Bucs Searching for Answers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still searching for an identity on offense under coach Raheem Morris and they have three weeks to do it, starting with Sunday's game at Seattle.

In order to keep pressure off struggling quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown eight interceptions in the past two games, they plan to scale back the offense and put even more emphasis on the rushing attack.

"It's a little frustrating that we don't have an identity," said center Jeff Faine. "It's a little frustrating that the play isn't consistent. I'm choosing my words carefully, but I think with the offensive line there's some frustration up front from the standpoint that we know we're better and we know we can produce better numbers. And we know our running backs are better. It's just the situation we're in. ... We're playing with a young quarterback that is learning on the job.

"I think he's going to be a heck of a quarterback. But until that fear is there, we won't have the balance. And because of that, we're not going to look good running the ball all the time."

The Bucs are ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 98.2 yards per game. They have not had a 100-yard rusher in any game this season, despite investing nearly $12-million in running backs Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham. According to Morris, the offensive line has underachieved. That unit includes the league's highest-paid center (Faine), a first-round pick and Pro Bowl guard (Davin Joseph), a second-round pick (right tackle Jeremy Trueblood) and projected highly-coveted free agent (left tackle Donald Penn).

"They haven't played their best football," Morris said. "You've got to get better up front, you've got to get better in the backfield, and we've got to get better all around. And that goes for everything as far as the run game. ... We've definitely got to call it underachieving for the offensive line when you're only able to muster up a couple performances like the one in the first game of the season and vs. Carolina, I believe a couple weeks ago, we were able to run for a couple hundred yards. You've got to do better than that."

After watching Freeman throw eight interceptions in the past two games, Morris said the Bucs need to "scale back" the offense and take some of the pressure off their rookie signal caller. Presumably, that means being more committed to running the football. But offensive coordinator Greg Olson has struggled to find the right buttons to push to ignite the ground game.

Part of the problem is that Olson took over from fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just 10 days before the season opener and decided not to completely scrap the zone blocking scheme that had been installed in March. Olson also has played three different quarterbacks, including Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson. Two weeks ago at Carolina, with Freeman passing for a career-high 321 yards, the Bucs rushed for 154 yards on 26 carries (5.9 yards per carry). In that game, Olson utilized a lot of man blocking concepts and a power running game.

"Our job is to find solutions and obviously we haven't done that," Olson said. "We've been inconsistent really throughout the season. I felt good about the people that we had in place. As I've told you that's been my biggest disappointment, where we're going with that and where we've been with that. I think it all starts with the run game, especially with the quarterback situation we've had this year."

Freeman says scaling back the offense just means not adding a ton of new plays for Sunday's game in Seattle. "I think what he's saying is the game plans have been pretty big," Freeman said. "You spend a lot of time trying to figure out certain plays and getting to know it pretty well and you don't even call it in the game. So yeah, maybe it's cutting down things a little bit."

But according to Faine, the Bucs rushing attack will get better when Freeman is good enough throwing the football to strike fear in the opponent's defense. "Until there's a threat, until our passing game can put a fear into the secondary of the defense or into the defensive coordinators of opposing teams, there's no reason to do anything else and we won't be able to run the ball," Faine said.

"In a season like this, everybody is looking to play the blame game. I don't necessarily think it's fair to blame any individual group or player in this situation. As much as it's tough to say, as soon as No. 5 gets better and he gets the experience and learning on the job and gets to the point where he really is putting fear into defenses, we'll get the right looks and those $12-million running backs will get to produce and the offensive line will block like they're supposed to."

Even if the Bucs can generate some offense, the odds of winning at Seattle are stacked against them. Tampa Bay has not won on the West Coast since beating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. And four of the Seahawks' five wins have come at home, where the 12th man is a huge advantage.

SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Seahawks leads the series 7-2. The Bucs won the most recent meeting last season with a 20-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium, the same night the Tampa Bay Rays won the American League Championship Series.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Bucs center Jeff Faine said Wednesday that despite the team's 1-12 record, coach Raheem Morris has done a good job this season and deserves a chance to return in 2010. "Oh, yeah. One hundred percent. One hundred percent," Faine said, when asked about Morris' future. "I think anytime you're drafting a quarterback in the first round, you have to give it an opportunity to see some maturation at that position. That position is so key, I think without seeing some true light on that, I think it's very unfair for him to get the hook at this point."

--With TE John Gilmore recovering from a concussion, the Bucs plan to use OT Demar Dotson at tight end during some formations Sunday at Seattle. "We've had some issues in protection, really with the tight end position," Olson said. "And we're gonna again this week, with John Gilmore being out still, trying to find a way there to aid us in protection. We've now moved Dotson in some at tight end to help us in that area, help us with our run game and with our protection issues. We're trying to find solutions."

--Running back Clifton Smith was bouncing around the locker room this morning, and he finally spoke about his second concussion of the season -- after which he was placed on injured reserve -- saying he feels just fine. "I feel perfectly fine," said Smith, who suffered the two concussions in a span of seven weeks. "Nothing's wrong. Once again, I feel like I'm a guy who can play. But (the team) shut me down just to be cautious. With the new NFL rules about concussions now, everybody's being cautious. I have to roll with the punches."

Smith said he had no say in the decision to be placed on injured reserve. He said that move was made largely for precautionary reasons. "They pretty much were scared just because it's the second one, so they really didn't know how I was going to react to it," he said. "But as the game went along, I knew what was going on and I knew what happened. So, they felt like the first one was more severe than this one."

BY THE NUMBERS: 98.2 -- The number of rushing yards the Bucs average per game. That ranks 25th in the NFL.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You've got to have better protection and we wanted better protection from them so you've got to say yes to your underachieving question." - Bucs coach Raheem Morris on whether his offensive line has underachieved this season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The good news for the Bucs this week is that wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has returned to practice. Stroughter is the team's slot receiver on third down and another reliable target that quarterback Josh Freeman has confidence in. He also returns kickoffs and punts now that Clifton Smith has been placed on injured reserve.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Michael Clayton has a knee injury and did not practice Wednesday. He could miss his third straight game.

--TE John Gilmore is recovering from a concussion and did not practice Wednesday. The Bucs plan to use OT Demar Dotson at tight end in some formations.

--WR Sammie Stroughter, who missed last week's game with a back strain, was limited in practice Wednesday but is expected to play against Seattle.

--G Davin Joseph (shoulder) had full participation in practice Wednesday and he is expected to start against the Seahawks.

--DT Roy Miller, who made his first start last week against the Jets, was limited in practice Wednesday.

GAME PLAN: The Bucs are expected to try and take some of the pressure off Josh Freeman by running the football. But Tampa Bay is ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing offense at 98.2 yards per game. Freeman, who has thrown eight interceptions in the past two games, says he has to play better regardless of the game plan.

"I'm expected to go out and really play well every week and give my team their best chance to win," Freeman said. "I haven't done that the past couple of weeks. You always plan on going out and playing well and you prepare to the best of your abilities and then when you get out there on Sunday, you have to get the job done and I haven't been doing that the past couple weeks.

"We've got a lot of different weapons. I think the game last week is kind of the exception because it was a really good defense. You can't look at last week's game and just be like, "Man, we can't throw it, we can't run it, we've got to just re-evaluate everything we're doing.' We've got to get back to the basics of what we're being successful with and that is running the ball, (whether) it be the zone run or the power and the play-action game or the quick game. There are a number of things we've shown we can do successfully. We've just got to get into a groove and a rhythm and go do that week in and week out."

Defensively, the Bucs have played much better since Raheem Morris took over from ousted defensive coordinator Jim Bates. He has used multiple fronts and has given LB Barrett Ruud more options to check to. But the Bucs yielded 160 rushing yards last week against the Jets.
Seattle moves the ball mostly through the air and Morris must find a way to pressure QB Matt Hasselbeck.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. Bucs CB Aqib Talib. Houshmandzadeh leads the Seahawks with 65 catches. Talib has shut down top receivers and will likely be assigned to Houshmandzadeh.

Seahawks DLE Patrick Kerney vs. Bucs RT Jeremy Trueblood. Kerney is a top edge rusher and Trueblood has struggled with penalties and protection.

Bucs QB Josh Freeman vs. Seahawks secondary. Freeman has thrown eight interceptions in the past two games and is battling his confidence. The Bucs hope to make his job easier by running the football.

INJURY IMPACT: WR Michael Clayton did not practice Wednesday. He has missed the last two games with a knee sprain. Fortunately for the Bucs, rookie WR Sammie Stroughter, who missed last week's loss to the Jets with a back strain, has returned to practice. But quarterback Josh Freeman doesn't have many good targets outside of Antonio Bryant.

TE John Gilmore is recovering from a concussion and did not practice Wednesday. The Bucs plan to use OT Demar Dotson at tight end in some running formations.

LB Geno Hayes, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, has returned to practice and should play at Seattle.


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