The Buccaneers want to make the playoffs in 2016, but to do so they’ll need to brave a brutal stretch of defenses in the early part of the season.
Like a student nervously anticipating their imminent semester of organic chemistry, the young Buccaneers face an intimidating gauntlet of defenses this coming Fall. The first half of the season in particular is stacked with disciplined, well-coached juggernauts; the Cardinals, Rams, Broncos, Panthers and Raiders make up five of the teams’ first seven opponents. Like all quality defenses these groups will aim to eliminate their opponents strengths and manipulate them into playing the way that they want.
The Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals all ranked among the top six teams in rushing yards allowed last year, while the Falcons and Raiders finished inside the top fifteen. The Rams weren’t great in this regard, but sleeping on Aaron Donald and their defensive line is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s pretty clear that the theme of these games will be “defense”.
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Something that will quickly become evident during this opening stretch of the season is the Bucs’ ability to counter-punch when the other team takes away Doug Martin and the run game. Jameis Winston gets all the love, but make no mistake about it, the Bucs want to and are going to be a run first team. It’s why Luke Stocker is such a valued commodity by this team, why Cam Brate got the starting job when he improved his blocking, why the team signed run-blocking specialist J.R. Sweezy, and why the team spent premium money on Doug Martin. They’re going to run and every team the Bucs play will know it. How well the Bucs are able to parry and strike back at these defenses will make the difference between a team and a team that’s chasing the playoffs.
Look around the NFL and you’ll see that the best teams are the ones that can counter-punch effectively. When a team dares the Patriots to beat them on the ground they scoff, laugh maniacally, and then proceed to run the ball 35 times (often times with obscure running backs that will be trivia questions in 20 years). Other perennial contenders like the Seahawks are no different. Take away their run game and they’ll promptly make you pay through the air. There are many traits from these teams that the Bucs should strive to mirror but this is among the most important.
The Bucs were not great last season when it came to a counter-punch and it was a huge factor in their disappointing record. Winston and the Bucs were just 1-8 when the quarterback had to throw 30 or more times, plagued by poor throws, drops, miscommunication and a general lack of experienced talent thanks to injuries. The natural progression of Winston’s game along with a healthy Vincent Jackson and year two of Koetter’s offense should help improve the Bucs ability to punch back when their running game is stifled.