Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lynch Gets the Call in Bucs Secondary

Friday Notes: Though he may not be the only one to play there during Sunday's game against Atlanta, third-year man Corey Lynch will start in Cody Grimm's vacated free safety spot

Lynch12_03_10_1_t.jpg


Though the eventual solution at free safety could be more involved than just plugging in a new player for the injured Cody Grimm, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris did need to pick a specific starter for Sunday's game.  His primary candidates were cerebral third-year man Corey Lynch and the inexperienced but promising Vince Anderson.

In the end, says Morris, he decided to go with 'the craftier vet.'

I'll put Corey Lynch out there first.  I've got a lot of confidence in Corey.  He's been here for awhile.  He's a crafty young man.  He plays the game above the neck and he does some things that we like.  I look forward to going to watch him play.  He had a nice little competition out there with Vince this week.

Even that decision isn't as simple as it sounds.  Anderson may be inexperienced – he was just called up from the practice squad and he hails from tiny Webber International – but he has shown smarts and instincts on the practice field as well.  And Lynch couldn't survive in the NFL on brains alone; he also displays what Morris calls "elite ball skills."

In the end, Morris said he may give Anderson some playing time, too, and he's hinted that some packages may involve moving cornerback Ronde Barber to the back end of the secondary.

"Vince is kind of the raw athlete, an athletic type of guy," said the coach.  "I wouldn't be shocked if you see a little bit of Vince, maybe.  I wouldn't be shocked if you see a little bit of Ronde Barber."

Morris and his staff settled on Lynch on Thursday evening, between the week's main full-speed practice and the Friday review session for which they like to have a set lineup in place.  As well as Grimm was playing and as significant as a loss as that was to the Buccaneers during the playoff stretch run, there was no hand-wringing or gnashing of teeth in those Thursday meetings.

"I look forward to these types of challenges," said Morris.  "With most people, it would be gloom and doom, but not here with the Bucs.  I look forward to those types of challenges and letting guys go out there and play."

It helps that the team has confidence in Lynch, even though he has played almost exclusively on special teams in his 24 games with the team.  The last time he was on the field on defense, in the preseason finale against Houston, he showed impressive awareness with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.  In addition, he has improved the run-support aspect of his game.

"He played better this preseason versus the run, and that's all you can really grade him on, what he's done last," said Morris.  "And that was the last opportunity he had.  He plays aggressive on special teams and he's been very productive guy there for us.  He's not a big physical striker by any means.  You're not talking about John Lynch here, we're talking about Corey Lynch.  But he does display elite ball skills when he has an opportunity to catch the ball.  He displays a knack for being around the ball.  Our quarterbacks hate him [in practice]."

The Buccaneers have also decided to keep James Lee in the lineup at right tackle, despite the fact that season-opening starter Jeremy Trueblood is not on the injury report for the first time in over a month.  The team chose not to rush Trueblood back from his knee injury due to Lee's high level of play, and at this point Lee continues to stake a claim to the job with his performance on the practice field.

"Right now, James Lee won it again," said Morris.  "He'll be the starter at right tackle again.  They both are playing well – I can't take that away from them.  Right now James is playing really hard.  James is a pretty good pass-protector.  I don't know if he gives you as much thump as a Trueblood but he definitely plays with a nice demeanor.  We'll just have to see, let him keep going."

The Bucs' injury report did grow by one player on Friday as starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black was added after aggravating an existing ankle ailment in practice on Thursday.  Black originally suffered the injury in the first game against Atlanta in Week Nine, missed two contests and then returned to play without incident last weekend in Baltimore.

One of the two players who filled in for Black during his absence, rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson, is on the injury report as well and was limited in practice on Friday due to a hamstring strain.  Black and Watson are the only two Buccaneers who are considered questionable or worse.  Linebacker Barrett Ruud (back), running back Cadillac Williams (ribs) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) are all listed as probable.

Atlanta's injury report cleared up on Thursday, when seven players who were limited or out completely on Wednesday returned to full participation.  All seven of those men, including defensive end John Abraham and wide receiver Roddy White, also practiced on Friday without limits and were subsequently tabbed as probable on the injury report.

Where the Falcons have some concern is in their running back corps, where both Jason Snelling and Antone Smith missed the entire week of practice due to hamstring ailments.  Smith has played in just seven games and logged one carry this season, but Snelling is the primary complement to starting back Michael Turner and one of the Falcons better weapons on third down.  Both Snelling and Smith are considered questionable for Sunday's game.

**

Playoff Race Update

In August, Morris told his players that the upcoming season would be a "Race to 10," because getting 10 wins usually gets a team into the playoffs.  Certainly, all six times the Buccaneers have reached double digits in victories they've made the playoffs, and the last NFC team to win 10 games but not make the playoffs was the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles in 1991.

Still, there are the occasional 10-win teams (and even one unfortunate 11-win team) that is home for the postseason.  Since the NFL expanded to six playoff teams per conference in 1990, five teams have finished with a record of 10-6 or better and not made it into the postseason field: 1991 Philadelphia, 2003 Miami, 2005 Kansas City, 2007 Cleveland and 2008 New England.  That '08 Patriots team was the unfortunate club that found out an 11-5 record wasn't good enough.

It's possible the NFC will have its first non-playoff 10-win team in almost two decades this season.  Seven teams in the conference already have at least seven wins with five games to play: Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Green Bay and the New York Giants.  If each of those seven wins three of its last five games, somebody's going home with their 10 wins.

Thus, the Buccaneers may have to revise their slogan a bit, but as Morris recently said, the intent of the Race was not to target a specific victory total but to get the team in position to be playing relevant games over the last month of the season.  In that regard, the Bucs have already succeeded in their race.  Tampa Bay will play its first December game this Sunday against Atlanta, and it is still very much alive in both the NFC South race and the overall conference race.  In fact, at the moment it is only a tiebreaker that is keeping the Buccaneers out.

Here's a look at the current standings in the NFC South and the NFC overall:

NFC South

W

L

T

PCT.

DIV

CONF

Atlanta

9

2

0

.818

2-0-0

6-1-0

New Orleans

8

3

0

.737

3-1-0

7-2-0

Tampa Bay

7

4

0

.636

2-2-0

5-2-0

NFC

W

L

T

PCT.

DIV

CONF

Atlanta

9

2

0

.818

2-0-0

6-1-0

Chicago

8

3

0

.737

3-0-0

6-3-0

Philadelphia

8

4

0

.667

2-1-0

5-3-0

St. Louis

5

6

0

.455

1-2-0

3-5-0

New Orleans

8

3

0

.737

3-1-0

7-2-0

N.Y. Giants

7

4

0

.636

1-2-0

5-2-0

Tampa Bay

7

4

0

.636

2-2-0

5-2-0

Green Bay

7

4

0

.636

3-1-0

5-3-0

Washington

5

6

0

.455

2-1-0

4-4-0

Seattle

5

6

0

.455

3-1-0

4-3-0

The standings tables include division and conference record because those are important tiebreakers in the division and conference races, respectively.  Tampa Bay lost a game to the Falcons and Saints with their loss at Baltimore this past Sunday, but they did not damage either their division or conference records.  It is still a plausible scenario that the three teams at the top of the division could finish with identical 4-2 records in NFC South play.

In the above table, the four division leaders are listed first, because they would get the top four seeds.  The top two would get first-round byes.  St. Louis currently holds a tiebreaker edge over Seattle because the Rams beat the Seahawks in their only head-to-head matchup so far.  The two teams play again in Week 17.

After those four teams, the Saints get the first Wild Card spot based simply on record.  After that, there are three 7-4 teams from three different divisions, which means the following tiebreakers are used, in this order:

1. Head-to-head sweep.  This only applies if one club has beaten each of the other two or one club has lost to each of the other two, and that has not occurred.

2. Conference record.  Green Bay drops out on this one as they are one loss behind both the Giants and the Buccaneers in conference play.

3. Record in common games.  You need a minimum of four common games to apply this tiebreaker, and the only opponent the Bucs and Giants have in common so far is Carolina.  That will change when the Bucs play Washington, Detroit and Seattle later in December.

4. Strength of victory. Currently, the Giants have a better mark in this category, and that's where they would win the tiebreaker if the season ended today.

Of course, the season does not end today, and all of these tiebreakers will change dramatically over the next five weeks.  Morris always preaches to his players that the most important game on the schedule is the next one, and in this case that could be accurate on several levels.  The Buccaneers could help their playoff cause tremendously with a win over the Falcons on Sunday.  That would pull them within a game of first in the NFC South (and possibly tie them with the Saints if Cincinnati upsets New Orleans), and at worst keep them tied with the Giants and Packers for that Wild Card spot.  The Giants play host to the Washington Redskins this Sunday while the Packers will welcome the San Francisco 49ers to Lambeau Field.

**

Marquee Matchup

When the Buccaneers played the Falcons in the Georgia Dome four weeks ago, Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White finished with four receptions for 49 yards.  That's a fine day's work for any receiver in the NFL, including the Falcon Pro Bowler.

It just happened to be White's lowest offensive output of the season, however.

White's four catches against Tampa Bay were the fewest he's had against any opponent this year.  His 49 yards tied his low total for the year; he also had 49 yards on five catches last week against Green Bay.  And White didn't score in Atlanta's narrow 27-21 victory; he had two touchdown catches the week before the game against the Bucs and two more the week after.

That "below average" day for White didn't do much to slow down his incredible pace in 2010.  Through 11 games he's pretty much already matched what he accomplished in his 2008 and 2009 Pro Bowl seasons, securing 84 passes for 1,066 yards and seven touchdowns.  He's on pace for 16-game totals of 122 catches for 1,551 yards and 10 TDs.

That he dipped a bit below his per-game average against the Buccaneers in Week Nine can be mostly explained by two things:

  1. A knee injury suffered early in the game forced him to the sideline for most of the second quarter; and
  1. Aqib Talib.

In certain games this season, when the opponent has had a premier receiver like White, the Buccaneers have made an effort to keep Talib, their own rising star at cornerback, on that player.  With Atlanta in particular, the rivalry was already in full swing by the time the Bucs got to the Georgia Dome in Week Nine, as the two had memorably done battle twice in 2008.  White did score in each of those games, but Talib held him to a total of 123 yards and roughly 11 yards per catch.  Talib's efforts against White were even better this November, but he won't be reviewing the game tape for pointers.

"I don't need to watch that film," said the Buccaneer defender.  "They may say I won that matchup, but they won the game.  So I feel like I lost the matchup."

Talib has won a lot of battles this season, enough so that he may soon join White in that trip to Honolulu.  He's tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions and has improved against the run to the point where he's now one of the more complete cornerbacks in the league.  Talib is one of the main reasons the Buccaneers rank ninth in the NFL in pass defense and second in interceptions per pass play.

But clearly Talib will only gauge his success in his next matchup with White on one criteria: The game's final outcome.  Nevertheless, the battle between these two outstanding young players will be worth watching on Sunday.

"I have fun just watching those two guys go at it," said Morris.  "They are both very competitive players, and they're highly-motivated to succeed.  I think you're going to see these two matching up against each other for many years to come."

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