Senior NFL Columnist

Buccaneers camp report: Schiano aims to bring team back into contention


Schiano will need to improve a Bucs team that ranked 30th in total defense last season. (US Presswire)  
Schiano will need to improve a Bucs team that ranked 30th in total defense last season. (US Presswire)  

TAMPA -- There is no mistaking who is in charge of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now, in more ways than maybe we even know.

It's new coach Greg Schiano, who comes from Rutgers with the backing of Bill Belichick (he helped his cause with the Glazer family, the team owners) and a laundry list of new ways to do things after the lax Raheem Morris ways of the past three of seasons.

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There is only one way of doing things now, and it's the Schiano way. The first couple of days of camp quickly reminded the players of just that. First, there was a tough conditioning test, which included 16 110-yard sprint with 45 seconds rest in between each of them -- and that was followed by high-tempo practices in searing heat that don't include players walking at any time to any drill, or even a water break.

Dehydration issues have been a part of the early camp for the Bucs with several players needing assistance for that and cramps.

Most NFL teams see special-teams periods as a break for some starters. Not in Tampa anymore. Most of the players now take part, getting a form of conditioning as they do.

Some of the moves the team has made recently also seem to give off the impression that Schiano has a lot more juice in the roster decisions as well -- much like Belichick does in New England.

Brian Price, a second-round pick in 2010, and Dez Briscoe, who led the team in receiving touchdowns last year, are no longer with the team. Price was traded to the Bears after he struggled with the offseason work and the conditioning test. Briscoe was released after missing all of the team's offseason work and failing the conditioning test.

The feeling is that Schiano pushed for those moves, which makes sense since general manager Mark Dominik picked Price and also was proud of plucking Briscoe off the Bengals' practice squad two years ago.

The Bucs are a team that seemed to need more rigid ways. They have a young roster ready to be molded. With Morris last season, they played like a team that lacked discipline, going 4-12 after a 10-victory season in 2010 as many players, quarterback Josh Freeman included, took steps back.

With fan interest waning in Tampa -- and blackouts coming for every game last season -- it's up to Schiano to get this team back contending again for a division title.

It starts with the new approach.

"It's probably emphasized more for a couple of reasons," Schiano said of his strict ways. "One, relative to what it was. Two, because there's the college-pro thing. The reality is we need to establish these habits. We're trying to get where we build a tradition and a legacy where guys pass it down, how we work, how we prepare. The switch going on once you hit the field or hit the classroom. That's really all we're looking for. Is that discipline? Once you get that it builds on itself."

If you win, that is.

Team objectives

 Improve the defense. The Bucs were 30th in total defense last season and they were 32nd in yards per play. That won't win a lot of games -- even in an offensive league. They have to improve the pass rush. They were 30th in sacks per pass play, but they have a young rising pass rusher in Adrian Clayborn, who should be able to get double-digit sacks.

 Run the ball better. Tampa Bay was 30th in the league in rushing, which is why they drafted Doug Martin in the first round last April. He should step in and give them a runner who can be more of a big-play threat than LaGarrette Blount. Adding a big, physical guard like Carl Nicks as a free agent should help the run game. He is a mauler in the run game. Martin has impressed with his offseason work and seemed to glide the day I watched him practice. It would be a shock not to see him getting 20 carries or so per game.

 Improve the giveaway-takeaway ratio. Tampa Bay was last in the NFL with a minus-16 in that category. They turned it over 40 times, which is way too much. The coaching staff thinks Freeman pressed too much last season, which was a big reason for the high number. A new approach to discipline should help.

Camp battles

Nickel corner: The Bucs are set with Eric Wright and Aqib Talib as their starters -- provided they can stay out of trouble -- but the nickel job is open, especially with E.J. Biggers likely out for a month with a foot injury. They will give Myron Lewis, second-year player Anthony Gaiter and rookie Leonard Johnson a chance to take that spot until Biggers gets back. The Bucs will also likely bring in some help.

Projected winner: Hard to say. I would say Gaiter has the lead for now.

Third receiver: With free-agent signing Vincent Jackson in as the top receiver and Mike Williams as the No. 2, it looked as if Arellious Benn would be the third, but he suffered a leg injury that might keep him out all of camp. That would mean that Preston Parker, Sammie Stroughter and Tiquan Underwood are the leaders for now. Parker would seem to be the choice after having a nice season in 2011 with 40 catches, 554 receiving yards and three TDs.

Projected winner: Parker. He seems to fit as an inside slot receiver.

Linebackers: This was a disaster position in 2011. Mason Foster started in the middle last season and struggled. But with camp he should be one starter -- if not in the middle somewhere. Quincy Black had a bad season after getting a big contract, so he needs to bounce back. Second-round pick Lavonte David was one of my favorite players in the draft and should step in as a starter in the Derrick Brooks mold. Najee Goode, Rennie Curran Adam Hayward or Jacob Cutera could bump one of those three.

Projected winners: Foster (middle), Black and David.

Somebody to watch

Dallas Clark caught 100 passes three years ago for the Indianapolis Colts. Since then, he's played 17 games because of injuries. But he signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers and should be a big part of their offense. Clark played in 11 games last year, suffering a severe wrist injury that included a broken bone and torn tendons. There was some talk he wouldn't play again, but he said that was never the case in his mind. "I always expected to be back," he said. Clark is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league when he's healthy and should be a Freeman favorite.

Injury roundup

 Biggers. He missed the 2009 season with a shoulder injury, so he has some history. But the Bucs expect him back in a month or so. They need him.

 Benn. He's out with a knee injury that might not get him back in time for the regular season. He shouldn't miss much more than that.

 Left tackle Donald Penn. He has a strained calf muscle that will limit him for a few weeks. The concern there is that Penn has a tendency to get heavy, which he looked when I saw him, and he doesn't play as well when that happens. Demar Dotson and Jamon Meredith will get work with the starters in Penn's place.

 Second-year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is one of three players on the PUP list to open camp. Bowers tore an Achilles tendon in May, but the team is holding out hope he might play some this season. Good luck with that.

The last word

I picked this team to go 3-13, but that could increase by four or five more wins if several things happen. They have to get better on defense. Adding first-round safety Mark Barron and Wright will help, but they have to be better against the run. On offense, Freeman has to get back to his 2010 form, which I think he will do.

The NFC South is a tough division and they have some tough non-division games. But if they buy into Schiano's ways, and the passing game can get amped up again, they have a chance to get to .500.

I just think they are a year away, especially in the tough NFC South.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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