A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young and developing offense found a groove in the second half of the season. Over the last eight games of the 2010 campaign, Tampa Bay averaged 354 yards and 23 points an outing, and over the final month that improved to 381 yards and 25 points per game.
Could the same thing happen again in 2011? The Buccaneers are beginning to believe it will.
Obviously, the team would have liked its 2010 closing momentum to carry over into the beginning of this season, but instead Josh Freeman and company were plagued by a sometimes-maddening inconsistency. There were big offensive outbursts in wins over Indianapolis and New Orleans in the first six weeks, but far too many turnovers and momentum-killing penalties in losses to San Francisco, Chicago and Houston.
The Texans game in Week 10 was the low point – a season-worst 231 yards and just nine points versus four giveaways – but the offense rebounded in impressive fashion the next Sunday at Lambeau Field, playing perhaps its best game of the year. The team's 455 net yards of offense were a few short of the 466 it put up against Indy, but the run-pass balance was impressive and the 26 points in a shootout loss tied a season-high.
Wide receiver Mike Williams, who was so strong down the stretch last year for the Buccaneers, caught a season-high seven pass in Green Bay (for 83 yards) and has at least six grabs in four of the last five games. He believes the way the offense came together at Lambeau Field is a sign of things to come over the final six weeks of the season.
"We really needed that," said Williams. "We were in a time of need. But now we have to have wins at this time of the season. We can't be up-and-down, and that was a good way to start. A 100-yard receiver, 100-yard rusher…that's progress to me."
As Williams mentions, the Bucs had a 100-yard receiver in tight end Kellen Winslow (nine for 132) and a 100-yard rusher in LeGarrette Blount (18 for 107). In addition, Freeman racked up a career-best 342 passing yards, marking the first time in four years that the Bucs have had a 300/100/100 trio in the same game. The last three to do it were Luke McCown, Joey Galloway and Earnest Graham in a win at New Orleans in December of 2007. Williams and Arrelious Benn each had at least 75 receiving yards as well, and that's the young core of the offense the Bucs believed was ready to take another step forward in 2011. Winslow is 28 years old but Freeman, Blount, Williams and Benn are all 24 or younger.
That group was playing with a lot of "swagger" during the nice offensive run to finish last season, and a game like last week's outing in Green Bay could put that sort of confidence back in their collective step.
"We hope so because I felt like that was, and the players felt it throughout the course of the game there was that confidence and swagger on the sideline early," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "After the big plays, the two-play drive – the catch by Rejus [Benn] and the big run by Blount – there was excitement and there was energy on the sidelines and that's the swagger that we are talking about and hoping will carry over and can stay in a consistent basis. We've had too many dips this year."
The drive Olson references will be best remembered for its second play, Blount's incredible 54-yard touchdown run that included a series of broken tackles. That drive actually started at the Bucs' own 18, with the team already down by 14 points early in the second quarter and in desperate need of a spark. Benn gave it to them with a 28-yard catch down the left sideline; on the play, he was well-covered by CB Tramon Williams but he broke off his route and beat Williams back to the football, then made a nice move to get past safety Morgan Burnett for extra yards.
The Bucs' coaching staff had urged their pass-catchers before the game to compete harder for balls in the air even when the coverage was strong. Benn's play was a perfect example of what they wanted.
"They did compete," said Olson. "It was just the guys were making plays. If they weren't open, Josh threw them open. That's kind of the NFL. You're looking for those guys and it's one on one match-up and you get an opportunity to make the play. The quarterback has to put the ball there for you and you have to make the play and they did that last week."
And, of course, Blount's big run followed. Before that carry, the Bucs had given it to him four times on their first two drives, both quick possessions, and those plays had resulted in a total of two yards gained. But the Bucs weren't about to get away from giving it to their bulldozing back with the game still somewhat in reach, and the fact that Blount scored meant they could give it to him even more.
"We were able to stay with it and that's part of the patience," said Olson. "We were not efficient with the first four times we handed the ball. He had the big breakout run in the third series for us. And we were down 14-0 at that point so we just have to get started quicker and get them going earlier.
"We always talk about trying to get him 25 [carries], and he's going to give us those runs like you saw against Green Bay. He's very difficult to tackle. He wears people down so we just feel like that is our formula for success. Let him continue to stay in the game, continue to get LeGarrette carries and then in the fourth quarter he really wears people down, so we would like to have him stay in. Those are touches that we talk about when we are game-planning every week, deciding where the ball is going and how we are going win this game. We always talk about finding a way to get the ball in LeGarrette's hands 25 times if we can."
A waiver claim from Tennessee just before the beginning of the 2010 campaign, Blount didn't become a significant part of the Bucs' offense until the sixth game of his rookie season. Since then, he has carried the ball over 20 times in a game on four occasions, and the Bucs have won them all. He's been given 18 or more handoffs nine times and the Bucs are 7-2 in those games, with last week's game at Green Bay one of the aberrations.
The Bucs have every intention of making Blount their offensive centerpiece on a weekly basis, but a number of early deficits have made that difficult. In addition, Blount's work as a third-down back is still developing, in part because he had no offseason to learn that part of the game. Blount is seeing a little bigger piece of that action every week.
"We are trying still," said Olson. "You are probably noticing that the last couple of weeks. We are using him more on third downs and he's getting more and more comfortable on running that role so that's been helpful for us."
Perhaps all the young playmakers on the Bucs' offense found a little bit more of a comfort zone with their fine performance in Green Bay. The 2011 season has seen too many ups-and-downs on that side of the ball, but it may be coming together just in time for an all-or-nothing stretch run over the last six weeks.
"I think guys are coming into their own and building upon what they've been doing the whole year and last year," said tackle Jeremy Trueblood. "We've just got to continue what we're doing and we'll be fine."