The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among the most hyped teams entering 2012, but questions still remain on exactly how the depth chart will sort itself out. Forget New Orleans, though everybody is holding faith in Drew Brees, the loss of their coach and Robert Meachem will prove to be significant. Not to mention they have no running back capable of truly carrying a heavy load. The Carolina Panthers did add Louis Murphy to their receiving corps, but they will as expected be a run first offense. There’s not much to game plan for outside of Steve Smith, so a one-dimensional offense won’t scare people. Then there is the Atlanta Falcons. As I’ve stated before, they will be the Buccaneers biggest competition to win the division. However, Michael Turner is expected to become a secondary option as Julio Jones and Roddy White become the focus. Presuming Eric Wright doesn’t face a big suspension, the Bucs are well equipped to keep the duo contained.
The biggest issue facing the Bucs is beating themselves. It will depend heavily on coach Greg Schiano being able to adapt during a game, and his willingness to abandon the run first mentality if the situation dictates. There is too much talent now on this team to warrant anything less than a second place finish in the division. I say that because this is a young team, and realistically, second place would be a step in the right direction for this team. There will be growing pains, and despite the expectations being low in year-one, 2013 will be chalk full of a playoffs or bust mentality.
With that in mind, let;s look at some interesting story lines heading into training camp.
THE RUNNING BACKS
I have been a vocal supporter of the Buccaneers standing by LeGarrette Blount, and so far he has proved me right. Don’t get me wrong, the addition of the ‘Muscle Hamster” Doug Martin is welcomed, but after reports of Blount needing a car service under Raheem Morris, there are plenty of excuses for why he failed to perform. Trust me, the story is much deeper than anyone knows. Players needed a coach like Schiano to come in a set a standard. As expected, once Blount was forced to be responsible, he would be, and the product has shown on the field. Blount has done everything asked to this point, and he is not giving up the job easily. His skill-set has always been there, and with a swift kick in the ass, he is showing what he is capable of. Doug Martin still might win the job come mid-season, but I can guarantee it won’t be easy. This is a good thing for the team. Having a young MJD type back wanting to prove himself and a young Blount with plenty of potential, places the Bucs as at worst the second best rushing team in the division entering the season. Expect Blount to hold onto his role, and this to be more of a timeshare than people expect. The addition of Cody Johnson at fullback will also surprise plenty of people. I expect him to open holes wider than the Grand Canyon once the season begins. These backs will benefit from his arrival.
We all know Vincent Jackson will be the number one wideout. What really matters is who lines up across from him. Mike Williams is the favorite, but Bucs fans saw first-hand his struggles against shedding press coverage last season. While I do expect a much more physical Williams, Arrelious Benn is not to be taken lightly. He is a big bodied, physical receiver who fits the mold of Anquan Boldin. If Williams falters and Benn is able to take the next step, it will be Williams in the slot. This will be a training camp battle to watch next week. Schiano will go with whoever performs in camp, and Williams has been eerily quiet during OTA’s thus far. Don’t be surprised if Benn wins the job. Williams is actually better suited for the slot in my opinion, his lankiness and speed something Preston Parker could only dream of. It will be the development of Benn which this offense depends on. We know what we can get from Williams, but we have yet to see what Benn can do when given the opportunity. If he steps up, this will be better than the Saints attack. You have my word on that!
Let’s face it, the NFC South and NFL as a whole have transitioned to a pass-first league. As stated, Meachem left the Saints. Devery Henderson pales in comparison, so the Saints have actually taken a step back in that department. Nick Toon will be a player to watch, but he is at least two seasons away from making a true impact. This will become the Graham and Colston show. In Carolina, the addition of Murphy doesn’t amount to much, so contain Steve Smith and stop the run is all the Bucs will have to plan for. As far as Atlanta goes, presuming Wright is on the field Week 1, having Ronde Barber playing center field will pay huge dividends. Let’s face it, Wright had about 75 passes completed on him last year. He is great at keeping the ball in front of him. If he can do the same against the Falcons, and if Ronde can keep the deep-ball in check, it will be up to the defensive line to decide the game. The Bucs were able to control the game up front last season, so a repeat in 2012 won’t be a stretch now that they have added more depth. It’s not the secondary which holds the key, it’s the front four! It’s now or never for Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett to make a statement. Keep an eye out for George Johnson once camp starts. Schiano knows how to get the best out of him, so Johnson will be a specialist of sorts in key situations. As for the linebackers, they will figure things out. The front four are the key to this season, especially against Carolina.
The NFC South is for the taking this season. The Bucs are young, but they hold the keys. It may not happen this year, but development will be paramount when judging this team in 2012. Take it a notch down in expectations for this season, but come 2013, there will be no excuses. For all that Schiano has brought back to Tampa, the clock will start ticking on him once the 2013 season starts. He might be just what the doctor ordered for this team now, but this is a what have you done for me lately business. Progress will suffice for now, but you’re on the clock Mr. Schiano, our memories don’t last as long.
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