Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Insider content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.
Call off the search parties. Scott Reynolds has been found.
Bucs fans, I must apologize for my weekly column's absence as of late and offer up an explanation. Aside from being editor-in-chief of Pewter Report, I am also the marketing director of the Buccaneer Heaven store (which is PR's sister company) in Tampa, FL. As you can imagine, business has been good thanks to the Bucs' 8-2 start, and I've had a lot on my plate in recent weeks aside from covering the Bucs.
Over the past month, I've played a role in expanding the store and moving our Pewter Report office, gotten all of the brochures, fliers, coupons and mailings done for the holiday season, and been in charge of a lengthy interview and hiring process for a new store manager at Buccaneer Heaven. Not to mention working on the new PewterReport.com website, which is nearing completion (finally), and will feature an on-line version of the entire Pewter Report publication in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.
I'm just thankful that Jim Flynn has been the ace reporter on the scene this year for our publication and website when it comes to covering the team. Flynn's had to fly solo on PewterReport.com more than we both expected, but he's done a great job and hopefully you've enjoyed his coverage, as I have.
I promise to be more active on the message boards and in the chat sessions throughout the season, and of course, deliver more Fab Fives.
Just in case you were interested, this column marks the 181st premium Insider story of the year. PewterReport.com promised Insider subscribers over 200 exclusive stories per year and are on target to deliver on that promise.
Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Let's give Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden some credit. I think his play-calling over the past couple of games dating back to the Minnesota contest prior to the bye week has been outstanding. There are major things I'm noticing are really opening up the offense.
The first is getting wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson more involved. Over the last two games, Johnson has 16 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns. In the four games previous to the Minnesota contest (at Atlanta, Cleveland, at Philadelphia and at Carolina), Johnson had 15 catches for 254 yards and one touchdown.
The second thing Gruden is doing to make his offense more explosive is keeping quarterback Brad Johnson in the pocket. Whether it is to protect his broken rib or not play to Johnson's weakness anymore, which is scrambling and throwing on the run, Gruden has done a good job of eliminating negative plays from his playsheet.
I can't remember Johnson completing any passes off of rollouts or picking up any first downs on naked bootlegs this year. Earlier in the season, Gruden had Johnson acting like Rich Gannon, a proven scrambler, for some reason.
Gruden realizes Johnson is a pocket passer and has kept him in the pocket. We even saw a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 last week against Carolina, instead of the bootlegs on third-and-1 that we saw earlier in the year against teams like Philadelphia.
Finally, the other aspect to Gruden's play-calling that is impressive is his renewed commitment to the run. With the prospects of having to travel to cold, blustery places on the road to the Super Bowl, Gruden knows that strong passing games aren't always reliable in windy, snowy conditions. He saw that first hand last year in the "Snow Bowl" game between his Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots. Having an established running game down the stretch and at playoff time is imperative for any team that has Super Bowl aspirations.
In the Bucs' first five weeks, the Bucs averaged 24.2 rushes per game. Over the last five games, Tampa Bay has been averaging 29 rushes per game and has seen its rushing average against the last five opponents climb to 107.6 yards per game. In the Bucs' first five contests, the running game was only averaging 76.8 yards per contest.
The commitment to the run is doing so many things for this team. It is building the confidence in the offensive line and running backs, allowing the offense to have more plays on offense (an average of 66.8 plays per game over the last five games as opposed to an average of 61.4 plays per game in the first five games), and allowing its defense to rest for more plays and keeping opposing defenses honest so the Bucs' passing game can flourish.
Tampa Bay's running game is not where Gruden wants it yet. It has only produced one 100-yard rusher (Mike Alstott vs. Cleveland), but it has posted 186- and 133-yard rushing days against Cleveland and Minnesota over the past five games. And remember, over the past five contests, the Bucs have played Philadelphia once and Carolina twice. Both of those defenses are stingy against the run.
FAB 2. Hats off to second-year offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker for having an outstanding game against Carolina's pass rushing rookie Julius Peppers, who leads the NFL with 11 sacks. Peppers did get a sack against Tampa Bay on Sunday, but he wasn't matched up against Walker on that particular play.
Walker has had his share of ups and downs during his first two years with the Bucs. He's had some lousy, awful, dreadful showings against Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New Orleans and Carolina over his brief career, and those performances have gotten way too much coverage. When Walker has played exceptionally well against St. Louis and Baltimore -- both last year and this year -- the coverage was minimal.
Let's drop all the "bust" talk for a week and acknowledge that Walker played perhaps his finest game as a pro last Sunday, manhandling Peppers, who is a potential Pro Bowler and a surefire pick for defensive rookie of the year. I've never seen Walker play so focused before and I hope that trend continues.
Actually, that trend needs to continue this week as Walker will be facing Green Bay's dangerous pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on Sunday. "KGB" has nine sacks, which is third in the NFC behind Peppers (11) and Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice (9.5). Walker will need to focus even more on "KGB" because of an ankle sprain that caused him to miss Wednesday's practice and will keep him from playing against Green Bay at 100 percent.
FAB 3. Speaking of defensive ends, Simeon Rice is playing at a Pro Bowl level this year. Rice leads the Bucs with 9.5 sacks and has recorded seven of those QB takedowns over the last four games -- notching two sacks in each of the last three contests.
Rice has also been a big factor in the turnover department with an amazing four forced fumbles over the last four games. He leads the team with five.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rice's game is what he does on the practice field at One Buc Place as opposed to the playing field at Raymond James Stadium. Rice has spent countless hours with defensive line coach Rod Marinelli working on pass rushing techniques, including the sack-fumble drill where Rice's long arms come down like a tomahawk chop to knock the ball loose from the quarterback.
But Rice also spends a lot of extra post-practice time on his own with the team's younger players such as Wyms and DeVone Claybrooks, helping them develop their pass rush moves. That's one of the reasons why the Bucs were so eager to pick the option years on his contract after last season.
FAB 4. The intensity at One Buccaneer Place for the Green Bay game this week is at an all-time high. Not only do the Bucs want to win the NFC South division, which they will try to take care of over the next two weeks, but they want homefield advantage throughout the entire playoffs.
The last thing Tampa Bay wants is to finish 13-3 with Green Bay finishing 14-2. That would likely mean that the Bucs would have to travel up to frigid cold Lambeau Field, which has been a place worse than Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia over the years, to face Brett Favre and Co. in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs want the NFC Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium because that gives them the best chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Sunday's head-to-head matchup between the Bucs and Packers could go a long way in determining playoff seeding. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had to travel to snowy New England last year with the Raiders for the AFC Championship Game. He doesn't want to have to go to a snowy Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game.
Aside from Minnesota's Metrodome, Raymond James Stadium has been Favre's other house of horrors. The Packers have never won at the Ray-Jay since the stadium opened up in 1998.
In 1998, despite throwing for 262 yards and two touchdowns, Favre was sacked eight times in the Bucs' 24-22 victory on Monday Night Football.
In '99, Favre threw for 234 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked once and threw to costly INTs to free safety Damien Robinson in Tampa Bay's 29-10 win.
In 2000, Favre threw for only 117 yards with no TDs and no INTs before being knocked out of the game with an ankle sprain by defensive tackle Warren Sapp on a sack. Tampa Bay won 20-15.
Last year, Favre was 20-of-35 for 258 yards and threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Bill Schroeder. But Favre also threw three big interceptions, including one that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown by Shelton Quarles in a narrow, 14-10 Bucs win. The Bucs defense ended the game as Favre and Co. were driving inside Tampa Bay's red zone. Strong safety John Lynch batted down Favre's throw in the end zone on fourth down as time expired.
FAB 5. The difference between the play of the 2002 Tampa Bay defense as opposed to the 2001 version? An upgrade in talent. Shelton Quarles is a big-time improvement over Jamie Duncan at middle linebacker. And there is no drop off in play at the strongside linebacker spot now that Al Singleton has taken over for Quarles.
On the defensive line, the combination of new addition Greg Spires and second-year player Ellis Wyms has made people quickly forget about Steve White and Marcus Jones. Spires has 2.5 sacks and has been a heady player against the run and has done a good job of containing scrambling quarterbacks. Wyms has been a great edge pass rusher, notching 4.5 sacks and has also played nose tackle on pass rushing downs in place of the injured Anthony McFarland.
The play of Chartric Darby and Buck Gurley at nose tackle has been just as effective of the play of former Bucs defensive tackle James Cannida.
In the secondary, Donnie Abraham was replaced in the starting lineup by Brian Kelly, who is easily the most improved player on the Bucs defense this year. Kelly is tied for the Bucs' lead with four picks and is becoming a better all-around player than Abraham.
Cornerback Dwight Smith is finally showing the ball skills that have caused the Pewter Report staff to rave about him for the past two years. Smith has three picks this year, including a key INT against Carolina that helped the Bucs break a 10-10 tie.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that having a healthy Warren Sapp wreck havoc in the middle of the line is certainly a key factor for the increased productivity on defense this 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.