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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (1-12) at Seattle (5-8)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already started looking toward the future in what's been a very trying 2009 season. The Seattle Seahawks will begin that same process when these two rebuilding teams face off this Sunday in a Week 15 encounter from Qwest Field.
Seattle was officially eliminated from postseason consideration following last weekend's 34-7 defeat to the Houston Texans, which dropped the Seahawks to 5-8 in Jim Mora's first year at the helm of the franchise. The unhappy head coach remarked immediately following the loss that the three remaining regular- season games would serve as an evaluation period to help determine which players will remain in the team's long-range plans, while adding that changes would likely be forthcoming in the wake of that poor performance.
Mora was particularly displeased with the play of an offensive line that surrendered three sacks to the Texans and struggled to open holes for running backs Julius Jones and Justin Forsett. To back up his words, the emotional sideline boss announced on Wednesday that center Chris Spencer, whom Mora personally called out after last week's game, would be replaced by rookie Max Unger in the starting lineup. Unger, who had been working as the regular right guard, would in turn have his spot filled by a combination of Spencer and Mike Gibson, an unproven first-year pro signed off the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad in October.
The moves were designed to hopefully jump-start an offense that ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing yards and provide better protection for veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who's battled through an assortment of nagging ailments over the course of the year.
Tampa Bay's renovation project actually got underway in January, when the organization surprisingly parted ways with longtime head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen after the Bucs lost their final four regular- season contests of 2008 and missed out on the NFC Playoffs with a 9-7 record. Thirty-three-year-old neophyte Raheem Morris was tabbed to take over for Gruden, with former pro personnel director Mark Dominik promoted into Allen's position.
The new regime hasn't delivered much in the way of positive early returns. The Buccaneers enter Sunday's matchup with a 1-12 record that's tied with St. Louis for the worst mark in the NFL this season, and rank near the bottom of the league in almost every offensive and defensive category.
Morris and Dominik do believe they've at least found a long-term answer at the all-important quarterback position in rookie Josh Freeman, the first-round draft pick who guided Tampa to its only 2009 victory in his first professional start, a 38-28 triumph over playoff-hopeful Green Bay in Week 9. The towering 21-year-old has taken his lumps as of late, however, throwing five interceptions in a loss at Carolina on December 6 and three more during last Sunday's 26-3 home setback to the New York Jets.
The Bucs mustered an anemic 124 total yards in their latest loss, with an off- target Freeman completing only 14-of-33 passes for 93 yards.
Freeman and his teammates will be trying to bounce back and give Tampa Bay its first road win since a 38-20 decision at Detroit on November 23, 2008. The Buccaneers have dropped eight in a row as the visitor since.
Seattle, on the other hand, has gone 4-2 at Qwest Field thus far in 2009 and won three of those games by double digits.
The Seahawks have won seven of the nine all-time meetings with Tampa Bay, but were 20-10 road losers when the teams met in Week 7 of last season. The Seahawks won the previous three meetings, including a 20-6 triumph at Qwest Field in the 2007 season opener. The Bucs are 1-3 in Seattle all-time, with their only win there coming in 1999, a 16-3 result at The Kingdome.
Mora was 3-3 against the Buccaneers while at the helm in Atlanta (2004-06), including 2-1 in home games. Morris will be meeting both Mora and the Seahawks for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
When Tampa Bay inserted Freeman (1207 passing yards, 7 TD, 13 INT) as the team's No. 1 signal-caller in November, the plan wasn't for the youngster to attempt 33 passes per game like he has over the course of his first six NFL starts. Morris has made no secret of his desire for establishing a strong running game around Carnell Williams (586 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 5 total TD) and Derrick Ward (310 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 2 total TD), two backs who have each rushed for 1,000 yards during their careers, but the duo has averaged a mediocre 3.7 yards per carry with teams stacking the box and daring Freeman to throw. The Buccaneers' 25th-ranked passing offense does possess some quality weapons in talented tight end Kellen Winslow (62 receptions, 5 TD) and wide receiver Antonio Bryant (29 receptions, 3 TD), who seems finally all the way back from an offseason knee procedure that limited his effectiveness early on. Big-target wideout Maurice Stovall (20 receptions, 1 TD) has also been coming on of late, while rookie slotman Sammie Stroughter (27 receptions, 1 TD) is expected to be available Sunday after missing last week's loss with a sore back.
Freeman stands a good chance of improving upon his recent rough outings, considering the Seahawks are 29th in the league in pass defense (252.8 ypg) and were shredded for 365 yards by Houston quarterback Matt Schaub last Sunday, one week after allowing San Francisco's Alex Smith to put up 310 yards. The Tampa rookie still needs to be cautious, though, as Seattle does have some playmakers in the secondary. Cornerback Josh Wilson (40 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season, while counterpart Marcus Trufant (38 tackles, 2 INT) had seven picks during a Pro Bowl campaign in 2007. Ends Patrick Kerney (25 tackles, 5 sacks) and Lawrence Jackson (24 tackles, 4 sacks) will be counted on to consistently harass Freeman, and look for coordinator Gus Bradley to incorporate more blitzes this week designed to rattle and confuse the Bucs' developing triggerman. The Seahawks have been pretty solid in defending the run, with linebackers David Hawthorne (93 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT) and Aaron Curry (60 tackles, 2 sacks) and safety Jordan Babineaux (92 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) leading a unit that's yielding 104.3 yards per game on the ground (12th overall).
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle has relied heavily on the pass in Mora's first season as head coach, with only Indianapolis and New England having attempted more throws entering this week's games. The Seahawks will have to make do without one of its top targets on Sunday, however, as wide receiver Nate Burleson (63 receptions, 3 TD) suffered a high ankle sprain against Houston and could miss the remainder of the year. Oft-injured veteran Deion Branch (32 receptions, 2 TD) will be asked to step up opposite the steady T.J. Houshmandzadeh (65 receptions, 3 TD) in Burleson's absence, with tight end John Carlson (40 receptions, 4 TD) possibly factoring more in the game plan after getting fewer looks from Hasselbeck (2400 passing yards, 14 TD, 8 INT) in recent weeks. Rookie wideout Deon Butler (11 receptions), a speedier alternative to Branch and Houshmandzadeh, figures to be more involved as well. The injury could also be offset if the Seahawks are able to run the ball with greater authority. Jones (498 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 4 total TD) and Forsett (420 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 5 total TD) combined for just 65 yards on 19 carries last week, and Seattle is averaging a scant 91 rushing yards per game for the season.
The Seahawks may be able to get their staggering ground attack unleashed against a submissive Tampa defense that's given up over 150 rushing yards eight times this year and ranks 31st out of 32 NFL teams in that category. The Bucs have been better versus the pass, with 2008 first-round draft choice Aqib Talib (43 tackles, 5 INT, 12 PD) quickly establishing himself as one of the league's up-and-coming cornerbacks and free safety Tanard Jackson (57 tackles, 3 INT) solidifying the back line since returning from a four-game suspension to start out the season. Ends Stylez G. White (36 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and Jimmy Wilkerson (44 tackles, 6 sacks) have helped out the secondary by generating a capable pass rush, with the duo accounting for half of Tampa Bay's total of 25 sacks. Weakside linebacker Geno Hayes (72 tackles, 1 sack), who sat out last Sunday's loss with a hamstring strain, is on track to take his customary spot alongside leading tackler Barrett Ruud (113 tackles, 1 INT) in the middle, which should aid a group that couldn't stop the Jets from running the ball at will a week ago.
It says a lot about the overall appeal of this game when the most relevant fantasy performer could be one of the kickers. Seattle's Olindo Mare hasn't missed a field goal try since Week 3 and has booted 13 three-pointers in his team's six home tests this year. Jones may be in line for a big day, however, against a Tampa defense that gives up yards in bunches to enemy running backs, with Forsett holding moderate value as a flex player because of his receiving skills. Downgrade Hasselbeck's upside for this week, though, as he'll be without one of his top two receivers and the Seahawks may go run-heavy here. Burleson's injury gives a boost to both Houshmandzadeh and Carlson's prospects, although neither is a particularly great option. Freeman is nowhere near ready to be a recommended play at quarterback in the fantasy realm, but both Bryant and Winslow hold considerable potential in a matchup with a very burnable Seattle secondary. Avoid Tampa Bay's backfield situation and give a thought to the Seahawks' defense, since Freeman's been awfully turnover-prone of late.
Qwest Field can be a very difficult venue for an opposing team, especially one starting a fresh-faced rookie at quarterback that hasn't won on the road in over a year. Seattle has hardly looked like an all-together outfit in recent weeks, however, and its personnel shuffling on offense and defensive deficiencies suggest that the home team won't have an easy time of it against a hungry Tampa squad that's desperate for a win. Look for Freeman to improve off his last two subpar showings, both of which came against very tough pass defenses, and the Buccaneers to give the Seahawks an honest and determined effort before ultimately coming up short because of one too many youthful mistakes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 20, Buccaneers 13
12/17 17:28:42 ET