When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, it was a triumph of experience over youth. After all, the Panthers sport the youngest opening-day roster in the entire NFL.
The youngest, that is, by about 155 days on Earth per Panther. That's how much greener Carolina's roster is than the second-youngest team in the NFL…the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Both the Buccaneers and Panthers opened 2010 with 53-man rosters on which the average age was less than 26 years old. Tampa Bay's youth has performed quite well so far, as the Buccaneers are one of just eight undefeated teams in the NFL after two weeks. With an average age of 25.58 years per player (and a median age of exactly 25) it stands to reason that a number of the team's key contributors would be men still pushing a quarter-century.
And indeed, that is the case. Last week, we began a series on Buccaneers.com tracking the progress of the Bucs' many contributors who are aged 25 or younger. In it, we will be taking weekly looks at four members of that 25-And-Under Crew; last week we focused on cornerback E.J. Biggers, linebacker Dekoda Watson, safety Tanard Jackson and quarterback Josh Freeman.
Who's making noise among the young guys this week? Let's take a look:
- WR Mike Williams
Williams' fast start might be the most predictable one of the 25-And-Under Crew, or at least it appears to be the natural progression of everything he has done since arriving in Tampa in May.
A fourth-round pick out of Syracuse, Williams was so impressive in the summer months that he already had a starting spot in hand when his first training camp began. He did nothing to jeopardize that job in camp or the preseason, and he has made the decision look brilliant now that the games count.
In two games, the 23-year-old Williams has caught seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. He is the first Buccaneer rookie since Cadillac Williams to score in each of the team's first two games, and he is the first Buccaneer rookie wideout ever to do so. Moreover, he has already scored in two different dazzlingly impressive manners. Against Cleveland in the opener it was a case of total concentration, as he tipped a ball away from the defender and managed to find the deflection before dragging his toes inbounds. Against Carolina, it was a matter of total will-power, as he turned a simple square-in into a 35-yard touchdown by fighting through a gaggle of six Panther defenders.
The Bucs have played a ball-control offense in reaction to the flow of their first two games, and the team's receivers have combined for just 11 catches so far. Obviously, Williams is the number-one target in that group with his seven grabs, and he's the one who's numbers are likely to explode when games dictate a more aggressive passing attack.
- DE Tim Crowder
Crowder seems like a seasoned veteran on the Bucs' young defensive front, but he is only in his fourth season and is still just 25 years old. He joined the Buccaneers early last year after two seasons with the Denver Broncos and has since become a very valuable part of the Buccaneers' defensive end rotation.
Crowder has not started either of the Buccaneers' first two games, but according to Head Coach Raheem Morris he plays essentially as many snaps as the starters. He certainly saw significant playing time in Carolina, where he led the Bucs' defensive charge with two sacks and a forced fumble.
Through two games, Crowder already has 10 tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. He is the only Buccaneer defender, as a matter of fact, to already make a mark in each of those six categories.
The Buccaneers have completely remade their defensive line over the last 13 months. While that front still includes veterans Stylez G. White and Ryan Sims, the rest of the crew is a youthful group that is learning to rush the passer together as a team. Crowder's success within that philosophy is helping him emerge as a player the Buccaneers can build around for the long term.
- K Connor Barth
Even the Bucs' specialists are a young group, particularly Barth, the placekicker.
Though he has followed the typical kicker path to a secure spot in the NFL, bouncing from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Miami Dolphins before landing with the Buccaneers, Barth is still just 24 years old. Considering the long careers that successful kickers can often forge in the NFL, Barth could be a weapon for the Buccaneers for years to come.
He has certainly made a good case for himself over his first 11 games in Tampa. Since his debut against the Green Bay Packers last year, Barth has attempted 22 field goals and made 17 of them, for a success rate of 77.3%. He's trending upward, too, having made his last nine field goals in a row, dating back to the 2009 season.
This year, Barth has been just what the Buccaneers have needed in a pair of hard-fought low-scoring wins. He hit from 49 yards out in the opener, providing the eventual winning points against the Browns, then calmly banged home 24 and 33-yarders at Carolina.
That 49-yard shot against Cleveland continued his mastery from long distance since he joined the Buccaneers. Last year, Barth made team history when he hit three field goals of 50 or more yards in a single game at Miami. Overall, he has made nine of 12 tries from 40 or more yards, including three of four from 50 and beyond.
- S Cody Grimm
Grimm's rookie season would be worthy of a review this week even if he was still just turning heads on special teams. Of course, he's now in line to play a much more significant role.
The Buccaneers expected the former Virginia Tech linebacker to be a force on kick coverage when they drafted him in the seventh round this past April, and indeed he led the team during the preseason with five special teams tackles. He didn't slow down once the regular season began, either, notching two more kick-coverage stops in his first two games. Teammate Quincy Black says the rookie safety has been turning heads with his standout play in that phase of the game.
And now Grimm is the Bucs' starting free safety, just three games into his professional career. With the loss of Jackson to the suspended list, Grimm will step in and try to help the Bucs continue their strong play on defense. During the preseason, he showed good instincts and a willingness to throw his body into a collision with an opposing ballcarrier. Morris said Grimm has earned this opportunity with his hard work and good results on the practice field. Now he's got a chance to be one of the leading performers in that 25-And-Under Crew.
Lorig Picks Up Familiar Position
As a sophomore at Stanford, Erik Lorig switched from offense to defense, trading in his tight end number for a spot on the defensive line. That proved to be a good idea, as Lorig's performance at end was good enough to get him to the next level. This past April, the Buccaneers selected Lorig in the seventh round of the 2010 draft.
Now that he's in the NFL, however, Lorig might be switching back.
The hustling defensive end performed well in his first NFL training camp and preseason, earning a spot on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster after the final wave of cuts. He was subsequently released after the season opener, however, and then signed back to Tampa Bay's practice squad. That means, though he is currently ineligible to participate in Buccaneer games, he can take the practice field with his teammates.
And it's on that field behind One Buccaneer Place that Lorig is learning a new position. Which just happens to be his old position.
These days, Lorig is wearing a white jersey in practice as he runs with the tight ends on the offensive side of the ball. Lorig last played the position in 2006 as a redshirt freshman for the Cardinal, when he caught three passes for 21 yards. His switch in '07 provided instant results, as he started eight games as a sophomore and contributed 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Lorig believes his two-way duty at Stanford has prepared him for his current situation in Tampa, where it will behoove him to also remain familiar with the Bucs' defensive schemes.
"I've learned offense and defense before in college, and in the NFL I feel like I can catch on to it in a few weeks or so," he said. "I feel good about it. I've had enough time now to really understand the defense, and with the offense we ran something similar at Stanford so I kind of have a general understand of it. I think I'll pick it up in a couple of weeks."
Though conversions like this are much rarer on the NFL level than in college, when young athletes are still developing, the Bucs' idea of a switch didn't really surprise Lorig. He says several NFL teams asked him to show what he could do on both sides of the ball during pre-draft workouts. The Bucs first approached him with the idea when he returned to the practice squad in Week Two.
"I went out with the scout team and did what I do," said Lorig, "and the next thing you know I was working with the tight ends pretty much full-time. I think I'll be working on it for awhile. There really wasn't any indication [of how long the project would last]. Just go in, do your work and see where it goes."
The Bucs already know that Lorig is a valuable special teamer, a rare 275-pound end who can effectively crash downfield on punt and kickoff coverage. That's a role he can fill whether his practice jersey is red or white, and a talent that will increase his chances of a return to the 53-man roster. More than that, if he does return to the active roster, his newfound versatility could help him avoid the inactive list on game days.
"Any time you can gain as much value as you can on the 45-man game day roster, that's a plus," said Morris. "He's developing on the practice squad for us right now. He's going out there and every day and playing a little bit of D-Line, a little stand-up 'backer, he's doing some tight end for us, he's doing some fullback. He's developing into a nice hybrid football player and we're trying to increase his work so if he gets a helmet on again he'll have an opportunity to get on the grass and really be productive for us."
As for which side of the ball he'd like his NFL career to develop on, Lorig will gladly go in whichever direction gets him on the field.
"I'll do anything," he said. "I love them both. It's football, right?"
While the Buccaneers still have a very healthy roster overall, they will go into Sunday with four players listed as questionable on their injury report, twice as many as they reported for the first two weeks combined.
Center Jeff Faine (calf), running back Kareem Huggins (groin), linebacker Niko Koutouvides (ankle) and cornerback Myron Lewis (knee) received that game-status designation on Friday when the more detailed injury reports were released. Faine and Huggins both participated in practice on a limited basis, but Koutouvides and Lewis did not take part in the week's final workout. Koutouvides is the only one of the four who missed the Buccaneers' Week Two game at Carolina.
Morris indicated that all four would be game-day decisions.
Three other Buccaneers, all members of the starting offense, were listed on the injury report, but all participated fully on Friday. Quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb), running back Cadillac Williams (hamstring) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) are all worth watching, but all three are considered probable for the game.
As has been the case for much of the summer and the first month of the regular season, the Bucs overall health helped the team put together a strong and productive week of practice.
"I'm proud and impressed with our preparation this week," said Morris. "The guys are starting to feel it and get an understanding. They're really going out and preparing like a team. They're preparing together. You can see the guys developing on the practice field, which is a great thing."
The Buccaneers do have an open roster spot after safety Tanard Jackson was placed on the reserve/suspended list on Tuesday, but it is not mandatory that they fill it before this weekend's game. For a player to be eligible to play against Pittsburgh, however, he would have to be added to the roster by Saturday afternoon.
"We've got those options," said Morris. "We've got a lot of guys on our practice squad, we've got people we've scouted in the market out there. Something could happen or nothing could happen."
The Steelers' Friday injury report ruled two players out for the game: quarterback Dennis Dixon (knee) and guard Trai Essex (ankle), both of whom started Pittsburgh's first two games. Dixon will be replaced by veteran Charlie Batch, while second-year man Ramon Foster is listed as the backup to Essex on Pittsburgh's depth chart.
It appears as if the Steelers will get two key starters back, however. Left tackle Max Starks (ankle) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring) missed Pittsburgh's Week Two game against Tennessee but both are listed as probable on this week's injury report after participating fully in practice on Friday.