A Battle in the Middle

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Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has had an impressive first season with the St. Louis Rams, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns and helping his team stay in the thick of the NFC West title hunt.  There's little doubt that the Rams are pleased they selected the former Oklahoma star with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

The Rams weren't the only ones who were happy when Bradford's name was announced in April, however.  Raheem Morris, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says he gave his general manager, Mark Dominik, a high five when the Rams confirmed what most analysts had predicted would be their pick.

See, Morris' Bucs were set to pick third, and the Bradford selection meant that both Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were still on the board.  No matter what the Detroit Lions did with the second pick, the Bucs knew they would get one of those two players, and they viewed both young linemen as special players.  And with Josh Freeman already onboard, the Buccaneers weren���t a likely landing spot for Bradford.

The Lions would tab Suh and Tampa Bay would happily snap up McCoy moments later.  Like the Rams, the Bucs have been thrilled with their selection.  Despite a biceps injury that will cost him the last three weeks of the regular season and any possible postseason action, McCoy had an outstanding debut season and looks exactly like the long-term defensive pillar the Bucs had believed they could build their team around.

McCoy and the Buccaneers won their showdown earlier in the year with Bradford and the Rams, but there will be no McCoy-Suh battle this Sunday due to the former's mishap at FedExField.  Still, the Bucs will get their first up-close look at Suh (hopefully, quarterback Josh Freeman will be spared that view), and they are likely to be impressed.  The Bucs are as happy to have landed McCoy now as they were in April, but they can still acknowledge that Suh has had a strong rookie campaign.

"You can���t say enough good things about Ndamukong Suh and what he���s done in this league," said Morris.  "He���s the leading sacker amongst D-tackles and is more than likely going to be the defensive rookie of the year.  We look forward to a good matchup."

Even if McCoy had been healthy, he wouldn't have been matching up directly with his fellow top-three draftee, of course.  That task falls primarily to center Jeremy Zuttah and the two rookies now flanking him, Ted Larsen at left guard and Derek Hardman at right guard.  Those three will try to keep Suh at bay and prevent him from building on the eight sacks that have made him the top pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL this year.

"He's the complete package," said Zuttah.  "That's obviously why he was drafted so high.  He has eight sacks, something like that.  He's getting after the quarterback and he's getting in the backfield every play.  He doesn't stop coming.  He's just an athlete, he's strong ��� he has everything.

"He's just really versatile.  He can beat you with quickness and speed, and he's also incredibly strong. You've just got to mix it up on him. You can't give him the same look every time, otherwise he's going to use one of them against you."

Zuttah says he won't leave any of his prearranged assignments in the Bucs' blocking scheme to help out Larsen or Hardman if they are matched up against Suh.  He has seen his younger teammates win the majority of their one-on-ones since they entered the lineup (Larsen in Week Seven and Hardman last Sunday) and knows they will at least match Suh's intensity.

"I don't think we're going to change the technique just to try to do that," said Zuttah.  "If I free up, I might look that way just because he is a special player, but we're not going to change the integrity of your protections.  You just have to focus on your job.  Sometimes there are going to be things that are out of your control, but if you focus on your technique, what you have to do, then you should be alright.

The Buccaneers obviously scouted both McCoy and Suh extensively in the months leading up to April's draft; even when it seemed likely that St. Louis was going to take Bradford the Bucs couldn't be certain which player would be left on the board for them.  Or possibly both.  The Bucs had to determine exactly how they felt about each player.

"The big question when you were watching college tape was, ���Can he be this dominant in the NFL playing against men?���" said Morris.  "And the answer is yes.  He���s playing tough and he���s playing physical.  He���s moving men.  There have been some teams that have done things to take him away, but he���s hard to deal with.  But we look forward to the challenge."

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Tale of Two Halves

The Buccaneers have won three games this season in which their opponent scored first, four in which they were losing at halftime, three in which they were losing when the fourth quarter began and five in which they were losing at some point during the final period.

Morris has said before and reiterated on Wednesday that the number-one reason the Buccaneers have been adept at comeback victories since the midpoint of 1999 is the presence of  young quarterback Josh Freeman.  And, indeed, one of Freeman's most impressive statistics in his short career (22 starts and counting) is that he has already led his team to seven fourth-quarter comeback victories.

However, the ability of the Buccaneers' defense to clamp down after difficult starts has also been a key to the team's rallies in 2010.  The latest example occurred in Landover, Maryland last Sunday when Washington Redskins running back Ryan Torain ran all over the Bucs during the first two quarters (158 yards) but found nowhere to run after halftime (14 yards).  Had Washington continued to run at will in the second half on Sunday, it's doubtful the Bucs would have been able to rally for a one-point win.

Here is the most telling statistic, and as Morris would tell you, the only one that really matters:

  • In the first halves of their 13 games this season, the Bucs have allowed 175 points, the 25th-best mark in the NFL;
  • In the second halves of those games, the Bucs have allowed just 92 points, the third-best mark in the league.

Obviously, that speaks to a defense that has had some difficulty getting off to a fast start but has, on almost every Sunday, figured out how to adjust before it was too late.

"There have been all different reasons [for the slow starts]," said Morris.  "[Against Washington] it was not being able to stop the run, a couple breakout runs there that got things going for those guys.  Early on, the Saints just came out with a great onslaught and were able to get going and do some things.  How you prepare and go into the game is about starting faster ��� playing fast, hard, smart and consistent right from the beginning.

"But I have been proud about what they've been able to do in the second.  And the five comebacks are big-time too.  Right now, it's all about getting wins.  We'll figure out what we need to do in the first half right now during game-planning, and if we need to fix something then we'll have a chance to fix it."

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Injury Updates

With the league's youngest roster and a recent influx of new players among the active 53, the Buccaneers have some fresh legs heading into the playoff stretch run.

In fact on Thursday, as the Buccaneers conducted their one full-speed, full-length padded practice of the week, all 53 men on the roster were in action, without limitations.  In addition, the team's midweek injury report was as brief as it has been all season: two players.

Wide receiver Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow were each on the list with knee concerns.  Neither is really much of a concern.  Both Williams and Winslow have played through injuries this season to appear in every game and catch at least one pass in every game.  Winslow was given Wednesday off, as has been customary this season, but Williams hasn't missed any time this week.

The Lions' injury report is quite a bit longer and includes several players who sustained injuries in last weekend's victory over the Green Bay Packers.  Starting outside linebacker Landon Johnson suffered a neck injury on a big hit in that game and was taken off the field on a stretcher, but he was not seriously injured.  Still, Johnson was held out of practice on Wednesday and again Thursday.  Defensive end Cliff Avril also wasn't able to finish the Packer game due to a rib injury and was held out on Wednesday before returning in a limited fashion on Thursday.

Starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus was held out of practice on Wednesday with a  knee injury, and the prognosis was apparently not promising because the Lions placed Cherilus on injured reserve on Thursday.  Cornerback Chris Houston missed the week's first practice due to illness but returned without limitations on Thursday.  Running backs Jahvid Best (toe) and Maurice Morris (chest) were limited to start the week as was defensive end Turk McBride (ankle), and all stayed that way on Thursday.

Opening-day quarterback starter Matthew Stafford has missed the last five games with an injury to his throwing shoulder but the team has held out hope that he may return before the end of the season.  He did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday.  Quarterback Shaun Hill, who took Stafford's spot for eight of the first 10 weeks of the season but has missed the last two games with a finger injury, was back on the practice field on Wednesday and Thursday in a limited fashion.

Lions Head Coach Jim Schwartz has to this point declined to name a starter for Sunday between Hill, Stafford and Drew Stanton.

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