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2009 team preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Inside Slant
At 32, Raheem Morris is the youngest coach in the NFL. He's also the most anonymous.

Morris made a meteoric rise from defensive backs coach. On Christmas Day, he was named defensive coordinator for the 2009 season, replacing Monte Kiffin, who left to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. But before he could coach a game, former coach Jon Gruden was fired and Morris was promoted to head coach.

Meanwhile, the Bucs ownership entrusted their franchise with 37-year-old general manager Mark Dominik, who has been with the organization since 1995.

"I think Raheem and I really wanted to put our mark on the football team in the right way and put this team in a direction that we're very comfortable with and we're excited about," Dominik said. "And I think we've done that."

Did they ever. They started by releasing iconic veterans like Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard and Cato June.

Then the Bucs changed schemes and coaches on both sides of the ball. They hired former Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator and Jim Bates as defensive coordinator.

As if that weren't enough, Morris and Dominik believed the team had failed to develop a young quarterback, so they used the 17th overall pick on Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman.

The plan is to bring the 21-year-old along slowly, letting him learn behind Steelers free agent Byron Leftwich, a former No. 1 pick who is the perfect mentor for Freeman.

"Pretty soon, they're going to put you in that blender," Leftwich said. "And they're going to hit 'liquefy.'"

When Freeman is ready, he will find an offense with good weapons that is built around running the football.

"We're going to run the ball," Morris said. "We want to be a heavy play-action team. That kind of fits the mode of what (Leftwich) does, play action, throwing the ball down the field in chunks, trying to generate big plays.

"That's what he showed he can do in the preseason and that's what he went out there and did. That's what he has been showing in the off-season, having that big-time arm to throw it down the field consistently. Luke did a great job competing. I think we've seen the most aggressive Luke McCown throughout this camp that we've seen in years. He was a competitor. He took chances and he had some success doing it. We thought Leftwich was the better guy and we're going with Leftwich right now."

Leftwich hasn't begun a season as a starting quarterback in the NFL since 2006 with Jacksonville.

"I just go out and be myself," Leftwich said. "And I try to tell those guys, 'Hey, if they're going to get open, I'm going to get you the ball. I don't care where you're at on the field, I'll get you the ball.' And it's my job to get us to the right checks and all those things. In this offense, the quarterback is asked to do a lot. He's asked to always get the team in great plays, which is something that I like. ... I just try to keep those guys on their toes and tell them, 'Hey, you never know who's going to get the ball.'"

The speed has returned to the Bucs' defense with the younger players. But they have little depth or playmakers on that side of the ball.

Ultimately, the honeymoon period will end for Morris and Dominik. Eight wins and anything but a last-place finish in the NFC South should be considered a success. And eventually, the curly-haired kid from Kansas State will have to lead the way.

COACHING: Raheem Morris, 1st year.

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 9-7 (3rd in NFC South).

PREDICTING: 2009 record season record 6-10, (4th in NFC South).


Notes and Quotes
--The Bucs appear committed to keeping four QBs again this season. "I've got to be open to anything," Morris said. "I'd keep four (reporters) if I thought you had any talent at all.

"I just have to be open to keeping the best 53 guys. If they're one of the best 53 and better than everybody else, then you have to have commitment. You have to have some belief. You can't preach to these guys every day, "Hey', I'm keeping the best guys in the room,' and then (say), 'Hey, I cut you because you didn't fit into the numbers.' That's just wrong."

--Coach Raheem Morris stopped short of calling Dexter Jackson a bust despite the team's decision today to cut its 2008 second-round pick. Morris attributed the move to Jackson being what Morris described as a poor fit for the Tampa Bay offense.

"Did he fit our mold?" Morris said. "No, he didn't fit what we wanted to do. He could show up somewhere else and maybe make (another) team.

"We wanted to look at him as a slot receiver. We talked about blocking, talked about having consistent hands, some of the things of that nature we wanted to see (like) making tough catches inside. He didn't fit the whole entire package."

--Josh Freeman arguably took a step back vs. Miami after a promising outing last week at Jacksonville.

Freeman finished 6 of 16 for 50 yards and did not fare well in the face of a relentless Miami pass rush, but he objected when asked whether he's still adjusting to the speed of the game. "I feel like I see it all coming, I see it unfolding," he said.

BY THE NUMBERS: 6.5 -- The most sacks in one season by any member of the Bucs' starting defensive line.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm used to leading a bunch of men and I actually like being in that position." -- New Bucs starting QB Byron Leftwich.


Strategy and Personnel
Three days after he was cut by the Bucs, former USF defensive end Jarriett Buie was re-signed on Tuesday, though he'll still face long odds to survive past Saturday's final roster deadline.

Tampa Bay also claimed center Jonathan Compas, an undrafted rookie from Cal-Davis, off waivers from the Raiders, and released defensive back Marshall McDuffie and former USF offensive lineman Ryan Schmidt to make room for the two additions.

Buie said he'll report to practice Wednesday and will be with the team for its preseason finale Friday against Houston. On Saturday, NFL teams must trim their rosters from 75 players to 53, and while Buie is unlikely to make that cut, a strong showing Friday could help his chances of making the team's practice squad.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Josh Freeman will get his first NFL start in Friday's preseason game against the Houston Texans.

--LB Adam Hayward has an ankle injury and did not practice this week. He will not play in Friday's game.

--CB Kyle Arrington has taken some reps at safety.

--LB Jermaine Phillips has returned to FS opposite Sabby Piscitelli with the looming four-game suspension of S Tanard Jackson.

--K Matt Bryant says he needs another week to heal from a hamstring strain he suffered three weeks ago and isn't expected to kick Friday against the Texans.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Sammie Stroughter. The rookie seventh-round pick from Oregon State has been a force in both the return game and as a receiver during the preseason. He will likely return kickoffs and punts Friday against the Texans.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/17, QB Josh Freeman, Kansas State -- Freeman is the first QB to be drafted in the first round by the Bucs since Trent Dilfer in 1994. He might need to develop a year or two before taking over the reins, but Morris is so effusive in his praise of Freeman that it's not out of the question he starts in 2009.

Rd. 3/81, DT Roy Miller, Texas -- Run plugger will be a welcome addition to the defensive line rotation. Gained 25 pounds since the end of the season to 315. Has a chip on his shoulder for being overlooked until the third round.

Rd. 4/117, DE Kyle Moore, Southern Cal -- Moore was overshadowed by more celebrated Trojans defenders like Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews, Jr. Will project to a left defensive end in the Bucs defense but will be used in nickel pass rushers.

Rd. 5/155, OT Xavier Fulton, Illinois -- Began his career at Illinois as a defensive end before tearing a knee ligament. Gained a medical redshirt in 2006 and switched to left tackle. Underwent surgery on his right shoulder after the combine. Could be an eventual replacement for LT Donald Penn, who will become a free agent at the end of 2009.

Rd. 7/217, DB E.J. Biggers, Western Michigan -- The 6-foot, 180-pound Biggers has the size to play bump coverage with 4.34 speed. Will have a chance to earn a final roster spot after an impressive preseason.

Rd. 7/233, WR Sammy Stroughter, Oregon St. -- The 5-9, 185-pound Stroughter was very productive as a senior and will provide a speedy slot receiver while competing for playing time on special teams as a kick returner. Was the star of training camp and the preseason.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter - Byron Leftwich. Backups - Luke McCown, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson.

Leftwich won a quarterback battle over Luke McCown that more closely resembled a pillow fight. He was the best of two bad choices, but the Bucs were adamant about not even allowing Freeman to compete. In fact, Freeman never took a rep with the first team offense in the first three preseason games. Looking a year into the future, the Bucs held on to Josh Johnson, even though it meant keeping four QBs. In 2010, Johnson could be the No. 2 QB as Freeman inherits the starting role.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Earnest Graham, FB B.J. Askew. Backups - Derek Ward, Cadillac Williams, Clifton Smith.

The Bucs will rotate Graham, Ward and Williams at tailback, trying to keep fresh legs in the game. If the offensive line plays well as expected, it could be a potent attack. Ward has been the most consistent and explosive in the off-season, but Williams is regaining his rookie form despite knee surgeries and each of the past two seasons.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kellen Winslow. Backups - Jerramy Stevens, John Gilmore.

The Bucs traded two draft picks to the Cleveland Browns for Winslow, who will create some matchup problems for opposing defenses. The Bucs plan to play a lot of one-back, two TE formations utilizing the receiving abilities of Winslow and Stevens. When healthy, Winslow has averaged 80 catches and 1,100 yards per season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton. Backups - Maurice Stovall, Sammie Stroughter, Brian Clark.

Bryant missed the entire preseason after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Bryant may have lost a little conditioning, but he worked the entire off-season and a week of training camp on timing with Leftwich. Clayton has been battling a hamstring strain that forced him to miss all but one preseason game. There's not much depth behind the Bucs' starters. Stovall did a good job in the preseason but the real star with Stroughter, a seventh-round pick from Oregon St. who will be a slot receiver.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood. Backups - T James Lee, T Xavier Fulton, G Marc Dile.

The Bucs were dealt a huge blow when G Arron Sears, their second-round pick from 2007, did not report to training camp due to "personal reasons." The Bucs do not expect Sears to return this season, so the depth has been whittled with Zuttah having to assume a starting role at LG. Joseph dropped about 15 pounds to be more effective in the zone blocking scheme. The weak link is probably Trueblood, who is the Bucs' most penalized offensive lineman.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Jimmy Wilkerson, DT Chris Hovan, DT Ryan Sims, RDE Gaines Adams. Backups - DE Stylez White, DT Roy Miller, DE Kyle Moore, DT Dre Moore.

It may take Jim Bates a draft or two to find the type of players who can excel in his scheme. But he plans to throw a lot of fresh bodies at the competition. Miller, a third-rounder from Texas, had a great preseason and showed some ability to rush the passer as well as play the run. But nobody on the starting defensive line has ever recorded more than 6.5 sacks in a single season.

LINEBACKER: Starters - SLB Quincy Black, MLB Barrett Rudd, WLB Geno Hayes. Backups - Adam Hayward, Rod Wilson, Matt McCoy, Bo Ruud.

Gone is Derrick Brooks, the 12-time Pro Bowl player. It's a big void to fill, but the Bucs had younger, more athletic linebackers than Brooks at this point in his career. Black, at 6-2, 245-pounds, is larger than most Bucs LBs and can also rush off the edge. The Bucs abandoned an experiment to move S Jermaine Phillips to WSLB.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Ronde Barber, LCB Aqib Talib, SS Sabby Piscitelli, FS Jermaine Phillips. Backups - S Tanard Jackson, CB Elbert Mack, CB E.J. Biggers, S Will Allen.

Jackson will miss the first four games of the season serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. That forced Phillips to return to safety. The Bucs are thin at cornerback, but Mack will be the nickel cornerback.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Mike Nugent, P Dirk Johnson, KOR Clifton Smith, PR Clifton Smith, LS Andrew Economos.

The Bucs had a blow to their old kicking battery. First, P Josh Bidwell was placed on Injured Reserve and will undergo hip surgery. Then PK Matt Bryant suffered a right hamstring strain three weeks ago and has not been able to play in the preseason.

By default, the new specialists will be Nugent, who entering the final preseason game had hit 4-of-7 FG tries; and veteran P Dirk Johnson.

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