Micheal Spurlock knows how to make his opportunities count.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually found that out three years ago. Promoted from the practice squad in November, the then 24-year-old needed just five games to secure his name in franchise history. On the eighth kickoff return of his NFL career, and his fifth as a Buccaneer, Spurlock became the first Tampa Bay player ever to run one back for a touchdown.
The notion was reinforced last December, when the Buccaneers signed Spurlock back following injuries to return men Clifton Smith and Sammie Stroughter. This time, Spurlock wasted even less time, returning a punt 77 yards for a touchdown in his first game back, in the process helping the Buccaneers pull off one of the most stunning upsets in league history in New Orleans.
That encore performance earned Spurlock an invite to Bucs training camp in 2010, and his own emergence as a legitimate NFL wide receiver (he was a quarterback in college) won him a spot on the 53-man roster. Though the Buccaneers are trying to make use of a host of young receivers in various ways, Spurlock has essentially been the team's slot receiver and an occasional fill-in at split end.
Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams (19 catches), tight end Kellen Winslow (17) and fullback Earnest Graham (10) have combined to catch nearly 60% of Josh Freeman's completions through four games. Spurlock has hauled in a half-dozen.
But, oh, have those been six big catches.
Against Cleveland in the season opener, Spurlock scored his first NFL receiving touchdown on a nifty 33-yard over-the-shoulder grab. Those proved to be the winning points in the Bucs' stirring 17-14 comeback victory. This past Sunday in Cincinnati, Spurlock made one of the most spectacular catches of the young NFL season, anchoring his toes on the sideline and extending well past the sideline to catch a 21-yard pass that set up Connor Barth's game-winning field goal with one second left.
Spurlock may only have six catches through the first four games, but it's entirely possible that his Buccaneers would have two fewer wins without them.
On the other hand, the humble wideout believes his team would have found a way to win both games in another way, if need be. There were, in fact, seven minutes left in the game against Cleveland when Spurlock scored, and the Bucs even got down inside Cleveland's 10-yard line one more time. And in Cincinnati, Spurlock's catch essentially shortened Barth's game-winning attempt from a 52-yarder to a 31-yarder. Barth has made 12 straight field goals and shown very good range, so Spurlock wasn't too nervous while his catch was being reviewed.
"We were happy that it was ruled as a catch but we thought we were going to get the win regardless," he said. "Connor, we just figure no matter where he is on the field he's money. Yeah, it was good to give him a little chip shot but at the same time we figured it was going to be a field goal and it was going to be good for us anyway."
Actually, Spurlock wasn't too optimistic during the break in the game as his play was reviewed by replay. He knew he had made the catch but didn't feel as if replay had been kind to the Buccaneers this year. In fact, a challenge earlier in the half had reversed a call against him, as he was eventually ruled to have fumbled on a kickoff return. The Bengals scored a go-ahead touchdown a few plays later, making Spurlock's end-game grab a moment of sweet redemption.
Now Spurlock wants an opportunity to get the Bucs' return game going, as well. At the moment, Tampa Bay ranks 21st in punt return average and 22nd in kickoff return average, with Spurlock handling most of the chances. Fortunately, he's shown he can make a difference in a hurry, and it may only take one breakaway to get that part of the Bucs' game back on track.
"It's all about momentum," said Spurlock. "We haven't had a lot of chances, but the ones that we have had haven't looked good. Around here, we've been known for defense and special teams. Right now, in order for us to be a good team, special teams has to come on. We have to bring it, and that's with all the guys. It's not just me or any other guy – all of us have to bring it. Special teams is a big part of our offense as well because it gives us great field position. It's a game of inches and special teams are those hidden yards that we have to have."
Technique Meets Opportunity
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know a thing or two about intercepting passes.
Through five weeks in 2010, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in interceptions per pass attempt, with nine picks secured in 120 opponent throws. Overall, the Bucs are tied for second in the NFL with those nine picks, one behind Atlanta, but they've also played one fewer game than the Falcons.
Really, this shouldn't come as a big surprise. Despite struggling in many areas for a good part of the 2009 season, the Bucs still picked off 19 passes and ranked seventh in the NFL in interceptions per pass defensed. That wasn't even a particularly high mark for the Bucs, who had 31 picks in 2007, 25 the year before that, 25 the year before that, and so on.
Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Buccaneers have played 164 regular-season games and intercepted 214 passes. That's tied with Baltimore for first in the NFL over that span, and the Ravens have played 165 games in the same time span.
Ronde Barber is a constant over that span, contributing 34 of those 214 picks, including two this year. But many of the names in the team's 2010 interception chart are new, or at least in the early stages of their careers. That includes Aqib Talib, who already has 12 picks in 33 career games, and Cody Grimm and E.J. Biggers, who got their first picks this year. Obviously, the good year-to-year results speak to scheme and coaching.
"That all happens when technique and opportunity meet," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Right now they're doing everything technically right, the opportunities are presenting themselves and they're catching the football. The games that we've won, we've caught the football, and the game that we lost we missed those plays. That's always going to be how it happens. It's just called technique and opportunity meeting and you've got to make those plays."
Grimm's opportunity in Cincinnati, which resulted in an 11-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 in the second quarter, was the result of his taking advantage of an opportunity. Morris called a defensive play that appeared to Cincinnati to be a three-deep set, with the cornerbacks rolled back and Grimm coming up from his free safety spot to fill one of the gaps in the run defense. Instead, it was a disguised Cover Two that had Grimm remaining in coverage, and the whole play unfolded rather clearly in front of him. He saw a quick pass out to the sideline to Terrell Owens developing, reacted immediately and got to the ball first.
Had he not beaten Owens to the ball, Grimm still would have been credited with a statistic, at least in the film session taking place in Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake's meeting room the next day. It would have been a "missed opp," what the Buc DBs call it when an opportunity for a turnover is squandered.
"We emphasize missed opps," said Grimm. Jimmy Lake puts an emphasis on making the play when the opportunity comes. That's pretty much what we try to do. If you don't make the play, it's considered a missed-opp. [Some plays] may just look like an eight-yard tackle or something, a normal play, but it's an opportunity for us to get an interception. We made a couple last week and it helped us out."
Timing Painful for Faine
Starting center Jeff Faine suffered a quad injury in his right leg in the Bucs win in Cincinnati and, according to Morris' report on Monday, will miss several games as he recovers. He will not need surgery, but the downtime will still be tough on the hard-nosed veteran.
"It's difficult because we've been in a dogfight all year this year but we've been on the right side of it for the most part," he said on Wednesday. "I definitely want to be involved and be a part of this. It's starting to get into the thick of the things, the meat of the schedule. We're going to start playing a lot of divisional opponents and those are games you love to play."
The Buccaneers signed Faine as an unrestricted free agent before the 2008 season, ending his two-year run with the Saints. He stepped right into a starting spot in Tampa, and though he missed four games early last season with a triceps injury, he has been a stalwart up front since his arrival and everything the team had hoped for when they signed him. Overall, Faine has played in 98 career NFL games, starting all of them.
With three games against NFC South opponents looming in the next five weeks, Faine wants to return as quickly as possible. He knows he'll miss this first matchup with his old team, however, and that's a bit tough to swallow.
"I would especially love to play this game," Faine admitted. "It's tough to sit on the sideline, but I just have to contribute as much as I can."