Monday, December 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Taking a moment to assess the Bucs

TAMPA

Let's hit the pause button as the Bucs wrap up their bye week and examine the 1-3 start under coach Greg Schiano.

"Every quarter, as you examine your books as a business," Schiano said, "you examine your production as a team."

After a successful debut, a 16-10 win over the Panthers, the Bucs have lost three in a row to NFC East teams — Giants, Cowboys and Redskins — by a combined 15 points.

Statistically, the Bucs have been worse than that, 30th in total defense (419 yards per game) and 30th in total offense (276 yards per game).

What did Schiano and the Bucs learn during a week of self-examination?

It's the QB, stupid

Josh Freeman is the 25th-ranked passer in the league with a rating of 75.3. That doesn't mean much because the Bears' Jay Cutler, whose team is 3-1, is one spot ahead of him.

Freeman has started fast in three games, producing 17 points on opening drives with plays that have been well-scripted. Then he typically hits a lull, and the Bucs fall behind. He has been effective late in games, particularly throwing the ball deep. The bottom line is Freeman looks uncomfortable in his third system in four years.

Schiano said they spent last week homing in on what Freeman does well. Against the Redskins, there was an emphasis on changing the launch spot for Freeman with bootlegs and allowing him to throw the ball more on first down. Schiano said the Bucs should dial up more deep balls early in the game.

"It's more of we have this menu of plays. We don't need them all," Schiano said. "You can't run them all in a game. So let's just prioritize the plays that he's best at, that he feels the best at, and go from there. That's really what we're doing now; just kind of narrowing our focus."

The sooner offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan realizes Freeman is more Ben Roethlisberger than Eli Manning, the easier it will be for the Bucs.

"A lot of things are going on," Freeman said. "You make the protection calls. You've got things picked up, and it's a matter of just relaxing, trusting it and just making the throws."

The best thing the Bucs do on offense is throw the ball deep to Vincent Jackson and back-shoulder tosses to fellow receiver Mike Williams. Look for more of both along with allowing Freeman to be Freeman.

They can't run the ball

It's not enough to declare yourself a ground-and-pound team. You have to actually be good at it. The Bucs are 20th in rushing offense at 91 yards per game.

Rookie Doug Martin hasn't gotten on track as evidenced by his 3.5 yards per carry and a long of 17 yards. LeGarrette Blount, the team's leading rusher the past two seasons, is an afterthought.

The biggest issue is the loss of Pro Bowl G Davin Joseph to a season-ending knee injury. The team might have compounded that by starting Demar Dotson at right tackle. Dotson has ability as a pass protector, but the team loses something in the running game without Jeremy Trueblood.

The best way to protect your quarterback? Run the ball well.

Last week, Schiano said the Bucs shuffled the deck and gave Trueblood some reps at right guard in place of starter Ted Larsen. T James Meredith and C Cody Wallace also got looks.

As for Martin, look for the Bucs to get him on the perimeter more with toss sweeps and isolated on linebackers in the passing game. Blount also should be more involved.

Good, bad, ugly on defense

The biggest surprise might be the play of the defense, which allowed a club-record 494 points last season. If not for Manning's 500-yard passing day, the numbers would look much better. As it is, the Bucs are ranked fourth against the run, allowing 73.8 yards per game.

The season-ending injury to DE Adrian Clayborn might be a deal-breaker. The Bucs are wafer thin on the defensive line, which would be more evident if not for monster starts by Gerald McCoy, Michael Bennett and Roy Miller.

Rookie LB Lavonte David, who had 14 tackles against the Redskins, is a great — not good — addition. LB Mason Foster is playing faster and has seven tackles for loss. The back end of the defense has done well when not left on an island like they were against the Giants.

But there have been too many breakdowns. Two missed blitz calls likely cost the Bucs the win over the Redskins. That shouldn't happen in a season, much less on the same drive.

The coaching staff needs to be in synch if the Bucs have any chance of reversing the slow start.

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