Several weeks ago, when it became clear that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playoff hopes were not going to be realized in 2011, Head Coach Raheem Morris hinted that he would utilize more of the depth chart over the season's final weeks. While chasing victories is still the primary goal, getting a better feel for the team's less proven but possibly promising players is a worthwhile secondary pursuit.
The Buccaneers' offense certainly saw the emergence of some new (or returning) contributors on Saturday in Carolina. There is obviously not much desire to dwell on the positives following a 32-point loss, but a neutral viewing of the game's final stats show some potentially interesting developments on offense.
- Rookie RB Mossis Madu, who had one career catch and 31 rushing yards coming into the game, caught four passes for 42 yards and ran four times for 20 yards;
- WR Sammie Stroughter, a valuable slot receiver in his first two NFL seasons, caught his first four passes of the 2011 season, gaining 42 yards;
- Rookie TE Luke Stocker caught three passes, his highest total yet;
- RB Kregg Lumpkin, who came into the season as a back-up third-down back, essentially, played 58% of the snaps on offense and had a career-best 62 combined rushing and receiving yards.
Madu and Lumpkin saw significantly more action for two reasons. First, LeGarrette Blount's fumble on the Bucs' first play earned him some time to think on the sideline; and second, an early deficit put the Bucs into hurry-up mode, and that style of offense worked for the team once again.
Quarterback Josh Freeman, who managed to get at least three completions to six different players, obviously wants the attack to benefit from Blount's running, as it so often has over the past two seasons. Still, he was pleased with the way his team used its entire cast of characters on Saturday.
"I really like the offense we ran today," said Freeman after the game. "It allows me as a quarterback to get into a rhythm and spread the ball around. I think the receivers like it and running backs get an opportunity in the nickel run game but also in the passing game in the check-downs. I really like this offense. I feel like it gets everybody involved."
The Buccaneers' offensive output on the day – 317 yards and 16 points – was good but not great. Much of that was attributable to the team's four turnovers, however. Otherwise, the Bucs had to punt only once on the afternoon, and they had two of their longest drives of the season, in terms of time of possession – a 9:20 touchdown march and a 7:33 field goal drive.
This has, unfortunately, been a common theme for the Buccaneers in 2011, after a 2010 season in which they protected the ball very well despite being the NFL's youngest squad. Tampa Bay is 4-1 this season when it has at least an equal turnover ratio; it's 0-10 when it is on the wrong side of that equation. It has been a particular issue in the second half of the season, as the Bucs have turned the ball over at least four times in four of their last seven outings.
"Once again, turnovers played a big part in the game," said Freeman. "When you're playing an offense like that, the Carolina Panthers, you can't afford to turn it over or you'll get down quick. The first half, really excluding the first fumble, we only had two drives and scored on both of them. Then, the second half, we came out and turned the ball over really on three possessions, and when you do that it is tough, especially when you go into the half trailing by 10."
Again, the Buccaneers are hardly celebrating anything on either side of the ball after Saturday's game. The 2012 offseason is unfortunately just a week away – the plan was to be playing still in January – and the team will be looking for solutions in the coming months, an answer as to how to get back to the winning ways of 2010. The tape from Saturday's game in Charlotte may not serve as much motivation, but it does contain some moments worth reviewing, especially in regard to the team's young skill-position players.
"I put those other guys in and I was proud of Madu and Lumpkin," said Morris after the game. "They were able to go in there and play as a tag team and move the ball down the field. They got a touchdown. They came back out and moved the ball down the field again and got three points. They had two more series the first half of the game and had a 16-play drive and I believe a 15-play drive. You've got to be ready to step up."
That tape is also evidence that Freeman, despite a disappointing season from a statistical standpoint, is the man to make the Buccaneers' offense work, no matter who he is surrounded by. There was no chance on this day for any late-game heroics, Freeman's specialty during his first two seasons, but he did show once again that he was comfortable when the pace got quick.
In fact, that might be when he feels most comfortable.
"We try to go out and push the tempo and get the ball in our playmakers hands and make some things happen," said Freeman. Perhaps some of those playmakers are just now emerging.