The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some surprise success last season, but the NFL's youngest team is finally going through its growing pains, which has led to some uncertainty for 2012.
Things are just as murky for the Jacksonville Jaguars going forward, as they are set to open next season with a new owner and possibly a new head coach.
There is still football to be played in 2011 for the two clubs, who get together this Sunday at EverBank Field. For the Bucs, they'll be looking to snap a six-game slide, while the Jags take a second shot at getting interim head coach Mel Tucker his first victory.
The youthful Buccaneers turned some heads last year with a surprise 10-6 record that saw them just miss out on a playoff spot. That wasn't expected given the roster's current average age is 25 years and 326 days old, but it appears that inexperience has caught up with Tampa this year.
The Bucs got off to a solid 4-2 start, but have lost six straight since and four in a row on the road overall. Their youth showed in last Sunday's 38-19 loss to Carolina, as the Tampa Bay defense allowed Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton to rush for three touchdowns and throw for one as well.
The Buccaneers also racked up nine penalties for 73 yards in the defeat.
"The foolish things that happened in that game, as far as penalties and some of the things we caused, are just unacceptable," Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris said. "We are not playing like a smart football team right now. We have four weeks to prove that we can play smarter. If we don't play smarter, we won't win many games."
Tampa Bay played without quarterback Josh Freeman due to an injured right shoulder, but appears to be on track to return this weekend. Josh Johnson started in his place and the Bucs were held to four first-half field goals until a late touchdown pass the backup threw to Dezmon Briscoe.
The Bucs are trying to avoid their first seven-game losing streak since they began the 2009 season 0-7, while the Jags will be looking to snap a three-game slide that followed a victory over the winless Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 13.
Jacksonville capped a big week of change with a 38-14 setback to San Diego on Monday in Tucker's debut as head coach. He took over on an interim basis when Jack Del Rio was fired the previous Tuesday on the same day that owner Wayne Weaver announced an agreement to sell the team to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan.
The Jaguars, who will try to salvage the finale of a three-game homestand, actually led 14-10 late in the second quarter before the Chargers rattled off 28 straight points.
Tucker called the defeat a tough one and disappointing, something running back Maurice Jones-Drew agreed with.
"What coach said was right; we didn't play well enough to win," Jones-Drew said. "I think we executed better on offense. Obviously they played better than us overall and made more plays."
Monday night's loss began a stretch of three games in 10 days for the Jags, who visit the Atlanta Falcons next Thursday.
The Buccaneers and Jaguars have faced one another four times previously in regular-season play, with Jacksonville winning the three most recent matchups that followed a 17-16 road loss to Tampa in its inaugural season of 1995. The Jags have topped the Bucs twice at EverBank Field, coming through with a 29-24 decision in 1998 and a 17-10 verdict in 2003, and also edged the Bucs by a 24-23 count in Tampa in 2007.
Both Tucker and Morris will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
While Tampa Bay's defense had no answer for Newton, Johnson struggled in replacing Freeman (2715 passing yards, 12 TD, 16 INT) under center. He threw for only 229 yards and was picked off once while getting sacked twice, with the pair of quarterback takedowns upping the Buccaneers total to 21 sacks allowed, the fewest in the NFC by a line that features two former Pro Bowlers in tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph. The Buccaneers' run game got off to a slow start and then never had a chance to get going once the Panthers started racking up the points. Starting running back LeGarrette Blount (663 rushing yards, 4 TD) was limited to 19 yards on 11 carries and Johnson was the club's leading rusher with 45 yards on five scrambles. In all, Tampa Bay's 25th-ranked ground game managed just 78 yards. The team's 12th-ranked passing game should have Freeman back, and his top two weapons remain wide receiver Mike Williams (57 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Kellen Winslow (56 receptions, 2 TD). Williams was targeted nine times by Johnson last week and made five catches for 93 yards, while Winslow hauled in four passes for 41 yards in the loss. Wideout Arrelious Benn (28 receptions, 2 TD) finished with three catches for 46 yards and Briscoe (20 receptions) caught his third touchdown pass of the season.
The Jaguars' secondary is likely to be tested again by the Bucs, given all the injuries the group has experienced. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis (34 tackles, 1 INT), Derek Cox (22 tackles) and William Middleton (38 tackles, 1 INT) have all been lost for the season due to injuries over the past four weeks, while linebacker Clint Sessions (30 tackles, 1 sack) is also done for the rest of 2011. Without four starters versus the Chargers, the Jaguars allowed a season high in points, and the 433 yards of offense the team allowed was its second- highest this year. Still, the Jaguars rank fifth in total defense (304.2 ypg), fourth against the pass (192.6 ypg) and seventh in points allowed (19.8 ppg). Those numbers could continue to go up, though, now that the likes of Ashton Youboty and rookie Kevin Rutland are the starting two corners. Both were beaten for touchdowns on Monday, meaning safeties Dwight Lowery (36 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Dawan Landry (71 tackles, 2 INT) need to help. Lowery, though, suffered a shoulder injury last weekend and is questionable, while defensive ends Aaron Kampman and Matt Roth (24 tackles) are also questionable with injuries. Linebacker Paul Posluszny (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) led the Jags with 11 tackles on Monday, while Russell Allen (26 tackles) added six. Jacksonville's front four, led by end Jeremy Mincey (39 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and tackle Terrance Knighton (23 tackles), failed to log a sack against San Diego.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville looked as it if would give San Diego a run for its money over most of the first half, with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert (1566 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT) throwing for 139 yards and two touchdowns. However, he managed to throw for only 56 yards in the second half as Jacksonville's 32nd- ranked offense (254.7 ypg) was shut out. The lone bright spot was Jones-Drew (1137 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 6 total TD), who took over as the NFL's leading rusher by posting 97 yards on 20 attempts. He also led the team with six catches for 91 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown reception. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts caught the other one, a five-yarder late in the second quarter that preceded the Chargers' 28 unanswered points. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (30 receptions) had three catches before leaving with an ankle injury, while wide receiver Mike Thomas (39 receptions, 1 TD) saw six targets and made two catches for 21 yards. All eyes should be on Jones-Drew as he closes in on some milestones this week. His touchdown catch was the 69th score of his career, tying Jimmy Smith for the second-most in team history and leaving him one shy of Fred Taylor for the club record. Jones-Drew also needs just 36 more all-purpose yards to become the third Jag (Taylor and Smith) to reach 11,000 in a career.
Tampa Bay's front four has been really good at sacking the quarterback this year, so Newton decided to just try and run by them last week. It worked for the most part, and the rookie also threw for 204 yards while getting sacked twice. Rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers (19 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was credited with 1 1/2 sacks in the loss and fellow rookie end Adrian Clayborn (29 tackles, 5.5 sacks) the other half. Tampa Bay's defensive line has now accounted for 13 of the club's 19 sacks his year, led by Clayborn and second-year defensive tackle Brian Price (20 tackles, 3 sacks). Bowers also finished second on the team with eight tackles as starter Michael Bennett (30 tackles, 2 sacks) missed the Carolina game with a groin ailment. Another end, Tim Crowder (14 tackles) exited in the first quarter with a head injury and did not return. Strong safety Sean Jones (76 tackles, 1 sack) topped the team with 10 tackles against the Panthers and corner E.J. Biggers (45 tackles, 1 INT) had seven. He could see more action this weekend alongside Ronde Barber (62 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) if Aqib Talib (33 tackles, 2 INT) can't go due to a hamstring issue. Safety Tanard Jackson (19 tackles, 2 INT) is also a playmaking threat in the secondary.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Buccaneers have to feel good about their chances to score once they enter Jaguars' territory, given that kicker Connor Barth has made 13 straight field goals, three shy of the club record held by Martin Gramatica and Michael Husted. Last weekend, Barth became just the third player in NFL history to connect on four or more field goals of 40-plus yards in one half. He was good on tries from 50, 47, 46 and 44 yards out.
Jones-Drew figures to be the deciding factor as to whether the Jaguars can put up some points. After Carolina ran for 163 yards with four touchdowns and averaged 4.2 yards per carry versus the Bucs last weekend, Tucker should lean on his best player in this one. This will be Jones-Drew's first shot at the Buccaneers as a featured back. He has faced them only once before, back in the 2007 season while still sharing time with Taylor. He ran for 48 yards on 10 carries and added two catches in that game.
Playing in front of their potential new owner on Monday, the Jaguars watched the Chargers score the game's first 10 points before posting a pair of touchdowns to take the lead and grab some momentum. However, San Diego scored twice in the final 1:26 of the first half to deflate the Jags and drop them to 0-6 when their opponent scores first. Jacksonville needs to run on some emotion in this one and hit the gas pedal early.
Sunday's meeting between the Jags and Bucs is simply part of both team's auditions for next year. For Jacksonville, change will be coming in a big way as it tries to figure out what is going wrong and what needs to be fixed. Tucker is also trying to show he has what it takes to be an NFL head coach, and wins are a good way to do that. Morris, meanwhile, is looking to figure out which of his young players are progressing and which are failing to grow. A healthy Freeman will certainly boost the Tampa offense, but the Bucs don't stand a chance if they can't stop Jones-Drew, the best player on the field this Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 17, Buccaneers 13