In light of the two game winning streak, it's pretty easy to get caught up in the winning feeling and pretend that everything is alright. Two wins in a row, both on the road, one on the West coast and the other against one of the top teams in the NFL has most Bucs fans feeling pretty frisky these days. There is certainly a lot to be impressed with or pleased with given the previous 13 games. For one, the defense has figured out that when they are on the field the goal is to stop the other team. Now, as we saw on Sunday, teams can still move the ball against us, but it's nowhere to the tune of what Dallas, New Orleans (the first time), and Philly did to us in the air. And while gaps exist on the ground, I hope that we've seen the last of the Panthers epic drive on us.
While the defense has improved, so has the offense, to a degree. Let's hit the jump and discuss.
The offense is still not ripe with points in any one game. The Bucs have topped 24 points just once this year and generally have had special teams or the defense chip in for any higher scoring days. The offense has struggled inside the red zone as of late and some of that falls on our young quarterback. How much is on his shoulders is anyone's guess, but it's safe to say the blame could be spread around to several places.
What I want to focus on are a few areas which received a lot of discussion and notoriety, particularly over the last half of the season. Namely the running game, 3rd down conversions, and quarterback play.
It's easy to look at Freeman's interception total and throw your hands up in disgust. He has turned the ball over frequently since he took over, and while he is the only one who can pull the trigger, the optimist in me wants to attribute this to other factors. We've see QB and WR be on different pages at times, leading to errant throws. The WR has some culpability here, as does the QB, but it's a problem that should be cleared up once familiarity with each other and the offense comes around.
Freeman certainly has to learn how to secure the ball when he scrambles, and very few teams can survive games where their team throws the ball to the wrong jersey multiple times. With that being said, it's impossible to make any concrete judgments off of a half a season of football for Freeman. It's easy to get frustrated and pick apart his decision making process, but until we get a larger sample to draw from, it's unknown whether his struggles are rookie struggles that will dissipate with time (optimist), whether he just flat out sucks (pessimist), or whether the outcome is still undetermined and relies solely on Freeman and the coaching he receives (realist).
The Bucs offense has been a big ball of fail this year on 3rd down conversion rate, ranking in the bottom 6 for most of the year in the 28% range. This, as discussed, leads to less time on the field for the offense, which also means more time on the field for the defense. Not a good situation given our current players and team structure. However, in the last two games, the Bucs have not only controlled the clock in both games, but have converted over 40% of their 3rd down attempts. This allows drives to continue, the offense to stay on the field, the defense to rest, the opposing offense on the bench and of course, means we are shifting field position. There are no guarantees that high 3rd down % or time of possession victories give you a win, but it's still a nice change from the blastings the Bucs took earlier in the year.
The last item to focus on is the improved run game. It could be any one of a few things, or a combination of them all that has given the Bucs a chance to showcase the ground game. Better blocking, new assignments, more frequent opportunities are just a few factors that play into our new found commitment to the run game. Olson has seemingly found his way to the "Run" section of the playbook, and likes what he sees there. In the Seattle game, neither Cadillac or Ward hit 100 yards, but instead coupled for roughly 130 yards. Against New Orleans, the majority of the carries were given to Cadillac, and he responded with a 130 yard effort of his own. A balance has been struck between the passing and running game that borders on 50/50. This is a huge change from the 65/35 days of earlier this year, and the team has responded. Not every running play is a success, but the pattern has been set and as the games have worn on, the backs have found their way beyond the line of scrimmage.
Even with the recent success, there are still areas to improve. The turnovers have to stop, I think we all know that. The running game needs to remain intact and be utilized. The passing game must give Freeman a chance to deliver the ball quickly, with easy throws and allow him to set up that big arm with the play action pass. The penalties have to be limited as an untimely holding call can kill a drive quicker than Les Steckel.
Our offense received the overhaul and majority of the dollars this season. Our young and well paid offensive line must continue to com together and open up holes for the backs while protecting the quarterback. Freeman has to continue the maturation process and begin earning those dollars. Each running back is paid a fair sum and must produce as such. With the rotation, it's unlikely any one of the three will be at the top of any league leader lists, but as a group they should be able to top the lists. Our high priced receivers need to produce every week. Bryant has come on as of late, but we all know Clayton's story.
The recent changes and success are foundations to build upon. With one game left, it would be easy to throw in the towel, particularly for those players who may not be around next year. But it provides another game to improve in a live setting. No amount of practice or camp can simulate live reps in a game. So while we are getting rid to close the book on our 2009 season, there is one game left to hti the ground running, literally. If we can continue the progress that has been made through this next week, it may even give us some hope for next year.