especially when you lose like that,” Foster said. “We have to keep playing and keep pushing and making sure the games aren’t that close at all. When you have it right there and let it go – it’s tough.”
To his credit, Schiano has done a good job of keeping his team focused on beating the next opponent, evidenced by how hard the team played and competed against both New York and New Orleans.
“People are going to talk about you whether it’s good or bad,” Watson said. “People are going to try to tear you apart. People are going to get inside your head. At the same time, we can control what we can control – the locker room, how we communicate and just focus on ourselves. That’s the biggest thing – just focus on ourselves.”
Bucs wide receiver Mike Williams is among those players keeping the faith that the team’s close losses will quickly turn into victories as the season progresses.
“When you put in all that work in the offseason and you have two immediate losses, it’s frustrating,” Williams said. “It kind of hurts. When you think about how the losses were and how we got there … we were up. We were up in the final seconds of each of those games. We’re right there. That’s a good sign for us.”
Schiano has also emphasized over and over again that the Bucs players are beating themselves with 23 penalties for over 200 yards combined in the first two games of the season.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on our team, but at the same time there were a lot of mistakes that were made,” Watson said. “We’ve got a great team, but everything looks good on paper until you step out on the field. When you beat yourself it’s very discouraging. We have to continue to stick together and work hard.”
Schiano hasn’t lost the team yet. It’s still early in the season despite a 0-2 record and the fact that only 12 percent of the teams that have started off the season with two losses and no victories have made the postseason since the 1990s.
But if Tampa Bay can’t win at New England, which will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola the team will fall to 0-3 on the season and the heat on Schiano will grow even hotter. A loss to Arizona the next week would produce a 0-4 record, a potential change at quarterback to rookie Mike Glennon if Freeman continues to struggle, and a possible mutiny in Tampa Bay against Schiano.
At that point in time, the Bucs would be 1-9 in their last 10 games under Schiano, and that would be absolutely unacceptable – no matter how close the losses are. In order to salvage the season, and Schiano’s job, the Bucs need to be 2-2 at the bye week. And that means an upset against the Patriots.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab:
• The Bucs are off to a good start in terms of tackles for loss again this season. Through two games, Tampa Bay has recorded 11 tackles for loss, which led by linebacker Lavonte David’s three. David led the team last year with 20 tackles for loss. The Bucs set a team record with 104 tackles for loss in 2012, but are on pace for just 88 this season.
Yet Tampa Bay is ahead of pace in terms of sacks and forced fumbles in 2013. The Bucs had just 27 sacks a year ago, but are tied for the team lead with nine entering Week 3. That puts the Bucs on track to record 72 sacks, but getting 4.5 sacks per game is a very unrealistic pace. In fact, the Bucs would be thrilled if they had half that number, as 36 sacks would be a welcome improvement over a year ago.
Tampa Bay had 10 forced fumbles a year ago, and already has three through two games. That puts the Bucs on pace for 24 this year, which is a highly unlikely number to finish with, but it would set a new franchise record.
• What type of effect is new Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis having on defense against opposing offenses? Consider that through the first two weeks of the season quarterbacks have attacked the Bucs defense with tight ends and not wide receivers. In the season-opening loss at New York, the tight ends – led by Kellen Winlsow – caught eight passes for 86 yards and a touchdown, while the wide receivers combined to catch 11 passes for 114 yards.
Against New Orleans, Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, while the Saints receivers combined to catch six passes for 88 yards. Through two games, tight ends have accounted for 18 receptions for 267 yards and a touchdown, while receivers have been held to 17 catches for 202 yards and no touchdowns. Revis has played a big role in shutting down opposing receivers and leads the Bucs with three passes defensed through two games.
• One player that was rumored to be on the Bucs’ radar prior to the 2013 NFL Draft was Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. However, PewterReport.com has learned that Tampa Bay had very little interest in him. In fact, the Bucs didn’t even have a mid-first-round grade on him.
Carolina drafted Lotulelei, who was once considered to be a top 5 draft prospect, with the 14th overall pick in the draft, so now he’s playing for Tampa Bay’s division rival. With seven tackles to start his NFL career, the jury is still out for Lotulelei. He’s shown he’s a good run defender, but can he rush the passer? The Bucs will find out twice this season in person.
• It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Ronde Barber’s 92-yard interception return for a touchdown against Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, but Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster did his best Barber impersonation on Sunday during his pick-six, which he returned 85 yards against New Orleans. Like Barber did to McNabb by faking blitz and then stepping into the passing lane and picking off a pass intended for Antonio Freeman, Foster baited Brees into throwing his way.
“I had the coverage on that,” Foster said. “I started on the line, so I knew Brees might not see me. I know from the game last week they had seen me pass rush a lot and I was rushing a lot earlier in the game. I knew that he wasn’t going to see me drop in coverage and I knew that he was looking for Jimmy Graham. I tried to make a play and he threw it right to me.”
• Count New England head coach Bill Belichick as a big fan of Tampa Bay’s linebacker corps. During a press conference this week, the future Hall of Fame head coach heaped praise on Dekoda Watson, Lavonte David and Mason Foster.
“Their linebackers are fast, too,” Belichick said. “Dekoda Watson and David, and of course, Foster. Those guys are all very active. They pursue well. Their safeties are like linebackers. They’re fast and they close down those spaces. I think that’s what you see. You see an opening it looks like the back is going to gain some yards and all the sudden it’s second-and-8. Then there are other plays and they knife into the backfield and it’s second-and-13. Those holes don’t stay open very long.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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