WR Jacquez Green returned to action Thursday, but CB Ronde Barber and DT Warren Sapp were held out another day
On Wednesday, after one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' better practices in some time, Head Coach Tony Dungy gathered his team together and told them one thing: if Thursday's practice was only as good as Wednesday's, then it wouldn't be good enough.
The Bucs answered the bell on Thursday, looking sharp once again during a two-hour afternoon session in preparation for Sunday's playoff-like matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Though not a mathematical-elimination game for either team, it's close, and the Bucs have responded so far with an energetic week of training.
Dungy was satisfied that his team took another step forward on Thursday. "It was pretty good," he said. "I thought our concentration was good. It was a good day, better than yesterday."
However, there was one misstep during the session, taken by backup lineman Todd Washington early in the afternoon. Washington ended up with a knee injury that put him on the sideline for the rest of the day, but he is not expected to miss Sunday's game. He will likely be added to the injury report on Friday morning if the knee is still sore.
"Todd Washington got a little banged up in our internal running drill," said Dungy. "It doesn't look to be too serious but we had to hold him out of the rest of practice. It's just a knee sprain.
"Other than that, it went pretty well. We hope to get Ronde Barber and Warren (Sapp) back tomorrow to get some work in. I think we're in pretty good shape."
Of course, on Wednesday Dungy had hoped to have Barber and Sapp back on the field for Thursday's workout, so it was a bit disappointing to have them on the sideline once again (starting wide receiver Jacquez Green did return to action, however). However, Dungy didn't appear worried and both players told Buccaneers.com after practice that they expected to play.
"I'm not concerned about it," said Dungy. "We'll see tomorrow. We think they're going to be able to practice tomorrow. You never know until they start running and working, but we anticipate having them."
Barber, as noted in this space yesterday, is playing through a left hamstring strain that might sideline a player with less toughness. Should the injury keep him out, Brian Kelly would shift from his starting left cornerback spot to the right side and Donnie Abraham would be re-inserted on the left side. Rookie Dwight Smith would become the nickel back and the team might look for a way to get practice-squad corner Corey Ivy back on the 53-man active unit.
Dungy also indicated that safety Eric Vance and wide receiver Frank Murphy, both questionable on the official injury report, would probably not play on Sunday.
Not much went right for the Buccaneers on Sunday in Chicago, but one play in particular may have doomed the team.
On third-and-ten from the Bears' 36-yard line, quarterback Jim Miller dropped back to pass and found the pocket collapsing on him quickly. A sack was seemingly imminent, but Miller managed to escape the pressure and find some open room on the left side. Just as he popped out of the pocket, rookie wide receiver David Terrell, who was standing near cornerback Donnie Abraham on the left sideline, wheeled and raced down the sideline. Miller responded by throwing a bomb in Terrell's direction, and the ball arrived before safety Dexter Jackson could close in. The play eventually gained 62 yards for the Bears, down to the Bucs' two.
That's the last thing the Bucs expected to happen on that play, but they had better be ready for similar improvisational moments on Sunday because New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks is adept at turning near-disasters into big-gainers.
"Brooks makes a lot of those plays," said Dungy of the Saints' extremely mobile passer. "He makes a lot of plays when the original idea breaks down, and that's why he's so good. He can not only drop back and throw the ball on time, but he can create when nothing's there. He's been good for them all year."
It was hard to fault any particular defender on the Miller-Terrell play, but Bucs want to take measures to ensure there is no repeat against the Saints. For the most part, that entails keeping Brooks on the run when he breaks out of the pocket.
"You've got to stay alive and you've got to chase him down, try to make him throw on the run, much like when you're playing Brett Favre or Daunte Culpepper," said Dungy. "You can't let him move, then get set and survey the field again. You try to keep him moving and you've got to find your guys downfield and not get caught looking back at the quarterback."
Most play calls, offensive or defensive, are designed for a certain affect within five or 10 seconds after the snap, because that's as long as a play usually lasts. When a broken play extends the coverage time downfield, the original intent of the defense can become muddled. In those situations, Dungy says the men in the secondary have to make quick decisions and go towards a play, rather than be struck by indecision as they stare at the quarterback.
The Bucs' quarterback, Brad Johnson, is much more of a classic pocket passer, but the pocket might not be such a comfortable place this Sunday. New Orleans brings the league's most prolific pass rush into Raymond James Stadium this weekend, having caught opposing QBs for 49 sacks this season. The Bucs' pass protection, which has struggled at times but was fairly strong on Sunday in Chicago (one sack allowed), needs to have a good day against the Saints.
"That's the key to playing them, because if you don't do something with that rush you have a tough time," said Dungy. "They're a very talented group, they play with a lot of energy, they put a lot of pressure on you. They can be a disruptive force, so that's where it starts. We've got to handle that, whatever it takes."
Dungy didn't divulge exactly how the Bucs plan to do that, though he did run down some various strategies used by Saints opponents, to obviously mixed results.
"You have to decide whether you're going to maximum protect, use an extra tight end to help, use back to help out, whether you're going to go in with a mindset of throwing the ball quick-rhythm, whether it's going to be screens or different things," he explained. "There are a lot of things you can do, and it seems like teams take one approach or another. The Rams spread them out and threw the ball fast. Different people have done different things."
Whatever approach, or combination of approaches, the Bucs land on, they will probably have to improve on one of their greatest weaknesses of 2001. Tampa Bay ranks 29th in the NFL in yards gained on first down this season, averaging 4.31 yards per first down. The league average is just over five yards per first down.
"You don't want to get behind these guys and get in second-and-longs or third-and-longs," Dungy conceded.