Have the Bucs Done Enough to Support Josh Freeman?

Behind LeGarrette Blount the Bucs have questions.

As summer turns to fall and games begin to matter in the NFL, teams more or less have their rosters set. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the Detroit Lions in four days and the Bucs are well into their preparations. Now we can start to assess the Buccaneers roster and try to project how things may look late into the season. Now we can ask if the Buccaneers have done enough to support Josh Freeman.

The Bucs are fairly deep at receiver, where they have last year’s rookie receiving leader Mike Williams, promising second year receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Arrelious Benn and speedy guys like Sammie Stroughter, Preston Parker and Michael Spurlock. In those six receivers the Buccaneers have a well-rounded, highly athletic bunch of targets for Freeman. Toss in Kellen Winslow and potentially Luke Stocker (jury is still out due to injuries) and the passing game looks like it should be a strength for this Buccaneer team.

The run game is what concerns me. Granted, the team improved dramatically last year when LeGarrette Blount entered the picture, along with some solid play from Jeremy Zuttah, James Lee and Ted Larsen the Bucs improved from 28th in rushing at the midway point of 2010 to 7th by the end. But there were other disconcerting signs last year as well. This offseason the Bucs didn’t go out of house to address any issues along their line, instead opting to re-sign Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph and continue to develop their other young linemen. They also didn’t do much to address the loss of Cadillac Williams, who played an underrated role in the Buccaneers 2010 success. So did the Buccaneer do enough with their run game to take some of the pressure of Josh Freeman?

I’m not sure they did.

I think the offensive line will be fine, they’ll eventually gel and the Buccaneers do have solid talent at each position as well as decent depth. I’m not sure how long Jeremy Trueblood will maintain his hold on the right tackle position, James Lee out-played him last year, but some of that could be attributed to health issues. In the middle, Jeff Faine is still the center, though Jeremy Zuttah played at a higher level last season. And I’ve continued to voice concern about Donald Penn’s ability to handle good edge rushers.

Those concerns aside though, the line should be solid down the stretch as they gel and adjust to Pat Morris’ blocking schemes. What concerns me is the backs. There is a lot of pressure on LeGarrette Blount to be “the guy” right now. That could be a problem.

I think LeGarrette Blount is going to have a very bright NFL future, but part of his success last year lied in the simplicity of his role. It basically consisted of, ‘get ball, run.’ There was little else LeGarrette Blount had to worry about last season aside from running through linebackers and hurtling safeties. Cadillac Williams came in and thanklessly did the rest, he was the one chipping, picking up blitzers and running routes.

Both guys were ultimately more successful with the divided roles and it allowed the Bucs offense to thrive.

This year, the Bucs want LeGarrette Blount to be a jack of all trades. Make no mistake about it, Blount is capable. But whether it’s a good idea is another story. Is it smart to wear down Blount by asking him to handle pass-pro, to stay in on third downs and catch passes?

Probably not. But the Buccaneers lack other options. Earnest Graham is an amazing back to have on your team for his leadership and work ethic alone, he’s solid, but he’s hardly a third down weapon. Kregg Lumpkin is the X-factor, but he’s unproven and Allen Bradford is like another Blount.

I think the Bucs may regret not getting another weapon at running back for third downs and passing situations. There were certainly several available, but the team stood pat and decided to enter the season with what it had on its roster.

Here’s how I think it will play out, the Bucs have a solid third down back in Earnest Graham in terms of technical understanding of the blocking schemes and the routes employed in those situations. You don’t have to worry about Graham being a spaceman and missing a blitzing linebacker, he’s good on that stuff. But whereas Cadillac Williams found some of his old burst by the end of last season and had several big scoring plays for the Bucs, that big play potential isn’t the same with Graham.

If Blount gets hurt things get even worse. Bucs fans saw some in the preseason that Blount can catch the ball and make plays in the open field, and he’s working on his pass-pro skills. If he ends up becoming an every down back the Bucs will have a playmaker in the backfield for third downs, but that also increases the propensity for Blount to get hurt. If he gets hurt the back situation becomes dire for the Bucs.

At some point, probably in next year’s draft, the Bucs will have to pick up a third down option to spell LeGarrette Blount. That’s not a knock on his ability to handle every down duties either. But LGB is a power runner and he’s best late in a game. It would behoove the Bucs to keep him fresh that long.

Without a run game teams will load up to stop the pass and the Bucs offense will go no where. As much as the season hinges on the arm of Josh Freeman, he won’t be able to do anything without the support of a strong run game.

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