Living in Tampa Bay, I get to watch the Bucs quite often when they are not blacked out. Even the, I have the NFL Red Zone and I hear about them all the time on the local news channels. So I figured this would be a fine time to chime in on what I’ve seen from them for the last season plus of games.
First off I wanted to point out that they are 13-7 over the last 20 games in a very competitive division. They are a classic example of a team who finds a way to win games despite not always looking like a good team, much like the 49ers have done this year. The Bucs have found ways to win despite being one of the younger teams in the league while being led by an inexperienced head coach and QB combination. Tampa Bay would best be described as a better team than their parts would indicate. After the jump I will take a position-by-position look at the team.
QB: Everyone in the Tampa Bay area assumed Josh Freeman would make the leap to superstar this season, but that has yet to happen so far. He is a good QB who is able to pick up big first downs at pivotal moments, but Freeman is also prone to bad decisions in the red zone. Two weeks in a row he threw balls which hit the other teams’ hands while the defender was in the end zone, and he was lucky to escape with only one interception. Josh Freeman tends to come up big when the game is on the line as evidenced by numerous game winning drives the past two years. The key will be not letting him be in a position to hurt San Francisco late in the game.
RB: LeGarrette Blount is a big, physical runner who at times appears to be a young Adrian Peterson. Very rarely is he brought down by the first tackler, and it’s a wonder the Bucs don’t use him more often early in the game. Like Frank Gore, he seems to get better as the game goes on and the defense wears down. Blount’s biggest weaknesses are in the passing game, where he isn’t much of a threat to catch passes and his blocking leaves something to be desired. The 49ers solid run defense should be able to take him out of the game early and hopefully make the Bucs one dimensional.
That is why more often than not Earnest Graham will be at tailback on 3rd downs and long yardage situations. Graham actually leads the team in receptions and is targeted quite a bit by Freeman.
WR: Inconsistent is the only way to describe the Buccaneers’ wide outs. Mike Williams was a low round draft pick last year who burst on to the scene, but has yet to break out in 2011. He tends to make the explosive plays down the field but fails to get separation often enough to become a target more often.
Arrelious Benn is another potential game breaking receiver whose production doesn’t match his physical tools. A perfect example of his game was on Monday Night Football when he sped passed the Colts defense for a long touchdown, only for it to be called back after he stepped out of bounds prior to making the catch.
The surprise of the receiving corp. has to be Preston Parker. He has been by far the Bucs most consistent wide out and also their most explosive this year. It seems like Tampa Bay is able to use little known receivers effectively until a full scouting report on them surfaces.
TE: Kellen Winslow is not the receiving tight end he used to be, but he still is a standard target on third downs. Winslow is second on the team in catches and receiving yards, yet his lack of touchdowns is part of the trouble with their red zone offense.
OL: Likely the most well-rounded of their offensive groups, the Bucs offensive line is above average. While some of the credit for Josh Freeman’s mere two sacks per game falls on the QB’s ability to shrug off tacklers, it is also a testament to the maulers up front. The fact that they are able to run the ball effectively points to a group which is able to get it done in all facets of blocking. Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine are the players who receive the most praise on the line.
DB: Probably the biggest weak link of the Buccaneers is their defensive secondary. The mercurial Aqib Talib is by far the most talented of the players, yet he is prone to mental lapses. When on his A game he can be a shut down corner.
Ronde Barber is an aging player who still manages to get it done. Despite changing defenses after Monte Kiffin’s departure, he has been able to adjust and continue on. He is no longer the best athlete on the field, but he works hard and is wily enough to have a hand in more plays than one would expect. After Barber the Bucs’ CBs are about league average for their positions, though E.J. Biggers is a solid tackler for a nickel CB.
Yet where the Bucs are really hurting is their safeties. Two weeks ago they lost Cody Grimm for the year, and their most talented safety Tanard Jackson has yet to play a down. Their replacements have been less than stellar and the 49ers should be able to exploit Larry Asante and Sean Jones quite often. Their defense has been prone to the big play, but I don’t know if the Niners have the speed to exploit that.
LB: Rookie MLB Mason Foster has slotted right into the defense and done as well as any could reasonably expect. He is a physical player who makes rookie mistakes, but has provided splash plays the team did not get with Barrett Ruud last season. He is tied for the team lead in tackles and also has two sacks to his credit.
The other two starting linebackers are Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, both of whom are solid if unspectacular. Both are solid in run defense but so-so in coverage, meaning Kendall Hunter, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker should be able to have solid days against them.
DL: The Bucs have invested heavily in their defensive line the last two years with DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, along with DEs Adrian Clayborn and Daquan Bowers. All four are very talented and seem to be getting better. McCoy has received a lot of criticism, but his last two games have been very good. Clayborn is a player who also flashes his skills from time to time, but as with any rookie rusher he needs to be more consistent. Price and Bowers have both battled injuries which have limited their effectiveness.
The best part of the Bucs line is their rotation is about 6 or 7 players deep. The come in waves with players like Michael Bennett, Tim Crowder and Roy Miller also contributing. The line exemplifies the team first aspect of Tampa Bay as individually they may not have great statistics, but they get the job done as a unit.
ST: Preston Parker and Michael Spurlock are solid return men who have filled in well for last year’s breakout player Sammy Stroughter. Aside from that the team is rather ho-hum on special teams with Connor Barth and Michael Koenen being good, solid players. Their return units are game breakers but can be dangerous, and they don’t seem to give up many returns against them.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a beatable team, but I think they would feel the same about the 49ers. The key, as always, will be limiting turnovers and big plays which result in touchdowns. If the Niners can do that, they should have the advantage because of their solid red zone defense and the Bucs red zone problems. Just don’t count Tampa Bay out of the game at any point as they always seem to find a way to make it close at the end.