Another game, another pair of starters hobbling off with injury. Just a week in the lives these young, resilient, and playoff-minded Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs overcame a slow start and put together their most complete performance of the season in thrashing the Seahawks 38-15 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Despite the loss of WR Arrelious Benn and FB Earnest Graham to injury in the first half, the Buccaneer offense got rolling behind the steady play of QB Josh Freeman. Freeman completed 21 of 26 passes for 5 TDs, which tied a team record held by Steve DeBerg and Brad Johnson, with no interceptions to pace the Buccaneer offense. He became the youngest QB to throw for 3000 yards in team history. Barring a total collapse in the Superdome next week, he’ll also become the second quarterback in team history to throw for 3000+ yards with 20+ TDs and less than 10 INTs. Brad Johnson’s team record of 26 TD passes is also in reach for Freeman, who has 23 after Sunday.
On the ground, the Buccaneers were again led by LeGarrette Blount, who racked up his best performance of the year with 164 yards on only 18 carries. He has 941 rushing yards on the season and seems all but certain to break the 1000-yard barrier despite missing significant time in the early part of the season. However, that doesn’t mean much to him if it won’t carry the Bucs to the playoffs.
“It would mean a lot to me if I could and we won, but if I did it and we lost, it probably would mean nothing to me because all we really are focusing right now is going to the playoffs,” Blount told ESPN 1040. “That’s what we want to do and that’s a major part of why we’re here. We’ve put ourselves into a situation where we could possibly get it.”
Freeman’s top target Sunday was TE Kellen Winslow, who snared 7 passes for 98 yards and 2 TDs. The second TD was on an acrobatic play where he scooped the ball near the ground, then scrambled up and leapt over a defender for the score. He extended his streak of games with a catch to 75, third among active tight ends. Winslow, who was flagged for a controversial pass interference penalty last week against Detroit, admitted that he had that play in the back of his mind this week.
“Most definitely,” Winslow said. “They took two away from me this year. It’s unfortunate, but what can you do? You’ve got to control what you can control and move on.”
Rookie WR Mike Williams caught 3 passes for 44 yards, including TDs number 9 and 10 on the season, which broke Lars Tate’s team record of 8 total TDs by a rookie that he set in 1988. His 10 TD catches tie the team record set by Joey Galloway in 2005. Opposite Williams, Maurice Stovall, Dezmon Briscoe, and Preston Parker all stepped up and hauled in passes. According to Morris, all will have an opportunity to secure the starting flanker position this week in practice. Morris also noted that Benn will go on IR with a torn knee ligament.
For the Buccaneer defense, it was a sea change from last week against Detroit, when they allowed 181 rushing yards to Detroit. On Sunday, the Bucs held the Seahawks to 176 total yards and limited Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle running backs to 84 yards on 24 carries. They were also able to generate consistent pressure on QB Charlie Whitehurst, who came into the game after Matt Hasselbeck tweaked his hip in the first quarter. Much like last week, the Bucs rotated Al Woods, Michael Bennett, Alex Magee, Frank Okam, and Roy Miller around the defensive line. This time, it worked much better, as the Buccaneer defensive front was able to create some gap penetration and get a push up the middle against the Seattle offensive line. Raheem Morris continues to be a mad scientist with his defensive line personnel groupings, this week starting Michael Bennett at right defensive end ahead of Stylez G. White. Bennett played all four positions on the defensive line Sunday.
“Whatever coach asks me to do,” Bennett told ESPN 1040. “I’ve been playing nose, 3-technique, end. It’s good to be versatile, because, you know, coach tells me to just keep working on everything.”
The Buccaneers will face the Saints at 1 pm Sunday needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Should they prevail, they will be in the unenviable position of having to pull for the Giants to fall at Washington and/or the Bears to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field. Both games are set for 4:15. Depending on what happens with the Saints’ game with the Falcons Monday night, the Bucs might need both the Packers and the Giants to stumble in order to make the postseason.
According to Barrett Ruud, a victory over the Saints and achieving Raheem Morris’ “Race to Ten” proclamation would not make the season a success without a playoff berth.
“If we get ten wins and don’t go to the playoffs, we’ll be thinking about Detroit, we’ll be thinking about Atlanta,” Ruud told ESPN 1040. “We could easily have twelve wins this year. If you don’t get to the playoffs, then your season‘s really not successful.”