Against San Francisco last week the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played with no heart.
Today, they have a chance to get it beating again.
The New Orleans Saints will visit Raymond James Stadium today, and the chance for redemption comes at an opportune time.
Five weeks into the season, the Bucs are at a crossroads.
All that ails this team could be cured. It won’t be easy, but chances like this don’t come around every day.
The Bucs have a laundry list of issues.
Their big receiver has become a big dropper, and their guy known for breaking tackles is broken down.
How they respond says who they are.
They enter today’s game 3-2 with battered bodies and egos. Their lack of depth is evident.
The victories have come against teams who are a combined 3-12. In two losses, they were dominated by Detroit and humiliated by the 49ers.
Fortunately, it could all change today with a win that would put the Bucs atop their division, owning the tie-breaker over New Orleans and the Atlanta Falcons.
But we know this. They can least afford to lose LeGarrette Blount, and he is not expected to play.
Quarterback Josh Freeman is the straw that stirs the drink, but Blount makes everything flow.
He is rated the fifth-most elusive running back in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, an organization of stat geeks who crunch numbers.
They can find any team’s weakness, but with the Bucs there was no overtime involved in the search.
They rate elusiveness on a runner’s success independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he is to bring down. The formula focuses on the missed tackles the runner racks up and yards per carry after contact.
We don’t need a bunch of Harvard-like wizards to tell us Blount is a load to bring down, but the numbers show how big an impact he has.
Blount is fourth in the league in forcing missed tackles (77 rushing attempts). He is one of nine running backs in the league credited with forcing 12 or more missed tackles (leader Fred Jackson has 23).
Blount’s presence will be sorely missed because the Saints’ pass rush might be their only major weakness and their run defense is less than stellar. With no one to test them, that Bucs advantage could be nullified.
Earnest Graham is expected to get the bulk of the carries today. He is an old war horse, but has gained 44 yards after contact, compared to Blount’s 203.
It doesn’t help that the Bucs’ offensive line is rated among the seven worst in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency. It’s ineptness is saved only by Freeman’s escapability. PFF has calculated that the Bucs have allowed 50 “hurried passes,” second most in the league behind Arizona.
Against San Francisco, the 12 times Freeman was under pressure he threw six incompletions, two interceptions and had two sacks.
The Bucs also have the second most dropped passes with 15, led by Mike Williams, who has four and one lost fumble and is rated among the big droppers in the league. Either he is suffering from a sophomore slump or reverting back to the troubled young man he was at Syracuse.
The defense is banged up all over, exposing how the Bucs’ penny-pinching ways are starting to catch up with them. Ronde Barber, the rock of the secondary, leads the Bucs defensive backs with eight missed tackles.
But things could get better real quick. All it takes is a win over Drew Brees and company.
USF disappointed again
Dave Teggart didn’t have to break USF’s heart this year.
The Bulls did it to themselves.
USF (4-2, 0-2 Big East) will need a complete turnaround to make the Top 25 after its 16-10 loss at Connecticut Saturday. Teggart, who beat the Bulls the past two years with last-second field goals, didn’t have to do anything.
Darrell Scott’s fumble, which UConn returned for a touchdown, took care of that.
But it would be unfair to blame Scott. He had plenty of help, especially from questionable play-calling and three other turnovers.
The Bulls are a good example of how running up big numbers against less-than-worthy opponents doesn’t do anything for a team except provide fancy window dressing.
It’s why UCF’s expected invitation to the Big East this week should be a good thing for USF. It will mean large crowds with little travel expense and fewer games against out-of-conference teams that give the Bulls a false sense of security.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2112.