Missed opportunities for turnovers on defense can be as critical as dropped passes on offense
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden wasn't trying to single anyone out after Monday's practice, but quarterbacks are always the most visible performers on the field, and fifth-year man Luke McCown had sprinkled some costly errors in among an otherwise solid effort.
On Tuesday morning, McCown – and the rest of his teammates on offense, for that matter – put together a much cleaner effort, escaping their passing drills with relatively few mistakes and zero turnovers.
"Yeah, that's good," said Gruden of the elimination of turnovers. "I thought our pass protection in certain situations was good. We had a couple good rushes that came clean, but for the most part we threw the ball. We had a couple key drops, one down the field and one on a key third-and-12. You can't drop the ball, but most things considered we were pleased with today."
Training camp is the part of the year where kinks get worked out and schemes get fine-tuned, so a few hiccups are to be expected. Such have been the peaks and valleys for McCown over the last few days.
"We talked about it yesterday and the day before," Gruden said. "He's got flash playmaking ability. As I said, there are also too many lightning strikes around me. We had a couple fumbled exchanges, we had a forced-ball turnover in red zone yesterday, and he threw an interception in the move-the-ball period. The highs are high, and the lows are low, I just look for a little more consistent ride. I don't like a bumpy ride, but I'm really pleased with him. The extended reps he's been given, he's done a good job."
Reducing mistakes isn't just a goal for the offense, and on Tuesday it was the defense that missed some opportunities due to slippery hands. Drops – usually a statistic attached to wide receivers, tight ends and running backs – can be a crucial problem for defensive players as well.
"Yeah, dropped interceptions are just as big as a dropped pass," Gruden said. "We need to get more turnovers. We won a championship a few years ago because we generated turnovers and we scored touchdowns when we get the ball on defense. Our linebackers are dropping too many interceptions. We've dropped I think five now in this camp, so we've got something to work on in our individuals today."
Cornerback Phillip Buchanon, a defensive player who has certainly been getting his hands on the football thus far in camp, agreed with the assessment that turnovers were a major focus for the unit.
"You can always improve every year. We were [the] No. 2 [-ranked defense in 2007] and we want to be No. 1, so we can improve in that area," Buchanon said. "We can improve on making more impact plays to help our offense, to give our offense some more [yards] and put them in a better situation, because Tampa's defense prides itself on getting turnovers and scoring with them. That was always the whole implication once I first got here. So we can emphasize that more, and being more physical, stripping the balls, and trying to get the ball back and scoring with it – not just turning the ball over but scoring with it. That is more of the [area] that I see that we can make a big improvement on."
The Cautious Approach
Jeff Garcia admits to some frustration over being reduced to a training camp observer since straining his right calf five days ago. However, he won't let his eagerness to return push him into a decision he will regret.
Garcia and the Buccaneers' trainers are taking a cautious approach to his recovery from what all agree is a minor injury. Garcia strained the calf while working on a mobility drill last Thursday and hasn't taken a rep since. With the Bucs' preseason opener looming on Saturday, it is becoming increasingly likely that Garcia will not suit up for that contest.
"I don't know when exactly I'll be ready to go," said Garcia, who came out to the practice field on Tuesday morning for some mild work, "but I can't push it right now or it will just make matters worse."
As much as the Bucs would love to have their starting quarterback on the field during training camp, they are focusing on the big picture. A week or so of idle time in early August is a small annoyance; an injury that becomes aggravated and lingers into the regular season is a serious issue. Garcia's number-one priority is avoiding that latter scenario.
"It's just a minor strain. I don't think it's anything to get too worried about at this point in training camp," he said. "It's gotten a lot better over the past few days. It's just one of those things. When it's down in your legs you can't necessarily step back out on the field and start pushing yourself. Otherwise, you'll re-injure it and that's the one thing we don't want to do.
"So we're going to be cautious right now and just take it day to day and go from there. Hopefully, before you know it, I'll be back out on the field. It's not happening as fast as I would like it to, but that's just the way things go."
An Inspirational Guest
Before he addressed the media after the Tuesday morning practice session, Gruden took a moment to deliver thanks to a visitor that had spent some time with the team recently.
"I'd just like to thank Everson Walls for coming and being our guest the last couple days, a cornerback from the Cowboys, Browns and Giants with 57 career interceptions," Gruden said. "He should be in the Hall of Fame in my opinion, and he really just helped us out."
During his 14-year career, Walls was a four-time Pro Bowler and led the league in interceptions in three different seasons, the only man to ever accomplish that feat.
While Walls has yet to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his greatest legacy may be his selfless decision to donate a kidney in 2007 to former teammate Ron Springs, who has diabetes.
Gruden said it was just one of the many inspirational facets of Walls' personality.
"He went to the same high school that Aqib Talib went to and he was an undrafted free agent," Gruden said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm a little sensitive to the 80-man roster. I think guys like Everson Walls might not be given an opportunity to make the team these days, but he gave up his own kidney for Ron Springs. I'd like to thank him for being here."
More from Coach Gruden
With the team's preseason opener just a few days away, the Bucs are clearly itching to get down to Miami, strap on the pads and line up against someone other than their own teammates for a change.
Gruden says he and the other coaches feel the same.
"I'm just looking forward to getting in a game situation, just getting on the airplane and playing a team like Miami, seeing a different front," Gruden said. "We need to do that. It's part of the education process, these preseason games. A lot of the players will experience not only the live game situations, but a different front to block, a different route to see, those types of things. We'll see how our players react. We're going to look at a lot of guys."
Here are a few other topics Gruden touched on Tuesday morning:
On what McCown has shown to be No. 2 on the depth chart: "We don't have a depth chart. We might change it at lunch. Unfortunately we have to send in something. There's a long way to go, honestly. The depth chart right now is more for just paper people. We don't know what to write in certain situations, but we've got to write something. We'll put it like that. We have a long way to go to decide who's [No.] 2, who's [No.] 3, who's making it and who's not."
On quarterback Chris Simms: "Well a lot of people have seen him play and know why he's here too. I'll just leave it at that. We have a lot invested too. He started in '04, started in '05, started in '06. We've invested a lot too in him. We have a lot of confidence that he can come back and be a player. We'll leave it at that. He's getting some more turns and he's made a couple nice throws yesterday in the team period. He missed a couple throws today, I think, but we'll keep working him in there and try to get him on the field against Miami."
On the differences between McCown and Brian Griese "That's why I collect these quarterbacks, you know. I do a good job of that. I've got five totally different breeds of quarterback that no one else in football has what I have here. I feel good about that."
On the defense playing well in the third-down period "Well they should, it's third-and-12. The NFL conversion rate is less than 10 percent in that situation. A lot of those conversions are garbage yards at the end of the game. We should dominate that situation, third down-and-12. We dropped a slant that would have been a first down. I thought Luke McCown scrambled for a first down against a two-deep man under coverage. So there were some good spots, certainly, but we should dominate that drill."
on wide receiver Dexter Jackson "He's coming back to health and he ran a couple down-the-field routes where we didn't throw him the ball because our quarterbacks I think didn't realize he was 100 percent back. But he was blazing down the field. We missed a couple wide-open looks today in the team pass segment, but it's great to see him back out here and he's going to give us some juice certainly. He and [Joey] Galloway will give us two guys that can run like hell."