Tampa Bay’s offense has a different look in more ways than one. Sullivan has done away with the West Coast attack the team had employed in favor of an offense that very closely mimics the Giants’ scheme. Last year, the Buccaneers had a NFL-high 40 turnovers and league-worst minus-16 differential. Sullivan is emphasizing ball control and Tampa Bay enjoyed a time of possession advantage of almost 15 minutes vs. the Panthers. The Bucs have 12 new players on offense, including five starters – wide receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Doug Martin (the second of the team’s two first-round draft choices), tight end Dallas Clark, left guard Carl Nicks and right guard Ted Larsen, who is starting for the injured Devin Joseph (torn meniscus). Tampa Bay did not have a turnover Sunday and is 25-5 since 2002 when it does not have a giveaway.
Josh Freeman had a rough 2011 season, when he led NFL quarterbacks with 22 turnovers (17 interceptions and five fumbles). But he is more than 20 pounds lighter this season and looks more decisive and confident in the pocket. Freeman completed all seven of his passes on the Buccaneers’ opening drive and 12 of 14 throws in the first half last week. He has a strong throwing arm and escape ability that can frustrate a defense. Freeman’s backup is Dan Orlovsky, who started five games for Indianapolis last season.
Tampa Bay selected Boise State’s Martin with the 31st overall pick in the draft, one spot before the Giants took their running back of choice,
Fullback Erik Lorig is a converted defensive end who is a tough, hard-nosed player and an attacking lead blocker. Lorig, who started seven games last season, can also catch passes.
Jackson, one of the Bucs’ big free agent acquisitions, is among the NFL’s very best receivers. He has a career average of 17.5 yards per reception and last year had five touchdown catches of at least 23 yards long. Jackson is an imposing combination of size and speed. He lines up all over the formation and his presence creates single-coverage matchups elsewhere on the field. Mike Williams, a third-year pro, was Tampa Bay’s most targeted receiver last year. He is a sudden underneath route runner who is a dangerous complement to Jackson. Preston Parker is a good slot receiver with strong hands. Arrelious Benn, who was the No. 2 wideout last year, sprained his right MCL on the first day of training camp and has yet to play in a game. But he has returned to practice and could make his debut on Sunday. The fifth receiver is Sammie Stroughter, who is used primarily as the punt returner.
The Buccaneers use a committee of tight ends. Clark, for so long one of Peyton Manning’s favorite targets in Indianapolis, hasn’t been an every-down player since 2009, when he had 100 catches. He has since been limited by injuries, though he still has good vertical speed and terrific hands. Luke Stocker is not listed as a starter but gets more snaps than Clark. He is more of a blocker who is strong and competitive at the point of attack. Danny Noble is an impressive undrafted rookie from Toledo.
Tampa Bay has a solid offensive line. Nicks, a free agent signee from New Orleans, is one of the NFL’s very best players at left guard. He is a powerful player without limitations who has never missed a game. Donald Penn, the tackle next to him, has started 78 consecutive games. He is a heavy-bodied player who is tough, nasty and physical. Larsen can play all three inside spots, but stepped in at right guard during the preseason for Joseph (who would give the Bucs arguably the NFL’s best guard tandem were he healthy). Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has rare size (6-8, 320) and is a productive blocker in the run game. When Nicks arrived, athletic lineman Jeremy Zuttah moved from left guard to center, his more natural position. Demar Dotson is used as an extra tight in short yardage situations. Another backup, Cody Wallace, was acquired off waivers from Houston. The third reserve is former Giant Jamon Meredith.
Tampa Bay’s defense was last in the NFL in 2011 in points (30.9 a game), rushing yards (156.1) and sacks (23), a big reason they hired a defensive-minded coach in Schiano. The unit has two rookies – safety Mark Barron and linebacker Lavonte David – among its four new starters. The Buccaneers’ undersized 4-3 defense is built on speed and creating as much confusion as possible in the offense. They have one of the league’s youngest defenses; the starters average 25.8 years of age – and that includes 37-year-old Ronde Barber. The first outing for the new D was impressive; Tampa Bay tied a franchise record by holding the Panthers to just 10 rushing yards last week.
The Buccaneers lost one of their top linemen when left end Da’Quan Bowers was placed on the physically unable to perform list with a ruptured right Achilles tendon. Brian Price, who started 14 games at nose tackle last season, was traded to Chicago. But Tampa Bay still has a formidable front. At one tackle is Gerald McCoy, the third overall selection of the 2010 draft who finished each of the last two seasons on injured reserve with a torn biceps. He was all over the field last Sunday. He is an active, disruptive player vs. both the run and pass. Next to him in the middle is Roy Miller, a natural leverage player who is a strong run defender.
Tampa Bay’s best pass rusher is right end Adrian Clayborn, who has Pro Bowl potential. Strong and powerfully built, he is fast and instinctive. The other end is Michael Bennett, the older brother of Giants tight end Martellus. He is a productive player with good size and length. The Bucs also have good depth up front. Daniel Te’O-Nesheim has impressive straight line speed, George Johnson is a high-motor competitor, Gary Gibson competes with natural leverage and Corvey Ivy is a young, strong backup tackle.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster, an instinctive run defender, last year led all rookies with 83 tackles. Quincy Black mans the strong side. He has excellent speed and often lines up at left end in sub packages. Lavonte, a second-round draft choice from Nebraska, calls the signals in the defensive huddle. He is an every-down player with impressive athleticism, agility and the speed of the team’s defensive backs. Dekoda Watson is a rush end in the dime packages and Adam Hayward can back up at multiple spots, but does his best work on special teams.
The marquee player in the secondary is the 37-year-old Barber, who has moved to free safety after 15 years at cornerback. Barber started his 200th consecutive game in the opener, the NFL’s longest active streak. But he did more than just show up. Barber recorded the 28th sack of his career and had his 44th career interception. It was the second time in his career he had a sack and pick in the same game. Barber is the only player in NFL history with at least 25 sacks and 40 interceptions. The other safety is Barron, the seventh overall selection in this year’s draft. He is a hard-nosed, athletic player who looks like he’ll be a longtime fixture in the back of the defense. Free agent acquisition Eric Wright is outstanding in coverage whether he’s playing the corner or slot. Left corner Aqib Talib has exceptionally long arms and might be the Bucs’ most talented defensive back. Last year, he usually covered the opposition’s best receiver and scored touchdowns on both of his interceptions. Talilb blocked a punt last week. Brandon McDonald, who was waived and re-signed, was the nickel corner vs. Carolina, while Ahmad Black was the dime back. E.J. Biggers, the third corner last year, is trying to earn more playing time.
Kicker Connor Barth has made a franchise-record 18 consecutive field goal attempts, including three last week. He was second in the NFL last season with a 92.9 success rate and made 15 of 17 tries from 40 or more yards. On Dec. 4 against Carolina, he became the third player in league history with four field goals of at least 40 yards in a half. Michael Koenen handles both punt and kickoff duties. Since 2005, he is second in the NFL with 151 touchbacks. He was four-for-five last week and the kickoff that wasn’t a touchback sailed nine yards deep in the end zone. Stroughter has a 9.2-yard average on 13 career punt returns. The speedy Smith returned three kickoffs for 55 yards in his NFL debut.