Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme was gushing about the Tampa Bay defense during a conference call last week when coach Raheem Morris snuck into the media room at One Buc Place, grabbed a microphone and asked a question.
“Hey Jake, did you really mean anything you just said there? This is Coach Morris. Or are you just faking it for all my writers here, buddy?’’ Morris said.
Morris will have to provide plenty of surprises on defense Sunday for Delhomme if the Bucs are going to beat the Cleveland Browns. Delhomme may have been a turnover machine for the Carolina Panthers last season, but his 9–2 record against the Bucs cannot be ignored.
“He’s the Raheem Morris killer,’’ Morris said. “He’s broken my heart in a couple different situations at the end of the game.’’
Morris was a defensive assistant and coached the secondary from 2002-08. After becoming head coach, he watched the Bucs’ defense plummet until taking over the playcalling duties from Jim Bates with six games remaining in the 2009 season. Returning to the Tampa 2 scheme, the Bucs responded by allowing only 17 points per game over the final six contests.
The Browns are a run-first team under Eric Mangini, but Delhomme is the wild card. With early games against the Bucs and Kansas City, they hope to avoid the slow start that doomed them last year.
Keys for the Bucs
• Hope Josh Freeman grows up. The Bucs’ quarterback can’t be the guy who threw 18 interceptions in nine starts as a rookie. He has a good offensive line and some decent weapons in tight end Kellen Winslow and Williams, the rookie wide receiver. The face of the franchise has to prove all that work in the offseason wasn’t for naught.
• Pressure Delhomme. The Bucs drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to push the pocket and trample the run on the way to the QB. But Tampa Bay’s pass rush was anemic in the preseason. Look for LB Quincy Black to come off the edge in some 3-4 fronts as a new wrinkle.
Keys for the Browns
• Play smash mouth football. The Bucs were last in the NFL in rushing defense a year ago, which plays into the Browns’ strength. Jerome Harrison rushed for 561 yards in the final three games last season after spending most of his career buried on the bench. He teams with Peyton Hillis, the Browns’ short-yardage back. And for a change-up, the Browns can put Josh Cribbs in the wildcat formation.
• Attack Freeman. The Bucs’ QB missed the final two preseason games with a broken right thumb. His starting receivers are rookie Mike Williams and second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. With Shaun Rogers anchoring the middle of the 3-4 scheme, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can get blitz happy.
The Bucs have lost 17 of the last 20 games but have a chance to start fast Sunday. Every team circles the Bucs on their schedule as a W. If Tampa Bay can’t beat the Browns at home, it’s going to be another long year. Bucs 17–14.