By Craig T of Bucs Nation
With a second full offseason and draft class under its collective belt, Mark Dominik, Raheem Morris and the Buccaneer brain trust are hoping that the 2010 season begins differently than last season started. Following a 2009 preseason that started with a knee injury to its top incumbent receiver that nagged him all year, and finished with the release of its new offensive coordinator, the Buccaneers tripped out of the gate in Week 1 and never caught up to the pack...finishing 3-13 on the season. However, the team managed to parlay that lowly record and subsequent lofty draft slot into what it hopes will become a impactful and foundational draft class for future successful seasons. That, plus a seemingly weak schedule, gives many Buccaneer fans reason to believe the team can take a substantial step forward in 2010.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
As mentioned, the big acquisitions for the Bucs were just that...big...as in a pair of 300+ pound interior defensive linemen the Bucs selected with their first two picks of the draft. Brian Price is projected by some to step into the nose tackle spot, with Gerald McCoy virtually certain to start at the 3-technique position. Both give the Bucs the ability to switch back to their one-gap pressuring defense that dominated in the 90's and early 2000's -- and one with which head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris is very familiar.
Safety Sean Jones was signed to compete with incumbent Sabby Piscitelli for the strong safety position. Jones brings a respectable level of playmaking ability in both run support and against the pass and should overtake Piscitelli, who led the league in missed tackles last season, for the starting position.
Following the controversial decision not to re-sign Antonio Bryant, the cupboard was left bare at receiver. In response, the Buccaneers traded for Reggie Brown. Fortunately, they addressed the position in the draft as well, snaring Arrelious Benn in the second round and Mike Williams in the fourth. Many Buccaneer fans feel Williams, who dazzled in OTAs and rookie camp, could be one of the steals of the draft. Both players are big, physical receivers who are expected to contribute quickly.
Guard Arron Sears, who struggled with psychological issues, was eventually released after it appeared he might have been close to returning, rendering the Bucs razor thin on quality depth on the line. However, 2009 Carolina starter Keydrick Vincent signed with the Bucs and could push underperforming incumbent Jeremy Zuttah for the starting spot at left guard.
Unlike the 2009 offseason and preseason disaster, the Bucs enter 2010 with a bit more of an identity and a playbook and scheme that fits the personnel. After suffering the ups-and-downs of the trials and tribulations of rookie quarterbacks for most of 2009, the Bucs settled down late in the season, shifted back towards more of an assignment-based blocking scheme, and ground down the opponent through a successful running game. The offensive line, thought to be the strength of the team coming into 2009, finally found its groove and took over in the fourth quarter. Cadillac Williams continued his improbable comeback from torn meniscuses in both knees to recapture his position as the featured running back in the Buccaneer offense over the infrequently-used Derrick Ward.
Expect to see more of the same in 2010. The offensive line returns fully intact, with left tackle Donald Penn unsigned and playing in a contract year. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has emphasized the need to continue to pound out the run while switching up the passing game from former offensive coordinator Jags' vertical scheme to more of a hybrid West Coast system. This should reduce the opportunities for mistakes for Josh Freeman, who threw 18 interceptions last season, but will still maintain enough of a deep-strike flavor from Jags' playbook to stretch the defense and take advantage of Freeman's big arm. The Bucs should also sport the personnel to implement a shorter and precise passing game, with the tall and physical Benn and the gazelle-like Williams both seemingly capable of converting short patterns on third down. Sammie Stroughter, a 2009 7th-round pick who should start this season in the slot, emerged as a pleasant surprise for the offense last season, finishing third on the team in catches (31) and receiving yards (334). He's a little jitterbug who could provide a Welker-esque safety valve in the middle for Freeman. An improved and more talented receiving corps should take some focus and pressure off of TE Kellen Winslow, which should in turn create more one-on-one and advantageous matchups for him down the field. Also, the Buccaneer offense has lacked a change of pace back, which the team hopes to fill with slight, but speedy backs Clifton Smith and Kareem Huggins, the latter of whom I'd give the edge
Much like the offense, the story of the 2009 Buccaneer defense was a tale of two seasons within one. For the first two-thirds of the season, the Buccaneers labored under the new two-gap system of first-year defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Defensive tackles were asked to put on significant weight to be able to hold the point of attack. The result was a defensive front that couldn't stand its ground against opposing lines, linebackers who couldn't shed blocks, a struggling strong safety who couldn't make crucial tackles, and a resulting abysmal ranking in many defensive stastical categories. The last third of the season saw the dismissal of Bates, with Raheem Morris assuming the dual duties of both head coach and defensive coordinator. First order of business was to bring back the Tampa 2-defense, which met with significant improvement the final five weeks of the season.
The Buccaneers will roll into 2010 with the Tampa 2 as their base defense and a leaned out, well-prepared set of players to run it. As several players noted, including second-year defensive tackle tackle Roy Miller, much of the struggles of the line from last year was being asked to put on weight and play a system none of them were used to. Leaned out and ready to crash gaps, the Buccaneers are poised to return to putting the opposing offensive lines back on their heels, starting with the explosive Price and McCoy. Both rookies were brought in to start and should win their respective jobs. Although they will struggle and make rookie mistakes, it's hard to fathom them doing any worse than the ineffective Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan. With McCoy and the surprisingly effective Stylez G. White crashing the left side of opposing offensive lines and Price and a slimmed down Kyle Moore attacking the right side, the Buccaneers could be primed to turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks and improve on the meager 12.5 sacks they totaled in 2009.
Also, improved play of the defensive line should finally give Barrett Ruud the time to read and react to backfields and flow to the football, as he did so well in 2007. The return to the Tampa 2 will also mean that Ruud, who possesses superb coverage skills for an inside linebacker, will prowl the middle 5-15 yard zone, where he's been at his best and can showcase his instincts and athleticism.
In the secondary, the move from Bates' man coverage to zone substantially improved the effectiveness of backup/nickel cornerbacks Elbert Mack and E.J. Biggers. As Ronde Barber grows longer in the tooth, a return to his bread-and-butter defensive system and limited range of responsibility will only help his continued effectiveness as well. 2010 third-round pick Myron Lewis is a big, physical corner with good instincts who has an excellent chance to win the nickel corner job.
Incumbent punter Sam Paulescu is expected to be seriously challenged by 6th round pick Brent Bowden, who banged out an impressive 40 punts of 50+ yards at Virginia Tech. Kicker Connor Barth, the hero of the Bucs' 20-17 upset victory at New Orleans in Week 16, will battle recently-signed Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence for the job at camp. Although Barth was a step up from Mike Nugent and Shane Andrus, it's anyone's guess if he will hold off Lawrence for the job.
The real excitement lies in the Buccaneer's return game, as they boast a slew of return men who can take the ball to the house. Clifton Smith, a 2008 Pro-Bowl selection as a kick returner, has shown explosiveness in kickoff and punt returns. He clearly stands as the man to beat. Sammie Stroughter posted an impressive 29.5-yard kickoff return average in 2009 with a 97-yard TD against Carolina in Week 6. Micheal Spurlock, who ran into the hearts of Buccaneer fans in 2007 with the franchise's first kickoff return for a touchdown, re-signed with the Bucs right before the Week 16 win over New Orleans and wowed the Buccaneer fans again with a punt return for a TD in the win. He'll get a shot at camp, but could find making the 53-man roster difficult due to Smith and multiple positional players being able to return kicks.
Raheem Morris will pick up the 2010 season where he left off 2009 - as both head coach and defensive coordinator. He handled both duties admirably, but some wondered whether he was in over his head and had control of his team at different points of the season. Many Buccaneer fans have been calling for Morris to relinquish control of gameplanning and coaching the defense to another coach, but Morris' work with the defense resulted in a greatly-improved defense, so it's hard to argue he doesn't know what he's doing. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who served as both the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2009, has a full offseason to work with his players and get the playbook changed to what is being described as a more West-Coast oriented offense. After the success of sticking with the running game through thick-and-thin late last season, Olson acknowledged the Bucs will run the football to load the box and set up passing opportunities. However, as opposed to a traditional West Coast system, he claims to be combining a number of shotgun sets, where Freeman probably fared best in 2009, and deep patterns to take advantage of Freeman's strong arm.
Former Buffalo quarterback Alex Van Pelt has been brought on board as the QB coach to work with Josh Freeman, which will free up Olson to focus more on gameplanning full time and will give Freeman a full-time mentor.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2010
Things are moving in the right direction for the Buccaneers, but change will not happen overnight. The Bucs addressed a large number of key holes in the draft, most notably at receiver and in the middle of the defensive line, but there are still a lion's share of questions remaining, both for the short and long term. Can Josh Freeman eliminate the head-scratching turnovers and mistakes that cost the Bucs some games last season and develop into a solid and consistent playmaker? Will the offensive line finally live up to its potential and billing as the strong point of the team? Can the rookie defensive tackles step up and make an early impact? Will the good Barrett Ruud of 2007-mid-2008 show up and anchor the defense or will the 2009 version that was pushed around return? Have the Bucs found a replacement for the last of the Buccaneer legends: Ronde Barber?
As for a 2010 prediction, the schedule appears much more navigable than the nightmare 2009 slate proved to be, with several more winnable games on tap this season. I predict 6 wins for the Buccaneers, which would be double from a season ago, but that number could a little higher or lower, depending on how the rookies progress and how Freeman and Ruud fare.