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Sunday, September 9, 2012

v/s Tampa, Season Opener


Carolina swept 4-12 Tampa last year; they outscored them by a combined 86-35.  Many of the same pieces are there - with exception to draft picks, a few cuts, and some out of character spending.   

The Buccaneers started over this offseason, finally correcting the Raheem Morris mistake.  They flirted with a game-changing hire in Chip Kelly, which fell through because they leaked it.  You can’t do that with college coaches, it scares off recruits and screws over what’s left.  College coaches have that level of loyalty to a program most times, and pro teams just don’t treat that carefully enough.   Kelly would’ve been a tough one, with the undeniable option game that would’ve come with it fitting Josh Freeman very well.  
After stumbling with Kelly, things broke down and they dug further into the college ranks for Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.   Schiano apparently had a good interview and overachieved without a huge recruiting base.  This works well for Tampa, who has always requested its teams be made up of plywood rather than steel – they are, for all purposes, the small market, super cheap budget NFL team.  They remain one of the youngest teams every year, as well.   Schiano held together  decent Rutgers program, one that has provided some NFL talent in the past. 

He was there for 11 years; he was 68-67 at Rutgers, with the pinnacle being a 2006 team that went 11-2 and 2nd in the Big East.  He put 17 players in the NFL from Rutgers, including first round picks Kenny Britt, Anthony Davis, and Devin McCourty; and second rounders Ray Rice and Brian Leonard.   He’s a solid but task oriented leader of young players, and is only interested in people that buy-in, at the cost of better talent at times. 

His first pro job – as a defensive assistant – was with Chicago in 1996-98, where he was a third-tier assistant alongside another first-time pro coach, Ron Rivera (quality control).   When that staff dispersed and Rivera headed to the Eagles, Schiano was defensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes (99-00), on the other side of the ball from Panthers OC Rob Chudzinski, at the time a UM TEs coach. As Chud was being elevated to offensive coordinator, Schiano was accepting his role with Rutgers.

His attention to detail is precise to a fault, at times too detailed it seems, but having come from being a head coach there’s a more natural balance than had he been a coordinator in his rise.  From a staff standpoint (explained in greater detail under the offense/defense breakdowns), there’s a somewhat recent Giants influence to their style, and that does fit with Schiano’s own scheming as well, but in this case familiarity may have come at the cost of potentially better staff.   

Offense

A taskmaster, Schiano depands everything to be exact in its detail.  So there’s no doubting the fit of OC Mike Sullivan, a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and former Army Ranger.  Going with that, it’s also notable that he’s coming from the Giants, where Tom Coughlin has a similar exacting style.  A WRs coach for the first four years, he finished as QBs coach before moving to Tampa. It’s a situation that should tie into defense, won’t be innovative or honestly that interesting, but when it’s working correctly, will be deliberate and eat up clock. 

What will be less clear is how that works with QB Josh Freeman’s inconsistencies.  Freeman took a major step back last year, and that’s something that will certainly alter what Tampa does – because this staff appears more ready to be limited than to do things it can’t do well.  The Coughlin offense doesn't work with a lot of inaccuracy - not that all that many offenses do - but timing patterns don't matter if the ball isn't thrown to the right spot. 

New QBs coach Ron Turner has clear ties to the Coryell system, and is the uncle of Carolina assistant Scott Turner.  He’s had modest success as an NFL coordinator.  Ben McDaniels steps into his first role without his brother.  OL coach Bob Bostad was Running Game Coordinator for the Wisconsin Badgers before moving to Tampa as line coach; this is his first pro position. This was a solid hire, and Bostad was a part of something good in Wisconsin; with a stable of young backs, the running game should be solid. 


RB Doug Martin appears ready to carry a fairly full load.  Schiano compares him to Ray Rice, and while comparisons are rarely fair, Martin should be used similarly well in all phases.   The quick, squatty rookie has good hands, blocks well, and is a natural with the football.   Backup LeGarrette Blount can be powerful, but has struggled enough in the passing game and at blocking to suggest he’s more situational in usage (going back to doing what you do well).   FB Erik Lorig should only get occasional usage.  He played around 250 snaps, and I wouldn't expect much more this year, in exchange for more 3 WR sets.  Martin should be a solid outlet receiver, but in the past the Giants had not used their backs often.  

New WR Vincent Jackson was a big ticket purchase - $55 million over five years, a lot for a powerful but not always available player.  Jackson brings obvious size to the table, and his game mirrors that – some natural timing type routes.  His game should translate from San Diego – but, there is enough info on him from the various Chargers staffers Carolina has acquired – including his old OC, the DC and DBs coaches that used to face him in the event he was practicing.  Jackson will be a point of big-play focus, and third down, naturally; he can do anything well when he's healthy, and he currently is.

Across from him, Mike Williams has shown ability in the past; he had a nearly identical 65 catch season last year to match 2010; however his TD totals dropped from 11 to 3.  He caught 9 total passes against Carolina last year.  3rd WR Arrelious Benn is a large target, without a lot of quickness.  He would be a major size mismatch on Captain Munnerlyn; most are. 

 At TE, out is Kellen Winslow, last year's leading receiver; in is Dallas Clark, who is only 3 seasons removed from 100 catches; the last two years, he's only been able to average 35.  One of those was in 6 games; the more recent was 11, so it's hard to see him heading anywhere near 100 again. 

The scheme does suggest more use on the outside than the secondary receivers.  Playaction does change the targeting somewhat, I would assume, as would goal/short situations.  Clumping receivers on one side should happen – opposite Jackson or a TE – to provide combo routes and natural picks.  

LT Donald Penn gave up 9 sacks and 26 hurries last year.  LG Carl Nicks, a major expenditure, will provide some push inside.   Losing Davin Joseph was a loss for Tampa, but the massively overpaid veteran wasn't playing up to the hype. Jeremy Zuttah is the new, inexperienced center;  RG 

RT Jeremy Trueblood, his massive wingspan and 6'8 frame creating ideal right tackle size, gave up only 4 sacks last year, but 50 pressures; worst in the league.  Likely lining up against Charles Johnson, Trueblood doesn't give up that much on power but is susceptible to double moves and doesn't have good feet.  

Defense

Bill Sheridan is defensive coordinator – after 20 years in college, he spent a few years with Tom Coughlin himself, moving up the ladder from LBs coach to being DC in 2009, after which he was fired.   That year, the Giants gave up 427 points, nearly a team worst, and wasn’t popular with players.   He then spent two years as the Dolphins’ linebackers coach, and this year signed on with Ohio State before becoming coordinator in Tampa. It’s an uninspired scheme that mirrors most of what the league does, to a point – 4-3 under, one gap, flow to the ball. Not a lot of zone blitzing, three deep zones that will have a little bit of disguise to them. 

Tampa finished last in 2011 in points and 30th in yards; 21st against the pass and last against the run; 20th in turnovers and last in sacks (23). 

Via profootballfocus.com, they were by far the worst tackling team in the league, prompting Tampa to draft SS Mark Barron at the high end of the first round. Their scheme was terribly problematic – a contain scheme like the Tampa 2, if you take away good tackling or fundamentals, is like working with nine players.   Unlike the few other S in the top third of the first round over the last decade, Barron does at least have size, and coming from a Nick Saban defense there’s some translation to what Belichick disciple Schiano will want him to do.  It should at least give a more sure tackler back there, but it’s harder to say whether that will translate into Barron also becoming a longterm playmaker.

Though the move was partly to mask problems in coverage, Ronde Barber enters his 16th year as the worst tackler in the league, and while the departed Sean Jones isn't a good tackler either, he led the team in tackles.  Barber is eager in run support, but doesn't do much good other than getting in the way.  Barber plays the ball, but remains a matchup issue at his size, and Carolina likes to push big receivers in the void directly in front of Barber.

They didn’t make many personnel changes overall in free agency – working more on the offense.  Their line features some young talent, 2010 3rd overall DT Gerald McCoy to add to 2nd round 2011 end Adrian Clayborn (who had 7.5 sacks).  But depth and overall quality can be a concern - the other DE is waiver pickup Michael Bennett; 2009 3rd rounder Roy Miller can be stout at the point of attack but has been vastly underwheming as a starter the last two years.   Backups at DT are familiar to anyone who knows how awful the Panthers' DT situation has been; the Bucs roster both Corvey Irvin and Gary Gibson.  To be fair, profootballfocus.com had Bennett as an above average run defender, and ranked as the team's #1 run defender.  The run-only Miller fared in the other direction, apparently doing nothing well.    Clayborn was solid last year, but had two of his worst days against Carolina last year. 

At LB, high 2nd round draft pick Lavonte David makes some things happen; he's a smaller, shorter rangy LB who picks his way through blocks instead of taking them on; the key is to get in his body from the side, which can happen in this zone blocking scheme when done correctly.  Panthers guard Amini Silatolu could wreak havoc on David; he could also miss terribly.  David is the best case for stopping Carolina's attack; against the zone, the best way to make things happen is to knife in with the LBs across the grain; it's also the easiest way to give up a big play.   Returning starters Mason Foster and Quincy Black aren't special, but the new scheme may allow Foster to play downhill more.  Black and Foster were the worst run-graded players by PFF.

At corner, they continue to invest, but new CB Eric Wright was not a high statistics guy and was overpaid.  Aqib Talib is still there, pending doing anything else stupid within the week of gameday; he plays the ball well but can be aggressive.  A new scheme may help him have more leash, but likely gets rid of his over-the-top help.  3rd CB EJ Biggers doesn’t do much well, was only a good fit in the cover 2, lacks deep speed, and can be tested in lateral quickness, too.   Matching against Louis Murphy, despite being 6'0, may be tough for Biggers.   I don't have a good feel yet for whether Tampa matches their corners up, or keeps them left/right, but it seems more realistic for Talib to be on Steve Smith.  
Missing Barber up front makes the team better in coverage, but then they have to rely on him as the last line of defense.  Remember, he's had a good career, but Carolina's been faceplanting him longer than most players have careers. 

It would be interesting to see, with Carolina enjoying Greg Olsen on the move, what they would do with him outside formation - if it’s Barber on 3rd down, that’s a size and speed mismatch as much as it would be against a linebacker. If they pull a safety down, it certainly limits their coverage, and if that’s what they do in base – and that gets a good tackler/hitter like Mark Barron outside formation, out from the middle of the field – it simplifies the read, and still doesn’t make for much worse a matchup for Olsen.   You can’t do it every down, of course, but watch for this to be scripted within the first few plays to see how Tampa reacts, and then Carolina will attack it by the 2nd long drive.  

Similarly, the Mike Tolbert split could help here - using him as a way of spreading from base.  Expect Tampa, who got burned heavily by the read option last year, to be prepared, but Cam apparently still has some new tricks.  Note that Tolbert in the backfield means you don't have to tip your hand about the option; note that the option was run a few times in preseason, just excepting Cam's running (it was done with Anderson, too) - inside handoff-pitch option without the run still allows you two options.  

Even if Tampa’s upgrades in tackling and coverage do ‘work’ there are enough holes to exploit.  Lavonte David does thrive on space, and so does Barron; so there are times you would want to bunch and pound as well.  

Special Teams

Connor Barth is a solid kicker - with legitimate 55 yd range.  Expensive punter Michael Koenen is also their kickoff guy, but does both very well in both placement and hangtime.  Last year's top coverage guy, Kregg Lumpkin, is now a Seahawk.  Preston Parker, last year's return guy, was dropped from both units; he's replaced by Sammie Stroughter on punt returns.  Tampa averaged 1.5 yards per punt return in preseason, last in the league. Rookie RB Michael Smith, another squatty back like Martin, is a powerful but quick runner who returned one kickoff 74 yards. 

Pride

This is a division game that ended in a blowout last year, both times.  A more regimented team with some upgrades should have some of the problems patched, but some changes and the new regime go away from the “revenge” factor – it’s difficult to push a large amount of emotion after drilling cold consistency for months.


This should be a physical game in all respects.  Carolina's line play may be critical - controlling the game tempo may help.  Carolina is a little further along in development, but these are two teams who match well against each other in talent and both have their holes.  This won't be the undisciplined teams of last year for Tampa, and they're at home - even if no one's watching.  Carolina has to earn this one.  
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