Raheem Morris is the type of head coach who has no qualms about putting pressure on his players, no matter how young or inexperienced they seem to be.
Morris claimed his Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be the best in the NFC last season despite the team winning a mere three games the year before. And although the Bucs didn't earn the title of conference kings, they gained a lot more respect from around the NFL's after orchestrating one of the league's biggest turnarounds in 2010.
Young and brash much like his squad, Morris is predicting more big things from Tampa Bay for the upcoming 2011 campaign. And just like last year, he'll have his share of doubters who'll say the Buccaneers played over their heads the previous season.
Don't tell that to the 2011 version of the Buccaneers, who are a year older, wiser and hungrier to make an even stronger case as the conference's best. Tampa Bay was loaded with rookies a season ago, yet still managed to finish 10-6 while barely missing the playoffs, a place the franchise hasn't reached since 2007.
Morris set the bar very high when he said winning 10 games in 2010 was a top priority, especially after a 3-13 campaign the year before. The Bucs reached that goal despite missing the playoffs, with fellow NFC South inhabitants Atlanta and New Orleans instead punching a ticket to the tournament. Now he's eyeing a division crown that would guarantee a postseason spot, which also would be quite an accomplishment considering the strength of the NFC South.
"What we want to do now, which is realistic, is go out and win our division," Morris said in late July. "That would be our goal. Once you win the division, you have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, and once you qualify for the playoffs, anything can happen. As long as I'm the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we're going to continue the championship search."
The Buccaneers went 3-3 in division play last year, losing twice to the Falcons and splitting two matchups with the Saints. Tampa Bay did beat division doormat Carolina twice, but knows it must do better against the big boys to achieve its goal.
Watching the Seattle Seahawks claim the NFC West at 7-9 last season had to have killed the Buccaneers. But instead of throwing their hands in the air and pouting, the Bucs have focused on taking care of their own business this offseason as young quarterback Josh Freeman continues to emerge into a team leader.
Freeman put himself on the NFL map by engineering a handful of fourth-quarter comebacks in 2010, just his second year in the league. His numbers were through the roof in comparison to what he put up during his rookie campaign of 2009, while his quick success also has the pressure cooker on full blast for what lies ahead.
Freeman didn't do it alone on offense last year, as rookies Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount also shined to help the Bucs complete the best turnaround in team history. Blount wasn't even drafted because of some issues in college that many other NFL clubs didn't want to be a part of, but the Buccaneers were willing to take a risk that paid off when the power back ripped off a few highlight-reel runs en route to a 1,000-yard campaign. Wideout Williams almost reached the 1,000-yard mark in receiving and hauled in 11 touchdown passes, giving Tampa Bay an elite trio of rising young stars.
The same can't be said for a defense that failed to produce a formidable pass rush and finished 28th in the league against the run.
The Bucs are counting on a healthy return of second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft who was lost late in the season with a biceps injury. He's now healthy and aiming to repair a front seven that added three potential impact players in the first three rounds of this year's NFL Draft -- defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers and middle linebacker Mason Foster.
Though only in his second season, McCoy will already be asked to serve as a mentor on the young defense.
"It's not a problem," said McCoy. "I was raised to be a leader."
Tampa Bay hopes McCoy's statements can come to fruition, as well that his biceps holds up for a full season, as his health and the strides Tampa Bay is able to make on defense are critical factors towards the team reaching Morris' goal of being crowned champions, no easy task in a division that houses two elite quarterbacks in New Orleans' Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 10-6 (3rd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to N.Y. Giants in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Raheem Morris (13-19 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Olson (third season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Morris
OFFENSIVE STAR: Josh Freeman, QB (3451 passing yards, 25 TD, 6 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Aqib Talib, CB (40 tackles, 6 INT, 11 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 19th overall (8th rushing, 17th passing), 20th scoring (21.3 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 17th overall (28th rushing, 7th passing), 9th scoring (19.9 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: TE Luke Stocker (4th Round, Tennessee), DE Adrian Clayborn (1st Round, Iowa), MLB Mason Foster (3rd Round, Washington), P Michael Koenen (from Falcons), DE Da'Quan Bowers (2nd Round, Clemson), CB Ashton Youboty (from Bills)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE John Gilmore (to Steelers), MLB Barrett Ruud (to Titans), RB Carnell Williams (to Rams), WR Maurice Stovall (to Lions), DE Stylez White (to Vikings), MLB Niko Koutouvides (to Patriots)
QB: Freeman (3,451 passing yards, 25 TD, 6 INT in 2010) will have to harness much of the pressure for the upcoming season, since there's a lot riding on his right arm. Already possessing terrific size at 6-foor-6, 250-pounds, the third- year quarterback also displayed a remarkable poise that is rare to see from such a young player at this level last season. He also completed an impressive 61.4 percent of his passes and has plenty of arm strength to throw the deep ball and out routes, as well as a growing popularity after having placed in the running for the Madden 2012 cover. Freeman's progress has some insiders touting him as an MVP candidate this season, though playing in a division which already has top quarterbacks in Ryan and Brees won't make his task easy. Drafted in the same class as Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, Freeman is not the only one who has something to prove this season, however. Josh Johnson will serve as Freeman's backup once again, with Rudy Carpenter and Jonathan Crompton battling for the No. 3 spot.
RB: Blount (1007 passing yards, 6 TD), signed by the Bucs after being released by Tennessee during last year's preseason, made the most of his opportunity and is now the starting running back for Morris. He recorded four games with 100-plus yards rushing as a rookie and carried the ball no less than 11 times in each of his final 11 contests. A powerful back with the bulk of a linebacker at 245 pounds. the former Oregon star will be keyed on quite a lot by opposing teams this season following his superb rookie campaign. One of several talented running backs in the NFC South, Blount can break tackles in the mold of Earl Campbell and has speed around the ends as well, as he averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season. He also may have a bigger role this season following the departure of Cadillac Williams, who headed to St. Louis in free agency. Earnest Graham (99 rushing yards, 1 TD), also an undrafted free agent, will serve as Tampa Bay's fullback and is entering his eighth year with the organization. Kregg Lumpkin and rookie Allen Bradford (6th Round, USC) stand behind Blount on the depth chart, while converted defensive end Erik Lorig will serve as Graham's backup at fullback.
WR/TE: Blount had a strong rookie campaign, but wide receiver Mike Williams (65 receptions, 11 TD) made an even bigger impact on Tampa offense in his debut season, quickly developing into one of Freeman's favorite targets. He led the squad in receiving yards (964) and touchdown receptions and finished one catch shy of tight end Kellen Winslow for the team lead. An athletic player who can mix it up with some of the best defensive backs with his soft hands and tremendous leaping ability, Williams is clearly the Buccaneers' No. 1 receiver and could be in line for an even bigger 2011 after having only one game with 100-plus yards last season. While Freeman may miss Cadillac Williams catching passes out of the backfield, he'll be hoping that 2010 second-rounder Arrelious Benn (25 receptions, 2 TD) can produce more after an injury-plagued rookie season. Benn has a thick body and can muscle his way open, but suffered a torn ACL in the next-to-last game of the season. Winslow (5 TD) managed to stay healthy to haul in 66 passes in 2010 and still has that intensity he displayed during his college days at Miami-Florida. Though not a great blocking tight end, he's quick and agile coming out of his stance and an accomplished receiver. Sammie Stroughter (24 receptions) and Micheal Spurlock (17 receptions, 2 TD) are other receiving options on the roster, while rookie Luke Stocker will replace the departed John Gilmore as the second tight end.
OL: The Bucs gave up 28 sacks when Freeman was under center and two more when Johnson took the snaps last season. That's not a horrifying number, but the line could still use some improvement with the other teams in the NFC South all upgrading along the defensive line. With Ray Edwards joining John Abraham in Atlanta, any expert knows that duo will be a problem if an opponent doesn't have the tackles to protect the quarterback. Freeman has good mobility and can improvise when needed, but left tackle Donald Penn and right-side starter Jeremy Trueblood will need to be formidable bookends. Penn has shown both consistency and good health that make him a dependable player, but Trueblood made just seven starts a year ago and was replaced by James Lee down the stretch. The Bucs still signed him to a two-year contract in the offseason, and he'll have every chance to reclaim his old job. Guards Ted Larsen and Davin Joseph, who inked a big deal in late July, are keys to the ground game along with center Jeff Faine, who gives the Bucs a needed veteran presence. The gritty Faine is one of just a few 30-year-olds on the roster and also the team's player rep. He started only eight games last year because of a pulled quadriceps, however, and missed four starts with a triceps issue in 2009.
DL: The Buccaneers were awful against the run last season, finishing 28th in the NFL, and lacked depth after suffering a few injuries along the front line. McCoy (28 tackles, 3 sacks), who played in 13 games before missing the remainder of the season with a torn right biceps, will anchor a defensive line that will be perhaps the Bucs' biggest area of concern this season. Fellow tackles Frank Okam (12 tackles) and Brian Price (3 tackles), another injury casualty last year, will push McCoy and Roy Miller (48 tackles, 1 sack) for playing time, with Okam enjoying a strong preseason that's made him a candidate to start next to McCoy. Price is coming off surgery to repair both hamstrings and will be worked in the rotation slowly, however. Ends Tim Crowder (31 tackles, 3 sacks) and Michael Bennett (15 tackles, 1 sack) were both re-signed in the offseason, and the Bucs added more depth to the line with rookies Adrian Clayborn (1st Round, Iowa) and Da'Quan Bowers (2nd Round, Clemson), two talented youngsters that will be picking the brain of defensive line coach and former NFL vet Keith Millard. Clayborn is expected to start in his rookie campaign and is a solid prospect who the Bucs will be counting on to apply a lot of pressure in the Cover 2 scheme.
LB: Barrett Ruud led the Bucs in tackles for the fourth time in as many years last season, but is no longer with the team. Though his experience will be missed, Foster and returning starters Quincy Black and Geno Hayes form a very athletic trio. Foster, selected in the third round out of the University of Washington, is penciled in to start in the middle in place of Ruud. He is a physical player who's still a little raw in coverage and will be taking on quite a bit of responsibility right out of the gate as the one who will call the plays in the 4-3 scheme. Morris believes the youngster is ready for the assignment, however, as Foster's had a strong preseason and impressed the coaches with both his range and strength. Hayes will play on the weak side and ended second on the team with 82 tackles last season, while also registering four sacks. Black will be on the strong side once again and posted 60 tackles and two sacks in 2010.
DB: The Bucs were a tough team to pass on a year ago, but the secondary is a year older, meaning right cornerback Ronde Barber and strong safety Sean Jones are getting up in age. The 36-year-old Barber (81 tackles, 3 INT), who has been with the Bucs since 1997, proved he can still play effectively last season, but the team did draft a possible heir apparent with the seventh-round selection of Florida International's Anthony Gaitor in April. Jones (74 tackles), 29, had a sack and an interception as Tampa Bay's strong safety last season, while second-year man Cody Grimm (57 tackles) emerged as a starter at free safety before breaking his leg after only 11 games. The Bucs are hoping the Virginia Tech product can return to form, as he was making an impact before the injury. Larry Asante, Corey Lynch (32 tackles, 1 INT) and rookie Quincy Black (5th Round, Florida) are other options at safety. Cornerback Aqib Talib (40 tackles) led the team with six picks last season, but faces possible discipline from the league for his role in a shooting incident back in March. The Bucs added a safety valve for that situation, however, by signing veteran cornerback Ashton Youboty (from Bills) to a two-year contract.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The new rule change for kickoffs will effect Spurlock's return numbers for sure, which could hurt the Buccaneers. He averaged 25.7 yards on 44 kickoff returns last year, though only 6.9 yards on 28 punt returns. Stroughter and reserve receiver Preston Parker have return experience as well. Christian Yount is Tampa Bay's long snapper and will be working diligently with new punter/holder Michael Koenen, who signed a six-year deal worth a reported $19 million with the Bucs in the offseason. Koenen spent the first six years of his career with Atlanta and averaged 42.0 yards on 440 career punts before deciding to jump ship within the division. Connor Barth is entering his third season as Tampa Bay's kicker and nailed all 36 of his PAT tries a year ago, while also making 23-of-28 field goal attempts.
PROGNOSIS: The Bucs didn't need to break the bank in the offseason, as the organization feels confident in what it already has on the roster. The team's only noteworthy signings were Koenen and Youboty, and the latter is strictly a a backup plan if Talib is penalized by commissioner Roger Goodell. Tampa Bay just missed out on the playoffs a year ago and the players have clearly bought in to what Morris has been selling since he took over, leaving the Bucs with plenty of optimism that 2011 will be an even better year. Getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run is a priority for all teams, but it's especially important for the Buccaneers, who struggled in both areas last year. A more mature offense in which Freeman, Blount, Mike Williams and Winslow are all a year older and wiser puts the Tampa Bay right in the NFC South mix with the Falcons and Saints. Though it's an arduous task to reach 10 wins in the NFL, Morris knows exactly what to say and do to get what he wants.