By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Bucs beat writer
Colts quarterback Curtis Painter put up some big numbers in his first NFL start (281 yards, 9.4 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT). But Tampa Bay managed to hold on for a 24-17 home victory Monday night. Here are five things we learned.
1. CHFF knows Buccaneer football.
It's getting ridiculous. Four weeks ago, the Cold, Hard Football Facts "real and spectacular picks" predicted a close 24-20 Tampa loss
to the upstart Lions; the Bucs dropped a tough game, 27-20. The following week, the Quality Stats presaged a narrow 21-20 win
over the favored Vikings, and Tampa left the Metrodome with a 24-20 victory. In Week 3, they predicted a 3-point win
, and Tampa edged Atlanta in a three-point nail biter, 16-13.
They took it to another level Monday night. Wary of the 10-point spread – but equally as cautious of the dismal Indianapolis passing game – the Cold, Hard Football Facts forecast a 24-17 Tampa victory
over the Colts. It took two nullified Tampa scores and a missed Vinatieri field goal, but the win was delivered on schedule, bumping CHFF to 4-0 straight up and against the spread when predicting Buccaneers games.
CHFF's real and spectacular picks
are also a perfect 5-0 ATS on Monday Night Football this year and already 10 games over .500 ATS for the year (36-26-2). It's time to start paying attention
2. Josh Freeman gets it done.
He's 6-foot-6, 255 pounds. He's the face of the franchise; the record-setting passer who nearly led his team to the playoffs in his first full season as a starter. He's passed for 6,275 yards and 38 touchdowns in 29 professional starts. And – despite two full years in the league – he's still
the fifth-youngest player to attempt a pass this season.
It's easy to forget that.
Freeman's played poorly for most of the year, entering the game with more picks than touchdowns and an abysmal 78.67 Real Quarterback Rating
, but the Bucs are 3-1 after the first quarter of 2011, and their 23-year-old quarterback is largely responsible. His early numbers are overshadowed by his historic 2010, but so far this season, Freeman has been one of the league's clutch players. When trailing in two-minute situations, he has posted an absurd 110.5 rating – and omitting spikes, has completed 78 percent of his passes – and given Tampa a chance to win in every game they've played in 2011.
There's growing room. He's still young. It hasn't always been pretty – see: the drive-saving scramble on 3rd and 6, when Freeman was shoelaced behind the line but stumbled improbably for the first down – but it's been effective. And ugly or not, it's hard to argue with results.
3. An improved pass rush doesn't necessarily mean an improved pass defense.
Adrian Clayborn showed up again on Monday night, and he brought hell with him. Tampa's defensive line is dominating opposing ground games – surrendering only 92 yards rushing (2.78 YPA) – and rocking enemy quarterbacks, collecting eight sacks over the last two weeks. They're slowly climbing the Defensive Hog Index
, and are quickly becoming Tampa's defensive strength.
The backfield, however, has struggled in consecutive weeks; despite the improved pressure from the front four, the defensive backs have been torched by Matt Ryan and Curtis Painter. Both Roddy White and Julio Jones eclipsed the century mark in last week's low-scoring slugfest, and on Monday night – despite a young quarterback making his first start – Pierre Garçon recorded his regular season career-high in receiving yards and touchdowns... on two receptions.
Tampa's Defensive Passer Rating
worsens weekly, and if it isn't repaired, look for their Bendability
– and expected win total – to plummet.
4. LeGarrette Blount is indefinable.
With a little over three minutes remaining, Blount all but ended the game with a 35-yard touchdown scamper on second down. It was a misdirection play – intended to go off-tackle – but the Indianapolis defense sealed the edge quickly, forcing Blount inside. The six-foot, 247-pound running back planted his right foot, cut up field like he had spring-loaded kneecaps, and burst through the hole – outrunning David Caldwell – for the game-winning touchdown.
And it's not surprising; Blount's been a big-play back for the Buccaneers since he arrived in mid-2010. He's averaging 4.86 yards per carry for his career, and in 17 games, has five runs over 30 yards. He lacks breakaway speed but has a nose for the open field and the agility and acceleration to carry him there, evident by his 35-yard go-ahead gallop in the fourth quarter.
Fast-forward one minute and twenty-four seconds. The Bucs have the ball and a touchdown lead. It's 3rd and four at the two-minute warning, and a first down ices the contest. Josh Freeman hands off to Blount, who bounces it left toward the sideline. Three Colts have a hold of him four yards short of the sticks, but Blount churns through defenders and battles for the first down, spinning violently like an alligator mid-meal, until he collapses under a heap of tacklers at the down marker.
A questionable spot would leave him one inch short – nothing a Josh Freeman quarterback sneak couldn't clean up – but a smaller back might've been tackled for a loss on the play. Blount has shown the most peculiar combination of explosiveness and strength this side of Jim Brown. We've seen him hurdle
defenders – two times
, three times
, who's counting anymore? – and he's shown the power
to match his size. His game lies somewhere in between speed and muscle, in an indefinable void free of superlative, because "250-pound scatback" just doesn't sound right.
5. The Offensive Hogs are hitting their stride.
Someone give Donald Penn a hug. In consecutive weeks, Tampa's Pro-Bowl left tackle has faced Jared Allen, John Abraham, and Dwight Freeney and surrendered only one sack: a hustle play by Allen, which was more Freeman's hesitation than Penn's protection. Despite the bevy of pass-rushing specialists the Bucs have faced in 2011, their Offensive Hogs rank top ten in every category: 10th in Rushing Yards per Attempt, 7th in Negative Pass Play Percentage, and 9th in Third Down Percentage. And they've improved nearly every week, especially since backup do-it-all Jeremy Zuttah was injected into the starting lineup.
The Hogs jelled around the same time in 2010 – when LeGarrette Blount arrived on scene – helping the Bucs score 24.3 points per game over their last 10, more than a touchdown-per-game increase from their first six contests. The change in points might not be as drastic in 2011, but on a team with shaky quarterback play, no true backup at running back, underachieving sophomore receivers, and a torched defensive backfield, the offensive line might be the most consistent unit on the field.
Next to the punter
, of course.