Rookie LB Byron Thweatt hasn't forgotten the instructions he received in several months of practices this summer
The consensus – and by consensus we mean a unified front of players and coaches in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room – is that the team's early struggles are simply the result of poor execution. Several times a game, often at crucial moments, the Bucs will have 10 men on the same page and one making a mistake. That unfocused 11th man will be somebody else on the next snap.
Therefore, the aim in practice, as the 2-2 Buccaneers prepare for the 3-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, is to return to the basics, a man by man attention to the details of each job. Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy saw his players take that approach Wednesday afternoon as the week of workouts began.
"When you're trying to get started and you need a win, that's the best place to start," said Dungy. "If we can focus in on blocking well, tackling well, being in the right spot, doing things the right way, we think we'll be in good shape.
"Every guy is doing his job on every play and just getting in the habit of doing things right. That's what practice is all about."
With five years of Buccaneer rebounds from slow starts as ample evidence, Dungy has the belief and cooperation of his players as they stick to their established systems and simply strive to execute them better.
"You've got to know what you're doing and you've got to know how to do it," he said. "Then it's just a matter of going out there and doing it. Usually, the team that out-hits the other team and does things right most often wins."
One player who could be forgiven for a sketchy grasp on the details Wednesday is LB Byron Thweatt, who was just re-signed to the practice squad Wednesday morning. Thweatt, originally an undrafted free agent with the Bucs out of Virginia, spent the entire preseason with Tampa Bay before being released during the final cut-down to 53 players on September 2. To make room for Thweatt's return on the practice squad, the team waived DT DeVone Claybrooks.
Claybrooks was originally signed to the practice squad on September 4 after starting his rookie season as an undrafted free agent with Green Bay out of East Carolina.
Despite his six-week absence from the team, Thweatt (6-2, 233) retained a grasp on the playbook that made the decision to bring him back an easy one.
"He's a very smart guy, number one," said Dungy. "He didn't forget too much while he was gone. He's quick and he's tough, and those are the things we like.
The practice-squad switch was a fairly obvious nod to shifting issues on the team's injury report. While defensive tackle James Cannida, out for six weeks with a knee sprain, has finally returned to practice this week, the Bucs' linebacker corps has taken a hit with Jeff Gooch's shoulder injury (out 2-3 weeks) and Derrick Brooks' foot sprain (day to day). Thweatt was a natural choice.
"He knows our system. He can step right in today and practice very well. We just felt he was the best guy out there for us."
Thweatt, of course, cannot help the Buc linebackers during Sunday's game against Pittsburgh, but Dungy hopes that won't be an issue. Though Brooks will probably not practice until Friday, repeating last week's pattern, it is believed that he is slightly better off this week in his recovery from the foot sprain.
"We're probably just about like we were last week," said Dungy of the injury situation. "I think Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn are in better shape today than they were last Wednesday. Dexter Jackson is hopefully going to practice on Friday. Those three guys are the question marks. Jeff Gooch is definitely out, but if we can get Brooks, Jackson and Dunn able to go by Friday, we'll be in good shape."
Cannida, an unsung fourth-year player who has improved measurably each season in the league, could immediately provide a boost to the team's interior defensive line depth. After doing some light running and individual work late last week, Cannida was back to full participation on Wednesday.
"James did pretty well today," said Dungy. "It looks like he'll be able to play and help us this week."
If Jackson is unable to play, his spot will be filled by rookie safety John Howell, a fourth-round pick out of Colorado State who spent roughly two-thirds of last Sunday's game manning the free safety spot.
"John's doing well and played pretty well in the game," said Dungy. "He'll get a little more practice time this week and that will help him."
Howell is looking to use the extra practice time with the first team to ensure that he is ready should his first career start become necessary. Like the rest of his teammates, however, Howell's number-one priority in practice on Wednesday was getting the little details right.
QBs on the Run
With QB Brad Johnson running the first-team offense, backups Shaun King and Joe Hamilton took turns directing the scout-team unit and emulating Pittsburgh's attack. Neither King nor Hamilton hesitated to leave the pocket and try to pick up yards with their feet, a segment of the Steelers' offense for which the Bucs feel they must be prepared.
After watching Tennessee's Steve McNair bite off large chunks of yardage either running or passing after leaving the pocket, the team is striving to make sure Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart doesn't do the same.
"We tried to keep the drill alive in the defensive period to get our guys used to playing a longer time," said Dungy. "When the play does break down and the quarterback moves around, we worked on staying with it."
The Steelers lead the league with an average of 192 rushing yards per game, much of which is due to the team's outstanding one-two running back punch of Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue. However, Pittsburgh also designs running plays for Stewart, who has 137 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
The Bucs have generally contained mobile quarterbacks well, but that trend has fallen apart in 2001. The added focus in practice on Wednesday is meant to get the team back to its previously excellent level of QB pursuit.
Under Brooks' Helmet
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Derrick Brooks has made a name for himself on the field as one of the league's best all-around linebackers. Off the field, Brooks is recognized for his dedication to the youth of the Tampa Bay community.
The Buccaneers' 2000 MVP will be featured on the next episode of "NFL Under the Helmet," Saturday at 12:00 p.m. (check local listings) on FOX-TV. "Under the Helmet," the NFL's teen-driven magazine show, produced by NFL Films, features the best of the NFL and the world of contemporary music.
Brooks, who received the 2000 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his off-the-field achievements, sponsors "Brooks Bunch," a group of inner-city kids from various Tampa Bay area youth organizations who he invites to every Buccaneer home game. NFL Under the Helmet went behind the scenes with Brooks as he accompanied the Brooks Bunch on a tour of the "Wild West," with stops at the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.
"NFL Under the Helmet" airs every Saturday at noon ET on FOX-TV (check local listings). The show is hosted by Ron Pitts and Rebecca Grant.
You and Dunn, One on One
Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn will be the next guest on Buccaneers.com's unique call-in show, the Pewter Power Hour.
Dunn's appearance on the Pewter Power Hour will begin at 7:30 p.m. EDT next Monday (October 22). Fans will thus have the opportunity to talk directly to the electric tailback by dialing the following toll-free number:
Buccaneers.com hosts the Pewter Power Hour every Monday from One Buccaneer Place. Each week, a prominent guest from the Bucs' locker room joins the show's host and the two spend 30 minutes to an hour taking calls from fans around the country. Previous guests on the Pewter Power Hour include Mike Alstott, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber, Martin Gramatica, Kenyatta Walker and Tony Dungy.