When Earnest Graham spoke to Ira Kaufman, he said something that grabbed my attention:
"That's three in a row and you've got to be happy about that. It's steady progress. It wasn't pretty against the Colts, but we're a team still finding our identity.'‘[...]"We've got to stay committed to coming into our building every week, addressing the things that we can do better. I'm loving every minute of it, playing my part and watching these young guys grow.'‘
And that's exactly right: this is a team still growing, and still finding its identity. But it's also a team that's improving every week, and that's very encouraging. The defense looked abysmal in the first game-and-a-half, allowing the Lions to pass them to death and not doing much to stop Adrian Peterson and Donovan McNabb.
But since the second half of that second game, the defense has looked terrific. It held Atlanta running backs to 30 yards on 15 carries and Indianapolis running backs to 62 yards on 18 carries. That's an average of 2.8 yards per carry, which is just a ridiculous number, especially for a defense that was arguably the worst at stopping the run in the league last season.
Run defense isn't the only improvement, however. The Bucs didn't sack Matt Stafford, but notched two on Donovan McNabb in week two. The next two quarterbacks were both sacked four times, giving the Buccaneers ten sacks on the season. That ranks them tied for 15th and on track to post 40 sacks on the year. Last season they notched just 26, the second-worst total in the league behind Denver.
On offense, too, the Bucs are getting better each week. While the Bucs aren't as good on offense as they were late last season, mostly because Josh Freeman has not looked as sharp, they are still improving every game. Freeman had his best game of the season against the Indianapolis Colts, as he was responsible for two touchdowns and avoided any turnovers. He also moved the team downfield efficiently, but was hindered by a few drops and one dumb penalty by his receivers.
Legarrette Blount and the offensive line are getting better as well. Overall this offensive line has performed very well in pass protection, and Freeman has generally had plenty of time to throw the football. Although Jeremy Trueblood has continued to struggle with quick pass rushers, his mistakes have not been too costly so far.
The running game has been very impressive, though. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have the fifth most efficient running game. Davin Joseph has returned to his pre-2010 form and has looked like a guard who was worthy of the money he was paid. Trueblood may not excel as a pass blocker, but he still is a good run blocker. And Luke Stocker also deserves a mention as an efficient though not spectacular run blocker.
Removing Ted Larsen from the lineup and replacing him with Jeremy Zuttah has turned out to be a very good move, as the left guard has been devastatingly effective on pull blocks, leading to a lot of runs to the right. Erik Lorig has also really impressed, as the second-year fullback is a much more effective blocker than last year. He does a great job of keeping his pad level low, has displayed a good understanding of his assignments and has displayed terrific power to create creases for Legarrette Blount.
But most of all, Blount has massively improved his understanding of the game over last year, and has also improved from game to game. Last year he was an erratic runner who did some spectacular things, but also lacked an understanding of the running game that hurt him at times. We've still seen remnants of that in his game this season, especially in the first two games, but he has gotten much better at being patient and following his much improved blocking.
Overall, the Bucs are improving every week in various facets of the game. The run defense, the pass rush and the run offense already seem much improved. Now the pass defense and offense need to start making some bigger strides than they already have.