Entering the 2011 NFL season, no team was a sexier sleeper pick than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Young stud at quarterback? Check. Physical beast at running back? Check. Super talented and young defensive line? Check. And don't forget about 35-year-old head coach Raheem Morris, who is currently the youngest coach or manager in the core four American professional sports leagues.
So far the Bucs haven’t done much to dispel the preseason hype. At 3-1, they are tied with New Orleans for the NFC South lead. They beat a solid Atlanta team at home, and their only loss was in Week 1 to a still-undefeated Detroit team.
Against a decimated Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, however, Tampa struggled mightily to move the ball for almost the entire first half and committed a grand total of 14 penalties for more than 100 yards' loss. The patchwork Colts team -- led by quarterback Curtis Painter in his first start and a left tackle recently signed off the practice squad -- held a 10-0 lead at one point and controlled the pace for much of the night. While the Bucs did win 24-17 and Tampa players are quick to say that such an ugly affair is precisely how they like it, it's critical to consider the competition they faced. As well as this team has played in the fourth quarter, it's mostly been mediocre for the first three.
Quarterback Josh Freeman now has eight fourth-quarter comebacks, more than Joe Montana, John Elway, Roger Staubach, or any other quarterback in NFL history at such a young age (Freeman is 23). But for the Bucs, there's a fine line between being a team that closes games and a team that gets lucky.
Counting on your ability to take over the fourth quarter after playing a subpar game for the first 45 minutes is not playing championship football, and in a brutal division that also features a revitalized Carolina team, you cannot survive with late game bailouts every week. Through the quarter point of the season, Tampa has scored half as many points in the fourth quarter (28) as it has in the other three combined (56). That can be really good or really bad.
As Atlanta discovered last season against Green Bay in the playoffs, one poor quarter or half can mean the season. The Bucs have a suspect pass defense that ranks 21st in yards allowed and clearly -- as evidenced by Painter's 281 yards and two touchdowns -- has some holes. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is a beast inside and Adrian Clayborn is scary coming off the edge. Both will continue to generate a nasty pass rush, but if you can't cover in this league, you can't win. At 36, defensive back Ronde Barber is still a terrific playmaker (e.g., sacks, interceptions) but not a shutdown corner or close to it. And while Aqib Talib shows signs of brilliance, he still hasn't become someone the coach can fully trust on the perimeter (or off the field for that matter).
Without question, the Bucs are on their way to accomplishing great things. They have what every general manager covets at three skill positions: quarterback Freeman, who in his third year is just now scratching the surface; second-year running back LeGarrette Blount, who is both bruiser and highlight-reel star; and fellow second-year man Mike Williams, a wide receiver with all the tools to eventually become a true No. 1 threat. But let's not forget that this team is also young, as in the league's youngest. And with youth comes growing pains.
Despite the win on primetime Monday, what we learned about Tampa Bay is that we really don't know who or what this team is quite yet. But with a Week 5 road test against division leader San Francisco and a Week 6 match-up with New Orleans, we'll find out soon enough.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Tampa Bay's one loss to date was "on the road" against Detroit. That loss was a home game.
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