The day has nearly arrived. It’s a day when people crawl out of bed at 7 a.m. so they can finish yard work, chores, and even homework. It’s a day when iPad, Direct TV and NFL RedZone packages are purchased all around the world. It’s a day when dedicated fantasy football fans are glued to their computers five minutes before kickoff because they are scrounging the waiver wire for the backup running back for the Houston Texans. Week one of the 2011 regular season is here!
Long have we waited to hear those words. We wrestled through off-season uncertainty, and struggled through four lackluster preseason games. We watched rookies and seasoned veterans make a splash during training camp, only to be cut from the team a few weeks later. Now it’s time to make season projections. It’s time to put a dollar in the football office pool and it’s time to sound off about a favorite team’s Super Bowl chances.
There are many unknowns heading into the season for Tampa Bay. Will Josh Freeman regress after such an outstanding sophomore season? Will the Bucs upgraded defensive line be able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks? Here’s a look at some week one questions when the Bucs face the Lions.
How will Aqib Talib handle Calvin Johnson? In last year’s 23-20 overtime win, Johnson caught 10 balls for 152 yards, and that was with Drew Stanton under center. And in 2008, Johnson had three catches for 66 yards and a score, with an old Daunte Culpepper throwing the ball. Earlier in the week, Talib said he is excited about facing Johnson week one and is looking forward to being back on the field.
I don’t feel that excited about Talib. Let’s look at the facts: He hasn’t played a down since week 12 of last year. That means no preseason action, and barely any practice. Calvin Johnson is among the most physical receivers in the league—not to mention—he runs between a 4.3 and 4.4. Talib is coming off a hip injury, which means his lateral movement is going to be affected. Additionally, he has been hampered with a hamstring strain, and just ask anyone who has ever had that injury and they’ll say that it’s hard to get back into game speed right away. Overall, I don’t trust Talib’s durability. Count on Johnson being shadowed by safeties Sean Jones and Cody Grimm for most of the game. With the Bucs secondary focused on stopping Johnson, look for wide receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew to be frequent targets of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
How will the offensive line be able to contain Ndamukong Suh and the Lions pass rush? The Lions upgraded on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason, grabbing Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley in the 2011 draft, linebacker Stephen Tulloch from Tennessee and underrated corner Eric Wright from Cleveland. Some NFL analysts have even pegged this Lions team as a possible playoff contender. One of the biggest reasons: Ndamukong Suh. It’s tough to bet against a player whose name literally means “House of Spears.”
In the game last season, Tampa Bay surrendered three sacks, but at least they held Suh in check. They’ll need to perform even better if they want to start this season out with a win. I’ve said before that preseason games don’t mean much, but it was worrisome watching our starting unit get pushed off the line, commit penalties, and force Freeman to make rushed decisions.
So, how should the Bucs handle Suh and the Lions pass rush? Keep them off-balance. Start off the game running slants, screens—quick passes to take pressure off Freeman and the offensive line. Secondly, run the ball. If Thursday’s opener between the Packers and Saints was any indication, the defenses will fatigue late in the game. This is the first time starters will have played every snap. In the fourth quarter of the Thursday night game, both team defenses looked exhausted. Players were breathing heavy, crouched over with hands on their hips.
Expect 20 or more carries from LeGarrette Blount as the Bucs will attempt to wear down the Lions defense early. I think Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson will prefer ball control and tempo rather than a spread offense. I expect Suh to make a few plays—that’s what an All-Pro lineman does—though hopefully none of them result in Freeman’s head getting ripped off like Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton.
Overall, I expect a fairly high-scoring affair. Calvin Johnson will likely be double-teamed most of the afternoon, but 80 yards and a score wouldn’t be unexpected. Blount ran for 110 yards and a touchdown last year, and I can certainly see him getting plenty of opportunities this time around. As is most games for the Bucs, the key will be protecting Freeman and staying disciplined. I foresee the offense being able to move down the field, but my gut says Detroit will win this game 27-23.