Man, times have changed. Not long ago, the strength, the REAL strength, of the NFC South was Carolina and Tampa Bay. Sure, New Orleans looked good on paper every year, but the real teams people looked out for from the NASCAR division were not cajun and certainly did not play in domes. Times, they are a changin’.
For Bucs fans, the ineptitude we have seen thus far, while more significant maybe than most (other than radio hacks who revel in prediction of doom and gloom as they can always fall back on the ‘I WANTED them to be better and I am happy I was wrong’ refrain while using the winless prediction to stimulate emotion and ratings.) had expected, is not a surprise. Losses in very winnable games against Buffalo and Washington have left the franchise in a dangerous position. A young Head Coach and GM who are trying to get a youthmovement going but losing the support of everyone in the process are certainly feeling the pressure. Rebuilding is hard. There is pain along the way. With the losses piling on, so are the pressures and threats of change as well as financial ramifications in empty seats. On the surface, things are very bleak in the Bay Area.
Carolina, on the other hand, returned a pile of starters from their 12-4 team that was prematurely bounced from the playoffs by the Cardinals. Led by a seasoned (and good) coach in John Fox, the Panthers have some strong marquis players in key positions. With a young and very talented offensive line blocking for two also young and talented running backs, the Panthers train seemed to be heading nowhere but up. That was until they actually laced up the cleats this year.
The funny thing about talent is that it means nothing unless those who possess it useit on the field. Though on paper andin predictions, the Panthers should be battling with the Saints at the top of the division, they are scratching and clawing (nice accidental imagery, huh?) to stay ahead of us (the Bucs) in the basement. The once proud Carolina defense, now led by Ron Meeks, is 15th in the league and in the review I did of the Philly and Washington games, looked like a shell of what they once were. The loss of Ma’ake Kemoeatu clearly hurt this squad. The absence of a huge, run stuffing DT has limited Jon Beason’s effectiveness (as well as injury) and the team defense (other than the secondary) has been sluggish. Giving up an average of 155 yards on the ground per game, this is not the defense of the past. The pass defense, however, ranks 2nd in the NFL though I cannot tell if that is a vestigeof the simplicity with which clubs have run against the Panthers or actual solid play.
One stat that certainly haunts Carolina is the tunrover margin. QB Jake Delhomme continues to play a game of highs and lows, amassing a whopping 8 INT’s through 4 games (4 against the Eagles alone). He is already halfway to his career high of 16 and while I have never been a fan of Jake, some of this has to go to the offensive line which has performed well below their level of last year. QB’s under pressure turn the ball over, even good ones (yea, I know Jake is 8-2 against us. That does not make him a good QB. It makes him goodagainst us.) The offensive line woes continue to the blocking for the dynamic rushing tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Despite what is clear talent in those two ball carriers, the holes have not been there this year which has also contributed to the poor performance by Jake and the passing game.
For our Buccaneers, this game (and all games this year) will be about fundamentals, effort and improvement. Josh Johnson continues to start and if he improves as much as he did between Game 1 and 2 after the Eagles experience, he could really be something special. Meanwhile, #1 draft pick Josh Freeman continues to ride the pine. The front office has bet on Freeman, but without Jeff Faine in the lineup and with his mental game being questioned, Freeman will probably wait until after the BYE week to get snaps. Johnson can throw a monkey wrench into that plan if he can continue to improve this week. Returning to the lineup is starting center, Jeff Faine as well as our full compliment of running backs. The return of Faine is HUGE as he is the QB of the offensive line that has, post the Cowboys game, looked bad most of the time. The hope is that his return as well as the healthy status of all three backs (D. Ward, C. Williams and E. Graham – Newly tagged “Snap, Crackle and Pop” by a listener!) will lead to a return to the promise of an offensive identity. A running game would be a welcome addition for QB Johnson, as last week he was forced to throw the ball 50 times against a harsh blitz from the Eagles. Like any team, if the Bucs can run the ball, the game becomes competitive.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs are in trouble. The pass rush continues to putter along while the linebackers have been ineffective blitzing and even more ineffective covering tight ends andreceivers on the underneath or crossing routes. The scary part is that this is the good news!The secondary continues to play poorly and give up long score after long score. Two bright spots are Ronde Barber (yea, I am as surprised writing it as you are reading it) and Aqib Talib. Both, while being beaten occassionally, have played exceptionally good football. Talibis scaring people into throwing away from him withhis ability to shut down an opposition’s #1 receiver. The rest of the secondary better findtheir game or we will see a serious purge at the safety position. This is particularly scary withSteve Smith coming to town. This guy is a beast. Talibwill be lined up on him all day but will need help over the top in order to keep Smith in check. Jake has been targeting his tight ends regularly, so the safeties will need to help the linebackers by laying some lumber to those guys as they roam down the seams.
Be sure to tune in Monday night at 7:00 PM right here to review what actually happens!