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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' slow starts leave much to be desired

TAMPA - With quarterback Josh Freeman leading the way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have shown a propensity for exciting finishes. Dynamic starts? Not so fast. Tampa Bay scored only 43 first-quarter points last season, continuing a long-term trend of sluggish starts. "New Orleans is a fast-starting club and that really changes the mindset of the opposing team,'' said Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "I always tell our guys that we've got a bunch of competitive players who will finish games strong. I don't worry about them finishing, but I don't like our mindset when we start a practice drill or line up in the first quarter.''
Tampa Bay's early offensive woes are taking on epic proportions, dating to the Jon Gruden era. Since Nov. 25, 2007, when Tampa Bay scored 10 points in the opening quarter of a 19-13 victory against Washington, the offense has not generated more than seven first-quarter points in 54 consecutive games. That's not a typo. Fifty-four. "We've got to be sharper from the jump,'' said tight end Kellen Winslow. "We were successful last year, but to be an elite team, we have to be more productive early on offense. That will be a big step in our progress.'' While teams like the Saints and Patriots routinely exploit defenses from the start, Tampa Bay's attack takes a while to unfold. "We've got to find a way to put more points on the board early,'' said Freeman, who engineered five comeback wins last year in the fourth quarter or overtime. "You'd like to play a great game all four quarters, but it's the NFL and it's not always going to be that way. The first couple of snaps, it's guys getting their feet wet.'' Freeman posted a pedestrian quarterback rating of 76.9 in the opening quarter last season, completing 54.9 percent of his throws with two touchdown passes. In the fourth quarter, Freeman threw eight scoring passes, his completion rate jumped to 62.6 percent and his passer rating was 97.4. "The biggest thing to me is our execution early in games,'' said veteran center Jeff Faine. "It's not as if we're playing slow. It's executing the plays that are called and making them work — playing smart, avoiding penalties and being focused. When we have slow starts, it's usually because we're sloppy and dealing with penalties that kill drives.'' Slow starts are particularly frustrating for Olson, who worked with Brees as Purdue's quarterbacks coach more than a decade ago. Now Olson stands on the opposing sideline, watching Brees torture defenses before the first commercial break. The New Orleans offense scored more than seven first-quarter points on five occasions last season and Brees threw 12 touchdown passes in the opening period, boasting a passer rating of 111.9. "A year ago, we recognized in practice that at the start of every period there would be a mental error, an incomplete pass, a missed assignment,'' Olson said. "Our motto last year was 'start fast.' But as the season went on, even though we were having success as a team, we weren't starting fast. "As a staff, we said let's not mention starting fast this year. Maybe it got in their heads a little bit last season. It's always going to be an emphasis around here and we've got to do a better job. If you can get up on some of these teams that don't have elite quarterbacks, you should be in good shape. All I know is we've got to be ready to go from the first whistle.''

ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833

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