RB Warrick Dunn says the Bucs' defense is too aggressive to allow the offense to become complacent during practice
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy has compared his team's two consecutive off weeks to last month's training camp, but there's one significant difference.
Actually, there are many differences – the absence of dorm rooms, two-a-days and cafeteria food come swiftly and thankfully to mind – but one in particular that Dungy feels will work to his team's benefit.
That difference is health.
Even before the Bucs' 2001 camp opened on July 29, starting quarterback Brad Johnson was injured, having suffered a cut on his left knee that required stitches. By the time Johnson was back in practice, a week into camp, FB Mike Alstott was out with a hamstring strain.
Various injuries to center Jeff Christy and wide receivers Jacquez Green and Keyshawn Johnson in the weeks since kept the Bucs from ever fielding its full starting 11 on offense until this week.
But there they were on Wednesday, Johnson, Alstott, Christy and the rest, briskly running through a two-hour practice behind One Buccaneer Place. Wednesday's session focused not on any upcoming opponent, as a normal in-season workout would, but on the basics of the Bucs' own offensive system, as a camp practice would. That should only help a Buc offense that showed definite signs of life in the season opener at Dallas on September 9, seemingly a year ago.
"It will just give us time to play together," said Dungy of the bye, which proved to be strangely timed when last week's games were postponed due to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. "Brad Johnson missed some time in camp, Mike Alstott did, too, Jacquez Green – we had a lot of guys who missed at different times. Playing together for an extra week or two is going to help our offense."
Despite scoring just 10 points and prompting some fan concern, the Bucs are not displeased with the current state of their offense. Though the running game never got into gear in Dallas, the offense did move up and down the field well and responded with a game-winning scoring drive when it was needed. The depressed scoreboard total, however, was an indication of some isolated problems when the team got into scoring range.
"I think we did a pretty good job," said Keyshawn Johnson. "When I look at the way we moved the ball up and down the field against Dallas, I thought we did a terrific job. Obviously, we'd like to score more points. We probably took about 17 points off the board with a fumble, an interception and a missed field goal. That's 17 points right there."
Johnson gained 71 yards on seven passes from his passing namesake, and the Bucs completed 25 of 34 throws on the day, resulting in 19 first downs. It was a promising start, one on which the team hopes to build with this extended practice period.
"One, we get a chance to heal up from the first game," said Brad Johnson. "Two, we get to work on a few other plays and concepts that we really didn't have a chance to during training camp, a few more personnel moves and plays. And, three, we go against the best defense in the league. We face top competition every day, and that's what we need right now, competition in practice. Next week we'll hone in on the Minnesota game plan."
Tampa Bay's well-respected defense is rarely passive in practice, refusing to give its offensive mates an easy time of it. That helps maintain a brisk tempo and keep even two weeks of non-game oriented workouts from becoming tedious.
"Our defense is too aggressive (for us to be bored)," said RB Warrick Dunn. "Those guys fly around.
"Offensively, we're doing some good things. Guys are working on techniques, we're throwing and catching better, we're trying to work on the running game. There are a lot of things that we can improve on, and we can gel as a unit, and right now we can work on those things.
"This is probably going to help me work on some things and stay healthy. But once we start playing, it's going to be constant, week in and week out. This time is probably good for us, but it takes away a little bit because we can't get into a game rhythm. Once we get into a game rhythm, things will flow a little bit smoother."
Added Keyshawn Johnson: "I think we'll be fine. You can get some rest, come back and look at some of the things you did or didn't do in the first game and try to build on that for Minnesota. Minnesota will obviously have another game up on us, but I just treat it like another bye week."
Wednesday's practice was the second of three the team will hold during its bye week, and it once again featured players in full pads. The intensity of the work was also obvious from the sidelines, as several plays ended in hard hits despite the practice ban on tackling. The team was clearly rested from four off days in a five-day period.
"I thought today was a little bit more like normal for us – a normal bye week," said Dungy. "Obviously, we're not playing, so it's different. I thought we practiced hard and were sharp and it was probably a little closer to normal than we've been."
The normalcy to which Dungy refers, of course, is the pattern of daily life that all Americans are trying to rediscover after last Tuesday's jolting events. As the week has progressed, it has become increasingly obvious that the NFL's decision to postpone games was appropriate, but it is also clear that the Bucs, like the rest of the nation, are ready to get back to work.
"Being over a week now, it's a little easier to focus back on football, but to say that you're totally focused on football would be telling a rumor," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "We just have to take it one day at a time and get back into the swing of things. I think us being off this week gives us a small advantage. We get a little bit more time to get focused and get back to doing the things we need to do to get ready to play football.
"We went pretty hard the last few days. I think most all teams tried to take advantage of the days off. As far as our practices go, we took advantage. Today was a little hot. We need the conditioning and another day's work in before we take the weekend off."
Brooks and the Buccaneers' defense also have a fine performance in Dallas to build on, one without any qualifiers. In fact, the Bucs were so dominant on defense in the opener (127 yards, eight first downs and six points allowed), that one wonders if this extended layoff hurts their chances of getting on a roll.
"It's hard to say 'groove' after one game, but we played pretty well," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. "So you kind of want to get back out there on the field. We've got to go in these three practices and try to keep the tempo up as high as we can, as if they were games, because it's been awhile since we've been on the field and there's still 11 games left before Minnesota."
After Thursday's final session, Dungy will give his team another three-day weekend before the Bucs reconvene on Monday to begin preparing for the Vikings. Before that rest, Dungy expects to get the full attention of his players during their time at team headquarters.
"I'm sure it's not easy, but as a professional, that's part of it," said Dungy. "You know you have a two-hour time frame when you're on the field and a couple of hours in meetings. It's not easy, but you have to focus on the job at hand at that time, then think about what else you can do at other times."
Oh, there's one other major difference between the Bucs' current practices and their recent training camp: the dress rehearsals are over and the fight for the NFC Central title is already under way.
Tampa Bay came out of the first weekend in a tie with Green Bay for first, as Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota all suffered defeats. Before the Bucs return to action, Green Bay could take the early lead in the division. Since Tampa Bay has no way of keeping pace in the standings this week, they want to use the time in an equally helpful fashion.
"The biggest positive for us is to get sharper and really work on our offense and defense more," said Dungy. That's the biggest thing we've got going (during the bye week). We've got one game in hand and we're sitting at 1-0, so that's not a bad place to sit, either, when you have a couple of weeks off."