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NFL team preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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INSIDE SLANT

Bucs coach Raheem Morris set the expectations pretty high for his team in 2010. He says it's a "Race for 10" wins.

If so, they will run it with young, fresh legs.

Coming off a 3-13 season, the Bucs will be even more inexperienced this season. It begins with quarterback Josh Freeman, who went 3-6 as a starter last season. Freeman could have as many as two rookie receivers to throw passes to.

On defense, the Bucs will rely on two rookie defensive tackles: Gerald McCoy, a first-round pick from Oklahoma and Brian Price, a second-rounder from UCLA.

"(Coaches) told me I needed to make the quarterback uncomfortable and that the quarterback needs to feel us," McCoy said.

Morris, who took over the defensive play-calling duties the final six games last season, will double as defensive coordinator. He has re-installed the Tampa 2, the Bucs' one-gap defensive system.

But Morris likes to tinker with a variety of 3-4 looks as well and is more blitz-happy than his mentor, USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

Morris knows the Bucs' defense begins at under tackle, the three technique position that McCoy was built to play. It also will help having Price at nose tackle.

"Our mindset is to get in there and wreak havoc," Price said. "Every time we're in there together, that's our goal. It's time to get after it.

"We want to be the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL."

Offensively, Freeman has to make the biggest improvement from his rookie season, when he threw 10 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. His work ethic is exceptional and it's clear he is more comfortable in the second year under offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

The addition of veteran Keydrick Vincent at guard should help the Bucs offensive line, particularly in the running game.

Rookie receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn will have big roles. Williams earned the job as the starter at X receiver.

"Mike Williams had a dynamic offseason," Morris said. "He's come in, he's done everything we've asked. He's been one of the guys who has caught the ball, he's stood out and he's been standing out since he's been here. He's a big, tall fast guy who can go out there and make plays."

"He's a guy who is capable of being great," receiver Mike Clayton said of Williams. "I really believe that."
If there's an immediate concern, it's that Freeman broke the tip of his right thumb in the second preseason game and may not be able to practice until the week leading up to the Sept. 12 season opener against the Cleveland Browns.

Backup Josh Johnson has improved, but went 0-4 as a starter last season. Freeman's health is a key because the Bucs need to get off to a good start. They've lost 17 of their last 20 games. But Tampa Bay has a favorable early schedule by hosting Cleveland, then traveling to Carolina before a home game against the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers.

Despite Morris' pleas to race for 10, just doubling their win total from 2009 may seem more realistic and a step in the right direction.

COACHING: Raheem Morris. 2nd year, 2nd with Bucs (3-13).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 3-13 (last in NFC South).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 6-10 (last in NFC South).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Bucs released RB Derrick Ward and WR Terrence Nunn. LB Jon Alston was placed on injured reserve.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Michael Clayton did not play in the third preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team has tried to trade Clayton, who is guaranteed $3.5 million this season.

--RB Earnest Graham will serve as a backup tailback in the event of an injury to Cadillac Williams or Kareem Huggins.

--DT Gerald McCoy has been used as a pass rushing DE in some 3-4 alignments.

--WR Micheal Spurlock lined up for a direct snap in a wildcat formation against the Jags, but an offside penalty on TE Kellen Winslow ended the play.

--OG Keydrick Vincent, 32, won the starting left guard spot over Jeremy Zuttah.

--S Sean Jones, a free agent from the Eagles, won the strong safety position over Sabby Piscitelli.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd 1/3, DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma -- McCoy is the prototype defensive tackle to play the three technique in Tampa Bay's defense. He already has drawn double-teams and has shown flashes of becoming disruptive in the run and pass game. Best Bucs player at that position since Warren Sapp.

Rd 2/35, DT Brian Price, UCLA -- Price missed much of the offseason and a good part of training camp nursing a hamstring strain. When he is healthy, Price can be un-block-able and has reset the line of scrimmage.

Rd. 2/39, WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois -- Playing the Z position has slowed Benn's progress and he has not progressed as quickly as Williams. But the Bucs love his talent and work ethic and expect him to contribute more as the season wears on.

Rd. 3/67, CB Myron Lewis, Vanderbilt. Lewis was slowed by a hamstring injury and kind of let E.J. Biggers, a seventh rounder in 2009, take his position as the backup.

Rd. 4/101, WR Mike Williams, Syracuse -- Williams has first-round talent and fell in the draft largely due to some miscommunication with his coach at Syracuse. He will be the starting X receiver as a rookie and should make plenty of yards after the catch.

Rd. 6/172, P Brent Bowden, Virginia Tech -- The Bucs invited only one punter to training camp -- Bowden. For the most part, he has rewarded their loyalty and appears to be a great directional punter.

Rd. 7/210, S Cody Grimm, Virginia Tech -- The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Russ Grimm has game to go with his name. He has progressed to the second team at free safety and will be a regular special teams contributor.

Rd. 7/217, LB Dekota Watson, Florida State -- Big, physical linebacker who can play fast and contribute immediately on special teams.

Rd. 7/253, DE Erik Lorig, Stanford -- Coach Raheem Morris calls him Gumby for his ability to play behind his pass. A good edge rusher and effective on special teams.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Josh Freeman. Backups -- Josh Johnson, Rudy Carpenter.

Freeman fractured the tip of his right thumb and will begin the season without many reps. He also will have to play with some pain. But prior to his injury, Freeman got about 90 percent of the reps since the start of the offseason. That's a big contrast to this time last year, when he was an afterthought in a battle between Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich for the starting job. McCown was traded to the Jaguars and Leftwich is back with the Steelers. This is Freeman's time and his team. As a rookie, Freeman won his first start against the Green Bay Packers. The 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft passed for 1,855 yards with 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Freeman still has a lot of growing to do. In addition to the interceptions, he completed just 54.5 percent of his passes. But that was better than the Jets' Mark Sanchez or the Lions' Matthew Stafford -- the other first-round quarterbacks in his draft class. "It's my team and I want to win," Freeman said. "I want to get things done the right way."

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Cadillac Williams, FB Earnest Graham. Backups -- Kareem Huggins, Clifton Smith, FB Chris Pressley.

This is the first offseason since 2006 that Williams wasn't recovering from knee surgery. Nobody expected him to make a remarkable comeback from two serious knee injuries that ended his season in '07 and '08. He led the team in rushing with 823 yards and four touchdowns. Huggins gives the Bucs an explosive back who can go the distance if he gets into the second level. His emergence prompted the Bucs to release RB Derrick Ward. Graham, who has been more effective as a tailback, was shifted to fullback the past two seasons. He will be an emergency tailback and should catch some passes this season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Sammie Stroughter, Mike Williams. Backups -- Maurice Stovall, Reggie Brown, Arrelious Benn, Micheal Spurlock, Michael Clayton.

The Bucs will have mostly new targets for Freeman. Tampa Bay used a second-round pick on Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout who big, physical and great after the catch. Then they gambled a bit in the fourth round to take Syracuse receiver Mike Williams. Williams will make more of an immediate impact. He is a first-round talent and will start at the X position. Stroughter will play mostly as a slot receiver as the Bucs will use a lot of two tight end formations. Benn has been a slower study but should contribute more the second half of the season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Kellen Winslow. Backups -- John Gilmore, Jerramy Stevens, Ryan Purvis.

Winslow is coming off his sixth knee surgery, although it was considered minor. The Bucs barely played him in the preseason. He led the Bucs in receiving a year ago and will likely do the same in 2010. Stevens has a similar skill set and could see a lot of playing time as the Bucs dictate matchups. Purvis has worked hard to develop as a blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Donald Penn, LG Keydrick Vincent, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood. Backups -- Jeremy Zuttah, Demar Dotson, James Lee, Marc Dile.

Penn, who has started 44 straight games for the Bucs, signed a new long-term deal the first day of training camp. The Bucs still believe the offensive line is the strength of their team. But at this point, it's fair to say the unit is a bit overrated. Tampa Bay was 24th in the NFL in rushing offense at just over 101 yards per game. The best of the bunch is Joseph, a road grader who was named to the Pro Bowl two years ago.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RE Stylez White, NT Brian Price, DT Gerald McCoy, LE Kyle Moore. Backups -- Roy Miller, Tim Crowder, Michael Bennett, Ryan Sims.

McCoy doesn't welcome the comparisons to Warren Sapp, the Bucs' future Hall of Fame defensive tackle. It may take a few years, but McCoy is the foundation that the Bucs plan to rebuild their defense on. Fortunately, he will have help. The Bucs also used a second-round pick on Price, the UCLA defensive tackle. Tampa Bay also will get a lift from some blossoming defensive linemen -- Miller and Moore. Both were asked to gain about 25 pounds as rookies to play in Jim Bates' two-gap system. The weight is gone and their explosion is back. Credit the Bucs for some late additions last year -- DEs Tim Crowder and Michael Bennett. But their best edge rusher is Stylez G. White, who led the team with 6.5 sacks and 34 QB pressures.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Quincy Black, MLB Barrett Ruud, WLB Geno Hayes. Backups -- Adam Hayward, Dekota Watson, Niko Koutouvides.

For 10 games last season under Bates, Ruud was nothing more than a drag down tackler. But for the final six under Raheem Morris, he looked like a better-than-average mike linebacker. Ruud says he approaching this season as if it will be his last in Tampa Bay. That actually could be a good thing for the Bucs. He's not flashy. He lacks splash plays. But he's also the quarterback of defense, and Morris will lean on Ruud to guide relative newbies Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, who were first-year starters last season. Hayes channeled his inner Derrick Brooks during the final six games of the '09 season and is another run-and-hit Florida State linebacker. The Bucs used a seventh-round pick on Watson, another prototype.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Ronde Barber, LCB Aqib Talib, SS Sean Jones, FS Tanard Jackson. Backups -- E.J. Biggers, Sabby Piscitelli, Myron Lewis, Elbert Mack.

Barber is 35 and in the final year of his contract. This may not be a farewell tour, but it feels like goodbye. For the first time since his rookie season, he did not have an interception last year. Fortunately, his replacement is here. The Bucs used a third-round pick on Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis. At 6-2, 205 pounds, he can stand up to the league's more physical receivers. Talib tied for the club lead with Jackson in INTs with five but is suspended for the first game. Jones, a free agent from Philadelphia, should beat out Piscitelli, who had three passes defensed in 16 games last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Conner Barth, P Brent Bowden, LS Andrew Economos, KR Clifton Smith.

The Bucs used a sixth-round pick on Bowden. The Bucs lost the hidden yardage stat a year ago. The Bucs liked Barth, who hit three 50-yard field goals in a game at Miami. His kickoffs are deep, but he lacks a consistent track record. Smith, who suffered two concussions last season, will be the Bucs' primary kickoff and punt returner. Michael Spurlock, who had the first kickoff return for a TD in team history, helped beat the Saints last season and is back for 2010.For 10 games last season under Bates, Ruud was nothing more than a drag down tackler. But for the final six under Raheem Morris, he looked like a better-than-average mike linebacker. Ruud says he approaching this season as if it will be his last in Tampa Bay. That actually could be a good thing for the Bucs. He's not flashy. He lacks splash plays. But he's also the quarterback of defense, and Morris will lean on Ruud to guide relative newbies Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, who were first-year starters last season. Hayes channeled his inner Derrick Brooks during the final six games of the '09 season and is another run-and-hit Florida State linebacker. The Bucs used a seventh-round pick on Watson, another prototype.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Ronde Barber, LCB Aqib Talib, SS Sean Jones, FS Tanard Jackson. Backups -- E.J. Biggers, Sabby Piscitelli, Myron Lewis, Elbert Mack.
Barber is 35 and in the final year of his contract. This may not be a farewell tour, but it feels like goodbye. For the first time since his rookie season, he did not have an interception last year. Fortunately, his replacement is here. The Bucs used a third-round pick on Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis. At 6-2, 205 pounds, he can stand up to the league's more physical receivers. Talib tied for the club lead with Jackson in INTs with five but is suspended for the first game. Jones, a free agent from Philadelphia, should beat out Piscitelli, who had three passes defensed in 16 games last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Conner Barth, P Brent Bowden, LS Andrew Economos, KR Clifton Smith.
The Bucs used a sixth-round pick on Bowden. The Bucs lost the hidden yardage stat a year ago. The Bucs liked Barth, who hit three 50-yard field goals in a game at Miami. His kickoffs are deep, but he lacks a consistent track record. Smith, who suffered two concussions last season, will be the Bucs' primary kickoff and punt returner. Michael Spurlock, who had the first kickoff return for a TD in team history, helped beat the Saints last season and is back for 2010.

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