In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season-opening win over the Cleveland Browns, seen-it-all veteran Ronde Barber turned in the game's single most momentum-shifting play, an interception and 64-yard return in the last minute of the first half. The Buccaneers scored one play later to cut into Cleveland's 11-point lead, then won the game, 17-14, with the only touchdown of the second half.
It's worth noting the details of that touchdown set up by the 35-year-old Barber, however.
On the play, 22-year-old starting quarterback Josh Freeman scooted to his left away from pressure and zipped a sidearm pass in the direction of 23-year-old starting wide receiver Mike Williams. Williams turned it into six points with a dazzling bit of improvisation, tipping the ball away from a defender and then spinning 270 degrees to locate the ball and catch it before falling out of bounds.
Later in the game, 23-year-old cornerback E.J. Biggers intercepted a pass to seal the Bucs' three-point win. The Bucs were able to withstand several late thrusts by the Browns by completely disrupting the offensive backfield with pressure supplied by defensive tackles Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Roy Miller (22, 21 and 23-years-old respectively). They also got huge contributions from 24-year-old WR Sammie Stroughter and 23-year-old linebacker Geno Hayes. Kicker Connor Barth, 24, provided the difference in the score with a 49-yard field goal.
You've undoubtedly noticed a theme.
The 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not just a young team – tied for second-youngest in the entire NFL, a far cry from where the roster was less than two years ago – but a young and promising team. Veterans like Barber and Jeff Faine and Kellen Winslow are still playing critical roles, but they are surrounded by a youthful core that is quickly maturing into a very interesting team to watch.
Cornerback Aqib Talib is 24 years old and might soon have the sort of national cachet that his 2008 draft-mate, the Jets' Darrelle Revis, enjoys. McCoy seems to fit in like a veteran 10 years his elder. Tanard Jackson, at 25, is already in his fourth season as a starter and some consider him one of the best safeties in the league. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn, 22, has enormous untapped potential. The Bucs' second-string quarterback, Josh Johnson, is only 24 but has given the team confidence that it is protected in the case of any absence by Freeman.
So that's what we're going to do: Watch this 25-And-Under Crew as it progresses through its first season together. Each week in this feature we'll review the progress of four players from that group, which shouldn't be difficult given the very deep pool from which to fish.
The 25-And-Under Crew, Week One
- CB E.J. Biggers:
Thanks to an outstanding training camp, Biggers won a hotly-contested battle to start the season as the Buccaneers' nickel back. That was an impressive achievement in and of itself, given that Biggers is a former seventh-round pick who spent his entire 2009 rookie season on injured reserve.
As it turned out, however, Biggers would need to fill an even more significant role in the 2010 season opener, which doubled as his NFL regular-season debut. With usual starter Aqib Talib – his under-25 buddy – on a reserve list for the opener, Biggers stepped in as the starting left cornerback against the Cleveland Browns. Though he and the rest of the Buccaneers' defense struggled at times in the first half, Biggers had a spectacular second half that included the aforementioned interception and several other deflected passes. This was even more impressive given that the Buccaneers stayed mostly away from Cover Two packages in favor of more aggressive defensive schemes that forced their cornerbacks into extended man coverage.
Biggers will slide back to the nickel back job now that Talib has returned, which really means he'll be playing right cornerback on the outside in nickel situations, with Ronde Barber, as always moving into the slot. With Elbert Mack and rookie third-rounder Myron Lewis – yes, two more under-25ers – nipping at his heels, Biggers will have to continue to excel to maintain his prominent position on defense.
- LB Dekoda Watson:
With outside linebackers Geno Hayes (22) and Quincy Black (26 and just ineligible for this feature) playing well in their second year as starters in the Bucs' system, Watson was not needed on defense in the season opener. However, he showed immediately that he will be a force on special teams, which is exactly what the Bucs envisioned when they drafted their trio of seventh-round picks this year.
The 6-2, 240-pound Watson is an impressive mix of size and speed, which makes him a perfect fit for kick coverage. That showed in the opener, as the Buccaneers handled Josh Cribbs, the NFL's most dangerous return man, extremely well. Watson pitched in with two kick-coverage tackles, including one where he caught Cribbs just before the Brown returner broke free on his only long return of the day, a 15-yard punt runback.
The Buccaneers are relying on quite a few of the 25-And-Under Crew to carry their special teams in 2010, and Watson looks like he will remain right in the middle of it.
- S Tanard Jackson:
Jackson doesn't seem like he belongs in this crew, most of which is made up of players drafted or signed in the last three years. Jackson actually came aboard in 2007, as a fourth-round pick and a 22-year-old; he just happens to have been a starter from Day One of his rookie season.
In the 2010 opener, Jackson looked as if he is poised to have his best season yet. Riding that same wave that turned the team's first-half struggles into second-half dominance, Jackson was instrumental in shutting the Browns out after halftime. His stat line indicates how much range he showed on defense: six solo tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure and one forced fumble. Jackson was everywhere – from deep centerfield to deep in the opposing backfield.
As entrenched as any starter on the Bucs' defense, Jackson still has room to take his career to another level. He became much more of a ballhawk in 2009, tying for the team lead with five interceptions despite playing in only 12 games. He also scored the first two touchdowns of his career, one on a fumble return and one on an interception return. Jackson caught the big-play fever last year and hopes to turn in much more of the same in his fourth NFL season.
- QB Josh Freeman:
Yes, we're going to be talking about Freeman a lot this year, as the fortunes of the team's 22-year-old franchise quarterback will go hand in hand with the Bucs' overall success for years to come. The first 10 starts of his career have been quite promising.
That 10th start – the first on opening day in his career – came last weekend against the Browns. Freeman wasn't flawless, but that would have been difficult to imagine given that he hadn't played since fracturing the tip of the thumb on his right (throwing) hand in the second week of the preseason. Freeman was still dealing with a measure of pain in the Browns game, and it's possible that a few of his higher misfires were a result of that issue, but that didn't stop him from putting together a very strong afternoon overall.
Freeman completed 17 of 28 passes (60.7%) for 182 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. That equated to a fine single-game passer rating of 88.7. He also ran twice for 34 yards, including a 33-yard scramble that ranked as the longest run by a Bucs quarterback in 20 years. Freeman spread the ball around to seven different receivers, took several cracks downfield (one of which produced the game-winning touchdown) but also took care to maintain ball security. It was definitely an opener that the young passer can build on in 2010.