The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their first Monday Night Football game at Raymond James Stadium in eight years in Week Four, and won for the first time on that national stage since that same 2003 campaign. A 24-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts not only gave Tampa Bay an NFL-high ninth comeback win from a double-digit deficit since 2008, it also preserved for them a share of first place in the NFC South.
It also set the Bucs up for a particularly short week of preparation, however. Coaches were back in their offices Tuesday morning preparing a game plan for the San Francisco 49ers, and the team will get in three quick days of field work before jetting off to the West Coast on Friday afternoon. There is little time to relish the big win over the Colts.
However, before we completely move on from the team's third win in a row, we will take one last opportunity to examine that nationally-televised contest 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 24-17 Week Four Win Over Indianapolis:
1. Josh Freeman trusts Preston Parker when the chips are down.
The Bucs' "next man up" mantra is being quite ably enacted by Parker, the second-year receiver who has taken over in the slot following the foot injury suffered by Sammie Stroughter in the season opener. In fact, after running back Earnest Graham and tight end Kellen Winslow, Parker ranks third on the team and first among wideouts in receptions with 15.
Much of that came during a breakout, 96-yard game at Minnesota in Week Two and Monday's win over the Colts. Parker caught five passes for 70 yards and scored the game-tying touchdown late in the third quarter on a crossing route that he took to the left pylon for his first career score.
What has been particularly notable about Parker's performance this season, however, is how timely his receptions have been. That's not completely by accident – as the slot man, he often comes in on third downs and obvious passing situations, when the team needs someone to come up with a big catch to keep a drive alive. In 2009, for instance, quarterback Josh Freeman had a good rapport with Stroughter, and the then-rookie wideout became known for moving the chains on third down.
That seems to be turning into a specialty for Parker, as well. Against the Colts, Parker caught four of his five passes on third down, and three of those four, plus his fifth catch, resulted in first downs. His first reception of the game came on third-and-eight from the Indy 12 in the second quarter and it got the ball to the one-yard line, setting up Freeman for his touchdown sneak. Parker also converted a third-and-four with a 21-yard catch on the drive that led to his own 13-yard TD, which also came on third down in the red zone.
In addition, Parker was targeted two other times by Freeman on third downs, although those passes fell incomplete. And, lest the opposition think Parker is simply going to work the short middle of the field on every third down, he was sent on a down-and-up on a third-and-seven in the third quarter that never got a chance to develop due to contact with the defender.
Parker came to the Bucs as an undrafted free agent out of North Alabama and was just too polished and productive in training camp to be exposed to the waiver wire. While he didn't see a huge amount of action as a rookie (four catches, 10 kickoff returns), he was a player the Bucs believed they could plug in without a drop-off if anything happened to their front-liners. Now, having gotten that opportunity, Parker is turning into a front-liner himself, especially when the game is on the line. That was first evident in Week Two, when he caught perhaps the biggest pass of the game on a third down to set up the game-winning touchdown.
"Preston's huge," said Freeman. "He scored a touchdown this week. The Minnesota game, we couldn't have gotten it done without him. He had a number of big plays [Monday night] and did really well within the running game – going out, digging out a linebacker, safety – or in the passing game, catching balls and getting yards. He's great for us."
2. The penalty problems that plagued the Bucs' preseason have not gone away.
It is easy, and usually accurate, to dismiss preseason statistics, whether they're good or bad. With the constantly rotating cast of players on both sides, one frequently ends up with inexperienced players in key situations and match-ups one wouldn't find during the regular season.
Thus, it wasn't a huge concern when the Buccaneers committed 48 penalties during the 2011 preseason, averaging 12 flags per game. There was no reason to assume the yellow hankies would follow them into the regular season.
Unfortunately, they have. The Buccaneers have committed 35 penalties through their first four games, giving back 264 yards. That's not nearly as bad as the 12-flags-per-game pace of August, but neither is it a positive development. Only the Oakland Raiders, the annual leaders in this category, have been penalized more often this year, with 39.
The penalty issue peaked on Monday night as the Bucs drew 14 flags for 106 yards…and still managed to rack up 466 yards of offense, the most ever for Tampa Bay in a home game. It isn't just those 106 yards that were lost; in some cases, big gains were negated by an offensive penalty, such as the one that cost Arrelious Benn his 62-yard touchdown catch. Those 14 penalties were the most the Bucs have committed in a single game since they drew 17 of them against Carolina in Week Two of the 2003 season.
"The penalties killed us," said wide receiver Mike Williams. "We just had to keep bouncing back and keep bouncing back. The defense stepped up and gave us more opportunities."
After the game, Head Coach Raheem Morris identified the penalties as a problem when he talked to his team in the Raymond James Stadium locker room, though he didn't overemphasize the issue. Morris felt the flags came in two categories – ones they could control with more disciplined plays and ones they could do nothing about – and believed the issues in the first category could be easily cleaned up before the Bucs' next game on Sunday. One might also classify some of the penalties more along the lines of a physical mistake, akin to a dropped pass, than a blatant breaking of the rules. For instance, the flag that erased Benn's long touchdown was for "illegal touching," which he drew because he unknowingly let his left heel hit the sideline before catching Freeman's pass.
One of the 14 penalties erased another three points just before halftime, but that had more to do with Freeman taking a sack on third down with less than 20 seconds left before the intermission. With no timeouts to burn, the Bucs had to race their field goal unit onto the field and snap the ball as soon as everyone was in place. That also meant that the offensive players had to get off the field, and one hustling Buc wasn't able to do so, leading to a 12-man-on-the-field penalty that ended the half. Of course, replays suggested the Colts had at least one extra player who couldn't make it to the sideline, too.
"It was not demoralizing, more disappointing," said Morris. "We talked about situational football, that's kind of the most important thing for us, and, for us to make that mistake at that time, I didn't like. I felt we could have had a penalty both ways there, but I don't always get those calls, so we don't worry about it, we're going to keep moving."
Similarly, the Bucs will work on their tendency to draw too many flags, but they're not yet ready to call it a cause for concern.
3. Tampa Bay's young defensive line is increasingly looking like the key to the team's hopes for continued success.
The Buccaneers are coming off two straight four-sack games on defense, and in both cases the pressure from the front four looked even more disruptive than the sack totals would indicate. The Bucs have also turned that pressure into a pair of turnovers on forced fumbles by the opposing quarterback in the last two games.
Morris blitzed young Colts quarterback Curtis Painter relentlessly on Monday night and used the three-down-linemen 'Redskin' package to good effect in the win over the Falcons the Sunday before. But make no mistake, the impetus for all the chaos in the backfield the last two weeks has come from such up-and-coming defensive linemen as Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Michael Bennett.
Against the Colts, Bennett collected his first multiple-sack game and Clayborn and McCoy had one each. The single most impressive defensive snap may have come in the fourth quarter with the game tied and the Bucs trying to get the ball back for the offense in time to score the game-winning points. Painter dropped back to pass on second-and-14 and was almost immediately forced out of his original set-up spot by Bennett, who came speeding by. That drove Painter into the path of the onrushing Clayborn from the right and McCoy up the middle, and the quarterback went down under those two for a loss of eight. The Colts punted, the Bucs scored the go-ahead points and Indianapolis possessed the ball for only three more plays thereafter.
By devoting first and second-round picks to the defensive line in each of the last two drafts, the Bucs made it clear that they believe in building from the trenches up. A good pass rush makes much better players out of the rest of the defenders on the field and often leads to game-changing turnovers. The Bucs would have had a much more difficult time in holding onto slim leads over Atlanta and Indianapolis without the heavy pressure up front.
"There's a reason why we drafted four top linemen the past two drafts," said CB Ronde Barber. "We expect that unit to dominate, and it starts up there."
Morris expects to see a higher order of disruption each week.
"I am fired up about those young guys and they are getting better and better," he said after Monday's game. "We go out there each week and I can see improvement. Tonight again we have four sacks, like last week, but for the D-Line to keep coming like that, and keep playing, and keep hitting the quarterback and getting after people… we'll be a better football team because of it."
"Those guys are really playing well and really playing physical and I'm really just enjoying the moment and enjoying what those guys are doing up front. Hopefully it will translate into more wins and a better football team at the end of the day."
It's early, but the Bucs are on pace to record 40 sacks on defense this season, which would be their highest total since 2004. Young guns like Clayborn, McCoy and Bennett think they can go even higher than that by continuing to rush together as a team.
"We're just hunting, just getting after the quarterback," said Clayborn. "We're putting ourselves in situations to succeed. We are pass rushers, that's what we do."
4. A deficit of 10 or more points is not what it used to be.
As recently as the beginning of the 2008 season, the Buccaneers were riding an almost decade-long run of defeats any time they got down in a game by double digits. Before they traveled to Chicago in late September, they had lost won a game in which they trailed by 10 or more points in December of 1999, at Detroit.
Then the Buccaneers fell into a 24-14 hole at Soldier Field before storming back to win 27-24 in overtime. In November, they did it twice more – at Kansas City and at Detroit – and all of a sudden it has practically become a Tampa Bay trademark. It's amazing, given that long wait for a comeback of any kind, that the Buccaneers have now rallied from 10 or more points down to victory nine times since the start of 2008. That's the most in the entire NFL in that span.
The most recent example came on Monday night, when the Bucs fell behind 10-0 on Pierre Garcon's 87-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter before scoring 24 of the game's final 31 points. It's fair to say, given that an even bigger comeback had been affected in Minnesota just two weeks prior, that nobody on the Bucs' sideline was panicking at the early 10-point deficit.
Each time the Bucs rally again, much of the credit goes to 23-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman and his inexplicably calm demeanor when the game is on the line. That's certainly a theory with a lot of merit – Freeman's does have a 95.5 passer rating in the fourth quarter and a knack for making big plays with his feet when they're most needed – but the quarterback himself thinks the credit needs to be spread around.
"Whatever the adversity, we continue to play and fight through the four quarters and persevere," he said. "That's kind of our makeup. That's kind of how we've been getting it done.""
Of course, the Bucs' sudden flair for the comeback might be part of a larger, league-wide trend. This has, in a way, already been the Year of the Comeback around the NFL, with Detroit, Buffalo, Atlanta and San Francisco, among others, already pulling off huge rallies to win through the first quarter of the season. With offensive numbers up in 2011, perhaps due to the lack of offseason mini-camps and OTAs, no lead seems out of reach anymore.
Still, the Buccaneers probably feel more confident than most teams when the game starts out badly. No longer is a two-touchdown deficit any reason to doubt the final score will be in their favor.
"We got great leaders like Josh Freeman and Ronde Barber and all of these guys, these older guys, that show us how to not give up," said Bennett. "That's all Coach ever talked about is a four-quarter team. Not first-half team, not third-quarter team, [but] fourth quarter. So that's how we work every day. We work hard every day, consistently, and just try and make plays."* *
5. "Protect the football" is a lesson that has been followed well by the NFL's youngest team.
In regards to the penalty issue discussed above, Freeman made a valid point after Monday's game: While the flags have hurt the Bucs' offense, the team has not compounded the problem by turning the ball over frequently. Most impressively, Tampa Bay has only put the football on the ground four times through four games, and only one of those has been recovered by the opposition.
That's on pace for just four fumbles lost all season, which would best the previous franchise low of seven, set in 1994. That's a difficult rate to maintain, of course, but it's worth noting that the Bucs lost only two fumbles during the entire four-game preseason, as well.
Only three teams have lost fewer fumbles than the Buccaneers so far this season – Detroit, Buffalo and New England, all of whom have obviously not surrendered one yet. It's no surprise that those three teams have a combined record of 10-2 so far. Overall Tampa Bay has turned the ball over five times through four games (four interceptions and one fumble) but those five giveaways have only cost the team a single touchdown.
As much emphasis as the Buccaneers obviously put on protecting the football, fumbles are going to happen from time to time, and it might be a little much to expect to lose only one every four games. On the other hand, Freeman's four interceptions through four games are already two-thirds of the way to his entire total of six in 2010. That too was going to be a difficult number to duplicate, but one can expect that even if the fumble numbers trend up, the interceptions may head in the other direction. Like the increased pressure up front and the growing ability to stay calm when the game is on the line, that's definitely part of a recipe for success.