2010 NFL Team Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 3-13, 1-5
Division finish: 4th NFC South
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 30th, 28th, 24th, 23rd
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 27th, 27th, 10th, 32nd

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Cadillac Williams, 823 yards, 4 TD; Derrick Ward, 409 yards, 1 TD
Passing: Josh Freeman, 1,855 yards, 10 TD, 18 INT; Josh Johnson, 685 yards, 4 TD, 8 INT; Byron Leftwich, 594 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT
Receiving: Kellen Winslow, 884 yards, 5 TD; Antonio Bryant, 600 yards, 4 TD; Sammie Stroughter, 334 yards, 1 TD; Maurice Stovall, 366 yards, 1 TD; Cadillac Williams, 217 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Barrett Ruud, 107 total tackles; Geno Hayes, 80 total tackles
Sacks: Stylez White, 6.5 sacks; Jimmy Wilkerson, 6 sacks
Interceptions: Aqib Talib, 5 interceptions (0 touchdowns); Tanard Jackson, 5 interceptions (2 touchdowns); Richard Marshall, 4 interceptions (0 touchdowns)

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 26 vs. Pittsburgh: The Steelers' transition from a run-first team under Bill Cowher to a pass-heavy team under Mike Tomlin has hit one little snag: a 4-6 game suspension for Ben Roethlisberger. The Buccaneers will play against the Steelers during his suspension, so they have a legitimate shot at defeating a team only two years removed from a Super Bowl victory. The Steelers' offensive line already wasn't the greatest, but the season-ending injury to Willie Colon makes this line even weaker. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is very immobile in the pocket and has an incredibly slow release, which means the results are disastrous when he plays behind a struggling offensive line as he did in Atlanta in 2007 and Tampa Bay in 2009. The Buccaneers' defense can make a huge statement in this game, while the Buccaneers' offensive line will have to contend with the creative zone-blitz schemes of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

October 21 vs St. Louis: Coming off of a tough two weeks against the Bengals and then the Saints, the Buccaneers will face the St. Louis Rams, another team hoping to rebound from an awful 2009 season. This game is the Buccaneers' chance to show that there is a marked difference in the amount of progress being made in the two teams' rebuilding processes. If the Buccaneers' defense hasn't fully hit its stride by this point in the season, it will get a chance to do so by feasting on rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.

December 19 vs Detroit: Reloading their offense has been the Lions' focus over the past two years, but the selection of Ndamukong Suh with the second pick of the draft shows that second-year head coach Jim Schwartz isn't ignoring the defensive side of the ball, either. The Buccaneers will have to slow down receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, while also containing rookie running back Jahvid Best. On offense, the Bucs' line will be severely tested by Suh and free-agent signee Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Key Losses

Antonio Bryant, WR; Jimmy Wilkerson, DE

Key Returning Players

Josh Freeman, QB; Cadillac Williams, RB; Stylez White, DE; Sabby Piscitelli, SS; Donald Penn, OT

Key Draft Picks

Gerald McCoy, DT; Brian Price, DT; Myron Lewis, CB; Arrelious Benn, WR; Mike Williams, WR

Key Free Agent Signings

Sean Jones, S

Offensive Overview

Perhaps the Buccaneers' biggest problem on offense in 2009 was their change in offensive philosophy. Under coach Jon Gruden, the Buccaneers were a power-running team, but they switched to a zone-blocking scheme as part of the transition to rookie head coach Raheem Morris's philosophy. However, the Buccaneers' linemen are large maulers built for the power run game, whereas a zone-blocking scheme requires smaller, more athletic offensive linemen. This led to a large amount of struggles and mistakes by the offensive line. While running back Cadillac Williams played phenomenally and was able to pick up yards even if there was no hole, the passing game suffered tremendously. The Buccaneers' quarterbacks were constantly harassed from the outside, especially from the right. This year, center Jeff Faine is quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as saying that the team will use less of the failed zone-blocking scheme it used last year:

"When you’re put in a position where you’re trying to figure things out on the run, it caught up with us," Joseph said. "Then you change philosophies and you’re trying to change things week after week after week. It’s different when you have a set plan and you start from March to August than when you have one week to prepare. There’s only so much you can do in a week. Now we’re starting with a solid plan in March and we’re going to take that all the way through to December. It makes things a lot easier for everybody. Backups, starters, the quarterback – everybody."

With an improved offensive line and a full offseason of working as the starter at Buccaneers practices, quarterback Josh Freeman will almost certainly improve upon his performance last year, where he showed a large amount of promise despite frequently turning the ball over when under pressure. His leadership and poise as he led his team to an overtime victory over the Saints in week 16 of the season showed that he was starting to grow out of that, and he should play well this year. While he isn't as fleet-footed as Vince Young or Michael Vick, Freeman is fast enough to move the chains and hurt defenses if they don't account for his mobility. As defenses keep a man or two underneath to prevent Freeman from doing this, it will open up opportunities deep downfield. Freeman seemed to read defenses a little slowly last year, and should improve in that area. Eventually, he will be a great quarterback for the Buccaneers. While he's not there yet, he will still be good enough to get the job done.

In order to make Freeman's job easier, the Buccaneers drafted highly-touted receivers Arrelious Benn from Illinois and Mike Williams from Syracuse. If either or both of these two receivers is able to make an impact in their first NFL season, Buccaneers fans will quickly forget about the loss of Antonio Bryant. Receiver Michael Clayton wasn't targeted frequently last season, but he averaged an impressive 14.4 yards per reception, and could be looked to in order to fill Bryant's shoes. Additionally, the Buccaneers traded for former Eagles receiver Reggie Brown to provide depth at the wideout position. Along with Kellen Winslow, one of the league's top pass-catching tight ends, these receivers will provide Freeman with more options in the passing game than he had last year.

With an improvement in the passing game, defenses will not be able to run-blitz as frequently, which should create more opportunities for Williams, Derrick Ward, and Earnest Graham to move the ball on the ground. While this offense probably won't be great, it will certainly be better than it was in 2009.

Defensive Overview

By selecting defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks of the 2010 draft, the Buccaneers made it clear that their biggest priority on defense will be collapsing the opponent's interior offensive line. By releasing defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who was a starter last year, the Buccaneers made it clear that they expect both McCoy and Price to contribute immediately. Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, who produced 6 sacks last year, defected to New Orleans, but Stylez White remains, and he played fairly well last year, though he was fairly limited at times because offensive lines were able to double-team him and/or chip him with a running back because they didn't have to focus on the defensive tackles. With McCoy and Price penetrating the inside of opponents' offensive lines, White will be freed up and even more effective. Opposite of White, second-year pro Kyle Moore is expected to start after dropping 22 pounds in the offseason, but Tim Crowder could make a push for the starting job as well.

The Buccaneers' linebacker corps is possibly this defense's deepest and most talented unit, with Quincy Black, Barrett Ruud, and Geno Hayes. Seventh-round pick Cody Grimm's speed and ability to pursue and wrap up the ball-carrier suggests he could fill in excellently if one of the other linebackers gets hurt, and Angelo Crowell provides depth as well after missing most of the 2009 season with a torn bicep.

All in all, this defense is undergoing a major youth movement, but would be in a lot better shape if Thomas Davis hadn't been injured again. Without him, the Panthers' defensive hopes lie on the shoulders of rookie linebacker Eric Norwood, a solid run-stopper from the University of South Carolina. If he can fill in for the run-stopping role Davis filled in coordinator Ron Meeks' Cover 2 defense, the Panthers' run defense will be better in 2010.

If Norwood is a solid run-stopper alongside Beason, if Tyler and Leonard can clog up the middle at defensive tackle, and if one of the Panthers' defensive ends can fill Julius Peppers's enormous shoes, this defense will be a lot better at stopping the run than it was in 2009. With the ability to shut down opponents' running games, the Panthers' defense would get more opportunities to play pass defense, their biggest strength. It's possible, but there are too many variables involved for this to be a probable situation. While the Panthers' defense will be absolutely dominant in another year or two, the outlook for 2010 is average.

At corner, the starting tandem of Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber will be more effective now that the defense has switched back to its traditional “Tampa-2” zone scheme as opposed to the man-coverage scheme they played under for the first ten games of 2009 before head coach Raheem Morris fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Barber, especially, appears better-suited for a zone defense as he ages and loses speed. Free safety Tanard Jackson doesn't have elite leaping ability, but he has a knack for compensating for this by getting in front of the receiver and putting himself in position to get to the ball. Strong safety Sabby Piscitelli seemed to overthink plays and got beat last year, and Raheem Morris has said that Piscitelli will have to compete with former Eagle Sean Jones for the starting strong safety spot. The Buccaneers were absolutely shredded last year by three- and four-receiver sets, so they will look to Myron Lewis, their third-round pick from Vanderbilt, to strengthen the nickel spot.

This year, the Buccaneers' overall defense will hinge on the play of its rookie defensive tackles. The position of defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense is arguably even more crucial than that of middle linebacker. Fielding a strong duo of defensive tackles has a trickle-down effect on the entire defense: it frees up the defensive ends to make more plays as the tackles are subjected to double-teams, and linebackers and defensive backs don't have to blitz or play run support. For this reason, it's surprising to see the Buccaneers possibly entrusting both defensive tackle positions to rookies. If the gamble pays off, this defense can be a lot better than it was in 2009. If not, the defense can't be much worse than it was in 2009.

Special Teams Overview

The Buccaneers excelled in kickoff coverage, allowing the league's second lowest average yards per kickoff return despite a mediocre 19th-ranked average kickoff distance. They fared pretty well in punt coverage, allowing the 14th-lowest average yards per punt return despite the fifth-lowest average punt distance. Punter Dirk Johnson was not re-signed after his 2009 season ended with an injured hamstring on a fake punt play, and rookie Brent Bowden is expected to be the team's starting punter in the fall.

The Buccaneers' return game was also excellent. They tied for the highest average yards per kickoff return in the league, had the fourth-highest average yards gained per punt return, and returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown during the 2009 season.

The Buccaneers scored on a league-low 61.5 percent of their field goal attempts, and as a result, the Buccaneers signed undrafted free agent Hunter Lawrence from the University of Texas to be the team's placekicker and improve that low field goal percentage.

Head Coach: Raheem Morris

Morris fired his offensive coordinator ten days before the start of the regular season, and fired his defensive coordinator 10 games into the season. While that move led to turmoil in the 2009 season, it has the Buccaneers in much better shape going into the 2010 season. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski's firing stemmed from the small number of plays of which his offense was composed, as well as his inability during training camp to call plays in under 25 seconds. While it was too late to change out of Jagodzinski's offense, the Buccaneers were able to at least work with coordinator Greg Olson throughout the season, and they will have had an entire offseason to install Olson's offense. On defense, Morris chose to switch to the Tampa-2 defense because he saw that it was a better fit for his personnel. In the course of a year, Morris has truly made the Buccaneers his team.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Ronde Barber, CB; Sabby Piscitelli, SS; Tanard Jackson, FS; Davin Joseph, OG; Barrett Ruud, LB; Donald Penn, OT; Jeremy Trueblood, OT; Stylez White, DE; Cadillac Williams, RB

Season Prediction

4th NFC South

The Buccaneers drafted more immediate-impact players this year than most teams take in two, and that will probably at least double their win total from last season. It won't be enough to lift them in the brutal NFC South, but it will help them in the future. This team has a core of young players about to enter their prime, and if the Buccaneers make it a priority to offer extensions to their 2011 free agents, they could be only a year or two away from contending for the NFC South title. While this year might be another frustrating one for Buccaneers fans, there will at least be reason for optimism about next year. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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