As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Atlanta this weekend to take on the Falcons, the Buccaneers are taking with them a 5-2 record, tied for the best record in the NFC along with the New York Giants and this week’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons. In a conference which is filled with struggling teams this season, are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a pretender or contender for a possible playoff spot this season?
Heading into the 2010 season, I predicted a 6-10 record for the Buccaneers, and it appears that that prediction should be met, and then some. The Buccaneers entered this season with a lot of youth on the squad and a pile of unanswered questions. Let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly so far this season for the Buccaneers.
The Good- Josh Freeman. You can’t underestimate how well this second year quarterback has progressed. Freeman has only thrown three interceptions so far this season, and is riding a three game streak without an interception. Perhaps what is most impressive with this young quarterback is that in his 8 career wins, six have come in the fourth quarter. LeGarrette Blount. Blount joined the team after being claimed when the Tennessee Titans released him after roster cut-downs. Blount had his first game where he was the primary ball carrier last week and responded more than effectively with 22 carries for 120 yards and two scores. Blount is a significant upgrade over Carnell Williams and where he is at at this point in his career. Mike Williams. Williams slid in the draft due to character concerns which came about during his time at Syracuse University, but Williams is starting to look like he might have been one of the steals of the 2010 draft. Williams is quickly becoming Josh Freeman’s favorite target with 32 receptions for 470 yards and four touchdowns. The Linebacker play. The veteran, Barrett Ruud leads the team in tackles with 53 and has played solid football this season. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes have really stepped up their game this season. Both Black and Hayes have returned interceptions for touchdowns after just seven games.
The Bad- The offensive line. The Buccaneers were thought to have been assembling a very solid offensive line by drafting Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, signing Jeff Faine and eventually offering LT Donald Penn a long term contract this season. Instead, the Buccaneers offensive line has been a patchwork affair this season. C Jeff Faine is out with injury and has been replaced by Jeremy Zuttah. The Buccaneers had signed Keydrick Vincent in the preseason to play LG but he was released last week and replaced by Ted Larsen. Trueblood missed last week’s game and was replaced by James Lee at RT. The run blocking has been poor, and the pass blocking has been adequate. If Josh Freeman wasn’t a mobile quarterback, I doubt the Buccaneers would have a 5-2 record. S Tanard Jackson. The Buccaneers secondary has really missed the hard-hitting safety which is serving a one-year suspension for testing positive for an illegal substance.
The Ugly. The run defense. One of the priorities heading into this years draft was for the Buccaneers to improve the defensive line. Tampa Bay had been sorely lacking a defensive tackle which could play the three technique, a key position in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme. Tampa Bay drafted DT Gerald McCoy third overall in the first-round. McCoy has shown flashes of being disruptive but has yet to record a sack. In the second-round, Tampa selected another defensive tackle, Brian Price. Price was hampered all preseason with injuries and now has been lost for the season with an injury to his pelvis. The Buccaneers however, are still having problems stopping the run, ranked 30th in the league, surrendering 149 yards per game. While the pass defense is improved, and the Buccaneers lead the league in interceptions, Tampa simply cannot stop the run. The Pass Rush. Well, simply, there is no pass rush for the Buccaneers, heading into the eighth game of the season, the Buccaneers only have 6 sacks. Then again, what sort of production did Tampa think they were going to get out of Tim Crowder, Alex Magee, Kyle Moore and Stylez White? It has been reported that the Buccaneers filed a waiver claim yesterday for LB Shawne Merriman, no doubt to try him at the defensive end position.
Tampa Bay has shown vast improvement this season and it does appear they are laying the foundation of a team which will have to be reckoned with in the NFC for years to come, although they are still missing some pieces. In Tampa’s five wins this season, they have won by 3, 14, 3, 1 and 3 points respectively. Those wins were against teams should have beaten if they are actually improving. However, when matched up against superior teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New Orleans Saints, Tampa lost each game by 25 points.
I think this week’s game will really let Buccaneers fans know where their team stands. Atlanta Falcon’s QB Matt Ryan is tough at home, and Tampa has now won five games on the road, something has to give. It remains to be seen if Falcon’s CB Dunta Robinson will be cleared to play on Sunday, if not Mike Williams could have a big day. If Tampa Bay pulls off an upset in Atlanta on Sunday, where they have not won since 2007, then Tampa Bay should be front and center in the playoff discussion. If not, it might take another season once the Buccaneers add a few more pieces.