The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won with the league's youngest roster in 2010, and believed they would do so again in 2011. With the current season unfolding in an unexpected manner, however, Head Coach Raheem Morris says it's time to make a few more concessions to that youth.
The Buccaneers are 4-8 through the first three quarters of the season, though Morris would be the last to pin that disappointing mark on the team's age or experience. Last year's 10-6 record and near-playoff berth are evidence that the current roster can win. Still, the young Bucs have struggled after a 4-2 start and their coach wants to simplify the workload so they can get back on track during the season's final month.
"For us, we've got to cut back, do less things and let these guys get a chance to play fast, smart and more consistent to be able to go out there and do some of these things we want to do," said Morris. "Obviously, we're nowhere near where we want to be as far as an organization of what we wanted to do this year. So we'll cut back. We'll get these guys better. We'll get their confidence going higher – running around, speeding around, flying to the football. And the same thing on offense; executing everything more than they've executed. Same thing on special teams; running it down the field, tackling people, swarming. That's the thing we need to get back to."
Morris started on defense with his explanation, and indeed that is where the team has struggled most consistently. The offense has been erratic at times and has had trouble finishing drives with seven points instead of three, but the Bucs still rank 16th in the NFL on that side of the ball and have had some prolific afternoons. The defense, however, ranks 30th in both yards and points allowed and Morris has pointed frequently to breakdowns in execution. Missed assignments are turning into big plays, so the defensive staff intends to reduce the sheer volume of information the players have to assimilate.
"We'll cut back on some of our plays," said Morris. "We'll cut back on some of our defensive calls. We'll cut this thing down, pretty much and go out there and execute and play consistent and smart."
The Bucs believe in their young players, and actually consider that youth an organizational strength. Rookies or second-year players such as Mason Foster, Da'Quan Bowers, Adrian Clayborn, Brian Price and (the injured) Gerald McCoy are expected to be long-term parts of the foundation the Bucs are building. Bowers, for instance, was a major bright spot for the Buccaneers in Sunday's loss to Carolina, racking up 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. Foster, to use a different sort of example, started the season with a string of big plays but recently hasn't duplicated them. If the Bucs can get all of their young players operating at a high level at the same time, they could finish 2011 with a final month worth building on.
"They came out of the box 3-1," Morris pointed out. "They came out of the box playing really fast and we got better as we moved around. People were playing fast. Mason was looking like he was a stud and getting better and better every week and I think he still is, he just had to sit back with the injuries and loss of people. And right now we got some people in positions out there trying to play and trying to play as hard as they can we got to give them a little bit of help."
Morris doesn't even concede that the lack of an offseason for his young roster, a result of the labor impasse, has slowed down the team's growth.
"I hate to say that because nobody had an offseason," he said. "We're not the only team that's young. The Carolina Panthers were pretty young too last year. They went out and executed and did a nice job and beat us. So, it'd be hard for me to make that excuse or even allow you to say that right now. We got to go out there and play better, play smarter, play faster and play more consistent."
Splitting the Uprights
Connor Barth is on a roll.
As mentioned above, the Buccaneers have had difficulty punching the ball into the end zone once they've reached enemy territory, but at least their fourth-year kicker is allowing them to come away from those drives with some points.
Against Carolina, for instance, the Buccaneers took four consecutive first-half drives across midfield and even inside the Panther 35. However, all four ended somewhere between the Carolina 26 and 32, leaving Barth to try a succession of long field goals. He made them all – in order, from 50, 47, 46 and 45 yards – and in the process completed a feat that had only been done twice before.
Barth's quartet of successful kicks made him just the third kicker in NFL history to hit four field goals of 40 or more yards in a single half. The other two were Morten Andersen for Atlanta on September 3, 2000 and Rob Bironas for Tennessee on November 27, 2008.
This year, as long as Barth has had opportunities he has put points on the board. His four field goals on Sunday pushed his season mark to 24-of-26, for a success rate of .923. That ranks second in the NFL to Atlanta's Matt Bryant, who has succeeded on 20 of 21 tries this year. Of the nine kickers who have tried at least 25 field goals this season, Barth is the only one who has missed just twice.
Not surprisingly, Barth is on pace to shatter the Buccaneers' single-season record for field goal efficiency. That standard has stood at 85.2% since Steve Christie made 23 of 27 for Tampa Bay in 1990. With four games left, Barth is likely to move well past Christie's total of attempts, making the task harder, but he's obviously equal to the challenge.
Barth hasn't had it easy in terms of average distance on his attempts, either. Of his 26 attempts so far, 15 have been from 40 yards or further, or 58%. In contrast, only seven of Christie's 27 attempts in 1990 (26%) were from 40 yards out or further. (To be fair, Christie made six of those seven, including 50 and 54-yarders.)
While putting up such strong numbers in 2011, Barth has also moved to the top of the Buccaneers' career list for field goal percentage. His four kicks on Sunday pushed his career Tampa Bay total to 61 of 73, which is an 83.6% success rate. For the moment, that pushes him past Bryant, who spent four seasons as the Bucs' kicker (2005-08) and made 83.1% of his tries.
Openings on the Practice Squad
The Buccaneers will head into their week of preparations for the Jacksonville Jaguars with two spots to fill on their eight-man practice squad. Those transactions will likely be competed before Wednesday, when the team holds its first practice of the week.
The second spot was opened on Monday when the team released first-year defensive tackle Swanson Miller. Miller has had two stints on Tampa Bay's practice squad, the first one from November 8 to November 23 and the second one beginning last Tuesday. He played his college ball at Oklahoma State and originally entered the NFL as an undrafted with the Cleveland Browns in 2010.
The other practice squad opening was created last Saturday when the team promoted quarterback Rudy Carpenter to the active roster. Carpenter had spent the first 12 weeks of the season with that crew.