In Charlotte last Saturday, LeGarrette Blount lost control of the football on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first play from scrimmage against Carolina, leading to a turnover inside the 10-yard line. After that play, Blount didn't see the field again until the third quarter, and he finished the game with just two carries for 11 yards.
After the game, Head Coach Raheem Morris didn't deny that there was a connection between those two occurrences. With his team in a slide that can be traced at least in large part to a rash of turnovers in the season's second half, Morris wanted to make a point about focus and being prepared to play from the opening gun.
The Buccaneers lost that game to Carolina but the offense still managed to move the ball effectively, and that was thanks in part to the fill-in performances by Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu. With Blount sitting out, Lumpkin and Madu combined for 124 yards of rushing and receiving yards, easily the largest output of the year for those two backs.
While Lumpkin has already been a significant part of the offense since Earnest Graham went down at midseason, Madu is just getting an opportunity to show what he can do. Coming off that game in Carolina, in which the Bucs' offense did its best work in a hurry-up attack that suits Madu well, it appears the rookie back will remain a part of the game plan in Week 17. However, that does not mean that Blount will once again watch most of the action from the sideline.
"We're doing some of that right now and trying to build upon the strengths of the players that we do have on the field," said offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "Madu is more of a shifty kind of guy, so we were able to do some of those things with him, but we still have a plan with LeGarrette Blount. Certainly part of it is starting faster which we have not done. We need to start fast so we can allow him to stay in the game and go with the game plan and score points. Again, he's a powerful back, strong back, and he gets better as the game gets going, so it's important that we start fast and get a lead on people and let him carry the load to the rushes."
Blount missed the Buccaneers' Week Six win over New Orleans due to a knee injury, but in Tampa Bay's other three victories (including one against Atlanta), he averaged 21 carries, 93 yards and one touchdown on the ground. And in the Bucs' two most competitive games of the last two months – at Green Bay and Tennessee in Weeks 11 and 12 – Blount ran for 107 and 103 yards, respectively. It's easy to understand why the plan to put Blount at the center of the attack hasn't changed all year, even if circumstances have frequently caused it to be abandoned.
Still, plans adapt, and while Blount is still a key figure in the Bucs' attack in the closing weeks of the season, the team is not going to shy away from what has been working. Recently, quarterback Josh Freeman has done some of his best work in an up-tempo attack, spreading the ball around to many different skill-position players.
"We went to the no-huddle there trying to gain more possessions in the football game [in Carolina]," said Olson. "It didn't turn out that way. We were only able to have three possessions in the first half, of which one was the first-play fumble, but he did a very good job of that. He's shown that he's done a nice job in the two-minute situation, which we've had in his history since he's been here. It's just part of that his continued development. As he gets more comfortable in this system, he's able to do some more of those things, because he does have a very even keel. I think he's a very focused guy in those situations. We'll look as we move forward with him to be able to do more of that."
TOs Must Go
Like most NFL coaches, Raheem Morris doesn't put much stock in statistics, good or bad, often believing them to be misleading when it comes to evaluating a team's performance.
And, like most NFL coaches, Morris makes an exception to that rule when it comes to turnovers. Good or bad, turnovers often have a very direct correlation to wins and losses. So, tell Morris that his team has turned the ball 36 times in 15 games in 2011 after doing so just 19 times in 16 games in 2010, and he'll agree that this particular statistic is meaningful. In fact, it might be the single most significant factor in the Bucs' slide from 10-6 to 4-11.
"That's the thing, that's the difference in the year," agreed Morris, also taking responsibility for that downturn. "The turnovers are the complete difference. You looked at us on offense last year – it wasn't a finished product but we did enough to win football games. Look at us on defense – it wasn't a finished product; we did enough to win football games. But for us, turnovers is the big one. You've got to eliminate turnovers. You've got to find ways to maintain possession in the game."
To put numbers to the obvious, the Bucs are 3-1 this season in games in which they've had a positive turnover differential, and 0-10 when they've been on the other end of that ledger. (The Bucs won their only game this year with an even differential.) In Morris' three years at the helm, the Bucs are 12-6 with a positive turnover differential, and 3-17 with a negative one.
Most coaches also believe that the giveaway/takeaway ratio is something that can be improved through practice and hard work, and not simply a matter of good or bad fortune. Morris thinks the reasons for the Bucs' step backward in that category begin with a lack of concentration.
"Some of it has to be attributed to focus," he said. "Last week, the first play of the game on offense, it has to be. be focus. Some of it is just the mental mistakes. And some of it is just trying to do too much. All of those things play a part and turnovers happen, I always [say that], on defense turnovers happen when technique and opportunity meet. So we provide too many opportunity for people, and people out-technique us. That's why we talk about fundamental core beliefs and things of that nature. We've got to get better."
Morris clearly believes that addressing the Bucs' turnover problems are at the top of the list of the team's offseason priorities.
"We've got to consistently keep the ball in our hands to make the defense better, make our offense better," he said. "And right now, that's the reason we're struggling, flat out. You can look right at turnovers and start right there and I could promise you we won't have 36 turnovers next year, guaranteed. I promise you."
Defensive Tackle Rotation Gets Help
After practicing on Wednesday with just three healthy defensive tackles, including practice-squad player Lamar Divens, the Buccaneers' coaching staff had a little more flexibility in that area on Thursday. Albert Haynesworth (knee) and Roy Miller (back) both returned to full participation, allowing Jovan Haye and Frank Okam to take a few more plays off.
However, the Bucs were still without starting defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle), who like Haynesworth missed last Saturday's game against the Panthers. In addition, defensive end Michael Bennett (toe), who occasionally plays some snaps on the interior line, was held out for a second straight day. Further complicating matters was the decision to hold out rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had been limited in practice on Wednesday with a hamstring strain. Clayborn is the Buccaneers' sack leader with 7.5, and Bennett is second with 4.0.
With all the comings and goings on the injury report, it appears that the exact makeup of the Bucs' battered defensive line will be determined on Sunday in Atlanta.
"We'll put those guys out there, whoever is up this week," said Morris. "Yesterday, we had three tackles at practice. Today, we had four or five. We had people trying to make attempts to go out there and practice and they looked decent. So when we get to game day, the healthy bodies will be in there. The healthy bodies will have the opportunity to give us a chance to go win. We'll see what we've got when we get there."
Starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood also missed a second straight practice after sustaining a concussion on Saturday in Carolina. However, wide receiver Preston Parker, also a concussion victim on Saturday, was able to return to full participation in Thursday's practice. That helped the receiving corps, which has been without starter Arrelious Benn this week due to a neck injury.
The Falcons have submitted a lengthy injury report this week, as well, but only three of the 15 players on the list did not practice at all on Thursday: defensive end Ray Edwards (knee), wide receiver Kerry Meier (groin) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe). Three Atlanta starters returned to full participation on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday: wide receiver Julio Jones (ankle), linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) and center Todd McClure (not injury related). Running back Michael Turner has been limited each of the last two days by a groin injury.