Jeff Faine makes a good point about the perfect play call for a first-and-20 situation on offense.
There isn't one.
Sure, there are plenty of passes in the playbook designed to get 10, 20 or more yards, but when the play-action threat is taken away and the defense is playing softer coverage it's harder to get the ball downfield. And running the ball certainly becomes less desirable because even two straight fine runs – say, five yards each – leaves you in a third-and-10.
If there was any one factor that contributed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inability to run the ball last Thursday against New England, says the team's starting center, it was the first-and-long situations. And the only way you get into a first-and-long is by committing penalties.
That's something the Bucs did in bunches against the Patriots. After a preseason opener in Kansas City in which they drew just seven flags, and none before halftime, the Buccaneers committed 12 penalties for 95 yards in Game Two, including a whopping 10 in the first two quarters. Many of those were on offense and were the type that killed drives before they could get started – false starts, holding, etc.
That's a big reason Tampa Bay dropped from 139 yards against the Chiefs to 64 against the Patriots. Thus, avoiding penalties is one of the areas that Faine believes his unit needs to focus on against the Dolphins.
"Any time you commit the penalties that we did on offense it's tough to get the running game going because you're starting in such a hole," said Faine. "We just weren't able to get a rhythm going. Going into this week, I think the good thing is we'll be on the field much longer as a starting offensive line. We'll be able to get a rhythm of the game and get that going, and hopefully we'll see the results that we all want to see."
The Bucs ran the ball only 15 times against New England, and that included four quarterback scrambles. In addition to facing long down-and-distances, the offense also found itself well behind on the scoreboard in the early going, which generally leads to more passing.
"We got whacked last week by the Patriots," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "I wasn't as concerned about the K.C. game; we had some really good runs in that game and we got [LeGarrette] Blount going for a couple yards. We've really got our offense going, period, and we've got to get our stops on defense going, period, after last week. But I feel great about it, where we're going with our preparation. We feel good about those guys getting going."
Quarterback Josh Freeman took a lot of heat from a blitz-happy New England front, and part of that was due to the difference in game-planning that each team did for the second week of the preseason. After watching tape of the game, Faine wasn't left too concerned with the performance of the offensive line. He believes that the problems that led to free rushers on Freeman are all easily correctable. In other words, it wasn't as bad as it looked at first glance. That's not the case, however, with the flurry of yellow flags.
"The penalties were as bad as I thought they were and those are going to make a big impact on the game," he said. "Any time you put yourself in a hole and you're first-and-20…what's a good call on first-and-20? There really isn't one in the playbook. When you're in that situation you're just trying to get back to 10 yards to go. We put our coordinator in a tough position and it's tough to make those calls. New England, they played well but it wasn't anything exotic. It was things that we should be able to pick up. Looking back on it, you almost feel like it was boneheaded mistakes, the mistakes we were making, and it's all correctable. So that's the good thing. Now we've just got to execute and get it going."
Overall, the Buccaneers' ground-game numbers are decent but not spectacular after two preseason games – 101.5 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. However, it should be noted that second-string quarterback Josh Johnson has accounted for a team-leading 81 of those 203 rushing yards, and that the team's workhorse, LeGarrette Blount, has just nine carries. Basically, there has been little evidence either way as to the strength or weakness of the team's rushing attack in 2011, but Morris isn't concerned. Virtually all of the elements that accounted for the Bucs' 125.1 yards per game and team-record 4.6 yards per carry are back to do it again, and hopefully get even better.
"We did have [one of] the best rushing attacks in our history last year with LeGarrette Blount and Josh Freeman and his ability to run and Josh Johnson with his trick plays," said Morris. "We had Cadillac [Williams] last year and hopefully we can find somebody to fill that role for us, maybe [Kregg] Lumpkin or even Allen Bradford. We'll see. All those guys are out there competing. We've always got [Earnest] 'Insurance' Graham who can go back there and give us a little bit of carries as well. That front five, I feel great about. It starts up front. We feel great about our depth there and what we can do as far as running the football."
Ready for More
Morris said he's not going to tell his starters exactly how long they'll stay in the game on Saturday. They can probably guess, however. The Buccaneers' typical pattern for this game is to let the starters on both sides of the ball play the entire half and then, depending on the specifics of the game situation, possibly some portion of the third quarter.
Around the NFL, the third week of the preseason is seen as the one most important to preparing starters for the opening of the regular season. They are eased into action in the first two games, and then they see little or no playing time in the preseason finale in order to avoid injuries and let the younger roster hopefuls battle it out.
So Buccaneer starters are expecting to go hard to halftime and beyond, and they are definitely looking forward to the opportunity to get in a rhythm and forget last week's loss to New England.
" We're going to really see, it's going to be a test this week with us playing the whole first half and some of the third quarter," said second-year wide receiver Mike Williams, who already has a feel for NFL preseason rhythms. "We're going to really see where we are now. I think last week was a good test for us, to tell us we're not unstoppable like we think we are. We're going to come back this next game and see what we've got."
The regular-season preparation extends beyond game day. While the last few weeks have centered around fundamental work and inward scouting of the roster, the Bucs will finally do more than just cursory game-planning this week. Neither Tampa Bay nor Miami is likely to dive too far into the playbook, so the game-planning won't be as crucial as in the regular season, but it will still give all of the players a better feel for how their teams prepare for a game that counts.
"This is more like a mock season week," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "We're doing everything we would do in your average week in the season, how we scout teams and prepare. Our regular package week, how we would do it, is kind of how this week is going.
"It's getting us ready for what we're going to be facing all season. It kind of gives the young guys a view of how things go, even if they change some things up. It kind of gives us a sense of how days are going to go all season."
Preseason games have never been a good predictor of regular-season success. The Indianapolis Colts, for instance, won a total of nine preseason games from 2003-10 but captured seven division titles in that span. Even the third game, with starters on both sides doing battle for a much longer stretch, generally doesn't tell us what to expect. The Bucs were trounced by Washington, 40-10, in the third preseason game in 2002 before going on to win the Super Bowl. They lost last year's game three to Jacksonville, 19-13, then put up a 10-6 record. Tampa Bay won its third preseason game in 2004 and went 5-11, then lost it the next year and went 11-5.
Nevertheless, the starters put a lot of stock in the game, not necessarily for the outcome and what it means moving forward, but for the necessary preparation they will get done for the more important action to come.
"This is the game we'll spend the most time on the field as a starting group, the first couple shells of the depth chart," said Faine. "It's important. Both teams are going to do the same. It's kind of our last tune-up before we get out there and get the real thing going in the regular season."
Price, Lewis Return to Practice
If Brian Price and Myron Lewis, two of the Buccaneers' top four draft picks in 2010, are going to make their 2011 preseason debuts on Saturday against the Dolphins, they took the necessary step on Tuesday as the week of practice began.
Both Lewis and Price were suited up and in action on Tuesday, Lewis taking part in individual-position periods and Price seeing spot action in all portions of the practice. Morris wasn't ready to declare either one of them a sure thing for Saturday's game, but he was clearly pleased to see them back on the field. Price, in particular, is a player whose return from injury the Buccaneers are watching very closely. Lewis is simply working back from a mild hamstring injury suffered in training camp, but Price is nearing the end of a long comeback from several significant leg surgeries.
Morris thinks Price can make an impact in 2011, even if he has to ease into a larger role.
"I really just want him to be his explosive self," said Morris. "When he first got here, you saw a little bit of that explosiveness, the quickness, the initial get-off, things that he can provide for us, a possible pass-rush guy because we have Roy [Miller] as a run-stopper. That would be my initial want-to out of Price, but I really think he can develop into more. He has all the skills in the world. He's a locked-in young man. He's got a bunch of physical talent. I don't know what he's going to be able to give us but I know initially I want that quick twitch, that quick burst, that possible third-down rusher, that possible second-down rusher, that spot player for Roy [Miller], for those guys who are playing 30 or so snaps apiece."