The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got healthier during the bye week (though Gerald McCoy's injury on Sunday took back some of those gains). They got their running game back with LeGarrette Blount's return. They came out of the break with a sharper Josh Freeman, as the third-year quarterback put up a 103.5 passer rating in New Orleans on Sunday.
Unfortunately, they didn't solve their yellow flag problem, despite no shortage of mid-practice gassers over the past two weeks.
The Buccaneers committed nine penalties for 80 yards in a 27-16 loss to New Orleans on Sunday. That's one more infraction than they occurred before the break against Chicago in London. Tampa Bay has been penalized at least six times in every game this season, and at least eight times in five of them. Only Oakland and Seattle have committed more penalties than the Bucs' 68 this season, and only Oakland has walked off more penalty yards than the Bucs' 573.
Head Coach Raheem Morris knows it's a significant problem – he obviously acknowledged that during the break by greeting every practice-field flag with a round of gassers – and he knows he has to redouble his efforts to get that point across to his players.
"We actually [ran gassers] during practice," said Morris. "That's got to be one deal, but the foolish ones have to come from inside. It has to come from deeper than just running in practice. That's got to come from not wanting to hurt your team. That's got to be unselfishness. That's got to be all those things that you care about. Winning the football game more than you care about anything else, internal sacrifice, that's where it's got to come from."
Morris understands that not every penalty is a breakdown in discipline or mental strength, and that sometimes players draw flags in ways that are essentially out of their control. The 10-yard tripping call that left tackle Donald Penn got in the Saints' red zone in the fourth quarter, for instance, simply looked like an accident brought on by a cut block to Morris when he watched the film. Morris also appreciated that Penn walked away from the official after the flag, rather than exacerbating the situation by trying to plead his case. That's one message the coach had been preaching to his team over the break that clearly got through.
Obviously, those things can happen to any team and any player. Morris doesn't expect a penalty-free game, but he wants to eliminate the ones that can be controlled.
"The foolish ones, when you push a guy after a play, when you hit a guy in the back because you're frustrated, those are the ones you've got to get rid of," he said. "Those are the things are hurting us."
Fortunately, the Buccaneers still have eight games to take care of the issue, and Morris believes they have the necessary leaders in the locker room to turn it around.
"The leaders on the football team are the guys that kind of come down on the guys when it happens," he said. "I wouldn't exactly say it's a leadership issue as far as that, you know I've got guys in that locker room that do care. Donald Penn showed a great example of that yesterday."
Another one of the team's veteran leaders, cornerback Ronde Barber, understands that reducing penalties is a process that isn't solved overnight, even with the practice-field gassers keeping it on the front of everyone's minds.
"It's not a problem you correct in two weeks," said Barber. "That has to be a mentality. It is
what it is. We know what our issues are. They affect the outcome of the game, and they did [Sunday]. It's not like we don't know what they are. We know what they are. We just have to get better at it."
Morris confirmed on Monday that the arm injury suffered by McCoy in the first quarter on Sunday was season-ending, and that the second-year defender was destined for injured reserve. Later in the afternoon, the Buccaneers officially made that move, opening up a spot on the 53-man active roster. They did not immediately fill that opening, but Morris indicated that the team was looking for some help at the defensive tackle position.
"We have to add somebody to the roster," he said. "How fast we can implement him and put him into our Rosetta Stone of teaching to get him going is obviously going to be my challenge, so we'll handle that. I've got some really good D-line coaches that can help us out there."
The Buccaneers also opened up two spots on the practice squad on Monday by releasing running back Chad Spann and guard/center Zane Taylor. The team could address its interior-line shortage on the active roster, the practice squad or both.
It would also help if defensive tackle Frank Okam recovered from the calf strain that kept him out of Sunday's game against the Saints. With only Roy Miller backing up starters McCoy and Brian Price on Sunday, the team had to make use of ends Da'Quan Bowers, Michael Bennett and George Johnson in the middle. Those three may still figure into the solution to McCoy's absence.
"Hopefully we can get Frank back this week," said Morris. "He had the strain last week in practice. So hopefully we got to see where he is health-wise. But that's an issue right now. Yesterday we had to go back and mitigate as far as the smaller guys being bigger and faster. But we've got to figure it out."
Time to Throw
Freeman put up that stellar 103.5 passer rating by completing 27 of 37 passes for 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Bucs' offense struggled once it neared the red zone, but overall the team put up 365 yards and made it into New Orleans territory on eight of nine drives.
Converting scoring opportunities into seven points instead of three will be a focus for the Buccaneers in the second half, but giving Freeman time to operate the attack has not been a problem all season. Against the Saints, who blitz the quarterback as much as any team in the league, the Bucs surrendered just one sack for no yards. That sack came on a play where Freeman scrambled early and was pulled down from behind at the line of scrimmage, which is about as low of an impact as a sack can have.
Freeman was obviously pleased with his protection, as he has been all year, and said the Saints' blitz package – even in the noisy Superdome atmosphere, wasn't a problem.
"I'm not really worried about it," he said. "We had a pretty good plan for it. We were able to
handle it. The blitz wasn't that big of an issue all day."
As a result, the Bucs' pass protection remained one of the best in the league as the season hit the midway point. Tampa Bay actually dropped from first to second in the sacks-allowed-per-pass-play category on Sunday, giving up the top spot to Buffalo, but the line is on pace to allow just 22 sacks all season.
If the Bucs hit that number, it would be their lowest total of sacks allowed since 1982, when they gave up just 11 in a non-strike year. The Bucs also gave up just 19 sacks in 1981 and 12 in 1979, but the NFL is a much more pass-centric league than it was 30 years ago. The last Bucs team to protect the quarterback this well was the 2003 squad, when Tampa Bay quarterbacks dropped back a franchise-record 592 times (570 of them by Brad Johnson) but suffered just 23 sacks.