The second team of the four-post “Spoiling the Surprise” series is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs went 7-9 last season in their first season with head coach Greg Schiano, finishing second in the NFC South. However, a late-season collapse caused Tampa Bay to lose five of its last six games. In fact, the one win during the downfall was a week 17 affair against the Falcons in which Atlanta rested some players and had a vanilla game plan after they had already clinched the #1 seed in the playoffs. Considering the tumble down the stretch and the fact that the Saints are expected to return to their winning ways now that Sean Payton is back, many people have Tampa Bay finishing a distant third in the NFC South. But I don’t quite see it that way…
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Why they’ll surprise:
Last year, Tampa Bay had the top-ranked run defense by a wide margin, yielding only 82 yards rushing per game. This was largely due to DT Gerald McCoy’s healthy presence and consistent dominance for a full season; as I mentioned in my countdown of the NFL’s top 40 players, McCoy has an enormous impact when he’s on the field. But he’s not the only reason the defensive line should be a force in 2013. The Buccaneers get a pair of promising young DEs, Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, back from injuries. Clayborn displayed true pass rushing ability during his rookie year in 2011 but was limited to just three games last season. Bowers missed the first 8 games of the 2012 season with knee issues, but he was solid down the stretch as a part-time player. The Buccaneers are counting on these defensive ends to rehab and come back stronger in 2012. The team was confident enough in their ability and health situation to let DE Michael Bennett walk in free agency. Clayborn and Bowers, along with third round pick, DT Akeem Spence, should be more than enough to make up for the loss. The Buccaneers have a very formidable defensive line.
The offensive line should be much better too. The Buccaneers already have a stable LT in Donald Penn, and RT Demar Dotson held his own last season. But the team gets both their starting guards back from injuries. LG Davin Joseph, a former Pro Bowler, got injured during the preseason and missed all of 2012. More importantly, RG Carl Nicks, who I consider the second or third best offensive guard in the NFL, only played half the season before suffering a season-ending injury of his own. Both guards are expected to return healthy for the 2013 season. Throw in the fact that the talented Doug Martin is versatile, shifty and powerful enough to be the team’s bell-cow runner, and you can see why the Buccaneers’ running game should be imposing in 2013. Tampa Bay also has a talented wide receiver corp that includes Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and newly acquired Kevin Ogletree.
The main reason I believe Tampa Bay will be an improved team is because the team turned their biggest weakness into a strength. Tampa Bay’s secondary was atrocious last season; the safety play was subpar and the team had no remotely worthy cornerbacks, especially after Eric Wright went down in week 11. As a result, the Bucs were constantly gashed in a pass-happy NFC South. Knowing that the secondary is forced to deal with pass catchers like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Steve Smith, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham twice a year, the Buccaneers overhauled their secondary. The team paid a hefty amount to acquire the top safety on the free agent market, FS Dashon Goldson. He is quality in coverage, and he can certainly lay down the lumber for a free safety. He and hard-hitting SS Mark Barron pose a threat to whoever is crossing through the middle. Barron should improve after a decent rookie season. Last year, CB Eric Wright was the team’s #1 cornerback, but he was limited to 11 games, and he’s better served as a #2 CB anyway. Now, his #2 role is solidified, as the Buccanneers traded their first round pick to bring in CB Darrelle Revis, the NFL’s best cornerback. Revis is one of two shutdown corners in the NFL right now, and when healthy (he suffered a torn ACL in week 3 last season), he’s a top 10 overall player in this league, without question. The fact that Revis can lock down an opposing team’s #1 WR in single coverage allows the safeties to focus on other assignments, which essentially is equivalent to having 12 players on the field for the defense. His impact (if fully healthy) can’t be understated. Not to be outdone, the Buccaneers also drafted CB Jonathan Banks in the second round of April’s draft. He and Leonard Johnson project as above average nickel and dime corners. The major upgrades in the secondary were a brilliant way to cope in the pass-heavy NFC South, especially since the team’s run defense was already stingy. It almost seems like Tampa Bay has built themselves to stop the Falcons and Saints’ aerial assaults particularly.
Why they could fail:
Josh Freeman has not made strides since his break-out second season. The organization is beginning to lose patience with Freeman, and they made a statement by selecting QB Mike Glennon (NC State) in the third round of April’s draft. Freeman, entering the final year of his contract, needs to have a great season, as the team’s quarterback of the future could already be on the roster now. Freeman’s main problem is his inconsistency. Freeman can show flashes of greatness and disgusting inability in the same game. He’s strong in the pocket and difficult to bring down, but he’s extremely inaccurate at times (more often than not last year, as his pathetic 54 comp% would suggest). Luckily for him, his weapons on the outside and a strong running game help bail him out and boost his numbers. But the team knows if he doesn’t show more consistency this season, he has no chance of being signed to a longterm deal with Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers have a major weakness at linebacker. WLB Lavonte David looks like a promising young player, but Saints’ fans know that SLB Jon Casillas is not a viable starter in this league. And MLB Mason Foster is certainly nothing to brag about either. It’s a good thing that defensive line is strong and the secondary is loaded with willing tacklers, because the linebackers could be easily exposed otherwise. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan knows the team lacks depth at linebacker, which is why he employed only two linebackers on more than 60% of the team’s defensive snaps (the highest percentage in the NFL). The team needs Mason Foster to step up and make an impact.
What I expect:
As mentioned previously, most people see Tampa Bay finishing as a distant third (and in some cases, last) in the NFC South. But I don’t think the Buccaneers are far behind the Saints or Falcons from a roster standpoint at all. In fact, I think the Bucs could surprise people and finish second in the division ahead of the Falcons, with a 9-7 record. Atlanta has offensive line questions and defensive holes that Tampa Bay does not have. I currently have the Saints winning the NFC South with a 10-6 record. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay ran a tight race for the division title until the last week or two of the regular season.
Unlike under former coach Raheem Morris, the Buccaneers will remained disciplined with Greg Schiano calling the shots. Schiano has commanded respect from day one, and the players have bought into this positive culture change. Tampa Bay will be scrappy defensively, and they have the talent on defense to dominate at times. Upgrading the team’s biggest weakness (the secondary) and turning it into a strength will allow the defense to make tremendous strides. The offense is filled with playmakers on the outside and at running back. The return of starting guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks should also help alleviate Josh Freeman, an inconsistent quarterback who is entering a contract year.
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