NFL Nation: Leonard Johnson

Who will be Bucs' nickelback?

March, 27, 2014
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run onto the field next season, they’re going to introduce 12 players instead of the standard 11.

Coach Lovie Smith made that statement Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings. He supported it by saying he views the nickel cornerback as a 12th starter on defense. He also views the third receiver as a 12th starter on offense. But this post is about defense, so let’s stick with talking about nickelback.

The Bucs don’t know who their nickelback will be yet, but Smith shed some light on how he’ll make that determination. On paper, Tampa Bay’s top three cornerbacks are Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins. D.J. Moore and Leonard Johnson also could be in line for some playing time.

Although the Bucs of old used to start Ronde Barber on the outside and move him inside for nickel situations, Smith sounded like it’s unlikely the Bucs will follow that route.

“Just think about having to become an expert at two positions,’’ Smith said. “As a general rule, we don’t do that an awful lot. Our No. 1 and No. 2 corner, whoever that is, they’re going to stay outside. Our nickel position is a position in itself. We have a coach, Larry Marmie, that will coach only it and every second he has will have guys in the nickel room being coached at that position.’’
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cornerback Leonard Johnson, tight end Tim Wright, quarterback Mike Glennon, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Lavonte David were the big winners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s performance-based pool for 2013.

The pool is designed to compensate players who had relatively low salaries compared to their 2013 playing time. Dozens of Bucs received bonuses, but we’ll stick with the top ones here. The bonuses do not count toward the salary cap.

Johnson led the way with a $208,864 bonus. Wright ($200,592), Glennon ($183,209), Spence $181,593) and David ($180,190) rounded out the top five. The rest of the top 10 was made up of safety Keith Tandy ($152,646), cornerback Johnthan Banks ($145,655), linebacker Mason Foster ($133,268), receiver Tiquan Underwood ($127,927) and linebacker Dekoda Watson ($105,647).

Buccaneers have lead at halftime

November, 24, 2013
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DETROIT -- Consider this an upset alert out of Ford Field.

At halftime, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are leading the Detroit Lions 17-14. That lead came after cornerback Leonard Johnson picked off Matthew Stafford and returned the ball 48 yards for a touchdown with 50 seconds left in the first half.

The Bucs, who have yet to win on the road this season, have been playing well on defense. Gerald McCoy had pressure on Stafford on the interception and Darrelle Revis has been doing a nice job on Calvin Johnson.

Offensively, quarterback Mike Glennon led one nice touchdown drive. The Lions appear to be loading up to stop the run, so that means there’s room for Glennon and the passing game to do more in the second half.

I’ll be back with full coverage after the game.

Projecting the Buccaneers roster

August, 30, 2013
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Roster cuts don’t have to be made until 6 p.m. Saturday. But let’s have a little fun in the meantime.

Let’s take a look at my best guess as to how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 53-man roster will shape up:

Quarterbacks (3): Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Dan Orlovsky

Analysis: A rough outing by Glennon in the preseason finale might have convinced the Bucs it’s best to keep Orlovsky around.

Running backs and fullbacks (5): Doug Martin, Brian Leonard, Mike James, Peyton Hillis and Erik Lorig

Analysis: Hillis is very much on the bubble. The fact he doesn't play special teams could hurt him. But he also could stick around because he has the size to be a backup for Lorig at fullback and could be a valuable short-yardage rusher.

Tight ends (3): Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree and Nate Byham

Analysis: The Bucs may have to keep Danny Noble if Crabtree’s ankle injury is going to keep him out for an extended period.

Wide receivers (5): Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood and Eric Page

Analysis: Page has emerged as the return man and that should earn him the final roster spot.

Offensive line (9): Davin Joseph, Carl Nicks, Donald Penn, Demar Dotson, Jeremy Zuttah, Gabe Carimi, Ted Larsen, Jamon Meredith and Cody Wallace

Analysis: The Bucs could carry an extra lineman if it looks like Nicks will be out for an extended period.

Defensive line (10): Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence, Adrian Clayborn, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Da’Quan Bowers, Gary Gibson, Trevor Scott, William Gholston, Steven Means and Derek Landri

Analysis: The last few spots are very competitive and the Bucs could look to bring in a defensive tackle from the waiver wire.

Linebackers (6): Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Casillas, Adam Hayward and Najee Goode

This position is pretty clear-cut unless the Bucs bring in someone off waivers.

Defensive backs (9): Darrelle Revis, Johnthan Banks, Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer, Michael Adams, Rashaan Melvin and Cody Grimm.

Analysis: Melvin and Grimm are very much on the bubble.

Specialists (3): Michael Koenen, Andrew Economos and Rian Lindell.

Analysis: Kicker Lawrence Tynes still is recovering from a staph infection and could end up on injured reserve.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis has yet to play a down for Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers already are getting a nice return on their investment.

Revis’ presence alone has helped in the development of rookie Johnthan Banks, who could be a starter on opening day.

“The biggest surprise for me is the type of person Revis is," Banks told the media Wednesday. “He’s like a player/coach. He’s always right there beside me giving me info, helping me out with all types of things. It just surprised me the type of player he is. You get some of those guys that are Hollywood guys -- he’s just one of us. He’s laid-back, he’s cool.”

Banks said he also has benefited from working against receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on a daily basis.

“I’ve learned a lot from those two guys," Banks said. “Every day it’s a grind going against those two guys -- [third receiver Kevin] Ogletree, too. But I’ve learned a lot going against VJ and Mike, [they] taught me the speed of the game. The first time I went against [Vincent] he ran by me at OTAs, I was like ‘Whoa.’ It was just eye-opening on how fast these players play and how hard they play.”

Banks and Leonard Johnson got most of the first-team work with Revis out. The Bucs likely will start Banks opposite Revis and let Johnson come in on nickel situations, or start Johnson and bring in Banks to play outside and use Johnson inside in nickel situations.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Friday marked a rite of summer at One Buccaneer Place. For the first time this season, we have a depth chart.

It’s officially unofficial, but it’s a starting point. Unlike the regular season, this depth chart is a guesstimate by the media relations staff and isn’t coming straight from the coaching staff.

There are no major surprises, but there are a few things worth noting.

Let’s start with the quarterbacks, because they always draw the most interest. As you would expect, Josh Freeman is listed as the starter. But rookie Mike Glennon is ahead of veteran Dan Orlovsky. I think that’s clearly a sign of things to come.

The rest of Tampa Bay’s rookies are being brought along slowly, at least according to the depth chart. Cornerback Johnthan Banks is listed on the second team, behind Leonard Johnson. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence is listed second behind Gary Gibson. In both cases, I think that’s just a courtesy to the veterans. I think Spence and Banks have very real chances to be starters on opening day.

Other positions of interest include strongside linebacker, where Dekoda Watson is listed ahead of Jonathan Casillas; right tackle, where Demar Dotson is ahead of Gabe Carimi; and tight end, where Luke Stocker is ahead of Tom Crabtree.

In other news from Friday's practice, coach Greg Schiano said Banks and receiver Mike Williams have strained hamstrings. Schiano said Williams could return as early as Saturday, but Banks likely will miss a few days.

When Eric Wright agreed to restructure his contract and take a massive pay cut back in April, it appeared as if he’d be staying with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It turns out that’s not the case. The Bucs announced Friday afternoon that they have traded Wright to the San Francisco 49ers for a late-round conditional draft pick in 2014.

That brings an abrupt ending to a union the Bucs thought would be a good one when they signed Wright to a five-year, $35.2 million contract in 2012. But Wright never really caught on in Tampa Bay.

He missed part of last year’s offseason program while dealing with an undisclosed medical issue. He later was suspended for four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Bucs traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis and used their top draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. At first, it appeared as if Revis, Wright and Banks would be the team’s top three cornerbacks.

But it now is obvious the Bucs weren’t sold on Wright even at a reduced price. A source said Wright's attitude in recent months didn't conform with what the team likes and the Bucs would have released him if they were unable to trade him. According to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office records, Wright was arrested in California on an unspecified misdemeanor charge July 12.

With Wright gone, Banks becomes the leading candidate to start opposite Revis.

Michael Adams, Leonard Johnson, Myron Lewis, Anthony Gaitor and some other young cornerbacks now will compete for the job as nickel back.

Also, the Bucs will not take any cap hit for unloading Wright. Instead, they freed up his $1.5 million base salary, which becomes San Francisco’s burden.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but the Falcons made up for it in the draft, using their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and their second-rounder on Robert Alford. Trufant and Alford are fine prospects, but rookie cornerbacks often struggle initially. Atlanta’s pass rush should be just average at best. Trufant is the likely starter opposite Asante Samuel. Samuel offers little against the run, but is still a very good cover man and a true ball hawk at the corner position. Another cornerback here of note is Robert McClain, who got little fanfare for his work last season but performed admirably for the Falcons. Atlanta might now have four quality options at this position. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore return as the starters. There is little behind these two, but DeCoud and Moore are a fine pairing. Moore in particular stepped up his all-around game last season and is quickly becoming a do-it-all player and a key member of this defense.

Carolina Panthers: By drafting two defensive tackles with their first two picks, the Panthers look as though they have a fantastic front seven. But their secondary still really worries me. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were added at cornerback, but that simply isn’t enough to elevate concerns about the back end of Carolina’s defense. Chris Gamble is out of the picture, leaving Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn as the Panthers’ starting corners, although Florence could factor into that equation. Norman had a very up-and-down -- mostly down -- 2012 season, but he does have ability and could be primed to take a step forward in 2013. Munnerlyn, who is best equipped to be a slot cornerback, is probably the Panthers’ best defensive back. Josh Thomas has been underwhelming throughout his career and will provide cornerback depth. Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the league at the safety position. Charles Godfrey will start for sure, and Haruki Nakamura is likely to be the other stating safety. Godfrey is average in coverage and isn’t much of a force in the run game, but he is the best the Panthers have right now. Nakamura should be a backup, but he will most likely be forced to log a lot of snaps. Carolina should be scouring the waiver wire for secondary help, especially at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints made two prominent additions to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Lewis and Jabari Greer will be the Saints’ starters, with Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner, which is what suits him best. But overall, this looks like a solid trio of cornerbacks for New Orleans’ new 3-4 defense, which should stress more press man coverage, although Lewis is probably better suited to zone or off coverage. Roman Harper remains on the team right now, but his type of in-the-box safety who is a liability in coverage is starting to become a dinosaur in this league. Replacing him with Vaccaro gives the Saints much more flexibility from the position. Vaccaro is a great-looking prospect with size, range and physicality. Malcolm Jenkins also has some versatility to his game in that he can patrol the deep middle or walk up and play man coverage against a slot receiver or tight end. However, Jenkins has never quite lived up to his first-round status. Jim Leonhard also is on the roster and could provide stability in a part-time role or as a replacement if Vaccaro or Jenkins were to fall to injury. This secondary looks to be much improved from a year ago.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made one of the biggest moves around the league this offseason by trading for Darrelle Revis. Tampa Bay featured some of the worst starting corners in the league last season. With Revis on board, that certainly will not be the case again -- even if Revis is not quite himself initially after his knee injury. Having Revis allows the Bucs to match up an elite cover man on the opposing No. 1 wide receiver and more or less leave Revis alone against the likes of Marques Colston, Steve Smith and Julio Jones or Roddy White. By doing so, the rest of the secondary obviously can manipulate coverage to better deal with other threatening weapons. That means Revis’ counterpart, most likely the disappointing Eric Wright or second-round pick Johnthan Banks, will often have safety help over the top. I would imagine Tampa Bay is hoping Banks grabs hold of that starting spot and doesn’t let go. Wright has been a liability since signing a big contract with the Buccaneers. Leonard Johnson also should factor in as a physical quality fourth corner, but he is speed-deficient. Tampa Bay also signed Dashon Goldson, giving them an excellent pairing of safeties along with last year’s first-round selection, Mark Barron. Barron is more of the strong safety type -- and Goldson more of a free safety -- but both can operate near the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage. Expect Barron to take a big step forward in his second season, especially in coverage. Barron could develop into the type of modern defender that matches up well against the new breed of athletic NFL tight ends.

Bucs load up defensive backfield

April, 26, 2013
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Johnathan BanksSpruce DerdenThorpe award winner Johnathan Banks is the latest addition to the Bucs' defensive backfield.

TAMPA, Fla. -- When your pass defense (almost all by itself) sinks an entire season, there’s only one thing to do. You go overboard to fix it.

That’s the approach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed Friday night as they drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round (43rd overall). That comes a little less than a week after the Bucs pulled off a huge trade to get cornerback Darrelle Revis, not very long after they restructured Eric Wright's contract to keep the cornerback around and only a little more than a month after the they signed free-agent safety Dashon Goldson.

Call it double dipping or triple dipping or whatever you want. The bottom line is, at least on paper, the Bucs have a much better secondary than they did last season. As dramatic as their approach is, it really isn’t that surprising.

General manager Mark Dominik has shown a tendency to lock in on one area and hit it several times over in the past. In 2009, Dominik used draft picks on wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. In 2010, the position of choice was defensive tackle with the Bucs taking Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two draft picks.

In 2011, the Bucs used their first two picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. This time around, the Bucs got Goldson and Revis in advance and followed that by doubling down on Banks, the winner of last season’s Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

“We’ve increased our size, physicality and ball skills,” Dominik said.

The days of relying on the likes of journeyman E.J. Biggers and undrafted free agent Leonard Johnson to go against NFC South receivers like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steve Smith and Marques Colston are over over.

With Revis, the Bucs might have the best cornerback on the planet, if his surgically repaired knee is fully healthy. In Wright, the Bucs have a reclamation project. He was signed to a big free-agent contract last offseason, but served a four-game suspension last season and wasn’t that great when he did play. But Wright took a massive cut in pay and the Bucs still believe he can be a factor.

In Banks, 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, the Bucs have added a big physical cornerback. Banks’ draft stock tumbled because he ran a slow time in the 40-yard dash at the combine, but the Bucs don’t think that’s indicative of his real quickness.

“You never felt that because he has such good length and ball skills,’’ Dominik said. “We felt like when you watch the tape, it’s not the same as he ran at the combine.”

Dominik and coach Greg Schiano weren’t ready to say exactly how they plan to use their cornerbacks.

“That all comes as part of the competition,” Schiano said. “You let it play out.”

But it’s not too hard to see how this is going to play out. Revis is automatically a starter. It really doesn’t matter if Banks or Wright is the other starter. When the Bucs go to the nickel package, which will be often, Banks is a natural on the outside and Wright is best suited to move inside and line up on slot receivers.

Speaking of sorting things out, it still remains to be seen what happens with veteran safety/cornerback Ronde Barber. Back at the start of the offseason, it looked like the Bucs needed Barber to return for another season.

But the free safety spot he played last season is now occupied by Goldson. The top three cornerbacks are now set. Will Barber come back as a third safety or a fourth cornerback? Dominik said Friday night the Bucs still would like Barber to return, but it remains unclear what role he would have.

“When Ronde reaches out, we’ll have a conversation and we’ll talk through that,” Dominik said.

The Barber situation will play out. If he returns, he’ll be in some sort of backup role.

The Bucs are set with Revis, Banks and Wright at cornerback. They’re set with Goldson and Mark Barron, last year’s first-round pick, at safety.

Over the past six weeks, the Bucs have gone to great extremes to make sure they no longer have the league’s worst secondary.
Darrelle RevisThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCornerback Darrelle Revis certainly has the star power that would get Bucs fans fired up.
While seemingly every NFL team is denying interest in New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, there is one team that should be going after him.

I say put Revis Island on Davis Islands.

That’s the tandem of islands in the shadows of downtown Tampa and just down the road from Raymond James Stadium. It’s on those islands that New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter built a mansion, and he could use some company.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also could use a shutdown corner.

Revis and the Bucs would be a perfect match on every level. Other teams are citing the cost of a trade and the salary cap as reasons why they don’t want the guy that might be the best cornerback of his generation. But none of those excuses work for the Bucs.

In fact, the things that work against those other teams work for the Bucs.

Let’s start with the price of getting Revis and keeping him for the long term. It will probably take a couple of draft picks to pry Revis from the Jets. The Bucs have some flexibility there because they have an extra fourth-round pick this year. Even if the Bucs had to give up this year’s first-round pick (No. 13 overall) as part of the package, so what?

They’re not going to find a better cornerback than Revis in the middle of the first round.

Then, there’s also the realistic fear that trading for Revis would only be a one-year solution because he’s heading into the final season of his contract. But the Bucs are in a unique spot there. They’re more than $32 million under this year’s salary cap and they have plenty of cap room in upcoming years.

They could trade for Revis, immediately sign him to a huge extension and still have plenty of cap room to work with now and in the future.

But the Bucs have more than just the means to get Revis. They have a glaring need.

Did you happen to catch Tampa Bay’s secondary last season?

The Bucs were so bad they allowed more passing yards than the New Orleans Saints, which is saying a lot. The Bucs were so bad that they had the league’s top-ranked run defense but still managed to finish No. 31 in total defense.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Matt Stamey/USA TODAY SportsYoung Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron could benefit in a big way if the Bucs managed to acquire star CB Darrelle Revis.
In the process, they traded away their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, mainly because he was a perpetual headache. Eric Wright, the free agent they signed to a big contract last year, didn’t really work out. He ended up getting suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. That suspension voided his guaranteed base salary for this year and the Bucs may end up releasing Wright.

This is a team that can’t afford to go into next year counting on Leonard Johnson and E.J. Biggers as anything more than role players. This is a team that needs a big-time cornerback and they don’t come any bigger than Revis.

He instantly would make the Bucs better and that would be a huge plus for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season. Put Revis with second-year safety Mark Barron and add another cornerback and a safety behind a front seven that has some talent, and Tampa Bay’s defense suddenly could become very good.

There were hints last season that the offense could be pretty good. Get a little more consistency out of quarterback Josh Freeman, let Revis bolster the defense, and Tampa Bay could be in the playoff hunt.

That brings us to another point. The Bucs need to win and they also need to excite a fan base that hasn’t had a lot to be excited about in recent years.

Winning can cure a lot of that, but so could an injection of charisma. Revis has charisma. He trademarked the “Revis Island’’ name and he has star power.

That’s something the Bucs desperately need as they try to put fans into a stadium that rarely has sold out in recent years.

The arrival of running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson gave the Bucs some star power last year. But, still, Tampa Bay might be the rarest of NFL markets.

Hockey’s Steven Stamkos and baseball’s Evan Longoria might be more popular in Tampa Bay than any of the Bucs. Jeter might even be Tampa Bay’s most famous resident from the sports world and he plays his home games more than 1,000 miles away, not far from where Revis has spent his career.

But maybe it’s time for the Bucs to step up and take Revis out of New York. If they do, they can give themselves a true superstar, fill their stadium and, maybe, turn into a playoff team.
Julio Jones J. Meric/Getty ImagesJulio Jones had 147 yards and a score as Atlanta won on the strength of its passing game.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Go back and watch just about any Atlanta Falcons game this season and you’ll walk away with as many questions as answers.

They win almost every week, but the way they do it makes you wonder if it’s a mirage.

Are we getting set up for a repeat of the 2010 season?

The Falcons improved to 10-1 with their 24-23 victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

They shut down rookie sensation Doug Martin (50 yards on 21 carries) and Matt Ryan threw for 353 passing yards. They added cushion to their NFC South lead, now four games, as the Bucs fell to 6-5.

“You can always count on close games when you come down to play an NFC South game," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

All that is wonderful, but this one really didn’t feel or look much different than last week’s victory against the Arizona Cardinals. Or the wins against the Panthers, Redskins, Raiders and Cowboys.

Yeah, the Bucs are better than all those teams and any road win in the NFL is a good win. But you keep expecting the Falcons to have it all click and steamroll an opponent. Instead, it just seems like each week draws attention to a flaw.

That’s why you wonder if this team is any different than the 2010 team that strolled to a 13-3 record, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the home-field advantage that comes with it. You might remember how that worked out. The Green Bay Packers went into the Georgia Dome and thumped the Falcons.

Throw in the fact the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Smith/Ryan era and it’s fair to question if this team is anywhere near as good as its record. It’s fair game to question if the Falcons will ever get over the playoff hump.

What’s the answer? We won’t find out until January, and all we can take from Sunday is more mixed signals.

Let’s start with the positives. The rule of thumb in the NFL is that your defense must be able to stop the run to win in the playoffs. The Falcons, who had struggled against the run recently, made great strides in that department. Although Martin scored two touchdowns, he averaged only 2.4 yards per carry. Martin didn’t have a carry that went for more than 10 yards.

“He’s a tough guy to tackle," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “He’s like a big muscle. I think we did a pretty good job of defending him."

A big reason for that was the fact Weatherspoon returned to the lineup after missing three games with an ankle injury. Weatherspoon finished with six tackles, including one for a loss, on a day when the Falcons had seven tackles for a loss. Weatherspoon’s physical presence made a difference, but he brings more than that.

“Sean Weatherspoon is one of our best football players," Smith said. “We’ve missed him the last three weeks. Having him back in there was a big boost for us not only in the way we play the run but in the volume that we can have. When we have him in there, he’s very efficient at what we want to do and getting us into the right fronts based on some formations."

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Atlanta defense held running back Doug Martin to just 50 yards on 21 carries.
Weatherspoon and the defense played a huge role in ending Tampa Bay’s winning streak at four games. So did Ryan and the passing game. Any highlight package of this game would have to start with Ryan’s 80-yard touchdown bomb to Julio Jones that gave the Falcons a 17-13 lead with 8:26 remaining in the third quarter.

“We had one-on-one coverage," Ryan said. “He inside released [Tampa Bay cornerback Leonard Johnson] and just tried to get back to the outside. I tried to throw it down there high and outside so he could make a play on it. He did. He made a great adjustment."

That play -- where Jones did a great job adjusting while the ball was in the air -- alone was enough to justify Atlanta’s daring move to trade up in the 2011 draft to get Jones.

But the Jones play also is the perfect place to transition into the nitpicking phase. Johnson was matched up on Jones much of the day. The Falcons also have receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas and a certain Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez.

In addition to Johnson, who was playing in place of the injured Eric Wright, the Bucs were using E.J. Biggers and LeQuan Lewis at cornerback in a secondary that’s the main reason the Bucs came into the game ranked No. 32 in pass defense.

So why did the Falcons repeatedly look like they were trying to force the running game against the league’s top-ranked run defense?

Mainly because the Falcons were trying to force the running game.

“We felt like we needed to try it," Smith said. “We felt like we could do it too. We challenged our guys that we wanted to come down here, this was the No. 1 rushing defense in all of the NFL and we wanted to see if we could do it. We felt like we could. We got the looks that we liked and we were efficient doing it."

Efficient? Maybe on a few plays. Productive? I can’t go that far. Michael Turner again looked slow and it didn’t look like he had many holes to work with as he carried 13 times for 17 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers was a bit of a bright spot with 49 yards on 10 carries, but the Falcons finished with only 79 rushing yards and 13 of those came on a Ryan scramble.

There were times when I thought Mike Mularkey was back calling the plays. Under Dirk Koetter, I thought this was supposed to be a pass-first offense, especially when all the statistics say you’re playing an opponent that can stop the run but can’t stop the pass.

If the Falcons want to succeed in January -- maybe even February -- they should take a lesson from the touchdown drive that gave them the final margin of victory. It began with 10:21 remaining in the fourth quarter. On six straight plays, the Falcons lined up Ryan in the shotgun formation and passed. The first four were completed as the Falcons gained 59 yards. The fifth was incomplete and the sixth drew a pass-interference penalty that put the ball at Tampa Bay’s 3-yard line.

By then, the Bucs were so concerned by the passing game that Turner was able to run untouched around left end and into the end zone. That’s called using your passing game to set up your running game.

If the Falcons are going to start winning games easily in the regular season and avoid a repeat of the 2010 postseason, they need to play to their strengths.

NFC South injuries that matter most

November, 21, 2012
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Let’s get an update on the most significant injuries from around the NFC South.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said it’s too early to tell if cornerback Eric Wright, who did not practice Wednesday, will be able to play Sunday. Wright has been dealing with an Achilles tendon issue for several weeks. The Bucs have been giving cornerbacks E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson extended playing time recently, and Anthony Gaitor began practicing Wednesday, after opening the season on injured reserve with the designation as eligible to return.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

There was a bit of an encouraging sign as right tackle Zach Strief (groin) returned to practice Wednesday, although it was on a limited basis. Charles Brown, who had been starting in Strief’s place, missed practice with a knee injury. If Strief and Brown aren’t ready to go Sunday against San Francisco, it’s likely the Saints would have to start, recently signed William Robinson.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers don’t have to provide an injury report until Thursday because they don’t play until Monday night at Philadelphia.

ATLANTA FALCONS

As we previously reported, coach Mike Smith said he’s very optimistic linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) and receiver Julio Jones (ankle) will be able to practice this week. Updating that, it turns out Weatherspoon did practice Wednesday. Jones did not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons test out his ankle Thursday or Friday.

Buccaneers can wait for help at CB

November, 17, 2012
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During Friday’s NFC South chat, I got a couple of persistent questions from Tampa Bay fans.

One had to do with why the Bucs traded away their best cornerback (Aqib Talib) in the middle of the season. I’ve answered that multiple times and I’ll do it in a nutshell here. Although talented, Talib was probably the most prone to trouble the Bucs since the great Tyji Armstrong in the 1990s. Talib’s contract was scheduled to expire after the season and there was no way he was going to be on a team coached by Greg Schiano next year. The Bucs had a fourth-round draft pick dangled in front of them by New England and they wisely grabbed it. Talib still had one game remaining on his four-game suspension and as a repeat violator of the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, he was one mistake away from being banned for an entire season or permanently.

Talib’s departure and Tampa Bay’s lack of quality depth at cornerback also has brought up another question that got a lot of play right after the draft and it’s surfacing again: Why didn’t the Bucs draft cornerback Morris Claiborne?

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Kim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay LB Lavonte David has emerged as arguably the league's top rookie defender.
Seriously, there are people out there questioning Tampa Bay’s draft, which might have been the best in the NFL this year?

Let’s think about this a little before we go into more depth on the cornerback situation. If the Bucs had drafted Claiborne, they wouldn’t have strong safety Mark Barron. More importantly, they also wouldn’t have running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David, who are at least being mentioned as candidates for the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Think back to the draft. When it started, the Bucs were holding the No. 5 overall pick. When they were on the clock (and Claiborne still was on the board), they traded down to No. 7 and they added a fourth-round pick, which may turn out to be one of the great draft moves ever if Martin, David and Barron continue to produce like they have.

Adding that fourth-round pick set off a series of events that landed Martin and David in Tampa Bay. The Bucs had a second-round pick, No. 36 overall, but they feared Martin wouldn’t last that long. They packaged picks and jumped back into the first round and got Martin.

Then, the Bucs used the acquired fourth-round pick and their third-round pick (No. 68 overall) to move back into the second round and get David at No. 58.

The Bucs got three guys that have been starters since Day One. They should only continue to get better and should be core players for the next five years or so.

You’d prefer Claiborne over that?

Yeah, I know Tampa Bay’s immediate cornerback situation isn’t great. Eric Wright has been banged up and there was a FOX Sports report that he could be facing a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

That’s forced the Bucs to play E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson lots more than they probably wanted to play them. Rip on Biggers and Johnson all you want, but let’s take a look at how what they’ve done compares to what Claiborne has done in Dallas.

Johnson has three interceptions and Biggers has one. Claiborne has one interception. According to Stats Inc., teams have completed 61.5 percent of their passes on which Claiborne has been targeted. The same survey says teams have completed 47.1 percent of their passes against Biggers and 44.8 percent of their passes against Johnson. Claiborne also is ninth in the league in touchdown passes allowed with four.

Oh, by the way, did you happen to catch Claiborne’s recent outing against Philadelphia? He was flagged five times, including one penalty that negated an interception by a teammate.

Yeah, Biggers and Johnson aren’t going to the Pro Bowl and the Bucs are likely to continue to struggle with pass coverage the rest of this season. But you can’t solve all your problems at once.

The Bucs elected not to draft a cornerback early this year and the word is Schiano wasn’t sold on Claiborne’s tackling ability, which is kind of an important item for a coach like Schiano. But the Bucs walked out of the draft with solid starters, maybe potential stars, in Barron, Martin and David.

They can address cornerback in next year’s draft or free-agency period.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 34, Chargers 24

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
6:36
PM ET
Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-24 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: The Bucs are 5-4. For a young team with a rookie NFL head coach in Greg Schiano, it is hugely significant to be over .500 in the second half of the season. A week or two ago, it was easy to look at the Bucs and say they were a team that could be on targeted for the playoffs next season. Now, you have to start wondering if the Bucs can make the playoffs this season. At the moment, they’re definitely in the mix.

The kid has grown up: Look at what Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has done in the last five games. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes with just one interception. After it appeared Freeman’s career was crashing last season, the new coaching staff has turned him into a quarterback that doesn’t make many mistakes. Maybe Freeman needs to sustain this pace for the rest of the season and lead this team to the playoffs, but it sure is starting to look like the Bucs have their first franchise quarterback since Doug Williams (if you think William’s brief tenure qualifies) or the first franchise quarterback in team history.

Plenty of help: The best thing about this team, as opposed to the 2010 team Freeman led to a 10-6 record, is that the quarterback doesn’t have to carry this team. Freeman got help Sunday as Adam Heyward scored on a blocked punt and Leonard Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown.

More help: It’s easy to look at Doug Martin’s 68 rushing yards and say the Chargers cooled him off after he went for 251 yards against the Raiders the previous week. But Martin’s much more than just a guy that can run the ball. He’s an all-purpose back and he finished with 119 yards of total offense. It’s the sixth time this season that Martin has had at least 100 yards from scrimmage. It’s also the fifth consecutive game he’s had at least 100 yards from scrimmage.

What’s next: The Buccaneers travel to Carolina next Sunday.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 42, Raiders 32

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
7:59
PM ET

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 42-32 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday:

What it means: Don’t look now, but the Bucs are suddenly 4-4 and somewhat in playoff contention and you can see this is a team that’s very much on the upswing. Oakland and Minnesota may not be dominant teams, but the Bucs went up to Minnesota in a short week and won in a hostile environment. Then, they flew cross-country and got a win at Oakland, even if the Bucs came very close to squandering what was a 28-10 lead before Oakland rallied in the fourth quarter.. When you’re a young team like the Bucs, showing you can win on the road, even if it's not particularly pretty, is a very positive sign. The Bucs already have won as many games as they did all last season.

Changing perceptions: Early in the season, critics were saying rookie running back Doug Martin didn’t have the ability to make big plays. That changed in the past few weeks and the trend continued Sunday as Martin had touchdown runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards. Martin’s starting to look like a legitimate offensive rookie of the year candidate. He finished with 22 carries for 265 yards and four touchdowns.

High praise: I was listening to the Oakland radio broadcast for the first few minutes of the game as I drove to the Georgia Dome and the announcers had high praise for Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams. They said he’s the best in the NFL at working the sideline and compared him to past greats Fred Biletnikoff and Cris Carter in that department.

Missing Nicks? The Bucs had to put All-Pro guard Carl Nicks on injured reserve last week. That’s a huge loss, but the Bucs got through their first game without Nicks fairly well as Martin had a second straight with more than 100 rushing yards.

Unsung hero: With Oakland putting together a lengthy drive in the third quarter, undrafted rookie defensive back Leonard Johnson put an end to it by intercepting Carson Palmer. Johnson now has an interception in two straight games. If Johnson didn't come up with that interception, Oakland might have started its rally earlier and the result could have been different.

What’s next: The Buccaneers are at home against the San Diego Chargers next Sunday.

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