SR's Fab Five

October 12 - This week's SR's Fab Five gives you the inside scoop on the Bucs' 5-man front, explains why CBs Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith are playing with confidence (and why they will need to), and analyzes why the running game isn't clicking (it isn't Michael Pittman's fault). ALSO: Will FB Mike Alstott and LT Roman Oben be back next year? And why did Atlanta's onsides kick work last week against the Bucs? Those answers and plenty of inside scoop in this 2,600-word report.

SR's Fab Five usually appears weekly on PewterReport.com
Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

Here's five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. Much was reported about the Bucs' use of a five-man front on Tuesday after head coach Jon Gruden disclosed it during his Monday morning press conference. But savvy Bucs fans would have read about it first in PewterReport.com's game story, titled Road Warriors. Pewter Report editors Leo Haggerty and yours truly picked up on the new formation, which was only run one time against Atlanta.

But that one time produced tremendous results, which was a sack by Ellis Wyms (originally credited to Simeon Rice) on third down that pushed the Falcons' field goal attempt back several yards. Kicker Jay Feeley missed the kick.

The five-man front was, from left to right, Rice switching to playing left end, Wyms playing defensive tackle, Booger McFarland playing nose tackle over the center, Warren Sapp at defensive tackle and Greg Spires playing right end. The new front was actually the brainchild of Gruden, who suggested it to defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.

"He came in and said, 'Let's look at this,'" Marinelli said of Gruden. "It was a great deal for us and really excited the guys. It was a great idea to tighten the bolts on (Michael Vick). It's going to be something down the future that people have to be ready for each week.

"(Gruden) is so creative. There are so many good things about him, but creativity is really one of them."

Marinelli indicated the key aspect of the five-man front was preventing the Atlanta offensive line from having any double teams against the Tampa Bay defensive line.

"(The offensive line) knew they didn't have any help," Marinelli said. "That was five one-on-ones. We had to go win one of them. We wound up having three guys win those battles for us. It worked out good. It might have caught them off guard a little bit, but it was really guys working hard, doing their jobs, and winning their one-on-ones."

The three defensive linemen who won their one-on-ones were Wyms, Rice and Sapp. Wyms got the initial pressure on Vick when he looped around McFarland and forced the Falcons quarterback, who was trying to step up into the pocket, to retreat. Wyms tripped up Vick, who was on his way down when Rice and Sapp piled on. Had Wyms not been there to cut off the middle of the line, Vick could have scrambled up the middle for several yards, as some of the more mobile quarterbacks the Bucs faced last year were able to do with great success.

Now you know the inside story on the new defensive look and what made the five-man front so effective.

FAB 2. Tampa Bay's cornerback situation seemed shaky coming out of the preseason. Aside from proven Pro Bowler Ronde Barber, second-year nickel back Dwight Smith was repeatedly burned in August, and Brian Kelly was well, Brian Kelly. But through the first five games of the season, Kelly has never played better, Smith is gaining confidence and is playing exceptionally well, as is Barber, who surprisingly is the only one of the three without an interception.

But teams haven't been looking Barber's way that often, and when they do throw at Barber, he usually swats the pass away. In fact, leads the team with 11 passes defensed. Because quarterbacks aren't testing Barber, they are going at Kelly and Smith, and so far those two Tampa Bay corners are making the passers pay.

Kelly, who became a starter over Donnie Abraham last year due to his tackling prowess, has been playing exceptionally tight coverage over the past three weeks. After picking of a pass against St. Louis, his first in over 40 games, Kelly has been playing with increased confidence and stifled Cincinnati's and Atlanta's receivers in the past two Buccaneer wins.

He has 32 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and seven pass breakups to go along with his pick this year. Kelly, remembered and reviled by some Bucs fans as the player who gave up St. Louis' lone touchdown in the 1999 NFC Championship Game, is shaking his reputation as a shaky defender, and thus far earning every penny of the lucrative, long-term contract extension that he signed before the season.

Smith, who rarely played defense as a rookie last year due to Abraham's presence, only has nine tackles, which can be seen as a testament to how few catches are made by receivers he is responsible for covering. Smith also has six pass breakups on the year, in addition to his two interceptions that he snared in Atlanta.

The Buccaneers corners will need a high level of confidence as they head into this weekend's contest against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are a disappointing 2-3 this season, but are only a couple of plays away from being undefeated. The strength of the Browns' team is their receiving corps, which is more talented and more productive than the once-vaunted Rams' pass catching squad.

Kevin Johnson is the Browns' go-to guy, and leads the team with 28 catches for 295 yards and one score. He has also thrown a touchdown pass to fellow receiver Quincy Morgan, who has 21 catches for a team-leading 301 yards and has two scores. Rookie Andre Davis has 19 catches for 259 yards and four touchdowns. Dennis Northcutt, a former second-round draft pick who was almost cut during the preseason, has really emerged as a threat over the past couple of weeks. He enters Sunday's game with 16 catches for 270 yards, which is a 16.9 average, and four scores.

The Bucs cornerbacks will have to be on top of their game this week, and younger corners such as Corey Ivy and rookie Tim Wansley, will need to be ready in case there is an injury to Barber, Kelly or Smith, or if defensive coordinator wants to play dime defensive coverage if the Browns unleash all four receivers on the field at once.

"They have four great guys who run good routes," Wansley said. "They've got Tim Couch and he's a great quarterback. When he gets into a rhythm he can be hard to stop."

FAB 3. The recent firestorm regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' continuing inability to run the football is a bit misguided. Some critics are looking past the obvious problem -- the offensive line -- and are blaming the rushing woes on new running back Michael Pittman.

While it's true that Pittman has been running into the hole as determined by the play call whether there's an opening or not, and not showing too much creativity while carrying the ball, he's not the biggest culprit.

Tampa Bay's offensive line has been in disarray all season. Cosey Coleman missed the season opener against New Orleans due to a knee injury and was replaced by Todd Washington, who did not play well. Left guard Kerry Jenkins missed the second half of the St. Louis game with broken leg and was replaced by Washington. After missing the Saints game due to poor play, right tackle Kenyatta Walker replaced Cornell Green against Baltimore and St. Louis, but suffered an ankle sprain against the Rams in the second half and was replaced by Green against Cincinnati and Atlanta. The only two constants have been center Jeff Christy and left tackle Roman Oben.

And speaking of Oben, whom the Bucs' front office feels played his worst game of the year in Atlanta, Tampa Bay's attempts to establish a perimeter running game may be difficult. Because the Bucs' tackles -- Oben and Walker -- are finesse players, they may not be physical enough to anchor the ends and pave the way for Tampa Bay's pulling center and guards to lead the way for Pittman.

Such was the case last Sunday in Atlanta where Oben was unable to block the Falcons' defensive end or outside linebacker, which caused a log jam and prevented Christy, Jenkins and Pittman from getting to the perimeter. The Bucs rarely tried toss or sweep plays to the right side due to Green's inexperience at right tackle.

Pittman, Aaron Stecker and even rookie Travis Stephens, who has yet to get a carry in the regular season, all broke off big runs on the perimeter in the preseason, but have yet to turn the corner on a regular basis during the first five games when opponents are doing more game-planning. When foes know what play is coming or might be coming based on personnel groupings, down and distance, or formations, then the onus shifts to the offensive line to simply make their blocks before the defense stops the play.

The tackle spots are the weakest positions on the team, and while it might seem a little foolish to run towards the weak link on the offensive line, the interior hasn't shown Pittman much daylight either. With Christy being an undersized center at 280 pounds, and the injuries at guard to Jenkins and Coleman, not to mention the increasing girth and speed at the defensive tackle positions in the modern day NFL, the Bucs have not been able to establish a strong inside running game, either. The bottom line is that the Bucs have struggled to run the ball from anywhere on the field.

In the offseason, the Bucs will seek an upgrade at left tackle for Oben, who is on a one-year contract. But in the meantime, the team will expect him to rebound from his dismal showing in Atlanta where defensive end Brady Smith had his number, and play much better against former Cleveland teammate, Courtney Brown.

One last note about the offensive line. The Bucs coaching staff seems damned if they do, or damned if they don't. If the Bucs keep trying to run the ball even though they are not good at it, they risk not scoring points nad risk losing possessions by not converting on third downs with their suspect running game. But if they don't continue to go to the ground and establish a running game, the Bucs' offensive line will never get any better because they aren't getting enough reps.

It's hard to blame Jon Gruden for going to the pass more than the run with quarterback Brad Johnson, receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell and tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley all playing so well. The offensive line has also improved its pass blocking. Credit Gruden for at least sticking with what works.

FAB 4. For those Bucs fans who are screaming for Mike Alstott to get more carries in the wake of Michael Pittman's failure to produce a 100-yard rushing day despite five starts, we've got some bad news for you. While Pittman is only averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season, he leads the more familiar Alstott in every meaningful statistical category this year.

Let's start with the basic stats: Pittman has 74 rushes for 256 yards (3.5 avg.) while Alstott has 33 carries for 82 yards (2.5 avg.). Aside from averaging a full yard-per-carry more than Alstott, Pittman's longest gain of the year is 21 yards while the A-Train's is only 14. But there are more significant stats that further support keeping the rock in Pittman's hands -- at least for now.

Last year Pewter Report (then known as Buccaneer Magazine) exposed the fact that one third of running back Warrick Dunn's carries went for a loss or no gain. So we used the same set of criteria to determine if it was the running back himself who was greatly contributing to the troubling ground game. Here's what we've found through five games:

Pittman has 12 runs for a loss or no gain this year, while Alstott only has eight. However, Pittman has 41 more carries and therefore has a smaller percentage of runs for a loss or no gain. Only 16 percent of Pittman's runs have not gained yardage or lost yardage, compared to 25 percent of Alstott's runs. Alstott has had a negative run or a rush for no gain in every game this season except for the Cincinnati contest. Pittman had no negative rushes or runs for no gain in both the St. Louis and Atlanta games.

Pittman has also led the team in rushing yards in all five contests, and in yards per carry in four of the five contests among running backs.

Alstott has been an effective rusher for Tampa Bay in the past, but for whatever reason he does not seem to be a great fit in Jon Gruden's version of the West Coast offense. However, it should be noted that Alstott's better rushing performances have come when he has close to or over 20 attempts per game. Alstott has only received more than 10 carries in one game this year when he rushed 11 times for 23 yards against Baltimore.

As Pewter Report stated in the Buccaneer Buzz column last week, to say that Alstott is frustrated with his role, or lackthereof in Gruden's offense, is an understatement. If Alstott's role isn't enhanced over the rest of the season, and with Pittman, Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley around it's not likely too, expect the Bucs and Alstott to part ways.

FAB 5. And finally, a few parting shots:

- One last note about Michael Pittman. Pittman hasn't worn his helmet outfitted with a dark shield visor this year, after wearing it in the offseason and in the preseason games. However, with 11:25 left in the fourth quarter of Tampa Bay's game at Atlanta, Pittman donned the visor-clad helmet and proceeded to blast off an 11-yard run on his first carry with the faceshield. In all, he had four carries for 19 yards with the faceshield on. Don't be surprised if Pittman comes out wearing the faceshield against Cleveland.

- Why was Tampa Bay so susceptible to Atlanta's successful onsides kick last week? The Bucs were lined up 15 yards away from the ball instead of 13 yards off the ball. One Buc told Pewter Report that the key for the frontline players to line up with their back foot on the 45-yard line, not their front foot, which is what happened after the Falcons' first field goal.

- I know it's two weeks away, but it's important to note that the Bucs' offensive tackles will have their hands full in Carolina against Panthers defensive ends Michael Rucker and rookie Julius Peppers. Rucker, the right end who will face left tackle Roman Oben, leads the NFL with six sacks. Peppers, who will face right tackle Kenyatta Walker, has three sacks on the year.


Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

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