Wednesday, Sept. 19
These Rams are still dangerous on offense
I watched the Rams-49ers game yesterday for research purposes, and here's a few things you need to know about them:
Marc Bulger is taking a beating. I can't tell you how many times he popped up after a hit shaking his hand or limping ever so slightly. But he's a football player so he shook it off. He's going to need to be tough to survive this offensive line.
Bulger has had 21 different offensive line combinations in his Rams career. This current line — sans tackle Orlando Pace — is going to be a work in progress. The injury to G Richie Incognito didn't help matters, either.
Despite all the shortcomings up front, this team is still moving the football well and still putting itself in position to do some damage. The only reasons, offensively, the Rams didn't beat the 49ers was too many dropped passes and key mistakes by the receivers.
I wasn't to impressed with the defense, even though it held San Francisco to 17 points. They gave up big plays two weeks ago against Carolina. And the special teams coverage units looked really sorry against the 49ers. Maurice Hicks ran all over them on kickoff returns.
I'm actually leaning toward picking the Bucs this week. But we'll see.
Thursday, Sept. 20
A 3-1 start?
If you had said that to me before the season I would have laughed. I think most people would have laughed.
Now it doesn't seem completely out of the realm.
First, I didn't expect the Bucs to beat New Orleans, so their 1-1 record surprises me. But I think there's a decent chance they can beat St. Louis on Sunday. Tom Marino, our Scout.com senior NFL analyst, told me on the phone yesterday that the Rams simply don't do well outside their dome. And he should know — he used to work for the Rams as a scout. It's going to be sweltering again, the Bucs will force the Rams to wear their blue uniforms and I'm not sure the Rams will be able to handle that heat. They played their first two regular-season games at home, so this is their first trip out of the air conditioning.
Compound that with the offensive line woes, and I think there's a chance — a chance — Tampa Bay can win.
But say they do win Sunday, and Carolina does what I think it should and beats Atlanta on Sunday. That sets up a Week 4 showdown between the two in Charlotte for the outright division lead.
I'm not as impressed with this Panthers team as I have been in the past. The offense is basically Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith, and that's it. A No. 2 receiver hasn't stepped up, and the running game has been anemic. And there's something up with this defense, and it's not just giving up that many points to the Texans last week. End Julius Peppers is having an off year so far. Check out Wednesday's Hot Topic at Bucsblitz.com for the lowdown.
Plus, the last time the Bucs and Panthers played a meaningful game in Charlotte was December of 2005, when the Bucs defeated the Panthers to all but win the NFC South. Charlotte is usually Tampa Bay's house of horrors in this division.
Now, the Bucs are a LONG way away from a 3-1 start. But the fact that we can even have this conversation after two weeks is progress.
Friday, Sept. 21
Praise for Jermaine
I'm going to do something I haven't done much of since I've covered this team. I'm going to praise a safety, Jermaine Phillips in particular.
I don't have to tell anyone that reads this site regularly that I thought Phillips' play was pretty shoddy last year. Certainly, one could use the Bucs' middling pass rush as an excuse. But Phillips tackled poorly, too, and that has nothing to do with the pass rush. That's just fundamentals.
I also criticized management for not going out this offseason and acquiring a veteran backup to challenge Phillips at strong safety. I felt his sub-par play last season warranted it. Instead, they drafted Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson to try and give both Phillips and free safety Will Allen a shove.
Well, Jackson shoved Allen right out of a starting job. But Piscitelli has been unable to unseat Phillips. The former Bulldog will be in the starting lineup on Sunday against St. Louis. Thus far this season the safety has definitely played better than last year.
"He's off to a real good start and we'll just leave it at that," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "We expect him to really be a veteran presence back there and a playmaker at the safety position. I think he deserves a lot of credit, and Raheem Morris as well. He's done a nice job coming in here with the new safeties, the Sabby Piscitellis and the Tanard Jacksons, and you see Jermaine Phillips really responding, so that's a good sign."
After two games Phillips has 20 tackles, a sack and a pass defensed. I've seen him miss just one tackle in those two games.
So, as Gruden said, he's responded. The gentle shove the Bucs had hoped to give Phillips after last season seems to have worked. And as long as it continues to work, expect Piscitelli — everyone's favorite strong safety in waiting — to do exactly that.
Monday, Sept. 24
How did this happen?
Tampa Bay is 2-1 after three games. Is there an explanation for this?
Sure. These Buccaneers have played better than anyone expected this early in the season. I picked them at 6-10, and my rationale was this — There were so many new parts on this team, especially on defense — that I thought it would take half the season for any real chemistry to develop. By then, I figured, the season would be lost.
Well, I was right about the chemistry. It's not there yet. There's plenty more improvement this offense and defense can make. What I didn't expect was that the team would find a way to win anyway.
The Bucs have won the last two games with a feeble pass rush from its front four. But their back seven — the linebackers and secondary — are propping them up with exceptional play. It's usually the other way around in this defense. If the back line can continue to hold until the defensive line starts producing better numbers (five sacks in three games), this defense could be really salty.
The Bucs have proven on offense that they can win games with explosive and with grind-it-out attacks. The latter is real important because as the season gets older, the Bucs will be asked to win more games in the fashion they did on Sunday if they expect to make the playoffs.
Yes, I used the "P" word. Even the most cautious fan must admit that the elements are there. This team hasn't come close to hitting its ceiling yet on either side of the ball. Plus, the NFC South will feature another tight race, but it's apparent that there isn't a single, dominant team this year.
That makes Sunday's road trip to Carolina — or North Carolina, as Jon Gruden likes to call it — all the more important.
Tuesday, Sept. 25
I'm watching the Atlanta-Carolina game right now, so if my attention wanders, I should be excused. I'm working on the "First Look" and "Film Session" articles for later today.
Well, I went 0-2 this week (probably 0-3; I haven't checked my ESPN team yet). My LSFL and Dereliction teams both lost, and my buddy and I caused a firestorm with a pair of trades in our big-money league that no one agreed with, apparently. Don't you just love how everyone has an opinion?
I'm not worried about either team — yet — because I have a lot of talent on both. But I could use another running back on my LSFL team and at least one more receiver on my Dereliction team. I may look to swing deals if we lose again this week.
Big week ahead
Sure to make the rounds this week will be the rivalry between Carolina and Tampa Bay, which is one of the better ones in the NFC South, if not the NFL. These two teams have a real distaste for each other, and two players in particular — Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Julius Peppers — seem to always have great games against the Buccaneers. They'll be two of the big focal points entering this week.
Smith may be a bit hobbled thanks to the injury he suffered on Sunday vs. Atlanta, but he'll be ready. As for Peppers, well, I'm not sure he's quite himself. I'll explore that more this week.
During his radio show on Monday, Jon Gruden gave a six-to-eight week timetable for Sabby Piscitelli's fractured foot, which would mean the rookie wouldn't be available until late November or early December, at the earliest. This injury might end his season, if the Bucs don't believe he can be healthy in time to help them down the stretch.
That means Will Allen — who was inactive last Sunday — will likely be active on Sunday in Carolina.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.