NFL Nation: Michael Johnson

Bobby Rainey to start for Doug Martin

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
2:55
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TAMPA, Fla. -- As expected, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin will sit out Sunday’s game with St. Louis due to a knee injury.

Martin had practiced on a limited basis Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable. In Martin’s absence, Bobby Rainey is expected to get the start. But Mike James also should get playing time.

Aside from Martin, the other inactives for the Bucs are cornerback Rashaan Melvin, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, defensive end Michael Johnson, tackle Kevin Pamphile, guard Rishaw Johnson and guard Kadeem Edwards.

With Johnson out and Adrian Clayborn going on injured reserve Friday, the Bucs are expected to use Da’Quan Bowers and William Gholston as their starting defensive ends.

Rams vs. Buccaneers preview

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
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It's tough to call the second game of the season a "must-win" situation. But that might not be far off what the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are facing this week.

Both teams are coming off embarrassing losses that could set the tone for disastrous seasons. But a victory in Week 2 could save a season -- at least for the moment.

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at this matchup:

Yasinskas: Nick, let's cut right to the chase. Are the Rams as bad as they looked against the Vikings in the opener?

Wagoner: I don't think the Rams are as bad as they were in Week 1, but I can understand why some might view it that way. That isn't to say this team just had an off-day and is about to string 15 wins together. The issue in Week 1 boiled down to the Rams failing to do the things they believe they will do well this year. Namely, this is a team built to run the ball to set up play-action on offense and dominate defensively, but they didn't control the line of scrimmage well enough on either side of the ball to do that. On paper, this looked like an offensive line that could be really good if everyone is healthy -- but even healthy, it looked like an aging group unable to block basic four-man rushes.

Still, I expect the Rams to be more competitive this week, so long as they have veteran quarterback Shaun Hill back from a quad injury.

I suppose the best option now is to redirect back at you: The Bucs disappointed in Week 1 against a backup quarterback, and either way, they're going to see another this week against the Rams. Are they as bad as they showed against the Panthers? How do they bounce back?

Yasinskas: The Bucs were horrible offensively for more than three quarters. Their defense, which is supposed to be a strong point, wasn't much better against Carolina backup Derek Anderson. There weren't a lot of good things to come out of the opener, and I'm not trying to make it out to be more than it was. But the Bucs did score 14 points in the fourth quarter, and they made it a game. It took a long time, but their offense finally showed some rhythm in the fourth and they had a chance to win at the end. Maybe this offense isn't that good, or maybe it just took some time to get things going in the right direction.

I know hopes were high with Sam Bradford, and that all changed with his injury. How much of a difference will it make if Hill is able to play?

Wagoner: Let's be honest here: It's not like the Rams are choosing from a quarterback trio of Elway, Marino and Montana. But of the three they have on the roster, it's pretty clear Hill gives them the best chance to win at this point. He's a steady hand and actually got off to a pretty good start against the Vikings last week before a dropped screen pass and a bad throw that resulted in an interception just before the half. For what it's worth, Jeff Fisher said Hill was trying to throw that ball away but couldn't get it out of bounds because of the quad.

Either way, the Rams need Hill under center because the options behind him -- Austin Davis and Case Keenum -- simply aren't going to get the job done. Of course, it won't matter who is under center if the offensive line doesn't perform better than it did the past week. That group has to give Hill time to throw and open some holes in the run game for this offense to have any chance of success against that Tampa defense.

Speaking of that defense, Lovie Smith once coordinated the group in St. Louis, and we all have a pretty good idea of what he likes to do. But now that he's back with the Bucs as the head coach, what are some wrinkles he's bringing to the table, and how good can that group be with guys such as Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David in the system?

Yasinskas: McCoy and David are two excellent cornerstones around which to build the defense. But as we found out against Carolina, the Bucs need more than that. The key to a Smith defense is getting pressure from the front four, and the Bucs didn't do that against the Panthers. They came up with one sack (by McCoy) and got no pressure on the outside. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson have talent, but they have to be more productive for Smith's defense to really work. If the defense gets pressure, the turnovers will flow. If it doesn't get pressure, the defense will be nothing more than ordinary. McCoy and David are the stars of the defense, but the Bucs need Clayborn and Johnson to really make things click.

Tampa Bay's offensive line is a huge question, and the Bucs might be without injured guard Logan Mankins. Like any quarterback, Josh McCown is going to struggle if he's pressured. Are the Rams capable of putting a lot of pressure on McCown? If so, that will stall Tampa Bay's offense.

Wagoner: The strength of the Rams' defense is certainly found in the front four and the pass rush in general. Of course, that wasn't all that evident this past week against Minnesota. The Vikings only allowed one sack, and that came because of a botched snap. But Minnesota had a good game plan and made it a point to get the ball out quickly, which negated the Rams' pass rush. In fact, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel averaged the fewest air yards per attempt of any quarterback in Week 1.

The Bucs know exactly what the Rams' pass rush can do after Robert Quinn gave them all kinds of headaches in the past year's meeting. But the Rams have to be better in coverage on underneath stuff if they want their pass rush to take off as it should.

McCown had some success throwing against the Rams last year when he was with the Bears, and the Bucs have a couple big, physical receivers on the outside. If things are going how the Bucs want, what type of challenges do they present to the Rams' defense?

Yasinskas: Let's assume for a second the offensive line plays a decent game. If that's the case, McCown will have time to throw, and he has some nice targets to work with. Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are all at least 6-foot-5. That creates all sorts of matchup problems for a secondary. Evans and Seferian-Jenkins are only rookies, but they can be impact players. Jackson is a proven receiver who probably doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

But like I said, the offensive line will be the key. If McCown has time to throw, he can be an efficient quarterback. If he doesn't have time, he'll show why he's been a backup most of his career.

Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.
TAMPA, Fla. – In last year’s meetings with the Carolina Panthers, there were times when Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was tripleteamed.

McCoy said Monday that he’d welcome a similar scenario when the Bucs host the Panthers in Sunday’s regular-season opener.

McCoy
McCoy
“I don’t care,’’ McCoy said. “It is what it is. Buffalo tried the same thing and you saw what happened. If they want to try it, they can go ahead. I’m not trying to play for myself. I play to get tripleteamed. I play so I make my teammates better. That’s one thing [Hall of Famer Warren Sapp] always talks about -- ‘Are you making the people around you better?’ That’s one thing he did. That’s one thing I’m working for. I want everybody around me to be great. It’s not about me. It’s about everybody around me.’’

The Bucs upgraded around McCoy in the offseason. They signed defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald as free agents. But McCoy sees another returning starter as being crucial to the defensive line.

“I think [defensive end] Adrian Clayborn is going to be the key for us up front,’’ McCoy said. “Everybody wants to say it’s Gerald, it’s about the under tackle. No. He has to make a transition from the right to the left and people are not expecting that to be a positive transition, going from his best side to a side he has to learn over a couple months. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. If he can get going, it’s going to change everything else.’’
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, we’ve heard coach Lovie Smith talk a lot about “Buc Ball". But what that meant exactly never was very clear.

On Saturday, we started to get a picture of what Smith’s been talking about. His defense produced three turnovers and a touchdown in a 27-14 preseason victory against the Buffalo Bills. The offense wasn’t spectacular but it was opportunistic.

Clinton McDonald
Bill Wippert/Associated PressClinton McDonald returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday.
“I talk about a full game," Smith said. “When I say full game I’m talking about offense, defense and special teams. We talk a lot about taking the ball away. We talk about scoring on defense. It’s not a good defensive game unless we’re able to do that. I thought the defense did a great job of setting the tempo on what type of day it will be.’’

Linebacker Lavonte David forced a first-quarter fumble that was recovered by Mason Foster. That set up a quick touchdown by the offense. In the second quarter, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald scored a touchdown after picking up a fumble that was caused by an Adrian Clayborn sack and a Michael Johnson strip.

Is that what Buc Ball is all about?

“Yeah, man," All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “The defense takes the ball away and puts it back in the offense’s hands and the offense puts it in the end zone. That’s kind of what we want to do. It felt good and we want to keep that going. It felt good to actually see it come alive today and now we have to take this into next week and into the regular season.’’

It had been difficult to see any signs of Smith’s philosophy in the first two preseason games, both losses. The Bucs produced only one turnover and the offense was largely ineffective.

But the offense showed some promise against the Bills. With some of the starters playing into the third quarter, the Bucs built a 24-0 lead before the backups let the Bills back in the game. Quarterback Josh McCown completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Doug Martin rushed 12 times for 38 yards, Vincent Jackson had five catches and rookie Mike Evans had three receptions, including one for a touchdown.

That’s a pretty good sample of what Tampa Bay’s offense is going to look like.

“I think we had 17 rushes in the first half," Smith said. “That’s what we want to do. To be a running football team you need to have attempts as much as anything."

We haven’t seen all of Buc Ball yet because the team likely is keeping tricks up its sleeve for the regular season. But what we saw Saturday was a rough outline of the type of product Smith wants to put on the field.

Observation Deck: Buccaneers

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
7:38
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week that he wanted to see more sacks and takeaways. Mission accomplished.

Tampa Bay’s first-team defense forced three turnovers in Saturday’s 27-14 victory against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Lavonte David forced a first-quarter fumble by C.J. Spiller that was recovered by Mason Foster. Tampa Bay’s offense punched the ball in for a quick touchdown. Tampa Bay’s offense was far from spectacular, but the defense more than made up for it.

The defense produced a touchdown of its own. As Adrian Clayborn sacked Buffalo quarterback EJ Manuel, Michael Johnson reached in and knocked the ball loose. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald picked the ball up and ran it in for a touchdown with 8:21 left in the second quarter.

All of Buffalo’s points came in the second half after Tampa Bay’s starting defense had left the game. The Bucs held a 24-0 lead at halftime.

Some other observations:
  • Tampa Bay’s offense hadn’t been putting together long drives this preseason. That finally changed late in the second quarter. The Bucs had an 11-play drive that covered 82 yards and ended with a touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Mike Evans. That shows the Bucs can sustain a drive. But it’s important to remember that we’ve seen only a very small sampling of coordinator Jeff Tedford’s offense. The Bucs are saving most of that for the regular season.
  • I’ve got a feeling what we saw Saturday will be repeated a lot during the regular season. The Bucs played fantastic defense and were rather ordinary (but opportunistic) on offense. That’s not flashy, but that fits Smith’s philosophy perfectly.
  • Smith said he wanted to take an early look at recently acquired defensive end Larry English. He did, putting English into the game early. He responded with two sacks. The former first-round pick by San Diego still faces an uphill battle to make the team but might be gaining ground on Da'Quan Bowers, who missed the game with a groin injury.
  • Smith said he wanted to play his starters into the third quarter. He did play his starting offense into the second half, with one notable exception. Backup quarterback Mike Glennon replaced McCown to start the third quarter. That was a smart move. With the offensive line still a work in progress, there’s no sense in exposing McCown to possible injury before the regular season starts.
  • Linebacker Jonathan Casillas did not play for the Bucs. He was held out for a disciplinary reason, according to a team official. Danny Lansanah got the start in his place and played well. Lansanah has had a strong preseason and appears to have secured a roster spot.

W2W4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
8:00
AM ET
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2) and the Buffalo Bills (1-2) play a preseason game Saturday afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Three things to watch:

1. This will be the game that will determine if the Bucs are content with the guards on their roster or if they get desperate and move someone in from the outside. Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh played adequately as the starters last week. The Bucs are hoping for another solid performance from that duo against the Bills. If that doesn’t happen, the Bucs really don’t have any other attractive internal options and they might have to look to make a trade or claim someone off the waiver wire.

2. The Bucs unveiled a no-huddle offense last week and the first-team offense produced a quick touchdown off a turnover. But the starting offense has yet to put together a lengthy scoring drive. With the starters expected to play into the third quarter, it’s time for the offense to show it can put together a long drive.

3. The pass rush hasn’t done a lot in the preseason. The Bucs have produced only two sacks so far. That’s not the kind of production that’s expected from the pass rush in a Lovie Smith defense. Gerald McCoy has been sensational in the middle of the defensive line, but Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson have been quiet on the outside. It’s time for them to make an impact.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is a realist.

Bowers
A day after coach Lovie Smith implied that Bowers' roster spot could be in danger because of missed practice time due to a groin injury, Bowers said he knows what is at stake.

"Everybody’s on the bubble," Bowers said. "There are a select few guys here that have got their spots. The rest of us are competing for jobs. Nobody’s set in stone, definitely not me. I just take that into consideration each and every day."

Bowers said he understood Smith’s comments and is doing everything possible to get back on the field as quickly as possible.

"You can’t prevent injury," Bowers said. "It happens. Like coach said, any time you can’t perform on the practice field it gives someone else another opportunity. When you do get on the practice field, you’ve got to make your reps count and I think I did a pretty decent job of that this camp with the reps I’ve gotten in the game and in practice. Like coach said, the only way to perform and compete is to be on the field."

The reality is the Bucs are set with Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn as their starters. They also are high on backups Steven Means and William Gholston, and newcomer Larry English has made a good impression. Before the injury, Bowers had been getting some work as a defensive tackle.

Bowers' best hope of making the roster is to make a good impression at defensive tackle and convince the Bucs he can swing between the two positions.

W2W4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1) host the Miami Dolphins (0-1) on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.

Three things to watch:

The revolving guards. The Bucs still don't know who their starting guards will be. Time is running short to select the starters and allow them to build some chemistry with the rest of the line. Oniel Cousins, Patrick Omameh, Kadeem Edwards, Jace Daniels and Jamon Meredith each have had some work with the first team and no one has stood out in a good way. That needs to change or else the Bucs might get desperate and make a trade.

Josh McCown. The veteran quarterback didn't have a good outing in the preseason opener against Jacksonville. But most of that can be blamed on the offensive line woes. Still, McCown needs a better performance for this offense to build some confidence as it heads for the regular season.

The pass rush. The key to a Lovie Smith defense is the pass rush. There were some signs against Jacksonville that this can be a good pass rush with Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn on the outside and Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald on the inside.

Buccaneers Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp:
  • The Bucs, who had their practice abbreviated by lightning Friday, got their first full workout of camp in Saturday evening and the results were predictable. There was good and bad. No series summarized that more than a couple of plays near the middle of practice. On one play, quarterback Josh McCown threw an interception to strong safety Mark Barron. On the next play, McCown bounced back and hit Vincent Jackson with a perfectly thrown ball. Coach Lovie Smith said he expects the team to be more precise when it puts on pads for the first time on Sunday.
  • Speaking of first practices, Saturday marked the true debut of rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He missed the offseason program due to NCAA regulations and was very limited in the rookie minicamp by a foot injury. But Seferian-Jenkins said his foot is fine now and he practiced with no limitations. After missing so much time, though, Seferian-Jenkins might be a little behind the other tight ends – Brandon Myers, Tim Wright and Luke Stocker. “He’s playing catch-up,’’ Smith said. “But he’s catching up.’’
  • It’s usually tough to get players to talk about specific goals, but defensive end Michael Johnson broke that rule of thumb. Johnson set one goal for himself and one for the entire defense. He wants to get back to double-digit sacks like he had in 2012 with Cincinnati. He also said the Bucs want to have the best defense in the league. Those two goals kind of go hand in hand. There’s been a lot of talk about how defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David compare to Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, who were the cornerstones during Tampa Bay’s glory years. But a lot of people forget the Bucs didn’t fully get over the top until they got Simeon Rice as an outside rusher. If Johnson can make an impact anywhere close to what Rice did, the Bucs could end up being a very good defense.
  • I came into camp very skeptical about Tampa Bay’s depth at wide receiver after Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. But I’m starting to warm up to this position group. No one stood out, but guys like Tommy Streeter, Solomon Patton, Russell Shepard, Louis Murphy, Robert Herron, Lavelle Hawkins, Eric Page, Skye Dawson and David Gettis each had some bright moments. I think one of those guys will step up and claim the No. 3 job. That may be all the Bucs need because I’m not anticipating a lot of four-receiver sets from this offense.
  • Read into this whatever you want, but Jamon Meredith worked as the first-team left guard and Oniel Cousins worked at right guard. After the departure of Carl Nicks, I think the Bucs still are trying to figure out what they’re going to do at guard. I wouldn’t be surprised if Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards get some looks with the first team.
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Pat Yasinskas examines the three biggest issues facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers heading into training camp.

Josh McCown needs to play like he did last season: McCown’s been a backup most of his career. But he played the best football of his life last season for Chicago after starter Jay Cutler went down with an injury. That was enough to convince the Bucs that McCown can be a productive starter. McCown has history with Lovie Smith, and he already has established himself as one of Tampa Bay’s leaders. The Bucs have made it clear that they view Mike Glennon as their quarterback of the future. But the best-case scenario is that Glennon never even gets on the field this season. If he doesn’t, that means McCown is playing well. At 35, McCown has a chance to firmly establish himself as a starter for the first time in his career. His chances of succeeding are good because he's surrounded by good skill-position players such as Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.

Carl Nicks’ health is a key: The left guard played only two games last season while dealing with a toe injury and a MRSA infection. Nicks repeatedly has said he expects to be ready for training camp. But, as of the team’s June minicamp, Nicks hadn’t even started running or cutting. He’s admitted that there is permanent damage to his foot and said he’ll have to play through pain the rest of his career. It all sounds shaky, and you have to wonder if Nicks really can make it back and if he’ll be the same player. The Bucs need Nicks to be what he was earlier in his career. When he’s healthy, Nicks is one of the best guards in the league. He could be the anchor of what has the potential to be a very good offensive line. If Nicks isn’t fully recovered, there’s a sharp drop-off to rookie Kadeem Edwards and veterans Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins.

The pass rush needs to flourish: Smith prides himself on having teams that play strong defense. The Bucs seem to have some talent on defense. But to hit their full potential, they need the pass rush to be strong. The pass rush was a weakness last season, and that’s why the Bucs signed free agents Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald. The Bucs believe Johnson and Adrian Clayborn can bring a strong pass rush from the outside, and McDonald and Gerald McCoy can do the same from the inside. One of the requirements for the Tampa 2 defense is for there to be a strong pass rush from the front four. If the Bucs get that, they’ll be in good shape defensively. The Bucs are in good shape at linebacker and in the secondary. If the pass rush shows up, this defense has a chance to be special.
Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears were a consistent contender because they played strong defense. The coach will try to get the same result with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the ingredients are there for that to happen.

David
McCoy
McCoy
Smith inherited some special talent in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. Both are just reaching their prime. Smith has compared McCoy to Warren Sapp and David to Derrick Brooks. Sapp and Brooks were the keys to the defense during Tampa Bay’s glory days. The Bucs believe McCoy and David can fill the same roles in the new generation and that a strong defense will help make the franchise relevant again.

McCoy and David are going to be good for years to come and they form a strong foundation. But the Bucs will need some complementary players to come through for this defense to be really good. Defensive end Michael Johnson was brought in as a free agent because the Bucs believe he can bring pressure from the outside. If he does, that’s only going to help McCoy and Clinton McDonald in the middle.

A strong pass rush will only help a secondary that has good potential, but hasn’t hit it yet. Alterraun Verner was brought in to be the No. 1 cornerback, but the Bucs need Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins to step up as the other cornerback and nickelback. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron have talent and can form a nice tandem.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is going to get a chance to play a more significant role than he has in the past. Foster will call the defensive plays and be asked to drop into coverage more than he did in his first three seasons.

This defense will be the key factor in determining if Smith’s regime will succeed. The offense can be average, but the defense has to be special.
CINCINNATI -- The question -- did their offseason moves make the Cincinnati Bengals worse? -- is one I've received often in the past month, particularly from passionate fans. They are concerned about the timing of the team's extensions and re-signings, the losses of Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Andrew Hawkins and Mike Zimmer, and the lack of big-name free-agent additions.

Even as good a draft pick as cornerback Darqueze Dennard appears to be, there is also some unease about the rest of the draft class.

All of the anxiety is warranted.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesTime will tell how much the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will impact the Bengals.
If you ask some of ESPN's NFL Insiders the question above, they will answer with a resounding "yes." That was made clear Thursday when Insider Mike Sando published his offseason grades for all 32 teams Insider, and handed the Bengals a C-plus. Some might say the "plus" was too high a grade. C-minus or worse was more like it, in their eyes.

Why might some feel that way? Because they are answering the question posed above the same way Insider Field Yates did.

"Ultimately, the question is, did this team go from three straight playoff appearances to taking the next step?" Yates asked in Sando's assessment of the Bengals' offseason. "I do not think they are enough improved to consider them challenging for one or two playoff wins. The loss of Zimmer is gigantic. They could miss Collins on their [offensive] line knowing some of the concerns relating to injury and other question marks with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. I understand the price tag for Michael Johnson was too high. I wouldn't be surprised if the money was going to contracts for nucleus players, but for now, they have money unspent that is just sitting and waiting."

The nucleus players Yates is alluding to are, for now, primarily quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Both are in the middle of contract negotiations with the Bengals that would keep them in Cincinnati after their rookie deals expire next March. They could easily could combine for more than $20 million in cap space if re-signed this offseason. The Bengals have about $24.5 million in unused cap dollars for the 2014 season. That ranks as the third-most cap space in the league.

SportsNation

How have the Cincinnati Bengals fared this offseason?

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    6%
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    25%
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    32%
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    26%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,496)

Had Cincinnati been able to re-sign Johnson, the defensive end drafted in 2009, it likely would have cost between $8 million and $9 million per season. His deal with Tampa Bay, signed in March, is to pay him about $8.75 million annually.

Along with the slow progression in contract talks for Dalton and Burfict, and the losses of Johnson and Collins, the Bengals also were hit this offseason with the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Zimmer, who accepted Minnesota's head-coaching job. Though it's clear the Insiders think Zimmer's departure will be a serious blow to the Bengals, I disagree. It will be a challenge to move forward after losing such a sharp defensive mind and hard-coaching personality, but from a schematic standpoint they might even gain something by having Paul Guenther take over the coordinator's duties. It was Guenther who came up with some of the team's more creative blitz packages in recent seasons.

The loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden also could be bothersome, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson already has started addressing some of the areas that were most deficient for the Bengals last season; namely the running game.

Something else to remember: The Bengals might have lost a number of pieces, but the majority of their losses were anticipated. Plans had been in place for some time to slide Jackson into Gruden's old spot and Guenther into Zimmer's. Both departures had been expected, just as Collins' and Johnson's were. Aside from those losses, the Bengals kept much of the rest of their foundation in place.

So, Yates is right. It's not so much a matter of what the Bengals did or didn't do this offseason that is the question. It's about whether what they did was enough to make the Bengals a better team or a worse team. I'm not sure we can call them a worse team, but for now, there are some reasons to believe they won't be dramatically better than they have been the past few seasons.

Do you agree? Let us know what you think in the poll above.

Buccaneers offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
10:00
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

 With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Buccaneers' offseason moves.

Johnson
Best move: Signing defensive end Michael Johnson as a free agent from Cincinnati. Johnson has posted double-digit sacks before and he should be a pass-rushing force on the outside. That’s something the Bucs lacked last season. With defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on the inside and Johnson on the outside, the pass rush should be much better. That’s going to help the entire defense, particularly the secondary.

Riskiest move: The Bucs quickly signed veteran quarterback Josh McCown and named him the starter. For a team that clearly is in a win-now mode, this is a risky move. McCown has been a backup most of his career and has made only 38 starts. He played well in relief of an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago last season. But there’s nothing in McCown’s track record to suggest that he can win consistently over the long haul. Coach Lovie Smith has history with McCown and is comfortable with the veteran quarterback. But the Bucs were in a position to get a potential franchise quarterback in the draft and they passed. Smith has gone out on a limb with McCown and second-year pro Mike Glennon is the only safety net.

Most surprising move: The Bucs had perhaps the best cornerback in football in Darrelle Revis. But one of the new regime’s first moves was to unload Revis as quickly as possible. That freed up a large chunk of salary-cap space that was used to address other positions. The Bucs did a nice job of replacing Revis with Alterraun Verner. The Bucs got Verner at a reasonable price and he’s in the prime of his career. But you still have to question the decision to part ways with a player with Revis' skills.

The bigger, the better: McCown had success with an oversized receiving corps in Chicago last year and the Bucs are trying to duplicate that. They already had 6-foot-5 receiver Vincent Jackson and they used their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans (6-4) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-5). That trio is going to create some major matchup problems for opposing defensive backs.

Analyzing McShay mock 4.0: Bengals 

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:15
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With so many core players from last season returning, along with the few veteran free agents they signed this offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals are in relatively good shape when it comes to draft needs.

They aren't looking for many immediate impact players, but they still would like to add cornerbacks, defensive ends, versatile offensive linemen who can play multiple positions, outside linebackers and quarterbacks to add to their depth chart. Players at those positions could end up having tremendous value in later years as the Bengals continue building for the future.

With less than a month until draft weekend, ESPN Insider Todd McShay released his fourth 2014 mock draft Insider on Thursday. His first-round Bengals pick is one football fans across the Buckeye State ought to find intriguing.

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