In Week Two of the 2011 NFL season, there was jubilation in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' postgame locker room in Minnesota, a rare kind of excitement generated by one of the more impressive comebacks in franchise history.
The Bucs couldn't celebrate for long, however, as they had to quickly turn their attention to a Week Three meeting with Atlanta, a game that could eventually prove crucial in the race for the NFC South crown. Tampa Bay won that game, too, holding off a fourth-quarter Atlanta rally to prevail 16-13 and leading to another happy postgame locker room scene. This time it was more of a sense of relief that a well-designed game plan had been executed to its expected end.
There won't be much time for the Bucs to bask in the glow of that big divisional win, either, as the page now turns to a game that stood out on Tampa Bay's schedule from the moment it was released in April. The Indianapolis Colts are coming to town for the Buccaneers' first Monday Night Football game at home since 2003. A shot at redemption from a previous Bucs-Colts prime time affair in '03, as well as the chance to leave the first quarter of the season with a 3-1 record, are at hand.
The Bucs will begin preparing for the Colts on Wednesday. Before we completely move on from the win over the Falcons, however, we will take one last opportunity to examine that Week Three game and some of the lessons we may have learned about the Buccaneers. This fall, that's what we will do each week with "Five Observations," a weekly review series that will hopefully give you a bit of new insight into the Bucs' most recent win or loss. Let's get started.
Five Observations on Tampa Bay's 16-13 Week Three Win Over Atlanta:
1. LeGarrette Blount adds teeth to the Bucs' four-minute drill.
There was much gnashing of teeth in the Bay area after the Bucs' breakout tailback of 2010 carried the ball just five times for 15 yards in his 2011 debut, a season-opening loss to Detroit. And, in truth, the team admitted that Blount's limited contribution to that game was a departure from what it expects to be its usual blueprint this season. A two-touchdown second-half deficit and a decision to stick with a two-minute offense that was showing signs of life did somewhat marginalize Blount in that defeat.
Everything was back to normal in Week Two when Blount ran for 71 yards and two touchdowns and kick-started the team's amazing second-half comeback with a 27-yard scoring run. Those 30 minutes of football, after a desultory first half, showed how much more dangerous the Bucs attack can be when the opponent is worried about Blount force up the middle.
It was in Game Three, however, when the true value of a starting tailback who also happens to be a 250-pound battering ram became evident.
Since joining the Bucs as a waiver claim just before the 2010 regular season, Blount has played in 16 regular-season games. In those 16 games, he has averaged 6.0 carries for 28.3 yards in the first half and 9.3 carries for 45.1 yards in the second half. Blount also has 499 of his career rushing yards when his team is winning, versus 392 when his team is losing.
To break it down even further, Blount has been utilized most when the Buccaneers are protecting a lead of a touchdown or less to this point in his career. If you break the game situation up into eight categories – winning or losing by 1-7 points; winning or losing by 8-14 points; winning or losing by 15-21 points; and winning or losing by 22 or more points – it's that "tight lead" situation where Blount has made the biggest difference. He has carried 54 times for 249 yards (4.6 per carry) when his team is winning by a touchdown or less.
And when that "tight lead" situation is near the end of a game, that's what coaches call the "four-minute drill." The Buccaneers ran a near-perfect one to seal the win over Atlanta, and Blount was a big reason why.
With 4:11 left in the game, Atlanta faced a fourth-and-goal at the Bucs' 15, trailing by six. Rather than attempt to get the go-ahead points on fourth down, the Falcons elected to kick themselves within three and concentrate on getting the ball back for another opportunity to tie or win the game. That left the Bucs with 4:06 on the clock when they took over at their own 20. They would proceed to run six plays, beginning with a 13-yard Josh Freeman scramble. The next five plays were all handoffs to Blount, and on almost every one the back was hit at or near the line of scrimmage. Still, he was able to bull his way for six, eight, three, five and one yards, taking the clock down to the 1:49 mark and the ball across midfield. When Freeman induced an offside penalty on fourth-and-one and gained a new set of downs, the game was essentially over. Three kneel-downs ran out the clock.
Head Coach Raheem Morris pointed to that successful four-minute drill as one of the aspects of the win that pleased him most.
"I always talk about situational football, and yesterday – not a pretty day on offense by any means – but to go out and execute the four-minute where they ended the game, it's a step that you look forward to doing."
And it's more likely to happen with LeGarrette Blount in the backfield.
2. Connor Barth is quietly turning into 'Mr. Reliable.'
Last year, in a Week 16 game against the Seattle Seahawks, Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth had a 44-yard field goal attempt blocked just before halftime by Craig Terrill. It didn't matter much to the final outcome, as the Bucs ran away with a 38-15 decision, and it didn't take anything away from a very good season by Barth. In his first full year as Tampa Bay's kicker, he made 23 of 28 attempts (two of his five misses were blocked) and scored 105 points.
However, if Terrill hadn't put a hand on that ball and it had split the uprights, Barth would currently be working on a streak of 21 consecutive successful field goals. The last time he missed other than Terrill's block was a 41-yarder at San Francisco last November 21 that went wide left.
His actual streak is at nine in a row, including all six that he has attempted this year. Against the Falcons, Barth started the scoring with a season-long 49-yard field goal, then added 26 and 28-yarders before the day was done, the last one providing the eventual margin of victory. Morris appears to have reached a level of confidence with his kicker where he feels comfortable sending him under almost any reasonable circumstance.
Barth reached a minor milestone with the last of his three kicks against the Falcons. It was his 43rd successful field goal as a Buccaneer, tying him for fifth place in that category in team history. That's equal to the number that Bill Capece made from 1981-83, albeit in 17 fewer tries. It's a long way to the next spot on that list (Donald Igwebuike, 94 field goals made) but Barth is only 25 years old and he's converting his kicks at an impressive rate.
Overall, Barth is 43 of 53 on field goal tries since joining the Buccaneers midway through the 2009 season. That's a success rate of 81.1% which is the second-best career mark in team history (minimum 10 attempts). That particular mark could go up quickly, and Barth might soon be challenging Matt Bryant's rate of 83.1% (98 of 118).
3. Michael Koenen and the Bucs' coverage teams are a terrific one-two punch.
This is two special teams observations, after we devoted one of five notes to that part of the game last week, but that still doesn't seem excessive. Strong special teams play has unquestionably been a big part of the Bucs' success the past two weeks.
"On special teams, we've consistently played well," said Morris on Monday. "That's our winning edge right now. They're playing great for us."
Morris did suggest that his punter/kickoff specialist, Michael Koenen, might have been a bit "hyped up" for the start of Sunday's game against his former team, but then again his early struggles on kickoff might also have been a product of a very soggy turf.
In fact, it probably isn't fair to label Koenen's first-half work as "struggles." While he did uncharacteristically strike three straight low bouncers on his first three kickoffs – he has mostly driven his kicks high and to the back of the end zone this year – Koenen still finished the game with three kickoffs into the end zone and two touchbacks on five tries. Through three games, Koenen already has seven touchbacks, five more than the Bucs had in all of 2010.
It's safe to say the Bucs would have welcomed five touchbacks on Sunday with dangerous Falcon return man Eric Weems waiting for the ball to alight on the other end. Last December, the Bucs held a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on the Falcons until Weems broke out for a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown to spark a game-winning rally for the visiting team. Weems had other ideas, returning three of Koenen's kicks, including one that went seven yards deep into the end zone.
What is very encouraging for the Buccaneers is that, on the infrequent occasions when Koenen doesn't hit his kickoff very deep, their coverage teams have still produced outstanding results. You know the bar is set high for the kickoff coverage team when Weems' opening-game runback to the 25-yard line seemed like a letdown.
The best number to illustrate how effective the combination of Koenen's leg and the Bucs' cover men has been is the one that combines both their efforts: Average opponent kickoff drive start. The Buccaneers rank first in the entire NFL in that category.
Tampa Bay has kicked off 14 times this season, but two were onside attempts and are not used in this calculation by the league. On the other 12 kicks, nine have gone into the end zone and seven have resulted in touchbacks. Five others were returned, and on four of those occasions the play was stopped inside the 20-yard line.
Overall, Buccaneer opponents have had to start at the average of their own 16.8-yard line after a Koenen kickoff. The next best mark is the 18.1-yard line for the New England Patriots.
4. Ronde Barber is a strategic linchpin for the Bucs' coaching staff.
Ronde Barber may be headed to the Hall of Fame when his career is over, and if he does the profiles will likely refer to him as "the perfect Cover Two cornerback." That's not intended as an insult, and he certainly did thrive in that sort of defense for a good portion of his career, but it does tend to pigeonhole Barber as a certain sort of defender. Some read that to mean he is a far better fit for zone defense than man-to-man.
In reality, the Bucs haven't played a majority of their snaps in a Cover Two alignment for years, and the coaching staff has felt comfortable using Barber in any system. They proved that again on Sunday, and showed a lot of confidence in fellow cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber, with their chosen scheme against the Falcons' attack.
Morris confirmed after the game that he chose to play aggressively up front against the Falcons in order to slow down running back Michael Turner and give quarterback Matt Ryan less time to work. That meant a higher percentage of man-to-man snaps for the three cornerbacks than usual. For Barber, it meant a variety of very important assignments.
As always, Barber moved into the slot when the Bucs were using a nickel defense to counter a three-receiver set. From there, he often had to go to work on Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez, who enjoyed an advantage of seven inches and 60 pounds on the Tampa Bay cornerback. Though he was far from the only Buc defender involved, Barber helped hold Gonzalez to 18 yards and a touchdown on two catches.
Overall, Barber broke up an impressive five passes on the game, by the count of the Buccaneers'' coaches, to go with four solo tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception and one fumble recovery. The fumble recovery, which occurred on the Falcons' third play from scrimmage, was an example of how many different things Barber was asked to do. On this snap, a third-and-13 play from the Atlanta 24, the Bucs brought a blitz that included linebacker Dekoda Watson. From the slot on the left side of the defense, Barber paused for a moment and then came towards the backfield on an apparent delayed blitz. That put him in position to pounce on the ball when Watson swatted it out of Ryan's hand.
Barber's interception, on the other hand, was simply an example of his quick reactions. With 10 seconds left in the first half, Ryan tried to hit wide receiver Roddy White at the Bucs' 25-yard line, but Biggers got a hand on the ball first. Barber was running towards White from the other direction to help with the stop if needed, but he instantly turned and dived when Biggers changed the ball's flight, and he was just able to snare it before hitting the ground.
"I thought Ronde couldn't play man[-to-man defense]," needled Morris. "That's what they say around the league, but he did a nice job yesterday. Five knocked-down passes, a fumble recovery, a bunch of tackles – he played lights-out for an old guy."
5. The rookies are starting to make some noise.
Here we go again.
In 2009, it was Josh Freeman, Sammie Stroughter and Roy Miller. In 2010, it was Gerald McCoy, Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, LeGarrette Blount and Cody Grimm. Since Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik took over in January of '09, the Buccaneers have focused their team-building strategy on the draft, and they have been more than willing to throw their newest players into the fire.
The Buccaneers got especially big contributions from their rookie class a year ago, becoming the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to give starts to at least 10 different rookies and still win 10 games. The most recent draftees weren't just complimentary pieces or developmental projects; they played extensively and were a big part of the winning formula.
It's happening again in 2011. The Buccaneers drafted eight players last April, and the first four members of that class are all playing extensively, with a combined eight starts between them. Adrian Clayborn has nailed down the starting right defensive end position. Da'Quan Bowers is not yet a starter on the front line but he plays extensively in the rotation. Mason Foster is the starter at middle linebacker and has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises so far. And tight end Luke Stocker is seeing so much playing time as a complement to Kellen Winslow that he has actually started the first three games in two-TE sets.
Against Atlanta, both Clayborn and Foster provided sacks, and it was the second in as many games for Foster. Clayborn's second-quarter sack of Ryan forced a fumble inside the Atlanta 10-yard line and led to a field goal. Foster added a quarterback pressure to his totals on what proved to be the Falcons' last play from scrimmage, chasing Ryan into a desperation throwaway on third-and-goal from the Bucs' 15. Bowers contributed one of the 18 QB pressures the Bucs counted on the day.
Stocker is the sole newcomer seeing action on offense, and he's proving to be a force in both the running and the passing game. His stout blocking has helped Blount post two consecutive productive games, running very frequently out of that two-TE set. Against the Falcons, Stocker also caught two passes for 33 yards, both key plays on the Bucs' only touchdown drive of the game. Releasing down the left seam on first-and-10 from the Atlanta 46, Stocker split two defenders for a 24-yard gain that stood as the Bucs' longest play of the day. Three plays later, he gave the Bucs a first-and-goal at the Atlanta eight with a hard-nosed catch-and-run on the left sideline. Josh Freeman scored on a one-yard sneak two plays later.
Last year, the Buccaneers relied on young players more and more as the season progressed, and they were pleased with the returns. Expect more of the same in 2011, if Sunday's game was any indication.