On Monday morning, about 14 hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned home from their thrilling Week Two win in Minnesota, linebacker Dekoda Watson was at his locker at One Buc Place, surrounded by reporters. Watson happily answered a series of questions about the Buccaneers' comeback at Mall of America Field, and the eventual 24-20, but he also made it clear that he was ready to move on to a new topic.
Namely, the Atlanta Falcons.
Watson said the team had used Sunday night to bask in the glow of one of the more memorable wins in recent Buccaneer history, but the celebration wasn't allowed to linger into Monday. It was time to put those emotions aside and begin preparing for a first-place battle with perhaps Tampa Bay's most rancorous rival.
In terms of the actual mechanics of the Buccaneers' weekly schedule, Watson was half right. Monday is something of a transition day, as players and coaches go over tape of the previous game and look for mistakes to correct. There is only light physical work as bodies are loosened up after a day of hard hitting. On Tuesday, players get the day off while coaches pound out a game plan for the next opponent. It isn't until Wednesday that Buccaneer players actually begin their work on the Falcons.
So, here, Tuesday is a good opportunity to take one last look back at the previous week while it's still fresh, and while the team is resting before switching emphasis to the next opponent. And 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 24-20 Week Two Win Over Minnesota:
1. Third downs key plot point in tale of two halves.
This observation actually relates to both of the Bucs' first two games, and it's a subplot in a trend that surely every Tampa Bay fan has noticed, namely that their team has been much stronger in the second half than in the first so far this year. Slow starts have put the Buccaneers in comeback mode twice in a row, and while that worked out in Minnesota, there wasn't enough time to complete the job against Detroit.
In the combined first halves against the Lions and Vikings, Tampa Bay's defense gave up 608 yards of offense. In the combined second halves, it gave up just 221. That's a massive difference. And the key has been the Buccaneers' ability to get off the field after intermission. The difference in the Buccaneers' third-down defense before and after halftime has been stunning.
In fact, opponents have still not converted a second-half third-down attempt against Tampa Bay. In the first two quarters, the Lions and Vikings were seven of 14 in that category, a 50% success rate. In the final two quarters, they were a combined zero for eight. (The Buccaneers' offense has been equally improved after halftime, converting on 30% of first-half third-down tries but 62.5% of second-half attempts.)
Just as there is no obvious reason why the Buccaneers have had such a hard time in the early going – a lack of fast starts was an issue through much of 2010 as well – there isn't one simple reason that the third-down defense has been better in the second half. Head Coach Raheem Morris says it's simply a matter of players doing their jobs more efficiently.
"We need to go out there and play the game the way we need to play it," said Morris. "We certainly did in the second half. We were certainly able to come out and execute our game plan to do our job. It's about us being young; it's about us having the ability to come out and play faster, play smarter, play wiser, play harder in the beginning, and play more consistent. That's all it was. There's no dramatic second-half adjustment. There is, 'Go do your job and do it fast,' and that's just what they're doing [in the second half], so we've got to start the game that way."
2. Tampa Bay knows how to find young receivers on day three of the draft and later.
The Bucs played Game Two of the season without their most accomplished slot receiver, Sammie Stroughter, who suffered a foot injury that required surgery in the season opener. Stroughter has been a very good contributor for the Bucs through two-plus seasons despite coming in as a seventh-round pick in 2009, with good hands and a fearless attitude that make him an excellent target in the middle of the field on third down.
The Bucs' passing game found a groove in his absence, however, in the second half at Minnesota, and it was due in large part to the work of a former sixth-round pick (Dezmon Briscoe) and a former undrafted free agent (Preston Parker). Perhaps this is a sign that playing with Josh Freeman is a promising thing for any young receiver, but it's noteworthy that the team keeps finding such NFL-ready wideouts late in the draft, or after the draft entirely.
Briscoe and Parker combined for 10 catches and 140 yards, accounting for 45.5% of Freeman's completions and 57.6% of his passing yards. On a day when Freeman had about a half-dozen absolutely critical second-half dropbacks, and when top wideout Mike Williams (one catch for -4 yards) was clearly targeted by the Vikings' defense, the Bucs passer clearly had no reason to hesitate to look to his inexperienced teammates.
Briscoe caught four passes for 42 yards and had the day's most impressive catch, a leaping 19-yarder down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter that directly set up Arrelious Benn's 25-yard TD catch on the next play.
Parker was the Bucs' leading receiver on the day, with six grabs for 98 yards, including a 51-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter that not only converted a third-and-12 but also set up Connor Barth's 36-yard field goal to bring the game within one score. He also accounted for two of the four first downs on the game-winning drive, and the second might have been the biggest play of the game. Trailing 20-17, the Bucs faced a third-and-four at the Minnesota 10 with 1:17 to play. If they failed to convert, they would either have to settle for a game-tying field goal attempt or go for it on fourth down and potentially come away with nothing. Instead, Parker cut across the middle from the left side and caught a laser from Freeman to get six yards and a new set of downs. That allowed the Bucs to bring in LeGarrette Blount to both run down the clock and find the end zone. He did so on the next play.
Morris noted that Parker, who was Stroughter's primary replacement was the latest to emerge in the team's "Next Man Up" philosophy.
"He didn't look like a guy that was out there for the first time," said the appreciative coach. "He was explosive. He was dynamic, and he was able to win on one-on-one coverage. Josh was able to find him. That was a result of Preston Parker finding a way to win by any means necessary."
3. Special teams as a whole, and not just Michael Koenen, are making a difference for the Bucs.
On Monday, we noted how significant of an impact punter Michael Koenen had on the Buccaneers' win in Minnesota, with Morris agreeing wholeheartedly. In fact, Koenen was just one part, albeit a very big one, of a very good day overall for Tampa Bay's special teams. Through two weeks of the 2011 season, the Buccaneers are winning the field-position battle.
It's early, of course, but the Bucs rank in the top 10 in a number of special teams categories in the NFL. Such as:
- Kickoff return average: 6th, 33.8
- Gross punting average: 7th, 49.3
- Net punting average: 3rd, 45.2
- Field goal percentage: tied for 1st, 100%
- Opponent punt return average: 8th, 5.3
- Opponent kickoff return average: 3rd, 8.5*
- Touchback percentage: tied for 3rd, 71.4%
- Opponent average kickoff drive start: 1st, 17.0
* The two teams ranked above the Buccaneers in opponent kickoff return average, Oakland and Denver, have actually not allowed a kickoff return yet this year. The Bucs are first among teams that have had a kickoff returned against them.
In addition to Koenen's fine work on both punts and kickoffs, the Bucs cover teams have been excellent, as noted in the opposing return averages. Meanwhile, Connor Barth has made all three of his field goal attempts, ranging from 31 to 38 yards, and, of course, all five of his extra point tries. As much as the return game has become somewhat marginalized by the new kickoff rule, the Bucs have managed several important runbacks already, including Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return against Detroit and two nice punt returns for a total of 27 yards by Parker in Minnesota.
4. The Bucs' young defensive line is still working to hit its stride.
Tampa Bay was held without a sack by Detroit in the season opener, but the Buccaneers' coaches weren't terribly concerned. Much of that was a function of the Lions' quick-release passing game, and Tampa Bay's staff felt as if the front line had produced a decent amount of pressure.
The Bucs did get two sacks of the Vikings' Donovan McNabb on Sunday, and again there were visible signs that the pass rush is starting to heat up. However, the two sacks were the results of blitzes, one going to linebacker Mason Foster and the other to safety Sean Jones. The Bucs' defensive line, largely populated by young players and high draft picks, is still collectively looking for its first sack. The Bucs have also looked a little vulnerable to inside runs during the first two games.
The Bucs still have very high expectations in 2011 for their defensive line, which includes 2010 first and second-round picks Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and 2011 first and second-round picks Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Clayborn and Bowers are obviously still getting their NFL feet wet and both McCoy and Price are coming back from injuries that ended their 2010 seasons. Price, in fact, moved into the starting lineup for the first time for the Minnesota game, and Morris expects his impact to grow week by week.
"Brian Price played well again," said Morris. "He's getting better. He's fighting through the hip and the hamstrings and all that stuff, but when he played at the initial point, he played well. He got reached a little bit, but he's getting off the ball. He's being aggressive. He got another tackle for loss. We've just got to keep him coming and keep him going. I think he's going to get better and better as the season goes."
5. Mason Foster is getting better by the game.
In the season opener, the Buccaneers' rookie middle linebacker was on the field for only about 32% of the defensive plays because the Lions ran so many extra-receiver sets. Still, he turned in eight tackles in the 23 plays he logged, which is outstanding per-snap production.
The Bucs knew they would need more of Foster in Minnesota, as the Vikings were likely to use far more conventional running sets. Indeed, Minnesota ran the ball 33 times and forced the Bucs into their nickel package on far fewer occasions than the week before. Foster responded with a team-high 13 tackles, plus a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble. It was enough to make him one of five league-wide nominees for NFL Rookie of the Week (vote here), and the only defensive player nominated this week.
Morris said he was impressed with the energy that Foster brought to the field.
"Of course he had a couple mistakes, there is no doubt about it, and he will," said Morris. "That's just like my whole football team, you know? They're going to make some mistakes, but we'll be able to come off and correct those things. It's showing his growth and his development, that he is wise beyond his years. That is awesome."
Peterson ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, so it was certainly another successful afternoon for the Vikings' all-pro runner. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, however, he never got loose for a back-breaking 50-yard run. He certainly came close on a few occasions, one of which underscored Foster's tenacity.
On the play, which started near midfield in the second quarter, Peterson burst through a seam and, about six yards downfield, ran into Foster. With his signature forearm shiver, Peterson pushed Foster off him and immediately accelerated again to his right, faking out another Bucs defender to get out into the open. It looked as if Peterson might dash the rest of the way down the field for a score, but Foster recovered and chased the back down from behind, making a diving grab at Peterson's feet. Minnesota would be held to a field goal on the drive.
"Mason had a phenomenal play," said Morris. "He missed the tackle, came off the block, turned around, ran and jumped on his back. It was great. It was great effort."