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Around the NFC, Pre-Draft NFC South, Edition 1: Tampa Bay

Josh Freeman just had the 2011 season flash before his eyes. No, seriously, he did.
Josh Freeman just had the 2011 season flash before his eyes. No, seriously, he did.

The NFC South was an interesting place last season. To start off the season, the New Orleans Saints took on the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, a game that went featured a record-breaking kick return and lots and lots of offense. Eventually, the Saints fell 42-34 to the Green Bay offense, starting off 0-1. For their part, theAtlanta Falcons went into Soldier Field. They emerged bruised, battered, and utterly beaten from a 30-12 trouncing at the hands of the Chicago Bears. All-world #1 draft selection Cam Newton took the Carolina Panthers to Arizona and set a rookie record, but the Cardinals spoiled his debut and won 28-21. To round out Week 1, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 27-20 to the Detroit Lions.

In Week 6, the division race in the NFC South was looking very interesting. Tampa Bay was 3-2 heading into a crucial game with New Orleans, but they were coming off an absolute shellacking at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. The game got so out of hand that the 49ers felt comfortable putting in backup QB Colin Kaepernick in the 4th Quarter. To boot, Kaepernick led a touchdown drive, the final score in a 48-3 win for San Francisco.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shook off their Week 1 loss and improved to 4-2. In order to do so, Tampa Bay had defeated New Orleans (26-20). In Week 7, the Buccaneers and traveled abroad to London, where they would take on the Chicago Bears. After falling behind 21-5, the Bucs scored two touchdowns in the 4th Quarter. But a late field goal by the Bears sealed a 24-18 Chicago win. With the loss, the Bucs fell to 4-3, and Josh Freeman took quite a bit of blame for the loss. Hardly helping his case were the 4 INTs Freeman lobbed against the Bears.
After the jump: recaps of the suffering that Tampa Bay underwent over the rest of the year.

The London game was a turning point in Tampa Bay's season, and it was NOT a good one.The Buccaneers certainly weren't dead in the water after Week 7, as they had attained a 4-3 record.

The Bucs returned from London into a Week 8 Bye, which was certainly well-timed. LeGarrette Blount, who had missed the game against Chicago, was able to return for Tampa Bay's rematch with New Orleans in Week 9. Unfortunately, Earnest Graham, who had started the game against Chicago before he suffered a 1st quarter ankle injury, was unable to play against New Orleans. Graham would not play again for the rest of the season.

New Orleans, smarting from a Week 6 loss to Tampa Bay, used a run heavy approach in the rematch. The Bucs, who had allowed 2,000 rushing yards in 2010, were almost powerless to stop the Saints rushing attack, and the Saints generated almost 200 yards rushing. The Saints took a 24-6 lead going into the 4th quarter, before the Buccaneers scored 10 straight points to draw within a possession (and two point conversion). The Saints stubbornly held on, and Tampa Bay's defense was unable to prevent New Orleans from running off almost 4 minutes worth of clock and a game-sealing field goal. The Bucs offense generated 46 yards and 0 points before time expired, sealing their fall to 4-4.

Tampa Bay's next game was against Houston, but the Bucs were never really in the game and lost 37-9. Against Green Bay the following week, the Bucs managed to frustrate the Packers but made too many mistakes, dropping to 4-6 with a 35-26 defeat. The agony never stopped, and after a 23-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Buccaneers lost all of their remaining games by two or more touchdowns, including a sweep at the hands of the division rival Carolina Panthers. Raheem Morris, who had started off 3-13 before things appeared to turn aroudn in 2010 (with a 10-6 record) was fired on January 2nd, not long after Tampa Bay lost its tenth consecutive game to fall to 4-12 on the year.


Defensive Problems

In 2011, as in 2010, the problem was rushing defense. The Bucs ranked 28th in the league in rushing defense in 2010 (allowing 2,107 yards rushing). Tampa Bay's rushing defense worsened significantly in 2011, ranking 32nd in the league and allowing 2,497 rushing yards on 5.0 YPC (tied for second-to-last in the NFL). Another problem for the Buccaneers was an almost nonexistent pass rush. In addition to their NFL-worst run defense, Tampa Bay had the unflattering distinction of recording the fewest sacks on defense, with 23. As if things couldn't get any worse, Tampa Bay's D was hampered severely by coverage mistakes, resulting in the Buccaneers allowing 30 passing touchdowns (to just 14 interceptions).

It's not like the Bucs haven't been trying to fix the run defense, in fact, they've used several high draft selections to try to do so. In 2010, coming off of a 3-13 disaster, the Bucs drafted Gerald McCoy out of Oklahoma with the 3rd overall selection. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, McCoy has played in just 17 of 32 possible games and only 6 games in 2011. Brian Price, a 2nd round DT out of UCLA (also taken in the 2010 Draft) managed to play in 15 games with 14 starts in 2011 (after missing most of his rookie season). Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay's 1st round selection in 2011, had 7.5 sacks, leading the team. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the Bucs defense had the fewest sacks in the NFL.



Carl Nicks: FA, New Orleans

Vincent Jackson: FA, San Diego

Eric Wright: FA, Detroit

Dan Orlovsky: FA, Indianapolis

The Buccaneers have made a good splash on offense with the signings of Nicks (who they fairly stole from New Orleans) and Jackson (who kept getting franchise tags from the San Diego Chargers and never a true long-term contract). Wright, however, has always been more than a little suspect in coverage. With the release of journeyman safety Sean Jones, it might be a good idea for Tampa Bay to try to address the back four in the secondary. (UPDATE: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have re-signed Ronde Barber for a 16th season)