Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 11/8/12
NFL beauty certainly is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas a 4-4 record at the seasons halfway point might rank as a disappointment for some teams, others would see it as major progress. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be grouped in the latter. The Bucs finished 2011 with a 4-12 record that prompted the firing of head coach Raheem Morris. But halfway through 2012, Tampa Bay is making significant strides under coach Greg Schiano. OK, so the teams the Bucs have beaten are a combined 11-22. Big deal. This is the NFL, where any team can win on a given Sunday. Upon further review, even the Buccaneers first half can be divided into two: a pre-bye week 1-3 mark, and a post-bye week 3-1. The turnaround has been fueled by a resurgent offense that has averaged 477 yards and 36 points the past four games. Quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie running back Doug Martin have led the explosion. Martin hasnt been the only impressive rookie. Linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron have some Bucs fans making comparisons to the clubs 1995 rookie class that included first-round picks defensive tackle Warren Sapp and outside linebacker Derrick Brooks. OFFENSE The Bucs are ninth in total offense (376.4 yards per game), fifth in points (28.3), ninth in rushing (131) and 13th in passing (245.4). The production during the past four games, however, has been downright sensational. Martin, the No. 31 pick out of Boise State, became the first player in NFL history to have three scoring runs of at least 45 yards in the same game in last weeks win at Oakland. He also had seven runs of 10 or more yards. He is already the 20th-leading rusher in Bucs history and could finish the season just outside the top 10 if his second half resembles his first half. Schiano is more concerned at keeping Martin strong than he is about personal records. "He's a guy who gains strength during games (with) the more touches he gets,'' Schiano said. "Doug is physically trained to be a back who can do that. So now we just got to make sure we don't go too far with that.'' Freeman, the subject of much skepticism and criticism before the season, has transformed himself into a quality QB who has made the proper reads and hasnt forced plays. He has thrown 16 touchdowns this season with only five interceptions, none in the past three games. "I think he is understanding what is most important, and that's the football,'' Schiano said. "Sometimes that allows you to have 400-yard passing games, and other times it doesn't. Overall, he is moving and operating the offense the way we want him to. And he's doing the most critical thing and that's taking care of the football. If you can do that, you can have a chance to win every week.'' Tiquan Underwood has joined receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams to give Freeman three solid options. Martin, Freeman & Co. have been supported by an offensive line that, recently at least, has overcome the loss of two Pro Bowl guards in Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, both out for the season with injuries. "Nobody is going to give us a chance," right tackle Demar Dotson said. "You read stuff in the media about 'patched-up linemen' and all that crazy stuff. It makes you want to go out and show all the naysayers that say you can't do it. That's who we are, we've got a bunch of guys that are hard workers and want to show everybody that we can get the job done." The Buccaneers have scored more than 30 points in four games this season after needing three years to do so four times under Morris. "It's fun, man. We have a lot of different weapons, Jackson said. The coaches do a great job of just giving teams different looks, spreading the ball around. ... It's fun to play in an offense like this that can be very explosive." DEFENSE The Buccaneers are the leagues best defense at stopping the run (77.2 yards against) and leagues worst unit against the pass (321.1). We should be better in our pass defense, and we will," Schiano said. "We're working our tails off. The flip side of that is I'm not apologizing for being No. 1 in rush defense, either. Our No. 1 goal in the room is to stop the run. Tampa Bays secondary has gotten the most publicity, but due to off-field issues. Cornerback Eric Wright reportedly will be sidelined four games by the league for use of the drug Adderall. If so, the team will be without the two corners who began started the season. The other is Aqib Talib, who was traded to New England for a fourth-round pick. Safety Ahmad Black was cited by Tampa police last week for possession of a small amount of marijuana and also could face an NFL penalty. On the field, Schianos desire to improve the pass defense also requires a better pass rush. The Bucs 13 sacks are tied for 26th. Tampa Bay has gotten better at forcing turnovers, with 17 currently after causing 24 all of last season. Several young Bucs are making themselves known on defense. David had a team rookie record 16 tackles at Oakland and hes the team's leading tackler (67). Barron is third (48). "I think what Lavonte has done has been very consistent from Game 1 all the way through Game 8," Schiano said. "He's made plays every week. He's playing at a high level, certainly playing un-rookie like." SPECIAL TEAMS Tampa Bays special teams have been so-so. Michael Koenen has kicked off and punted, averaging a net 38.2 yards per punt (26th). The Buccaneers kickoff returners are 25th overall with 20.2 yards per kick. Opponents are averaging 25.5 (11th) on kickoff returns. Punt returner Roscoe Parrish was superb at Oakland, and consistency would give the team a boost. Connor Barth has made 13 of 17 field-goal attempts. His performance in the second half could have a big effect on the Bucs if they remain in the postseason hunt. SECOND-HALF OUTLOOK Sitting at .500, the Buccaneers certainly have a right to believe they can make a run at an NFC playoff berth. But it wont be easy. Tampa Bays upcoming opponents include the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons twice the Denver Broncos and several other teams with eyes on the postseason. The Bucs struggling pass defense will have ample opportunity to show it can improve or be the teams Achilles heel. Schianos team the next eight weeks will face some of the leagues most talented passers Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Whatever Tampa Bay does in the second half, the important thing for Buccaneers Nation is to remember this is Year No. 1 under Schiano. The former Rutgers coach likely has learned a few things himself about life in the NFL. He, too, can be expected to be better the rest of the way. A 2012 playoff berth remains a challenge, and defenses will be focusing on stopping Martin. The important thing for the Bucs during the seasons second half is to keep going forward, learn from their growing pains and continue to establish a strong foundation for the future.
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