If Raheem Morris wanted to give his young Tampa Bay Buccaneers team a little perspective on their matchup this weekend with the 3-10 Detroit Lions, he could simply flip the calendar back almost exactly one year, minus eight days.
On December 27, 2009, Morris' own 2-12 Buccaneers went to New Orleans and beat the 13-1 Saints 20-17 in overtime. Due to the disparities in record, it is considered one of the most overwhelming upsets in NFL history.
And certainly it was an upset. The Saints would go on to win the Super Bowl and the Buccaneers would be picking third in the next NFL draft. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the 2009 Buccaneers were as polished and as ready to win consistently as the 2009 Saints. But it was less of an upset inside Tampa Bay's locker room, where a young team had started to believe in its potential and wasn't overly concerned about what its W-L record seemed to say about it.
That is the sort of team, Morris is sure, that will be invading Raymond James Stadium this Sunday. On paper, Detroit has made small steps from an 0-16 season in 2008 to two wins in 2009 to a slightly better record in 2010. But internally the Lions have every reason to believe. The Buccaneers believe, too. They remember just how it felt.
"It's another tough opponent coming in here in Detroit," said Morris. "They're another young, dynamic team like our own, built kind of similar. They have young players around the team. Ndamukong Suh, [Jahvid] Best, [Louis] Delmas, Cliff Avril…a bunch of guys that are talented, young, dynamic and really starting to come into their own. It really reminds me of that phase we went through last year where we were getting better and it was hard to see the results unless you were there internally. They're just trying to find ways to win right now, and they will. They're certainly a lot better team than people give them credit for."
Indeed, Detroit has lost half of their 10 games by five points or less. They lost a three-point shootout to Philly, took the Jets to overtime, demolished the possibly playoff-bound St. Louis Rams and just last Sunday shocked Green Bay, 7-3. The Chicago Bears are in first place in Detroit's division, the NFC North, and the Lions came within a hair of beating the Bears twice.
Astute recent drafts have built an intriguing young core (this is where Morris gets the basis for his comparison of the Bucs and Lions) that in addition to the above players also includes LB DeAndre Levy, TE Brandon Pettigrew and, though he's currently hurt, QB Matthew Stafford. All are potential long-term impact players in the NFL…a term that already applies extremely well to wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Morris: "Refer to him as Megatron, please."
Yes, sir. Fully deserving of one of the NFL's best nicknames in awhile, Johnson is the poster boy for the core of very scary talent the Lions bring to Tampa this weekend. Drafted second overall in 2007, Johnson is huge, athletic and a red zone terror. He will be a serious challenge for a secondary that has recently welcomed two new starters: CB E.J. Biggers and S Corey Lynch.
Johnson is also a good example of how every game in the NFL is a potential pitfall, no matter what the opposing records say. The Bucs know it's not all about Megatron on Sunday, but they also know he can sting them if they aren't careful.
"You keep rolling different things at him," said Morris. "You give him different looks and hopefully you cause him confusion. Hopefully they throw it somebody else. You've got to play your best game, put different people on him. You've got to do everything you can to keep the ball out of a great player's hands. That's what we'll try to do. Sometimes you can't, sometimes you're successful at it, but we'll give it our best effort."
Will the Bucs hold off the upcoming Lions and their young stars, and in the process keep their playoff hopes in good shape? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Bucs' midweek injury report was almost blank (minor knee concerns for Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow), but the Bucs would consider it a successful week on that front if they can avoid losing two more starters to season-ending injuries for the first time in four games.
Detroit: The Lions, who recently lost ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Alphonso Smith to I.R., now must keep an eye on DE Turk McBride as well, thanks to an ankle ailment. LB Landon Johnson sustained a neck injury in the win over Green Bay and is doubtful for the game.
- Arrelious Benn, WR, Buccaneers. Overshadowed early in the season by fellow rookie Mike Williams, Benn followed his own steady progression and is now emerging as a key playmaker for the Buccaneers down the stretch. Over the last two weeks, he has averaged exactly 30 yards on his five receptions, and last Sunday he turned in the first 100-yard game of his career. The Buccaneers have nine completions of 40 or more yards this season, and Benn owns a third of them.
- Robert Malone, P, Buccaneers. The Bucs might have expected some growing pains with a rookie punter, especially one that was added more than a month into the season, but Malone is proving to be a very reliable part of the team's special teams in the season's second half. His net averages over the past three games have been 35.6, 39.3 and 39.3, which are good field-position figures, and he has eight punts inside the 20 in that span vs. just one touchback. In each of the last four games, he has also blasted at least one punt 55 yards or further.
- Maurice Morris, RB, Lions. An afterthought for much of the season, even essentially inactive in the middle of the year, Morris has recently become an active member of the Lions' backfield and the team's rushing game has taken off at the same time (see Trendspotting below). After logging just 10 carries through the first nine games, Morris has 41 in the last four and has turned those into 174 yards and two TDs. He is proving to be a strong complement to rookie Jahvid Best.
- Turk McBride, DE, Lions. A week ago, the Lions placed DEs Kyle Vanden Bosch and Alphonso Smith on injured reserve, which makes former reserve McBride suddenly an important figure for the team up front. McBride is answering the call, especially in the last two weeks. Without a sack since Week Two, McBride turned it up against Chicago and Green Bay, recording a total of three sacks as well as eight tackles and a forced fumble.
- Al Woods, DT, Buccaneers. The rookie from LSU was a member of Pittsburgh's practice squad before Week Eight, so anything the Buccaneers could gain from his play would seem like a plus. And, indeed, the team has been very pleased with how Woods has taken over Brian Price's spot in the DT rotation and given them very solid play at nose tackle. Now, Woods will get a chance to contribute even more, as the injury to Gerald McCoy may well put him in the starting lineup.
- Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers. Only greed would cause us to put Williams in the "Due" category, as he has been uniformly excellent throughout the season. However, Williams has gained 20 or fewer yards in two of the Bucs last three games, probably in large part due to the extra attention opposing defenses have learned to give him. There's little doubt Williams remains the top target in Josh Freeman's arsenal, so it's reasonable to expect several more big games from the breakout rookie before the season is over.
- Jahvid Best, RB, Lions. The 30th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Best came on like gangbusters at the start of the season. He had five touchdowns in his first two games and a monster 232-yard rushing/receiving outing in Week Two against Philadelphia. Toe injuries have hampered him for much of the season since, however, and he is only recently starting to hit his stride again. He has 22 carries for 103 yards in the last two games.
- Corey Williams, DT, Lions. The offseason trade for Williams, along with the drafting of Ndamukong Suh and signing of Kyle Vanden Bosch, was part of a concerted effort to remake the Lions' defensive front. Williams, who had back-to-back seven-sack seasons in a 4-3 scheme with Green Bay in 2006-07, was expected to do more of the same in a similar front in Detroit after two years in Cleveland's 3-4. He had a sack in his first game as a Lion but has yet to record another one, however.
Tampa Bay's red zone defense has gotten stingier over the last five games, averaging almost one fewer point allowed per possession in that span. During the first eight games of the season, Buc opponents scored on 83.3% of their trips inside the 20 and found the end zone on 58.3% of those possessions, averaging 4.88 points per. Over the last five games, despite two fourth-down touchdown passes last week in Washington, Buc opponents have scored on 71.4% of their red zone trips, recorded touchdowns on 50.0% and tallied 4.07 points per possession.
Tampa Bay's improving run defense had a nice run in November. Over a three-game stretch, it allowed only four runs of 10 or more yards to opposing running backs (doesn't include QB scrambles) and none longer than 18. However, over the two weeks, Buc opponents have started ripping off long runs again. Atlanta's Michael Turner and Washington's Ryan Torain combined for 11 runs of 10 or more yards, including two that were longer than 20 yards.
Detroit has found a rushing attack of late, which must be comforting given the health difficulties at quarterback. Over the first 10 games of the season, the Lions only cracked 100 rushing yards twice (never higher than 115) and only averaged 4.0 yards or better in a game three times. However, they've been at 129 or higher for each of the last three games, with consecutive single-game per-carry averages of 4.8, 5.0 and 4.6. The Lions still rank 27th in the NFL in rushing, but they have been much better than that down the stretch.
After Oakland, which seems to lead in this category on an annual basis, the Lions are the most penalized team in the NFL. Detroit has been hit with 118 flags at a cost of 875 yards; the Raiders have absorbed 119 penalties. While the flurry of yellow has actually slowed down a bit over the last three weeks (a total of 20 in that span), penalties have really been an ongoing problem for the Lions all season. In one seven-game midseason stretch they were penalized 10 or times in six of those contests.
Will Hellerplayed in 19 games with three starts as a Buccaneer from 2003-05 and caught 14 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. It's possible that none of those receptions will mean as much to the Buccaneers, however, as the touchdown catch he gave the Detroit Lions last weekend. Heller's score was the difference in Detroit's 7-3 win over the Green Bay Packers, which was helpful to Tampa Bay in the NFC Wild Card race. Heller, a Georgia Tech grad, joined the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and was with the team for two seasons before being waived in September of 2005. After several months with the Dolphins, he returned late in the year for one more short stint with his original team.
ONE TO WATCH The key with Michael Bennett actually where to watch him over the last three weeks of the season. A former end-tackle swingman, Bennett concentrated almost exclusively on the end position for most of the season and has been a valuable part of the rotation on the edge for the last two months. However, with Gerald McCoy headed to injured reserve, the Bucs addressed their thinned DT ranks by putting Bennett back inside at the three-technique spot. He is a bit undersized at 265 pounds but very quick, and that combination has worked for the Buccaneers in that position in the past.