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Fundamental Football

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Rashard Mendenhall ran from and through tackles for most of the game
Rashard Mendenhall ran from and through tackles for most of the game

A lot of things went wrong on sunday: we never pressured Charlie Batch, we had gaping holes in coverage, we couldn't get into the endzone and as a result the Steelers hung 38 points on us. But more than anything we weren't doing the simple things: players didn't wrap up, didn't play the ball, fumbled the ball, had the ball bounce off their fingertips. Everything that could possibly go wrong against the Steelers went wrong.

In the first quarter, Cody Grimm had Mike Wallace covered deep down the middle, only to fail to turn around and find the football - instead letting it drop into Mike Wallace's hands for a touchdown. In the second quarter, the Bucs rushed 5 players in a zone blitz to get to Charlie Batch, instead they got pushed outside and allowed 35-year old Charlie Batch to pick up 24 yards on the ground. Later in the same quarter, Mike Williams caught a screen pass from Josh Johnson, got dragged down but because the tackler was still underneath he was not down when the ball popped seemingly randomly out of his hands and into those of Ryan Clark. Less than a minute later Charlie Batch would find Aqib Talib on a deep ball, only to have the pass bounce off Talib's fingers to find Mike Wallace in the endzone. In the third quarter Rashard Mendenhall went through a wide-open hole with Buccaneers on both sides of the hole, failing to find the Steeler racing by. Later in the same quarter Freeman threw a quick screen to Sammie Stroughter, who couldn't bring the ball in and instead saw it go from his hands to Brett Kiesel's, who promptly went 79 yards for the score. 

These kinds of plays remind me of what I saw in 2009: a young team, not lacking in heart, but lacking in execution and talent. But that wasn't the same team I'd seen the weeks before, where I saw a young team that was executing their plays well, that wasn't just hanging on and winning games by catching lucky breaks and good special teams plays - no, the team I saw in week 1 and week 2 was a solid football team. Not a great football team by any means, but certainly not a team that should lose to the Steelers by 25 points. 

And that's where I think this team is different last year's team: last year the team was disorganized, it played games against the Giants and Jets where it was never competitive at any point. Even in this blowout the Bucs looked competitive for most of the first half - until they conceded the third touchdown just before halftime. The problem in this game was not that we were a lost team who couldn't find any way to be succesful- the problem in this game was luck and fundamentals. Luck can't be fixed, but the players have 2 weeks to work on their fundamentals - to get back to tackling well, hanging on to the ball and catching the ball. 

This game worries me, though. Perhaps not as much as the score would suggest, but the apparent lack of discipline worries me. Once the game got out of hand, things managed to get a lot worse than before. Previously decent pass protection suddenly turned into a sieve. The 4-man pass pressure that was present in the first quarter disappeared as the game wore on. By the second half it seemed as if the team could make nothing work anymore, as the Steelers repeatedly gashed us for chunks of yards on the ground. 

Still, I have faith that these problems will be solved. This team does not seem mentally weak to me, and all indications are that the team is learning from this and moving on to the next game - the right attitude to take. The problems with fundamentals are not incurable and while the team collapsed in the second half, it did so when the game was already out of reach, not while the game remained competitive.

And that's what I think this team can do: remain competitive in most games. They will lose plenty of those games, but I expect those losses to be a lot closer than they were last year, and I certainly expect them to win a lot more games than they did last year. This football team is young, talented and improving - it hit its first speed bump and how the players deal with this will tell us a lot about the future of this team.