DE Jimmy Wilkerson and the Buccaneers' defense will get another crack at rising star QB Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers this coming fall
This weekend, football fans in the Tampa Bay area will be flocking to Raymond James Stadium for a unique opportunity: the two-day Pick A Seat event that gives prospective season ticketholders a chance to try out every available seat in the house.
Fans in attendance can enjoy all-day entertainment on the stadium's enormous videoboards and map out exactly where to find all the amenities at RJS from their potential seats. It will almost feel like being at a game…without, of course, the actual game action taking place on the field. Still, it's not hard to imagine the hard hits and breakaway runs that will be taking place on the stadium grass in just a few short months, especially considering the fascinating Buccaneer schedule that was released four weeks ago.
Even with one of the Buccaneers' home games to be played in London this fall – and that's another interesting twist for 2009 – this year's schedule offers an unusual number of compelling storylines for season ticketholders. It starts with a visit from a franchise that is never far from the league spotlight and ends with a Week 17 division showdown against perhaps the most surprising team of 2008. In between, the Bucs face some of their old nemeses, welcome both Big Apple teams to Florida and fight an NFC South winner-take-all round robin in the last seven weeks.
Let's take a visit-by-visit look at the teams that will be coming to Raymond James Stadium in the regular season this fall, and what subplots might be particularly interesting in each case. Here are the Bucs' first four home games of 2009; the second half of the season will be included in Part II.
September 13: Dallas Cowboys, 1:00 p.m.
Much attention will be paid to the Cowboys' home opener in Week Two, as they are moving into their long-anticipated new stadium this fall. However, their opener will be on the road, in Tampa, where Dallas hasn't visited since 2003. That should make for one of the more noteworthy games of opening weekend, as both teams are eager to redeem themselves after December struggles cost both what appeared to be likely playoff berths.
Regardless of the year and the records, the Cowboys generally attract more attention than most of their fellow NFL teams. This offseason has been no different, even setting aside the reports that followed the terrible collapse of the team's practice structure earlier this month. Dallas scouting assistant Rich Behm was paralyzed from the waist down by the accident, and Special Teams Coach Joe DeCamillis suffered a fractured vertebrae.
Obviously, that sobering turn of events put Behm and DeCamillis at the top of the Cowboys' offseason concerns. However, things were hardly quiet before that unwelcome occurrence. Most notably, of course, the team made the decision to release outspoken wide receiver Terrell Owens, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdown catches each of his three seasons in Dallas but also caused friction in the locker room. The Cowboys parted ways with Owens in order to move forward, but they will have to find a way to replace the 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns per season he had given them, particularly if star-crossed quarterback Tony Romo is to take the next step in his development. Could the replacement be former Lion Roy Williams, who caught just 19 passes in 10 games after coming over in a trade last fall?
The Cowboys' defense (8th in the NFL) actually out-ranked its offense (13th) last year, and it included the league's best pass-rusher in DeMarcus Ware (20 sacks). With Jay Ratliff and Bradie James adding eight sacks apiece, Dallas racked up 59 QB takedowns and led the league in sacks per pass play. That will likely be Tampa Bay's number-one concern when the Cowboys arrive in September, given that there will be a new starting quarterback under center for the Buccaneers, one way or another. If it's rookie Josh Freeman at the helm, one can fully expect Dallas to send everything they've got into the backfield.
The Cowboys even added several recognizable talents to that defense, in part due to the departures of safety Roy Williams (the other one), defensive tackle Tank Johnson and linebacker Zach Thomas. New to the squad are former San Diego defensive tackle Igor Olshansky, former Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking and former Jacksonville safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
On draft weekend last month, the Cowboys were actually not an integral part of the story, beginning the weekend without a first-round pick (it was used to acquire Williams the receiver) and trading down several times in order to increase their pick volume. Dallas's first pick was third-round linebacker Jason Williams out of Western Illinois; like many of the Cowboys' 12 selections in 2009, he is likely to make more of an impact on special teams this year than anywhere else.
On the other hand, Dallas may feel as if they've made another marquee addition with the return of second-year running back Felix Jones from injury. Jones missed all but six games as a rookie due to hamstring and toe injuries, but the 2008 first-round pick was an immediate big-play threat when on the field. Combined with Marion Barber and Tashard Choice, Jones gives the Cowboys one of the deeper and more varied backfields in the league. With or without Owens to stretch the defense, the Dallas running attack will be an enormous Week One challenge for the Buccaneers' revamped defense.
September 27: New York Giants, 1:00 p.m.
The Buccaneers' early-season tour of the NFC East continues when the Giants visit in Week Three. Tampa Bay will also follow that game with consecutive trips to Washington and Philadelphia, thus facing the entire division within the season's first five weeks.
Offseason hopes seem to be high for all four NFC East teams, so it's difficult to say which will be the toughest test for the Buccaneers. However, it would be hard to argue too hard against the Giants, who won the Super Bowl after the 2007 season and took the division again last year with a 12-4 record. The Giants, like the Cowboys, parted ways with their tall, rangy, playmaking receiver – in this case, Plaxico Burress – though they've been adjusting to that absence since last December. Still, it's a similar story in New York: The Giants need somebody to replace Burress's production, and in their case they appear to be relying on some very young pass-catchers to pass up.
The Giants' first-round pick last month addressed that issue directly, as the team spent the 29th overall selection on North Carolina wideout Hakeem Nicks. Nicks, like third-round pick Ramses Barden of Cal Poly, is big (6-1, 212) and has the hands, hops and body control to be a serious threat in the red zone. Barden is even bigger at 6-6 and 229 pounds, but less polished and not quite as fast. Still, those two join a wide collection of relatively young receivers – including Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Sinorice Moss, Domenik Hixon and Derek Hagan – in a battle to see who will become Eli Manning's primary targets. The Giants may still be sorting that issue out when they come to Tampa in late September to face the Buccaneers' very strong secondary.
The Giants lost one third of their three-headed rushing attack to the Buccaneers when Derrick Ward departed as a free agent but at the same time committed long term to jumbo back Brandon Jacobs. In the past, the Buccaneers have struggled a bit more against big backs – think Deuce McAllister or even T.J. Duckett – than against the smaller, quicker ones. However, Tampa Bay will have a new defensive approach under Coordinator Jim Bates, and it's one that intends to plug the middle more effectively with bigger, stronger linemen. New York makes that difficult for any opponent because it sports one of the league's best offensive lines, anchored by guards David Diehl and Chris Snee.
The Giants, in fact, are strong up front on both sides of the ball. Even without Osi Umenyiora, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in August last year, the Giants still racked up 42 sacks and finished fifth in the league in sacks per pass play. Obviously, the tests are going to come early and often for the Buccaneers' young but talented offensive line this fall; in the Giants' case, it will come largely from the end trio of Umenyiora, Justin Tuck (12 sacks last year) and Mathias Kiwanuka (eight).
Under New Head Coach Raheem Morris, the Buccaneers are striving to build a tougher, more violent team in 2009. They will likely need to display those attributes in Week Three if they are to overcome the Giants, who led the league in rushing last year and know how to bring the heat on defense.
October 18: Carolina Panthers, 1:00 p.m.
One only needs to look at the Panthers' maneuvers on draft weekend the last two years to see that this franchise is focusing on winning right away. Three weeks ago, Carolina traded away its first-round pick in the following season in order to grab a player they considered important for the immediate present.
A year ago, it was tackle Jeff Otah, who stepped right into the starting lineup for a team that finished third in the league in rushing and eighth in sacks allowed per pass play. The Otah pick cost the Panthers their 2009 first-rounder but when Florida State defensive end Everette Brown was still on the board early in the second round this year, Carolina still got its man by trading its 2010 first-rounder to get a second-round choice from San Francisco.
With Julius Peppers franchise-tagged but still unsigned at this point, there is speculation that the Panthers are hedging their bets at defensive end by using a top pick on a pass rusher. Of course, it's just as likely that Peppers will suit up for Carolina this fall and Brown could join him and Charles Johnson in making up a formidable pass-rush trio.
The Panthers used their first three picks in this year's draft on defensive players, also picking up Troy safety Sherrod Martin and Georgia defensive tackle Corey Irvin. Besides franchising Peppers and re-signing potential free agent tackle Jordan Gross, Carolina was relatively quiet in free agency before the draft, perhaps believing that the pieces were already in place in order to defend their 2008 division crown.
After all, the Panthers were 12-4 a year ago and they really hit their stride in the second half of the season behind the increasingly productive running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. After riding those two for an incredible 299 rushing yards in last year's Week 14 win over the Buccaneers, it would be surprising if the Panthers didn't try to pound away again in Week Six next year. Of course, those same backs combined for just 40 yards when the Buccaneers beat the Panthers in Week Six last year, so Tampa Bay is obviously capable of meeting that challenge.
Obviously, Buccaneer fans at Raymond James Stadium are familiar with the Panthers, who make an annual invasion of the place. With the NFC South entering its eighth year and the rivalries within becoming more and more established, it's possible that Carolina has taken the top spot among teams that Buc fans love to hate. The emotion between the two teams has often been obvious even on the field, and some late season results – particularly in 2005, 2007 and 2008 – have gone a long way towards determining the division champion.
This year, the Buccaneers will play two of their three intra-division home games by mid-November, then have all three NFC South road games in the final stretch. That would seem to place critical importance on this early showdown with the Panthers in Tampa, as home losses within the division will be difficult to overcome in the end. Carolina will be coming to town, it appears, with a team built much like it was in 2009, whereas the Buccaneers' depth chart promises to look quite a bit different. Will Tampa Bay's reconstruction take hold quickly enough for the Bucs to knock off their intense rival and one of the division favorites? This game promises to be a must-see.
November 8: Green Bay Packers, 1:00 p.m.
If the Panthers are on top of the Bucs' rivalry list now, it wasn't long ago that the Packers were one of the main suitors to that position. The two are former NFC Central compatriots and when the Buccaneers finally turned the franchise around in the late '90s it was Green Bay they had to overcome before taking it to the next level.
For years, a visit from the Packers meant another opportunity to face quarterback Brett Favre. Trivia buffs might even note that Favre's first regular-season pass in the NFL was in Tampa…and that he actually completed it to himself! That was in 1992, and it occurred in a relief role during a 31-3 Buccaneers victory. However, Favre and the Packers then won four of their next five games in Tampa Stadium.
The momentum swung back to the home team when the Buccaneers moved into Raymond James Stadium in 1998. The Bucs kicked off an annual string of beatings that season, sending the Packers home with a loss in five straight years, including the first season (2002) after Tampa Bay was moved into the NFC South. Favre and Green Bay didn't get a win at RJS in 2003.
Last year, it was the Packers who moved on, with Brett Favre going to the Jets and Aaron Rodgers taking over the helm in Green Bay. The transition was certainly not devoid of emotion, but there was little real controversy in Green Bay because Rodgers handled the starting job extremely well. He completed 63.6% of his passes, threw for 28 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards and compiled a passer rating of 93.8. That the Packers ranked 17th in rushing yards and – perhaps more importantly – 22nd in points allowed, had a lot more with the team's 6-10 finish in an NFC North division that was ripe for the taking.
The Buccaneers got a piece of Rodgers in his first season as the starter, as Green Bay's fourth game of 2008 was at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay's defense held the young passer to his second-lowest yardage total of the year (165) and intercepted him three times during a 30-21 victory for the home team. It all added up to a 55.9 passer rating that was Rodgers' single-game season low for 2008.
Of course, the fifth-year quarterback will likely be significantly more comfortable in his second season in charge. Furthermore, the Packers believe he will be backed up by a more consistent defense, especially after the draft brought a pair of first-rounders for that unit. With the ninth overall pick, Green Bay nabbed enormous Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji to anchor the middle of their new 3-4 defense, then traded up to get the 26th overall choice in order to add USC linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers clearly thought Matthews was important to their new four-linebacker starting crew, as they gave up a second-round pick and two third-rounders in order to move up.
The Packers believe the 337-pound Raji is strong enough to push opposing linemen back into the pocket and quick enough to occasionally dash around those same opponents. Assuming he can develop as quickly as Green Bay expects, Raji will present a serious challenge to the Buccaneers' stout interior offensive line. Matthews has shown the ability to both rush the passer and cover potential pass-catchers, so his presence should allow new Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers to mix up his schemes.
Despite their 2008 ranking, the Packers already had several standouts on defense that will concern the Bucs again in 2009. The hard-working Aaron Kampman, now moving to outside linebacker in the 3-4, is one of the league's most consistent sack artists, and cornerback Charles Woodson is a playmaker who had seven interceptions and two touchdowns last year. Safety Nick Collins had a breakout season, matching Woodson's seven picks and returning three of them for scores. And linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett are former first-round picks like Matthews, as well.