The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one more chance to end their recent struggles, an opportunity to exit the 2011 with good feelings and head into the 2012 offseason with a bit of optimism.
To turn it around, the Buccaneers need to reverse the turnovers.
In Week Three, Tampa Bay defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 16-13, at Raymond James Stadium. Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris recently described that game as his team's most complete effort of the season, particularly on defense. That win gave the Bucs a 2-1 record; they were 4-2 and in the thick of the NFC South title race three weeks later.
In that win over the Falcons, who will also be the Bucs' final opponent on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, Tampa Bay won the turnover battle, taking it away three times and only giving it away twice. In a subsequent win over New Orleans in Week Six, the Bucs had a 4-0 turnover edge and, at that point in the season, was up on the takeaway/giveaway ledger, 14-12.
Since then, the Buccaneers have been negative-16 in turnover ratio, forcing only eight of them in 10 games while giving it away 16 times. There is a direct correlation between that statistic and the team's slide to 4-11.
"It's been a problem the whole year," said Head Coach Raheem Morris as his team warmed up in the Georgia Dome for its last chance to prove itself. "It's the reason why you win 10 games last year and don't win as many as you'd like this year. Turnovers have been the fundamental character flaw in our play. We haven't got the turnovers like we got last year and we've given the ball away uncharacteristically. Those are the things you've got to change."
Despite the building gap in the team's turnover differential, the amount of points the Bucs scored directly off turnovers and the amount they allowed stayed fairly even late into the season. However, taking the last 14 times Tampa Bay has turned the ball over, its opponents have scored eight touchdowns and two field goals. The points-off-turnovers edge is now wide, 107-65 in their opponents' favor.
The Buccaneers have tried to use recent practice weeks to work on some of their core values and techniques, trying to solve problems such as shaky tackling and, yes, turnovers. This past week, with their Week 16 game played on Saturday, the Bucs had one extra day to get on the field and such things were emphasized again. Hopefully, the team will succeed in improving its ball security in Week 17 and come away with one final win.
"We had an extra day, got some fundamental drills going early in the week," said Morris. "We had the extra time to prepare and get guys ready and get them a little more rest, too. Hopefully it will show today."
As is relatively common at this time of year, the Buccaneers will have to chase that final victory without several of their starters in the lineup. Starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood was actually ruled out for the game on Friday due to a concussion he suffered in Week 16, which will move James Lee into the starting lineup. In addition, wide receiver Arrelious Benn (neck) was added to Sunday's inactive list, as was reserve WR Sammie Stroughter (knee).
In additiont to Trueblood, Benn and Strougher, the Bucs deactivated QB Rudy Carpenter, CB Anthony Gaitor, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and G Derek Hardman. While DTs Brian Price and Albert Haynesworth were both kept among the 46 inactive players despite struggling with injuries, Frank Okam and Roy Miller will get the starts on the Bucs' interior line. Recently-signed DT Jovan Haye will also be available to take snaps on the inside.
"We've got a bunch of guys banged up but that's part of the season and part of what you go through," said Morris. "We've got to get better and better, and get these guys to play together. It will be Jovan's second week here, so we'll get a chance to see him play again."
The Falcons will be without starting left CB Brent Grimes, who happened to have two very big late-game interceptions againt the Buccaneers last year. Second-year man Dominique Franks out of Oklahoma will start in Grimes' place. Atlanta's other six inactives are QB John Parker Wilson, LB Stephen Nicholas, C Brett Romberg, OL Kirk Chambers, WR Kerry Meier and DE Cliff Matthews.
Running back LeGarrette Blount was essentially taken out of the lineup last week, but not by injury. An early-game fumble, one of four of those aforementioned turnovers the Bucs committed in Charlotte, left him mostly on the bench. The team managed to keep the offense moving with reserve backs Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu, both of whom looked good in a hurry-up attack. Though Blount will be back at the center of the offense today, expect Lumpkin and Madu to continue to see a significant number of touches.
"It was a nice job by Lump, who was paired up with Madu," said Morris. "Those guys came in and gave us the ability to run the ball and go to our no-huddle offense. They both pass-protected well. It was a good thing for Josh [Freeman] – he got those guys going and got back into a rhythm. Then we got LeGarrette back in to hopefully get him going a little bit. Unfortunately, we were not able to, but we'll see what he can do this week."
Freeman's sharp work against Carolina helped work Lumpkin and Madu into the attack. Freeman actually completed passes to nine different players, with five of them catching at least four of his throws. Though the season has been as up-and-down for Freeman as it has for the rest of the team, he too has a chance to finish the campaign on a high note.
"Just watching him grow and develop, he's what you want him to be," said Morris. "He's learning the offense a lot better, he's getting a better grasp, he's stepping up his packages. You watch him go out there and execut the no-huddle in an early-going situation, and that was good to see."
Another strong outing by Freeman could propel the Bucs to a season sweep of the Falcons, which would at least be something to enjoy in a year that will not end in playoff action. Tampa Bay needs to summon the sort of complete effort that led to that first win over the Falcons.
"That seems like forever ago," said Morris. "We were at full strength and we had a bunch of guys out there playing fast and hard. Our record was where it was supposed to be. We were right on track for what we wanted to do. Somehow, we lost that road. Hopefully we can find it again today against the Atlanta Falcons.
"Just go out and finish strong, that's what we've got to do. We're getting ready for this offseason, when we're going to prepare to come back and be great."
The Bucs and Falcons kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.