The Tampa Bay Buccaneers arrive in St Louis this weekend as a more dangerous team than their 4-10 record might suggest. All four of those wins have come in the last six weeks of the season, and despite being written off nationally, the team has been playing very well for embattled coach Greg Schiano in the season's second half. This game may represent the Bucs' best hope of saving that coach's job, which makes them a particularly dangerous and desperate opponent.
To get a full scouting report, we spoke with Andrew Astleford of Fox Sports Florida. You may remember Andrew from his time on the Rams beat; I've always found his writing to be clear-eyed and insightful. He gives us the lowdown on where the Bucs' strengths and weaknesses are, and also offers some very interesting comparisons between the current storm surrounding Bucs Park and the latter days of the Steve Spagnuolo era in St Louis.
Read on for the full exchange.
RamsHerd: 2013 has seen two Bucs seasons — one that ended with Josh Freeman's departure, and one that began with Mike Glennon's emergence. We can pretty easily grade that first season as a failure. How do you grade the second so far?
Astleford: It’s not a complete success by any means, but there has been some improvement on offense since the transition. You must remember, Glennon is without two key weapons that were thought to make big impacts for the Bucs this year: Doug Martin and Mike Williams. Bobby Rainey and Tim Wright both have done good things – they’ve exceeded expectations – but it would be curious to see how Glennon would do with Martin and Williams at his disposal. It’s hard, for that reason, to get a complete read on the rookie quarterback.
If I were to put a letter grade on the Bucs’ season, post-Freeman, I’d say a C-plus. The Bucs beat some bad teams (Atlanta and Buffalo) and topped some capable ones (Miami and Detroit). But twice, we saw how much distance separates them from an NFC contender like Carolina (the Panthers outscored them a combined 58-19).
There’s not the total helpless feeling that surrounded this team during the Freeman drama. But they’re not world-beaters either.
RamsHerd: Negative press surrounding Greg Schiano has been present since the Giants game of last year, and reached a critical mass at the end of Freeman-gate. How have he and his team responded? Is he still on the hot seat?
Astleford: It’s hard to know if a decision has been made about Schiano’s future. The Glazer family stays out of the public eye, but it wouldn’t hurt Schiano to win at least one of these last two games, from my perspective. It’s hard to see the Bucs staying competitive with the Saints at the Superdome to end the season if New Orleans is playing to win the NFC South. For that reason, there’s some intrigue that comes with this contest in St. Louis.
One thing is clear: This team never quit on Schiano. Aside from a handful of results – the Carolina blowouts, the rout at New England – the Bucs were competitive late in the second half. This is far from the disaster that was Raheem Morris’ last season.
Yes, the Bucs are 4-10, which is terrible, given the expectations for this group going into training camp. This is a team with eight Pro Bowlers, so they should be competing for a division title, not floundering near the cellar. But that record could be a lot better without some bad fourth-quarter blunders.
RamsHerd: The Bucs' biggest strength appears to be their ground game, where a former Browns practice squad player has been able to fill in for Pro Bowler Doug Martin without losing a step. What makes the Bucs run game so successful?
Astleford: For a few games mid-season, that was the case. But recently, teams have limited Tampa Bay’s running game, which spells trouble for the Bucs. Detroit held Bobby Rainey to 35 yards on 18 carries, Carolina limited him to 63 yards on 17 carries and San Francisco only allowed 27 yards on 11 carries. Rainey had 127 yards on 22 carries against Buffalo, but 80 yards came on a touchdown run early in the first quarter.
If the Bucs can run against the Rams, they have a chance. Tampa Bay wants to run the ball first and then open up the playbook to allow Glennon to find Vincent Jackson and/or Tim Wright downfield. The last three weeks, Glennon has regressed a bit – he has four interceptions after throwing four in his first eight starts. The Rams will be in good shape if they bottle up Rainey.
RamsHerd: The Bucs currently boast the sixth-toughest defense in football, per Football Outsiders' advanced metrics. With the stalwarts of the past gone (Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, etc), which players are now key to this defense?
Astleford: Lavonte David is a stud. Watch him Sunday and try to find reasons why he shouldn’t make the Pro Bowl. He has a team-high 126 tackles with six sacks and five interceptions. The guy is everywhere, and as a second-year player, he’s only beginning to show what he can do. An incredible talent.
Gerald McCoy is another potential Pro Bowler. He has a team-high eight sacks, and he’s at his best when he’s allowed to bull-rush an offense. The Bucs, for whatever reason, like to stunt a lot on the defensive line, which limits his effectiveness. We’ll see what he’s able to do Sunday.
Darrelle Revis’ reputation speaks for itself. His left knee isn’t 100 percent, which has kept him from being the “Revis Island” intimidator of old. But he’s still an elite talent when teams actually throw against him (he has two interceptions). The Rams must account for him.
The Bucs’ defense has been their strength all year. They don’t have much room for error with an anemic offense on their sideline. Tampa Bay ranks 28th in scoring offense, so if St. Louis can jump to an early lead, the Rams will be in a favorable position.
RamsHerd: Recent Bucs drafts have returned a lot of value, with the 2011-13 draft classes in particular delivering a number of starters or impact contributors. What does your ideal 2014 offseason look like?
Astleford: It’s hard to tell. A lot of it depends on if Schiano comes back. Glennon is his guy, so it’s not a stretch to see the Bucs bypassing a quarterback choice in the first round, even if some elite QB talent is available high in the draft.
The Bucs need a true No. 3 wide receiver, behind Jackson and Williams. Another tight end wouldn’t hurt to build depth, though Wright has grown in that role well. On defense, they could use more line depth, especially at end opposite Adrian Clayborn.
This should be an interesting offseason. Do the Glazers want to start over? I’m hesitant to say they do. Schiano, for that reason, could be given one more year to show his vision is sustainable here.
RamsHerd: You were on the Rams beat as they transitioned from Steve Spagnuolo to Jeff Fisher. You are now covering a Bucs team seemingly primed for another transition. How would you compare these two teams and their situations?
Astleford: The 2011 Rams were a hopeless football team. That was an odd season for many reasons, and Spags became introspective toward the end. Looking back, it seems he knew he was going to be gone, with a massive change to take place come January. Few, if any, of us at Rams Park were surprised to see a move made.
Here, things feel different. With two games left, there’s a chance Schiano returns next season. The Glazers could give him a pass for the Freeman fiasco and MRSA mess, both massive distractions. Schiano made the right call to move to Glennon when he did. Aside from the exceptions I mentioned earlier, the Bucs have had chances to win late. There’s something to be said for the progress.
Sure, this team has underachieved. That’s on Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik. Some changes could be made within Schiano’s staff if he returns, but he could be given more slack than some outside this region realize. The situation here, with a 4-2 run since the 0-8 circus, doesn’t feel as lost as Spags’ last season.
Andrew Astleford covers the Bucs, Heat and Lightning for Fox Sports Florida. You can and should follow him on Twitter at @aastleford