The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it clear that Quincy Black is a key part of their defensive plans when they re-signed him as an unrestricted free agent to a lucrative five-year contract in July. Here's another sign that Black is important to the Buccaneers' defense: When he's out, it essentially takes two players to replace him.
It looks as if Black will be out this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons due to the ankle injury he suffered last Sunday in the Bucs' win at Minnesota. Black did not participate in any of the team's practices this week and on Friday he was officially designated as "doubtful" on the week-ending injury report. It is very unusual for a player with that designation to suit up for a game, unless his status is updated at some point during the weekend.
"We'll see," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, indicating that the team will evaluate Black's ankle once again on Sunday afternoon before making a final decision. "We want to get him out there and get him active. So we'll have to see, but he's doubtful."
Second-year man Dekoda Watson would replace Black in the lineup on the strong side, but Watson would not inherit Black's play-calling duties on defense. That task would fall back to the traditional player, the middle linebacker, which means rookie Mason Foster will play an even more important role in his third regular-season NFL game. Foster is coming off a strong outing in Minnesota (13 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one tackle for loss) and he is the team's leading tackler through two games despite not playing in the nickel defense.
With Black out, Foster will play in the nickel scheme instead of Watson. The rookie has been the backup to Black at that position since training camp, and the middle linebacker traditionally has stayed in on nickel snaps in the Bucs' defense, but Morris has tried to ease Foster into his role. Having Foster on the field for every snap could lead to more big plays from the third-round pick out of Washington, such as the second-half sack he recorded against the Vikings. Foster had 6.5 sacks in his senior season with the Huskies and Morris says that's another weapon in his arsenal.
"He's just so powerful and strong," said Morris of his rookie 'backer. "He has the ability to really collapse the pocket, so to speak, with anybody who blocks him, whether it be a lineman or a back. He creates a nice little mismatch for us. He's sneaky-heavy, he's sneaky-big, and he has the ability to show that in those blitzing situations. I look forward to getting after it with him a little bit."
Foster will also play a big part in the efforts to stop Falcons' running back Michael Turner, who had 114 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in Atlanta's win over Philadelphia last weekend. The Bucs didn't have the perfect answer for Minnesota's Adrian Peterson last week, as he rushed for 120 yards and two TDs, but they did avoid letting Peterson turn in any huge plays with their hustle on the second level. One of the best moments in that category was Foster's shoestring tackle of Peterson from behind on a 19-yard run in the second quarter. Foster bounced off Peterson earlier in the carry and had to get around a big Viking lineman, but he never gave up and probably saved a touchdown with his dive.
"Oh man, that was awesome," said Morris. "Foster was shedding a block and he had a nice collision. Adrian Peterson made a nice jump-cut back behind his guard, and Foster comes out of that collision and dives at the back of his ankles and gets him on the ground. That is ultimate effort. Those are the types of plays that don't show up in the stat sheet that great Mikes and great players make that absolutely win football games for you. That was one of those situations."
The Bucs would prefer to be even stingier against Turner and not fall into any situations where they need a diving play to save a score.
"We've got to find a way to get the rolling bowling ball down," said Morris of the very solid Falcons back. "We've got to put some holes in him and get him in the gutter, find a way to lay him down. Gang-tackling. He'll bounce off of you. He's got a different style of running than, say, Adrian Peterson. Adrian Peterson runs angry; he runs to bounce off and keep going. He's got great balance and we've got to find a way to get him on the ground, preferably wrap tackling and then preferably people coming to cap off at the end of the play."
Black was actually one of five names on the Buccaneers' Friday injury report, all of whom were designated as "questionable" or worse.
Tackle James Lee (knee) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) have already been ruled out and will each miss a second game in a row. Tight end Kellen Winslow and defensive end Tim Crowder are both listed as questionable, but on the more positive side they both were able to practice on Friday.
The Falcons' injury report is longer but in the long run probably won't have too much impact on the game, beyond the two players who have already been ruled out: defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (hamstring). Babineaux, one of the Falcons' two starting DTs, missed last week's game as well and was replaced by Peria Jerry.
Of the remaining eight players on the Falcons' list, only linebacker Stephen Nicholas is considered questionable or worse. Nicholas, questionable with a calf injury, is listed as a starter at OLB on the Falcons' depth chart. The former University of South Florida standout did practice on Friday, but in a limited fashion.
The other seven – defensive end John Abraham (thigh), defensive end Ray Edwards (foot), guard Todd McClure (knee), defensive tackle Corey Peters (back), quarterback Matt Ryan (knee), safety Shann Schillinger (neck) and wide receiver Roddy White (thigh) – all participated fully in Friday's practice and are considered probable for the game.
Plenty of Weapons for Ryan
Through two games, the Falcons' leading pass-catcher is ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has 12 grabs for 155 yards and one touchdown. However, this is not a team that is relying on its tight end because it has deficiencies on the outside. On the contrary, the Falcons are as strong at wide receiver as they have been in years.
Former starter Michael Jenkins is gone to the Vikings but the Falcons have replaced him with first-round pick Julio Jones, the former Alabama star. Jones has seven catches for 100 yards so far and already appears to be an integral part of the Atlanta attack. That's obviously what the Falcons intended when they traded second and fourth-round picks in 2011 and first and fourth-round picks in 2012 in order to move up 21 spots and take Jones sixth overall this past spring.
"He looks really good," said Buccaneers Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake of the Falcons' newest weapon. "He's big, he's tall, he's strong. He's really good in the run game, I'll tell you what. They run the football and he's coming up and digging out safeties, digging out linebackers. But he also can catch the football. They have him running good routes and he's got good hands."
Teaming Jones with Roddy White, who has been named to the past three Pro Bowls, gives fourth-year quarterback Matt Ryan a receiving tandem that might eventually emerge as one of the best in the league. Atlanta's depth at wide receiver doesn't end there, however. Morris believes the Falcons have a significant threat in the slot as well.
"Harry Douglas is an unbelievable player," said the Bucs coach, who spent one year as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. "I remember at Louisville, playing against him with the '06 Kansas State Wildcats, and all he did was score touchdowns. He's shifty, he's elusive, they line him up in multiple spots in the backfield. He has all the tools and he's coming back off injury so I'm sure he's going to be fired up and ready to go. He's one of the reasons we've got to go out there and bow up and play a bunch of different DBs."
Douglas has just four catches for 29 yards so far this season but with all the attention opposing defenses have to pay to Gonzalez, Jones, White and Turner, he's likely to break out with a big game at some point. Whoever Ryan chooses to target, it will be quite a test for the Bucs' defense on Sunday.
"You've got Julio Jones, you've got Roddy White, you've got Matt Ryan…this is a big challenge," said Lake. "They're a good football team and they have a lot of weapons. They can run the football, they can throw the football. They have times when they want to beat you up and hand the ball off to Turner, and then they have times when Matt Ryan's going to want to throw it, show off that arm and show off the weapons he has outside. They are definitely a tough, tough objective to overcome."
More from Coach Morris
The Buccaneers practiced for 90 minutes on a hot morning Friday at One Buccaneer Place. As usual, the week-ending practice (Saturday's get-together is just a brief walk-through) was used to review the schemes that were put in place the previous two days and to get some extra situational-football work in.
After the workout, Morris touched on several topics regarding the week of work and Sunday's showdown with the Falcons.
On Friday's practice:
"Another good practice today, 'Fast Friday.' We got a chance to get out there, get some tempo, get some red zone work. This is always a great day – fast tempo, upbeat. We had a nice warm one to prepare us for Sunday and what we're going to be able to do out there. We're feeling good. It's our first 4:15 start and we're ready to go."
On if he feels the Bucs' pass rush improved in Week Two and is coming along well:
"The collapse of the pocket was awesome, but the ability to pass-rush last week was very limited. When you're down 17-nothing, or whatever the case may be, very quickly, you're playing a little bit of a guessing game, a little bit of a guessing match. We had a grasp of the game for a whole two plays and we really got to see the pass-rush. We had a couple opportunities there on third-down-and-long and a couple of those situations they came with screens. Hopefully this week we can get into a more favorable situation for us, maybe some two-minute action, hopefully get a chance to get some third downs in a regular situation and be able to get after some people and do some good things and really see where it is. But what I saw last week, I was very pleased with the opportunities that they did have."
On if the Bucs, who played almost all of their games at 1:00 p.m. last year, will have a different routine for a 4:15 game:
"We have no idea. We don't get any 4:15 starts around here. We didn't win enough games. We've got to continue to win games and we'll figure it out. We'll form our own habits for 4:15 starts."
On rookie DE Adrian Clayborn's development:
"He's very angry. He plays the game violently. We love the way he plays the game. He made a few mistakes last week. I look forward to him getting better this week. He's one of those guys that's going to get better and better throughout the process. He does not really have a downside about him. He just gets more angry every day he goes out to practice. His ceiling is way up there and I'm looking forward to him having a big-time breakout season."
On Atlanta return man Eric Weems, who had a 102-yard return TD in Tampa last year:
"He's a very good player. He haunts us all the time. He's one of those guys that makes big plays at big times. He's like Spurlock. I'm sure those two have got there own little ego going. Spurlock will run one back and Weems will run one back. They definitely change the game."