BY STEPHEN HOLDER
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — After the weekend bye, the Bucs resume work today, with an eye toward the postseason. They've scored some big wins, let other games slip away, and remain in the thick of things, half a game behind the first-place Saints in the NFC South with a game Sunday at New Orleans looming.
But before their season resumes, now seems a natural time to reflect on what the first half of the season has demonstrated, and peer around the corner at what its second half is likely to bring.
Best win, worst loss
The Bucs' Week 6 win Oct. 16 against the Saints was clearly their most complete performance. Tampa Bay had no turnovers, forced New Orleans QB Drew Brees into three interceptions, and maintained a lead almost the whole game. RB Earnest Graham, replacing injured LeGarrette Blount, ran for 109 yards. Seven receivers had multiple catches in the 26-20 victory.
On the other hand, coach Raheem Morris said the Bucs played as if they didn't bother getting off their flight when they traveled to San Francisco last month. They lost 48-3 on Oct. 9 to match the franchise's widest losing margin. This was the game in which the 49ers began to demonstrate their might, something they're still doing now at 6-1 — second-best in the NFL.
Rookies step up
Lost in the shuffle of the Bucs' pre-bye week loss to the Bears in London was a rather dominant performance by rookie right DE Adrian Clayborn. Despite the long list of defensive ends available in this year's draft, the Bucs appear to have made a very solid selection in Clayborn — their first-round choice from Iowa.
Clayborn has a team-high three sacks, but his impact goes well beyond his pass rush. He has been a welcome addition to the Bucs' run defense, holding his ground on the edge and preventing ball carriers from getting to the perimeter.
Middle LB Mason Foster deserves loads of credit, too. A third-round pick, he stepped into Barrett Ruud's big shoes and made everyone forget the team's former starter in the middle. He has been slowed by ankle injuries in recent weeks but Foster has been, arguably, the season's most pleasant surprise.
Not cutting it
As thrilled as the Bucs are with those rookies, they should be concerned about the first-half performances of two critical members of the offense.
QB Josh Freeman's seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions aren't the ratio the Bucs expected. His struggles with missing open receivers and head-scratching decisions have killed drives and put entirely too much pressure on the defense. Freeman's play coming out of this bye week is the biggest issue facing the Bucs. Will he step up or continue his slide?
Meanwhile, second-year WR Mike Williams is having a subpar season in comparison to his brilliant rookie campaign. A few weeks ago, he described his recent play as "terrible," and it hasn't improved much since.
It's not all about numbers. Williams is on pace for 70 catches, more than last season. But the dynamic plays Williams made a habit of in 2010 have been lacking. His average has dropped to 10.2 yards per catch from 14.8 last season, and Williams has just one touchdown reception after snaring 11 last season. Not to be overlooked: Williams' sure hands haven't been nearly as reliable this season — part of the reason the Bucs are among the league leaders in dropped passes.
Most painful injury
Earnest Graham's torn Achilles' tendon is very literally painful, but it's going to hurt in a figurative sense, too. Though LeGarrette Blount is scheduled to return this weekend after missing two games, the role of third-down back is a major issue without Graham.
The Bucs are likely to lean on backup Kregg Lumpkin in this capacity, but his ability to be a solid blocker for QB Josh Freeman will be tested. Lumpkin lost the battle to be the third-down back in the preseason, in part because of Graham's superior pass-protection skills. The Bucs face third-and-long situations too often. Lumpkin now is going to have to play a significant role in those scenarios.
Three big tests
Yes, the Bucs visit New Orleans on Sunday, but they've proven they can win there in the past. We think the bigger upcoming tests are as follows:
Texans (Nov. 13): A matchup against the AFC South leaders who finally have offensive balance and a much-improved defense.
At Packers (Nov. 20): Bucs face the world champs on the road, pitting Tampa Bay against the NFL's most prolific offense.
At Falcons (Jan. 1): The Bucs hope they'll have something at stake in this game. They've lost heartbreakers in Atlanta the past two seasons.
Three final questions
A few questions to ponder as the Bucs head down the stretch.
1. Will WR Arrelious Benn get the football a bit more? As the team's most explosive wideout, he certainly seems under-used.
2. Can DT Gerald McCoy stay healthy and have a strong finish? His rookie year ended on injured reserve and he has been on the shelf for the past two games with a high ankle sprain.
3. Are the Bucs a playoff team? That's a question only they can answer, and they'll do that in the coming weeks with several big games on tap.