Though it comes a little earlier than would be optimal, the bye week will be a restorative period for any aching Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Running back Kareem Huggins, for instance, will have plenty of time to recover from the strained groin that has kept him out of the last two games.
For the Buccaneers' coaching staff, the bye week offers extra time to correct the errors that contributed to the first loss of the season on Sunday, and to further emphasize the team's core beliefs. For everyone at One Buccaneer Place, the bye is a chance to clear the head and reconnect with loved ones before the 13-week grind that will follow.
For LeGarrette Blount, however, the bye week has suddenly taken on extra importance, above and beyond the opportunities listed above. Following his unexpected emergence against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Blount suddenly looks as if he could make a real contribution to the Buccaneers' season. His opportunity will arrive sooner rather than later if he can put some extra practice time to good use.**
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris will hold "bonus" practices on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, and the team will also be able to work on Tuesday of next week since it won't be coming off a game. Morris plans to use a good portion of that extra time to develop such young and as-yet-unexplored offensive options as Blount, Kregg Lumpkin and Arrelious Benn. Perhaps by the time the team takes the field again in Cincinnati, on October 10, those young players will have gained the full confidence of the coaching staff.
"You get a chance to get more LeGarrette Blount because you're able to slow it down for those guys a little bit more," said Morris of the extra practices. "LeGarrette's been on our team for two weeks and I'm proud of him that he's able to even get in a game in the third week of the season. Now, having a bye week, you can actually give him some more basis and some more fundamental core beliefs, some of the things you've been talking about all offseason that he wasn't able to get. That's promising to see those young guys that you know you have, that you haven't been able to use completely, and now putting them in bigger roles and giving them more things to do."
The Buccaneers claimed Blount off waivers from the Tennessee Titans on September 6, six days before the start of the regular season. With Cadillac Williams entrenched in the starting tailback role and Earnest Graham, Kareem Huggins and Lumpkin also in the mix, it seemed like a move aimed at the long term, and perhaps it was. But Blount has been impressive on the practice field and on Sunday he got his first chance to be on the 45-man active list on game day, in part due to Huggins' nagging injury. The Bucs went to him relatively early, spelling Williams on their third possession, and Blount ripped off a hard-charging 12-yard run on his first play from scrimmage.
The final numbers weren't overwhelming – six carries for 27 yards and a touchdown, 4.5 yards per carry – but they were certainly promising, particularly because the team's rushing attack otherwise struggled on the afternoon. At six feet and nearly 250 pounds, Blount was obviously a supersized change-of-pace from the 217-pound Williams, but the rookie also believed the element of surprise was a factor.
"Pittsburgh probably didn't know I was playing so they didn't have a chance to game-plan for a running back like me," he said. "The only guy they had a chance to game-plan for was Cadillac. I don't know if I'm going to be up next week but I definitely hope so. This off week and the week after will be a big time for me to catch up on a lot of stuff."
The rookie runner's last name is pronounced "blunt," and he was exactly that when discussing what it would take for his role in the offense to expand. He's fully confident in his running ability but knows that it's just as important to know all of his assignments during the plays on which he doesn't get the football.
"They knew when they got me my talent of carrying the ball," said Blount. "It's just a matter of if I can be more valuable to the team as far as picking up blitzes and pass protection. I'm not going to rush anything, especially if I'm not 100 percent comfortable with the offense. If I was 100 percent comfortable with the offense, then it would be a different story because I'm pretty sure they'd put me out there. But as long as I'm not 100 percent comfortable with the offense, they're not going to take a chance. I mean, they've got a multi-million-dollar quarterback that they don't need to get hit."
Indeed, keeping franchise quarterback Josh Freeman upright is a top priority for the Buccaneers, and the backs who have been with the team throughout the offseason obviously have an advantage over Blount in that regard. But Freeman certainly appreciates what the former Oregon star can add to the offense, as does Morris, who would have run Blount even more had the Steeler game not gotten out of hand. Blount did come in for another stint late in the game when the Bucs approached the Pittsburgh goal line and wanted to go with a pure power game. Combined with Williams, who had averaged 24.5 rushing attempts over the Bucs' first two games, both wins, the Bucs would have had the makings of a grind-it-out attack that would have been useful in a close game.
"We certainly can increase his role, and I think his role would have been increased yesterday if the game would have been played out the way I would have liked to see it play out," said Morris. "Twenty-one rushing attempts is not nearly enough for us to win our football games the way we want to do it. We've got to get up in the 30s."
Of course, the Buccaneers got to that level in their two wins without Blount's help, so the young back isn't taking it for granted that he will be part of the plan when the bye week is over. But he feels like he's close to being proficient enough in the offense to be safe; it's a matter of recognizing different defensive fronts, particularly when the defense appears to be bringing five or more pass-rushers. The bye week is particularly helpful in closing that knowledge gap because the extra practices aren't geared towards installing a game plan. That means the reps can be spread around among the reserves more than usual, and Blount will have a more hands-on chance to absorb the information. Freeman, who obviously leads the first-team offense during practice, estimated on Sunday that he had only handed off to Blount two times before the game.
"I definitely learn a lot better when I'm getting the reps," said Blount. "It's a lot different than just seeing it on film or seeing it on paper. A lot of guys can learn like that but for me it's a completely different thing. I learn by doing it and seeing it on the field. As long as I'll be able to do that I think I'll be good."
Time – and the results on the practice field over the next two weeks – will tell if Blount's minor breakout against Pittsburgh will lead to a permanent spot in the game plan. The good news for the rookie back, though, is that it at least has put him into the conversation. Morris conceded on Monday that Blount and Huggins – and potentially Lumpkin too – are now in competition for playing time.
"We wouldn't have been talking about that 24 hours ago," said Morris. "You've got to go out there and evaluate that this week. That's a good problem. You're talking about a guy that came in there and shocked everybody and played well. Two weeks he's been here? A great acquisition by our front office people. A lot of times you tend to question it: Why pick up Lumpkin and Blount? In this league you need running backs. You've got to have those guys on your football team if you want to play this long season, which we know we're preparing ourselves for.
"Those young guys are on the cusp of becoming what we want them to be."