During last week's "ATL Debate Club," Gregg Rosenthal, Dan Hanzus and I tossed around ideas for our surprise team of 2013.
Coming off a 7-9 campaign under coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs boast a young roster that could sink or swim in the NFC South. I say they'll swim, right into January.
Why the Bucs are playoff material...
- You can't call this a playoff team if you don't buy into the quarterback, and I'm a believer in Josh Freeman. He's one of a handful of true gunslingers in today's NFL. Sure, he's guilty of enigmatic, drive-killing passes, but he's also capable of jaw-dropping throws into tight spaces. People forget how young Freeman is, because he's been a mainstay in Tampa since 2009 (Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick are his elders). Almost any game you watch reveals Freeman's need for development, but also his strengths:
» The All-22 footage against the Chiefs in Week 6 hands you Freeman in a nutshell in two passes. On the first (below), he falls to pieces with an ugly decision in the red-zone, unloading a pass to tight end Dallas Clark that linebacker Justin Houston picks out of the sky with ease, killing a potential scoring drive.
» But then Freeman charms you, throwing a tight rope to Mike Williams, who makes a sensational grab (below) and takes it 62 yards to glory. It's a pretty pass, illustrating what Freeman can do when he's on. Freeman isn't afraid to push the ball downfield. Only Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco attempted more passes of 20-plus yards last season, making Vincent Jackson and Williams well-matched targets for Freeman's gifts. Schiano obviously is intrigued by rookie Mike Glennon, but I'm not ready to give up on Josh just yet.
- Darrelle Revis, perhaps the finest player in New York Jets history, now anchors a secondary that boasts one of the NFC's better safety combinations in Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. Eric Wright and rookie Johnthan Banks will battle for snaps opposite Revis Island, and this deep lineup should help the Bucs mimic what the Houston Texans pulled off in 2011 under Wade Phillips, going from No. 32 to No. 3 against the pass.
- Tampa's top-rated run defense from 2012 might ultimately be better this season. In the game against Jamaal Charles and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bucs consistently held their assignments vs. inside rushes, sweeps and screens. I saw that week after week. From a pass-rushing angle, I hate letting go of Michael Bennett in free agency, but Schiano believes strongly in Da'Quan Bowers. The young defensive end isn't forecasting 50 sacks for himself, but says double-digit totals are in the cards with Gerald McCoy beside him. Like the Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa uses plenty of stunts up front, and should cause headaches for quarterbacks this season.
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- The Bucs exited the Raheem Morris era drenched in chaos, but Schiano arrived with a plan. Tampa's coaching staff and front office are in sync, and general manager Mark Dominic isn't afraid to swing for the fences. The Revis trade made it clear: The Bucs are going for the throat.
Of course, there's another scenario where Freeman collapses, Glennon is rushed into action and the offense fractures to pieces by Week 8. On defense, Revis might never be the same guy again.
Instead of that disaster, I'm banking on Freeman's continued growth and a return to form by the best defensive player in the NFL.