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How Bucs’ Dave Canales made sure Saints never knew what hit them

How Bucs’ Dave Canales made sure Saints never knew what hit them

03/10/2023, USA, Multi Sports, USA Publications, Article # 31450519

By Rick Stroud

Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — In what may be considered the most important drive of the season, Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales emptied his playbook against the Saints.

The 87-yard second-quarter march Sunday took 17 plays and took nearly nine minutes off the clock. But it won’t be remembered as much for its longevity as it will be for its creativity.

Eight different players touched the football, including receiver Chris Godwin, who not only caught three passes but also threw the first one of his NFL career.

There were rollouts, shuffle passes, end-arounds and the little gadget play by Godwin.

The drive ended when quarterback Baker Mayfield flipped a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cade Otton, giving the Bucs a lead they never relinquished in a 26-9 win.

“Man, I love it,” coach Todd Bowles said Monday. “It’s important to keep teams off-balance when you’ve got them on the run. You don’t want to do the same things over and over again. It keeps everybody interested. Everybody can touch the ball on offense. It makes everybody want to play harder, play faster and it’s motivational. He did a heck of a job calling it.”

Six days earlier, Canales watched the Bucs’ offense get neutralized by the Eagles in a 25-11 loss to the defending NFC champions. That wasn’t going to happen Sunday.

“It’s fun, for sure. To that point, the guys do enjoy that,” Canales said. “As long as they’re a part of the play, because again, that’s a lot of mileage if we’re not giving them an opportunity for the ball. But I think in a drive like that against a defense like [the Saints’], you know I wasn’t going to try to make it like this macho  mano-y-mano kind of thing. There are ways to do that and make them work.

“I think coming out of the first three games that maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough just to get first downs. So make yards while we’re learning the core of our system, while we’re trying to learn the fundamental blocking schemes that we’ve got to get good at.”

Not only did the Bucs average 5.3 yards per play Sunday, they did it by getting huge contributions from young receivers such as rookie Trey Palmer and second-year pro Deven Thompkins, who each caught a touchdown pass.

Evans was forced to leave the game late in the first half with a hamstring strain. Godwin played even bigger, catching eight passes for a season-high 114 yards.

But it was “the puppy pound,” as Bowles calls Thompkins, Palmer and Rakim Jarrett, that picked up the slack. They combined for seven catches, 54 yards and two scores.

Canales knows he can improve as a first-time play-caller, and the Bucs rank 19th in the NFL with 19 points per game.

“Just the run-game flow, just understanding what the defense’s plan is to take away some of our core runs and being able to make the transition to the run game better,” Canales said. “That’s I think my biggest growth curve. I’ve watched coordinators do really good with that. I was with Brian Schottenheimer, Shane Waldron, Darrell Bevell. I feel like that’s a place I haven’t really wrapped my brain around yet.”

But for one drive, the Saints didn’t know who — or what — hit them.

“We always talked about not being afraid to rotate those young guys in. We’re going to need them at some point,” Canales said. “They’re not playing perfect ball. There’s a lot they can clean up. There’s a lot of sloppy plays that happen but they played with a lot of juice, a lot of confidence and [Mayfield] feeds off that as well with a lot of those guys flying around.”
Young receivers stepped up with Bucs touchdowns after Mike Evans’ injury

Young receivers stepped up with Bucs touchdowns after Mike Evans’ injury

03/10/2023, USA, Multi Sports, USA Publications, Article # 31450520

By Rick Stroud

Tampa Bay Times

On the first play of Sunday’s 26-9 win over the Saints, receiver Mike Evans beat Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore for an 18-yard reception.

But the most anticipated man-to-man matchup, the heated one with Lattimore that has resulted in Evans being suspended twice and fined more than $100,000, never materialized Sunday.

Evans left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring strain and never returned, finishing with three catches for 40 yards.

But that didn’t mean things got easier for Lattimore and the Saints defense.

Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield threw three touchdown passes, including one each to rookie Trey Palmer and second-year pro Deven Thompkins.

“Just taking advantage of our one-on-ones,” Mayfield said. “Just trusting our guys. I think you saw that in the game and obviously it was unfortunate to lose Mike during the game, but our young guys played well. I think you saw that firsthand.”

It was the second touchdown of the season for Palmer, the rookie from Nebraska who was taken in the sixth round. He had two TD receptions in the preseason.

Thompkins’ score — a 5-yard pass that put the game away with 3:44 remaining in the fourth quarter — was the first scoring reception of his career. He was second on the team Sunday with four catches for 45 yards, including a 26-yarder.

“That’s what we do,” Thompkins said. “Production doesn’t go down whenever our big two, like when Chris [Godwin] and Mike go out, we understand that we have to step up when it comes down to that. We’re ready in every single way.”

Thompkins’ TD, in which he fought to get in the end zone, was the result of Mayfield buying time in the pocket on a scramble drill.

“It was good,” Thompkins said. “You know, we worked the scramble drill. We always preach about keeping up the energy. So just keep running and then me and Baker locked eyes and he just went ahead and threw it.”

The Bucs also were fortunate that even with Evans out of the game, they could lean even more on Godwin. He led the Bucs with a season-high eight catches for 114 yards.

It was the 19th time Godwin went over 100 receiving yards in a game during his career, second only in club history to Evans, who has 34.

“To be honest, it doesn’t change my role too much,” Godwin said of Evans leaving the game. “I think more than anything else it provides opportunities for some of the young guys in the room and they did a phenomenal job of stepping up and making the plays that came their way. It was no surprise to us or anybody on the team. …

“[Thompkins] is one of the more explosive guys I’ve ever been around. Day in and day out, he does some things and I look at him like, ‘That’s just D.T. stuff.’ ”
Could Tropicana Field be Rays’ secret weapon in playoffs?

Could Tropicana Field be Rays’ secret weapon in playoffs?

03/10/2023, USA, Multi Sports, USA Publications, Article # 31450443

By Kristie Ackert

Tampa Bay Times

ST. PETERSBURG — John Schneider hadn’t been to Tropicana Field in three months and was hours away from managing his Blue Jays in a heated American League East battle, but already he was grumbling about the Rays’ home stadium.

“That roof, the turf and the sticky handrails in the dugout,” Schneider said with a sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, it’s great to be back here.”

No visiting player or manager is ever truly happy to be back at the Trop. It’s known across baseball as old, rundown, inconvenient, empty, dark, weird and, perhaps most importantly, a difficult place to win.

When MLB Network radio was going over the Rays’ postseason outlook a month ago, one of its hosts, Eduardo Perez, gave the Trop its props: “It’s so bad,” he said, “it’s good for the Rays.”

The Rangers, whom the Rays will host in the American League Wild Card Series beginning Tuesday night, won four of the six games between the teams this season but dropped two of the three at the Trop.

The Rays, who had a whole spring to get reacclimated to the Trop due to hurricane damage to their Port Charlotte site, opened the season a franchise best 30-6 at home this season. Only the legendary 1932 Yankees had a better start at home. The Rays finished the year 53-28 at the Trop.

“It’s just weird, right?” the Angels’ then-manager Phil Nevin said, waving his hands at the Trop roof. “I mean, it’s the only place in baseball with that kind of roof that changes its brightness based on the weather. It’s tilted … and it’s just different than any other place these guys play.”

Nevin said that when he brought a young Angels squad to the Trop in September, he had to address the big white dome looming over them.

“It was kind of like Gene Hackman in ‘Hoosiers’ when he took out the measuring tape before the big game,” Nevin said. “I had to remind them the infield is the same; the game is the same here. It just doesn’t feel like it.”

It starts with the roof (the only nonretractable dome in baseball), the catwalks and the speakers that hang down from them.

“It’s definitely different than a lot of places,” Mariners first baseman Mike Ford said. “It’s strange because it’s a roofed stadium, but if it’s a day game the roof is brighter, so it’s harder to see the ball when it’s in the air. Then the ball just ricochets off the catwalk and different things out there.

“I played here a lot when I was with the Yankees, and I always did well here, so I felt kind of comfortable here. When guys kind of haven’t played here a lot, it’s a little bit different.”

It’s not only the roof that makes the Trop tough on visiting players. It’s the field, too.

“I don’t want to piss on everything here, but it’s all the things that you have to deal with here,” said Red Sox infielder Justin Turner. “The roof is the worst, and the AstroTurf is the hardest in baseball.

“I think the hardest part is this AstroTurf is different than other domes, and it’s just hard. It puts a lot of wear and tear on your body. I think it’s especially tough on outfielders. It kills your knees and backs, and to run around on that turf, it can be brutal.”

It’s not just the physical characteristics of the Trop that visiting players dislike. It’s the atmosphere, too.

“It’s kind of hard to play here when there is no one in the stands, and then when they pack the place — like they did when I was with the Yankees — it’s really loud and weird too,” Nevin said. “The sound of this place is different than any other place these guys play. They just aren’t used to it.”

Blue Jays reliever Chad Green has plenty of experience playing in front of the bigger crowds at the Trop from his time with the Yankees. He acknowledged that the building presents some problems but said the biggest one is the team that it houses.

“I think that it has its challenges; it’s not ideal,” Green said. “But the biggest challenge is them. The Rays are a really, really good team. They are used to it, and they play well here.

“So, of course, teams don’t want to come in here. The Rays are just hard to play.”
Upon Further Review: Broncos OLB Nik Bonitto created value for himself in win over Bears

Upon Further Review: Broncos OLB Nik Bonitto created value for himself in win over Bears

03/10/2023, USA, Multi Sports, USA Publications, Article # 31450435

On Sunday afternoon when Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields put on a throwing clinic, Denver needed a disruptor in the pass rush, and second-year outside linebacker Nik Bonitto stepped up to the challenge.

In the fourth quarter, with the Broncos on the brink of overcoming a 21-point deficit, Bonitto burst into the backfield. When Fields turned to his right, preparing to throw the ball, the Oklahoma product forced a fumble. Fellow outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper recovered the ball and scored a 35-yard touchdown to tie the game at 28 with 6:55 remaining.

In the Broncos’ 31-28 victory over the Bears, Bonitto’s strip sack was game-changing. According to Next Gen Stats, Denver’s win probability was 3.5% when it trailed 28-7 with 4:18 to go in the third quarter. The Broncos’ chances jumped to 37.2% after Bonitto’s big play.

“(Bonitto and Cooper) deserve a lot more credit than they’re going to get,” Broncos defensive tackle D.J. Jones said. “They’ll get it when it comes time for a paycheck. Love both of them.”

Bonitto’s forced fumble was one of the biggest plays of the game, but his overall performance created more value for himself. Bonitto, who earned his second career start, finished with four tackles (two for loss) and 2 ½ sacks in a season-high 48 defensive snaps.

Broncos head coach Sean Payton said he decided to start Bonitto over outside linebacker Randy Gregory because the team wanted to look at a different rotation.

“It’s somewhat deceiving,” Payton said. “The starting offense depends on what play we’re going to run. Defensively, we’re in a rotation. We’re trying to do what’s best for our team.”

Bonitto certainly took advantage of the opportunity. On the Bears’ first drive, they tried to execute a designed run with Fields, but Bonitto read it and tackled him for a 1-yard loss. On the following play, Bonitto sped past Chicago offensive lineman Nate Davis before wrapping up Fields for a sack.

Denver’s defense has struggled through four games. The secondary has been middling, while the Broncos have struggled to generate consistent pressure, ranking 24th in sacks (8) and last in quarterback pressures (15). Even though the Broncos held Chicago to seven points in the second half, they allowed 21 points in the first two quarters as Fields completed 15 straight passes.

Despite Denver’s struggles, Bonitto has shown flashes of his potential. This season, he has 13 tackles (six for loss), a team-best 3 ½ sacks and six quarterback pressures.

Broncos defensive end Zach Allen called Bonitto a big-time player with “all the athletic ability in the world.”

“I haven’t played with someone like that since (Eagles and former Cardinals outside linebacker) Haason Reddick. He’s still growing, and it’s exciting to see where he’ll be,” Allen said.

Gregory, who was signed as a free agent in 2022 to add another dimension to Denver’s pass rush, has yet to live up to his large contract. He has nine tackles and a sack, prompting Payton to try a different look Sunday. How the team’s outside linebacker rotation might change after Frank Clark (hip) and Baron Browning (knee) are fully healthy remains to be seen.

Either way, Bonitto has proven that he could develop into an impact player.

“(Bonitto is) getting more reps,” Payton said. “He’s got (to) continue to stay at the level of the quarterback, not behind the quarterback.”

Extra Points

• In addition to Bonitto getting the starting nod, Denver had cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian play more time in the nickel spot over Essang Bassey. McMillian played 43 defensive snaps, while Bassey was in for only seven.

• By leading Denver to a 21-point comeback win, quarterback Russell Wilson has 32 career fourth-quarter comebacks — postseason included — as he moved up to 10th in NFL history in that category. Wilson has nine touchdown passes through four games. Last season, the nine-time Pro Bowler didn’t reach that total until Week 14. He is currently ninth in passing yards (1,014) and has the third-best passer rating (106.7).

“He’s a lot like (former Saints quarterback) Drew (Brees) in this way,” Payton said. “They kind of see the game as a glass half full. At a time when you’re down 21 points, that momentum can swing very quickly. He was certainly feeling that confidence that, ‘Hey just get us the ball and here we go.’ I think that’s somewhat contagious.”

• Running back Jaleel McLaughlin’s 18-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter marked the third time in four games that the Broncos scored on their opening drive. Payton said the team puts together 12-15 plays for the opening drives based on the opponent.

“Yesterday, it was apparent right away (that) we were going to get a lot more Cover 2 (with two safeties deep),” Payton said. “We thought that might be the case with some of the injuries they’ve had. Then, it was just making enough plays. The screen pass on third down was a big play by Jaleel and Russ. It was well-blocked.”

• Denver’s offensive line had its fair share of discipline issues Sunday, committing five false starts. But when it came to pass protection, left tackle Garett Bolles was solid. He allowed no sacks or quarterback hits in 31 pass block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I thought our offensive line did a tremendous job,” Wilson said. “They didn’t blink the whole day.”