Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Monday.
Watch enough NFL practices and you'll start to recognize the most common drills. There's "9-on-7," which usually emphasizes the run; "7-on-7" periods are all about the pass; "indies" are all about technique at individual positions; "special cat" can refer to work on specific game situations, such as a two-minute drill.
There are some common pairings of drills, too. Since receivers and cornerbacks don't take part in 9-on-7, it makes sense to take them to an adjacent field for 1-on-1 reps at the same time. The offensive and defensive lines don't join in on 7-on-7, so it's a good time for them to face each other in 1-on-1 pass-rush snaps.
However, in one period in the middle of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp practice on Monday morning, the team had WR/DB and OL/DL 1-on-1s going on at the same time. That left out the linebackers, running backs and tight ends, which might have made for a good pass-coverage drill. Lavonte David covering O.J. Howard, for instance, would have been great work for both players.
Instead, Buccaneer coaches went the other way with this pairing of positions. It wasn't the offensive players who were on the attack, but the defenders. This was a set of 1-on-1 pass-rush drills with the backs and tight ends trying to keep David and his group off the quarterback. Thanks to the speed and skills of several of the Bucs' linebackers – most notably David and Kwon Alexander – this was also one of the most entertaining stretches of Monday's rain-soaked practice.
And maybe a glimpse of things to come as well. Judging by the reps on Monday for David and Alexander, who will be starting at the WILL and MIKE positions, respectively, giving the Buccaneer linebackers more chances to rush the passer in 2017 may be a very successful strategy.
I think we've got some quick linebackers, guys with finesse who can make the running back or the tight end miss and get to the quarterback," said Alexander. "I think we're going to be doing a lot of rushing."
It's obvious that both Alexander and David would welcome more forays into the enemy backfield. David said he has been working on that part of his game in the hopes of being a more effective pass-rusher in his sixth NFL season.
"In this defense we rush a lot of linebackers, we rush the quarterback a lot," he said. "One emphasis I had this year was to try to get better as a pass-rusher from last season to this season. In this defense, rushing the passer is always a big objective. When I get a chance to do that in practice, I want to take advantage of the opportunity because those are the guys I'm mostly going to be going up against in games, tight ends and backs."
David may be working on that aspect of his game, but it hasn't exactly been a deficiency. He has 18.0 sacks through his first five seasons, an excellent total for a 4-3 outside linebacker who doesn't normally line up on the line of scrimmage like a 3-4 pass-rushing 'backer. He had 5.0 sacks last year and a high of 7.0 in 2013, when he was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection. Alexander, for his part, already has 6.0 sacks through 28 career games; again, that's a strong start for a 4-3 middle linebacker.
Rushing the passer is a secondary occupation for David, who has more tackles in the last five years (663) than every player in the league except Carolina's Luke Kuechly (693). Of all the players who have had at least 400 tackles in that span, only Lawrence Timmons has more sacks than David, and only by a mere half-sack. In the last two years, Alexander and David are two of the five defenders in the NFL who have at least 200 tackles and at least 6.0 sacks.
If both Alexander and David are even better pass-rushers in 2017, that could make things difficult for opposing defenses, who might not be able to anticipate which one of the Bucs' linebackers is going to blitz.
"That's going to be a big problem for them, I think," said Alexander. "We've been working on it a lot, and you saw we had some great results out there today. We're going to try to get after it this season."
This is part of the purpose of training camp, of course, to determine where a team's strengths and weaknesses lie, and to figure out how to most effectively use their players. One 10-minute pass-rush drill on the last day of July isn't going to set the Bucs' entire defensive path for 2017, but it was an encouraging look at one possibility for the playbook.
And it's clear that David and Alexander were enjoying it.
"It's an emphasis for us. Every time we're out there, we're trying to get after the quarterback. In practice, in that drill, we try to work on game-day speed, game-day moves, things we might do in a game. We're just trying to get better at it.