During a very crisp Wednesday practice, FB Mike Alstott got some added work as the primary ballcarrier
For two games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have watched their offense move the ball efficiently down the field but fail to put it into the end zone. They have not, to their own satisfaction, converted scoring opportunities, succeeded on important third downs or come up with the big play when necessary. Similarly, on defense, the Bucs seemed to have lacked that needed 'kill shot,' particularly last week in Minnesota.
On Wednesday in practice, with the team owning a 1-1 record and due to face the 3-0 Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Buccaneers apparently felt it was time to make the necessary changes. So this is what they did:
They played better.
If you were looking for a laundry list of position switches and scheme updates, you've come to the wrong place. These Buccaneers are confident in their plans and their personnel. They simply don't believe they have executed as well as they need to.
So it was particularly encouraging for Head Coach Tony Dungy when, on Wednesday, the first afternoon of practice in preparation for the Packers, the Bucs came up with perhaps their finest midweek effort of the year. The team was sharp, spirited and on the mark, which was evident even to the untrained eye. Dungy confirmed that assessment immediately afterward.
"I thought it was pretty good," said Dungy. "I thought it was one of our better practices of the year. I don't know why, but I thought it was."
Could it be that the Bucs have responded with an increased focus after Sunday's disappointing loss in the Metrodome? To Dungy, the likely motivation wasn't the defeat but the reaction that followed. While questions swirled around the team's skill and leadership, the even-keeled coach reminded his players that, without exception, the contemporary Buccaneers have recovered from troubling periods by continuing to focus on what has made them a successful team.
"Hopefully, it's not the loss," said Dungy of the team's redoubled motivation. "I think they're responding to some of the questions (the media) asks them, about what we need to do and what changes are needed. We don't need to change anything. We just need to practice better and play better and I thought we made a step toward that today by practicing better."
Dungy, of course, has history on his side. The same approach was followed in 1996, his first season at the helm, when the Bucs opened the season 0-5, then rebounded to win six of the last 11. Similar scenarios played out in November of 1997, December of 1998, November of 1999 and the last two months of last season. The 1999 Bucs began the season 3-4, then won nine of their next 10 before barely losing the NFC Championship Game to St. Louis.
Life After Dunn
An increased crispness wasn't the only change in practice on Wednesday. There was also the notable absence of Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn, who suffered a sprained foot in Minnesota on Sunday.
With Dunn out, the Bucs began the process of doling out his portions of the offense to players such as fullback Mike Alstott, running back Aaron Stecker and all-purpose back Rabih Abdullah. Rookie fullback Jameel Cook also got additional work with the first-team offense when Alstott was lined up as the primary ballcarrier.
There is no indication from the team, of course, on which back will get the lion's share of the carries against Green Bay, though Alstott has generally been considered the team's backup tailback. In 10 career games against the Packers, Alstott has 96 carries for 379 yards and four touchdowns. In the last two seasons, Alstott has carried the ball 44 times against Green Bay for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Though he was not really in the running game plan against the Packers last December after returning from his knee injury (two carries for seven yards), Alstott averaged over four yards per carry in the other three games in that span.
With that in mind, Alstott may end up with a decent number of carries if he gets off to a good start. Dungy indicated that the Bucs would try to stick with the hot hand at running back during Dunn's absence.
"Oh, absolutely," said Dungy. "We're going to mix it around and do some different things. We're going to try to do what's successful, but we're not really going to vary from our plan in terms of what we would have done if Warrick had been in there."
Alstott has also shown that he can get that hot hand, as he has four career 100-yard rushing games. During the 1999 season, when he led the Bucs with a career-high 949 rushing yards, the powerful yet nimble fullback recorded one eight-game span in which he averaged less than 4.3 yards per carry only once.
Dunn was not at practice on Wednesday, but his name was still a matter of intrigue when the official injury report was released, showing him as 'doubtful' rather than the expected 'out.' That may reflect only that Dunn's sprained foot was slightly better on Tuesday and Wednesday than expected, because Dungy made it clear that his prolific tailback is not in the team's plans for Green Bay.
"I guess he's got a 25% chance of playing," said Dungy, referring to the official definition of the word 'doubtful' on NFL injury reports. "We're planning on him not playing. That's the way we're approaching it. He's not going to practice today or tomorrow or Friday, and I would think that would make it hard for him to play."
Dunn's injury status has been re-evaluated several times in the last few days, if not to the extent of the 25% difference between 'out' and 'doubtful.'
"It kind of has varied," said Dungy. "Right after the game, we had the sense that it wasn't going to be that bad. The next day, on Monday, during the day when he got examined, it looked like it was very, very comparable to Dwight Smith's. And then when we casted it up on Monday night, by then it looked a little bit better. I would just estimate that it's going to be at least two games and probably three. It still may be four. You just never really know. As far as this week goes, he definitely won't play."
The Perfect Gift
Robert Arnaud will not play on Sunday either, but he was in uniform Wednesday behind One Buccaneer Place. It turned out to be a happy birthday for the just now 25-year-old back out of Georgia.
Arnaud was born on October 3, 1976 and joined the Buccaneers on exactly a quarter-century later. In between, he played for the University of Georgia, had stints with Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington and even earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens last year. The ring is in a safe deposit box but Arnaud is in Tampa, looking for another shot in the NFL.
"It was a good birthday present to come in and have a job," he said. "I just have to make the most of the opportunity.
"I hope they just get a good chance to evaluate me and get a good look at me. Hopefully, there'll be some opportunities for me to play down the road."
Arnaud took most of the scout-squad snaps for the offense on Wednesday and ran hard in his first opportunity to make an impression on the coaching staff. Earlier, he had summed up his running style rather succinctly:
"North and south," said Arnaud.
Searching for Sacks
After adding sack specialist Simeon Rice during the offseason, the Bucs headed into 2001 dreaming of intra-squad sack races and a run at the NFL record. A front four of Rice, Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland seemed destined to set up shop in their opponents' backfields.
Through the first two games of the regular season, however, Tampa Bay has recorded just three sacks, eight less than they had through the first two weeks of 2000. Sapp and McFarland, perhaps the most intimidating pair of defensive tackles in the league, have yet to make a mark in that stat column.
And absolutely nothing is wrong.
The sacks will come, say the Bucs' pass-rushers, who believe the team is indeed getting the pressure it expected to get from its front line.
"That doesn't indicate how we're rushing," said Sapp of the team's three sacks. "You can't have your rush indicated by the number of sacks you have. We're rushing better than we've ever rushed, and I know that for a fact because I've been here since day one. I know we're rushing better than we ever have, but we just aren't taking them down."
Safety John Lynch realized that Sapp was right after watching the game film on Monday, seeing QB Daunte Culpepper get away from one rush after another.
"During the game, it was kind of a thought that, 'Where's our defensive line?'" said Lynch. "Our D-line was all over him. There was a lot of pressure and Daunte played a spectacular game."
In short, the Bucs aren't worried about that number three because there are 14 games to play and not every quarterback is going to escape.
"It's a combination of things," said Sapp. "We went to Dallas and they weren't going to throw, and if they were, they were going to do it on a three-step drop. This quarterback here, we're draped all over him and for some reason he isn't going down. He's like the Washington Monument. He's got two or three people on him and he sneaks the ball out and they get a first down on third-and-nine."