Full House for Reunion Sunday

On Thursday, the Buccaneers confirmed that their Week 14 game against the Philadelphia Eagles would be televised locally on WTVT FOX 13.  A potential local blackout had been avoided because the team had sold more than 85% of the general admission seats for the game, and because earlier in the summer it had chosen to take advantage of that new NFL option to reduce blackouts.

There are a limited number of seats remaining for purchase, though it appears as if the rematch of the 2002 NFC Championship Game will draw the Buccaneers’ biggest crowd of the year.  That’s not surprising given that the team is in serious playoff contention with just four weeks left, and because Sunday’s game will double as the 10-year reunion of the 2002 Super Bowl Championship team.

Current Buccaneer players are enjoying the return of their championship predecessors but are not letting it become a distraction in their preparations.  Likewise, while a potentially sold-out stadium would be a positive development for the home team, it’s not something the players are counting on to help them overcome the Eagles.

“You have to look at it as, what can you do,” said QB Josh Freeman.  “Yeah, it gets you amped up and ready to go. You love it when the fans are out there screaming.  But we have to have a singular focus and that’s what’s going on in between the lines.  You can’t let anything distract you.  You just have to push  forward, lock in and execute as well as you possibly can.”

No Rookie Wall for David

The night before the Lavonte David’s Buccaneers played the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished up their regular season in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.  Nebraska won’t play again until January 1, in the Capitol One Bowl against Georgia.

That means if David was still in Lincoln, rather than playing in the NFL as a rookie with the Buccaneers, his season would be essentially over.  In fact, counting the NFL preseason, he has already played three more games than his old college buddies on the ‘Huskers.  This is what analysts call “The Rookie Wall,” that point in a player’s first NFL season where the extra work catches up to him and his production tails off during a month in which he had become used to resting.

If there was a rookie wall in front of David, however, it looks as if he has flown right over it.  Instead of dipping, his production has actually spiked in the second half, and he may be coming off his best game yet in Denver. Continue reading

Foster Celebrates Super Bowl Reunion…Sort Of

Mason Foster was 13 years old and already a big football fan when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.  He was about to enter high school, where he would emerge as a prep star on the gridiron, mostly playing linebacker.

As a nascent linebacker, it’s not surprising that the play he remembers most from that big game in January of  2003 is the one that caused Buccaneers radio man Gene Deckerhoff to exclaim, “There’s the dagger! The Bucs are going to win the Super Bowl!”  With the Bucs holding on to a 34-21 lead with a little less than five minutes to play, linebacker Derrick Brooks intercepted a Rich Gannon pass and returned it 44 yards for the title-clinching score.

Yes, Foster, now a Buccaneers linebacker himself, remembers that play.  Just not necessarily fondly. Continue reading

Rookie of the Month Not Playing Like a Rookie

On Thursday, LB Lavonte David became the first Buccaneer ever to win an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month award.  David took the award for his efforts in the month of December, but truth be told, he hasn’t really felt like a rookie since September.

“The vets have told me I’m not a rookie anymore,” he said.  “Once you get on the field, they say, ‘Hey, all that rookie junk is gone.  You’re  a man now, you’ve got to handle your business.’  And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

David led the NFL with 47 tackles in November, five of which came behind the line of scrimmage.  Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan could have picked David for the award without even seeing those numbers, however.  According to Sheridan, the most impressive part about David’s game so far is how seamlessly he has taken over the job of defensive play-calling.

“I think probably the most pleasant surprise is the fact that he’s been able to handle all the mental stuff,” said Sheridan.  “We all thought he was going to be a fantastic player but you never know until you get him in your system if he can handle it and make calls at the line of scrimmage and notify offensive formations and backfield sets and that kind of stuff.  I’m not shocked that he was doing it but you never know until you put him in the system, and he’s done a fantastic job in that area, outside of being a fantastic player, which he is.”

For his part, David shared the credit for the smoothness of his on-field leadership with his teammates, saying he’s had plenty of help along the way.  He never doubted he could handle the play-calling duties, however, having done the same thing at Nebraska.  He figures he convinced the Bucs’ coaches and scouts of his strong mental makeup before the draft.

“I think they feel I’m a very mature and responsible guy,” he said.  “I had that same responsibility in college and they thought I could turn it over to this level.  I’ve been really working on that, and guys have been helping me since Day One.

“It’s just studying, knowing what you’ve got to do, knowing what the guys are doing around you.  That makes you play your game faster.  It’s breaking down opponents and stuff like that.  All of that ties together and I think I’ve been doing a good job of that.  Guys are still helping me.  Everybody’s working together at it and it’s just working out.”

High Altitude Doesn’t Concern Bucs

Lavonte David didn’t get a chance to play the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder during his two years at Nebraska, but his Cornhuskers did make on trip to play Wyoming in Laramie.  And in terms of altitude, the Cowboys’ home actually has 1,855 miles on Boulder.

So, yes, the Buccaneers’ rookie has actually played in “thinner” air than what he and his new teammates will experience this Sunday when they take on the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field.  David’s recollection of the experience: No big deal.

“It was [difficult] at the beginning, but you get used to it,” he said.  “It wasn’t that bad.  It wasn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be.”

Air at any level of the Earth’s atmosphere has the same amount of oxygen in it, but the lower atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes makes it more difficult for a person to force that oxygen into his lungs.  This can obviously lead to increased breathing and heart rates, quicker fatigue and dehydration.  It stands to reason that the Denver players will be much more acclimated to the environment than will the Buccaneers.

However, nobody in the Bucs’ locker room seems particularly concerned about playing a mile high.

T Donald Penn played his college football at Utah State in Logan, Utah, which has an elevation of 4,535 feet, about a 1,000 feet lower than Denver.  He says the adjustment period should be pretty quick for the visiting team.

“We’ll be ready, we’ll be fine,” he said.  “I’ve played up there before.  The air, once you get used to it real quick, it doesn’t really affect you once you get going.  It might affect you early, but once you get going it becomes natural.”

DE Michael Bennett played in a couple high-altitude stadiums during his days at Texas A&M.  He points out that the team will actually arrive in Denver on Saturday and should be able to get used to the difference in the atmosphere by the next day.

“It’s a big difference, but you’ve just got to get used to it – running in and running out,” he said.  “You’ve got to keep your breath.  You start breathing hard and you can’t have your pants too tight.  But once you get out there and breathe it on Saturday you should feel pretty good on Sunday.”

O-Line Faces Biggest Threat Yet

Five minutes into the second quarter of the Buccaneers’ nail-biter with the Falcons on Sunday, QB Josh Freeman was sacked by blitzing CB Dunta Robinson.  Two plays later, Freeman was sacked again, this time by DE Kroy Biermann.

This was an uncommon experience for Freeman.  Those two sacks, before the second quarter was halfway over, equaled the highest total he had absorbed in any of the Bucs’ previous 10 games of 2012.  It looked like he might be in for a long afternoon.

As it would turn out, however, Freeman would not suffer another sack the rest of the way.  Continue reading

Clark, Manning Now on Opposite Sides

From 2003-09, Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark formed one of the most prolific QB/TE combinations in NFL history.  The 44 touchdown passes that Manning threw to Clark were second only to the 45 that Drew Bledsoe tossed to Ben Coates, and from 2007-09 the pair was good for 235 completions, 2,570 yards and 27 scores.

The two might have gone right on racking up such unprecedented numbers if injuries hadn’t intervened.  It started with Clark’s season-ending wrist injury just six games (and another 37 catches and three scores) into the 2010 campaign, which followed his groundbreaking 100-catch effort in 2009.  And it ended – “it” being the NFL partnership of Manning and Clark – when the quarterback’s neck injury led to him missing the 2011 campaign.  The Colts chose to move on, releasing Manning and drafting Andrew Luck, and Clark was one of a handful of accompanying veterans that was let go.

Now Manning is a Bronco and Clark is a Buccaneer, and they’re both doing quite well.  While he hasn’t had much time to dwell on it yet, Clark knows that his years in that shared groove with Manning constituted a one-of-a-kind experience.

“It’s something special,” he admitted.  “It’s unique and it’s definitely something that, as you continue to play and down the road when you’re done playing, it’s one of those things that will be something you’ll look back on and realize how special the situation was that we had.”

Some thought that the Broncos would try to reunite Manning and Clark in Denver, but they went with another ex-Colt, Jacob Tamme, instead.  Still, the two former Colts will get a chance to catch up this Sunday when Clark’s Buccaneers visit Sports Authority Field to take on Manning and company.  It’s a big challenge for the playoff-seeking Buccaneers and Manning, who is third in the NFL with a 104.8 passer rating, is one of the main reasons why.  It hasn’t take Manning long to get comfortable in Denver, and to begin running the Broncos offense with the same total control he had in Indy.  Clark isn’t at all surprised to see his former quarterback making such a swift rebound from his serious neck injuries.

“I would never bet against him on his determination with his rehab,” said Clark.  “Just being around and seeing all of the hard work that he was putting in, you knew he was going to surprise a lot of people.  He definitely gave great commitment and dedication to getting back, and everything that you have to do to overcome an injury as an athlete.  He did that, and did a great job of putting himself in a position to come out and perform the way he wants to.”

Clark also knows that some of his current defensive teammates will be looking to him for clues as to how to defend Manning, but he doesn’t think he’ll be too much help in that regard.  In fact, he would counsel his fellow Bucs to focus on their own preparations and treat this matchup like any other.

“I’ve been on a team where we’ve played other ex-teammates,” said Clark.  “You find a lot of teams try to play the game of…if you give them a few code words or if you give them a few things here or there then that’s all they’re looking for and they’re forgetting to play football.  The main thing I tell them is, just play your game.  Play the scheme, play everything else and just play hard.”

Of course, Clark wouldn’t expect any information he had from his time with Manning to be of much use anyway.  Manning is legendary for playing a mental game with the opposing defense at the line of scrimmage, trying to be the last one to react to the other team’s adjustments.

“There’s not much you can do, because he’s got ways to kind of fool you,” said Clark.  “It’s not worth trying to give them this and that, code words or whatever.  Besides, he’s in Denver now and who knows what they’re running and the code words and all of that.  If he was in Indy, it would be a little bit different, but I don’t know what they’re doing in Denver.”

Barth Appreciates Schiano’s Belief in Him

With three-and-a-half minutes left in Sunday’s NFC South showdown with the Falcons, Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano sent his kicker, Connor Barth, out to try a 56-yard field goal in hopes of taking a 26-24 lead.

Barth’s kick came up short and the Buccaneers were unable to get the football back with enough time left to do anything but try a Hail Mary as the clock ran out.  While acknowledging after the game that there were other options discussed on the Bucs’ sideline at that point, with the ball at the Atlanta 38 and the offense facing a fourth-and-seven, Schiano said he would make the same decision if given a second chance.

And Barth says he would make it. Continue reading

Underwood and Clark Make Bucs’ Offense Deeper

On every offensive play, the Buccaneers have five eligible targets on the field for Josh Freeman, in some combination of receivers, running backs and tight ends.  With the recent emergences of both Dallas Clark and Tiquan Underwood, Freeman often has five serious playmakers on the field at once.

Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are clearly the team’s big three in terms of offensive production, accounting for 2,966 combined rushing and receiving yards, or 73.8% of the team’s total, and 22 of the team’s 36 touchdowns.  However, as Sunday’s down-to-the-wire game against Atlanta demonstrated, Freeman can also count on Underwood and Clark when the situation dictates it.

Both Underwood and Clark put up their best yardage totals of the season in Sunday’s game.  Underwood set single-game career highs with five catches for 77 yards while Clark added four for 65.  Underwood continues to stretch the field, with an average of 15.3 yards on his 20 catches in 2012, plus two touchdowns, and Clark is simply becoming more and more involved in the offense every week.  The former Colts tight end has 22 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the last six games.

Underwood actually had to wait a while to get his shot with the Buccaneers this season.  He was waived on the final roster cutdown but then brought back in Week Three.  He played sparingly at Dallas just after returning but then essentially took over the #3 receiver role from the next week forward.  His catches and yards have fluctuated from week to week, based largely on how the opposing defense is approaching the Bucs’ suddenly robust offense, but he’s more than pleased with his role.

“It’s a game-to-game thing,” said Underwood.  “One game you might have five catches, one game you might have one.  It’s all about doing what’s going to help the team.  When the ball comes your way as a receiver you just try to make the play whenever you can.”

Underwood was actually Freeman’s most targeted receiver against Atlanta, with nine footballs thrown his way as compared to the seven in Jackson’s direction (which produced five catches and 96 yards).  The Falcons were clearly focused on slowing down Martin, and they have been strong against opposing team’s top two receivers for much of the season.  It wasn’t difficult to predict that Freeman would have to look to Underwood and Clark a bit more, and fortunately they both delivered.  For the most part, however, Underwood believes it’s the Bucs’ offense that can and should be dictating the action in most cases.

“Hats off to Atlanta,” he said.  “They did a great job against the run.  We’d been running the ball fairly well the last few weeks.  But they played very well.  They’re a good group – they don’t have that record for no reason.  But as an offense, we control a lot.  So we’re going to correct the mistakes and just get ready for Denver.”

Underwood understands that any game can hinge on a single play, or a small handful of key moments.  He also knows that, as deep as the Bucs’ talent is on offense now, he might be the one called on to make one of those plays.

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing,” he said.  “You just have to execute.  Especially when the stakes are high, you’ve just go to execute.  That’s what it’s all about.  That could be the difference between winning and losing.”

Clark Trying to Prove Himself All Over Again

In 2009, in his last 16-game season with the Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Clark caught 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, making him just the second tight end in NFL history to hit double digits in receptions in a single season.

That same season, Tony Gonzalez was in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons after building a Hall of Fame resume over a dozen seasons in Kansas City.  Gonzalez, of course, was the first NFL tight end to hit 100 receptions in a season, having caught 102 in 2004.  Coming off two straight 1,000-yard campaigns for the Chiefs, Gonzalez kept right on rolling in Atlanta with 83 grabs for 867 yards and six touchdowns.

For Clark, the next two seasons were marred by injuries and he caught a total of 71 passes in 2010-11 before the Colts initiated a massive roster turnover that also saw the departure of QB Peyton Manning.  Gonzalez remained very productive during those two years but at 36 entering this season has dealt with the retirement question for years.  In fact, he has stated that he is likely to hang up the cleats after this season.

But time seems to be standing still for two of the most prolific tight ends of the last generation.  Gonzalez, who is the first tight end in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches, is second only to Dallas’ Jason Witten at the position in receptions this year, with 64.  Clark doesn’t have that level of production his first year with a new team, but over the last five games he has suddenly emerged as an important part of the offense.  In that span, he has 18 catches for 174 yards and three touchdowns. Continue reading