As the only player on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 roster who was also on the team in 2002, cornerback Ronde Barber had a unique perspective on Sunday's season-opening loss to the Detroit Lions.
Barber is 36 years old, but even that doesn't do much to skew Tampa Bay's youthful numbers. As they were for most of 2010, the Buccaneers are once again the youngest team in the NFL, with an average age of 25 years and 178 days for its 53 players as of opening day. That youth is a good thing in terms of the team's future, but it doesn't bring much historical perspective into the locker room. That task pretty much falls to Barber.
What the veteran defender reminded his teammates is that opening-week losses, while certainly not desirable, are far from doomsday. He noted that the 2002 Buccaneers went on to capture the franchise's only Super bowl title after losing to New Orleans in Week One in quite similar fashion – at home, with a very slow start followed by a not-quite-complete rally. That game ended 26-20 in favor of the Saints; this past Sunday, the Lions left with a 27-20 victory.
The 2002 Bucs went on the road the next weekend (as the 2011 team will do this week) and started a streak of five consecutive wins. That feat of nine years ago won't affect the Bucs' results in 2011, but Barber brought it up to demonstrate to his younger teammates that, if they believe in their talent, one loss doesn't have to set the tone.
"Ronde was talking about the Super Bowl year and how they lost the first game to a Saints team they felt like they should have beaten that year in the first game," said 23-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman. "I feel like we have enough good character and leadership on this team. A lot of guys who are staying positive are really going to knuckle down this week in the locker room and come back and fight for a different result next week."
Part of that process is analyzing the Detroit loss and pinpointing what want wrong, and what really wasn't as bad as the stat sheet might indicate. And here's the good news, in the shared opinion of the Bucs' players and coaches: The play in the trenches was for the most part encouraging.
The Bucs wanted more sacks in 2011 and didn't get any in the season opener, despite spending their first two draft picks on pass-rushing ends. They also wanted to build a consistent power rushing attack in 2011 and finished with just 56 yards on the ground against Detroit. Those are not the desired results, to be sure, but there's no reason to believe they were the beginning of a season-long trend.
On Monday, Head Coach Raheem Morris mentioned at least four young defensive linemen who he felt played well in the opener: defensive ends Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers and defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. In the middle, McCoy got penetration through the middle of the Detroit line early in the game and disrupted several rushing plays and Price hustled all over the field before sustaining a mild hamstring injury.
And on the edges, the Bucs didn't get to Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford but they did get off the line of scrimmage quickly. The Lions relied mostly on a quick-hitting passing game and their blockers only needed to keep the Bucs' pass-rushers off him for a few seconds.
"Bennett continues to impress," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "And the young 91, Bowers, got better. He's looking like a guy to watch come back, get off the ball and really play violent against the run. We got some pressure, didn't get any sacks, but the ball will be out quick with this team."
The Bucs didn't tackle as well as they usually do, and Morris conceded that he didn't get particularly strong play out of nose tackles Roy Miller and Frank Okam. That came as a surprise, and it allowed many of the Lions' delayed handoffs up the middle to Jahvid Best and Maurice Morris find success. That in turn kept the Lions out of too many third-and-long situations, where they would have had to let Stafford stand in the pocket a little longer.
"When the offensive line sits back, the quarterback just gets the ball out quick, it basically eliminates the front four," said McCoy. "We've just got to get that [anyway]. Our secondary played well. They held them as long as possible. Our D-line won't say it was anybody else. It was all us. It was all us."
Stafford and the Lions deserve credit for making that offensive game plan work – to the tune of 431 yards. The Bucs' new young defensive line didn't win the day, but it didn't put anything on film that negatively affected the team's confidence going forward. The pass-rushers are already looking forward to another shot next Sunday against Donovan McNabb and the Vikings.
"We knew we wouldn't able to get [pressure] on first and second down," said Morris. "If you don't get the third down on these guys, you've got no chance of getting after them, because the ball comes out so quickly with the bubble screens, quick sticks and things of that nature, the quick-designed throws. They did a nice job. We have to get ready to go for Minnesota, get ready to play again."
The Bucs' ran the ball only 16 times, and several miscues on third-and-short and fourth-and-short kept them from sustaining drives and getting more opportunities to hand off. After a two-minute drill was successful just before halftime, pulling Tampa Bay within a touchdown, the Bucs came out after the break and went right to the hurry-up. It didn't work, the Lions improved their lead to two touchdowns and the rushing game was further marginalized.
Morris and Freeman felt good about the decision to start the second half in the two-minute offense at the time, but the coach admitted on Monday that the strategy might have backfired. He also stressed that the Bucs would not be looking to take their offense more in the direction of hurry-up mode. The team is still committed to a power attack, with the ground game built around bruising back LeGarrette Blount.
And, again, the good news is that, despite the bad rushing numbers, the offensive line had a mostly impressive outing. It spent much of the day in pass protection instead and held up well against Ndamukong Suh and company.
"You've got to give a big positive to our O-line," said Morris. "Talk about protection. It was clear-cut passing situations for us with a great front that we played against yesterday and for Free to only get sacked twice and one being his fault, I thought it was a great job by our offensive line."
Freeman, who dropped back 50 times in the game, agreed.
"One thing I will say is I'm really proud of how our guys fought. Our guys fought extremely well and hard today. I thought our line stepped up and played tremendously in the pass game. We just have to find a way to score points earlier. I was really optimistic coming out of the locker room at halftime."
After Sunday's game, the Buccaneers were asked a lot of questions about what went wrong, as expectations for the team are sky-high in 2011, and an opening-day loss wasn't part of the plan. And they have definitely spent the first few days of Week Two looking for the correct answers to those questions. What they haven't done is worry about the missing numbers from Sunday's game, particularly in terms of sacks and rushing yards; waste time on that and they'll certainly hear Morris pull out one of his favorite tropes – "Stats are for losers."
There was good and bad in the Bucs' play on Sunday against Detroit, but along both lines there was enough positive to keep the team's confidence high.
"We're not playing to people's expectations," said McCoy. "That's not what we're worried about. The great thing about the league is that it's a long season, it's not like college where you lose one and it's over. Just go back, make some adjustments, and fix it. There's nothing to get down about."