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

Work Over, Players Focus on Family

Six NFL teams were slated to play on Thanksgiving, but all 32 squads were at work in some capacity on Thursday.  It is a fact of life in the NFL – and in some other professions, to be sure – that work is required on certain holidays.  For NFL players and coaches, it’s a minor inconvenience compared to the many positive aspects of the job.

Still, almost everybody wants to be with family and friends on Thanksgiving, and Buccaneer players are no exception.  Head Coach Greg Schiano moved the start of Thursday’s practice up by approximately 90 minutes and let his players go home not long after it was over.  The Buccaneers wouldn’t dream of skipping a day of preparation before Sunday’s critical home game against the 9-1 Falcons, but when their work was completed, they were ready for some turkey.

Some of the most fortunate Buccaneers are the ones that have extended family in the Bay area.  Clearwater native Leonard Johnson, who is living the dream of playing for his hometown team, is in that group.  Johnson has made a thrilling rise in the Buccaneers’ defense in the last month, playing extensively in the secondary and picking off a team-high three passes in that span, but he’s still most grateful for what was waiting at home Thursday.

“I’m thankful just for having the family that I have,” said Johnson.  “I look around, and God put everyone in my life for a reason.  I’m grateful for that, thankful for that.  I’m just looking forward to spending time with my family, having some great food, listening to all their stories and joking with my cousins and my uncles.  I’m really, really, really looking forward to just bonding with my family.  I’m very family-oriented and I’m looking forward to that.”

Falcons See Explosive Bennett on Videotape

Michael Bennett racked up his seventh sack of the season last Sunday in Carolina, giving him the Buccaneers’ lead in that category by more than double the next player.  According to a chart we’ve referenced several times on the excellent FootballOutsiders site, Bennett is also one of the hardest defensive ends to run on in the NFL.  (The chart lists Tampa Bay as the top defense in running plays aimed at left end, where Bennett takes the vast majority of the snaps.)

The Atlanta Falcons, who will be visiting Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, have spent much of this week watching videotape on the Buccaneers.  What they’ve seen of Bennett matches up nicely with what the above status would suggest. Continue reading

Te’o-Nesheim Has “Passion” to Help the Team

Daniel Te’o-Nesheim will have something specific to be thankful for on Thursday, an anniversary that has led to a second chance in his NFL career.

It was November 22 of last year when Te’o-Nesheim was signed directly off Philadelphia’s practice squad to the Buccaneers’ active roster.  He would go on to play in just one game over the next six weeks, and thus it wasn’t a roster move that many Buc fans likely gave much thought as the disappointing 2011 season was coming to an end.  Tampa Bay made a rather large amount of moves on its defensive line in the second half of that season, thanks to a rash of injuries, and most of the other newcomers proved to be short-time Buccaneers.

However, not only has Te’o-Nesheim stuck around, but he has emerged as a rather valuable asset on the Buccaneers’ defense, something the Eagles might have envisioned for themselves when they drafted him in the third round in 2010.  Continue reading

Gaitor Gets Good Start on His Return

Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan watched Anthony Gaitor practice for the first time since August on Wednesday and thought the second-year cornerback picked up right where he left off.

“He seemed fine,” said Sheridan.  “He reminded me of what he looked like in camp before he got nicked up. I think he will be fine.”

If Sheridan’s words seem more matter-of-fact than gushing, they still are a very good sign.  That’s because Gaitor was indeed playing very well before he suffered the hamstring injury that has cost him roughly three months of action. Continue reading

Bowers Workload, Production Increasing Steadily

The Buccaneers could finish the 2012 regular season with their first 10-sack player since Simeon Rice in 2005.  Starting left end Michael Bennett got his seventh QB takedown of the season in Sunday’s road win over the Panthers, and thus has six remaining games to get three more and break into double digits for the first time in his career.

Tampa Bay actually had two sacks in Sunday’s game (not to mention quite a few other plays on which it put Carolina QB Cam Newton under duress).  The other one belonged to second-year defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.  Bowers is not a good bet to get to 10 sacks this season – barring an unreasonably hot streak over the next six weeks – but there’s a very good reason for that.  He only started playing at midseason. Continue reading

Tails Never Fails

As you’ve probably heard, Sunday’s game in Charlotte marked the first in the Buccaneers’ 37-season history that they have won an overtime game with a touchdown.  Doug Martin, Josh Freeman and Dallas Clark were the main heroes on the final march, but there were actually two other factors that were to the Bucs’ getting that first OT TD:

1. The NFL’s new overtime rules, and;

2. The Carolina Panthers’ logo.

Allow us to explain.

Continue reading