When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted former Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second round this spring – and when they got an opportunity to talk to him at length after the league's labor impasse was resolved – they counseled him on one thing: patience.
Bowers led the nation in sacks with 15.5 as a junior in 2010, initially putting him into the conversation regarding the eventual first-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. However, a knee injury and subsequent surgery hurt his draft stock and he eventually fell out of the first round, to the Buccaneers' delight. Tampa Bay had an optimistic scouting report on Bowers' health and believed, as some others clearly did not, that he could both play in 2011 and have a lengthy NFL career.
Still, the plan to making that belief a reality called for patience, especially on Bowers' part. The Bucs tried to warn the 21-year-old pass-rusher that he wasn't necessarily going to enjoy the pace. That proved to be true, but it also became part of his motivation. Now he's hoping to turn his frustration into unleashed energy.
"When I got drafted they told me it would be a slow process," Bowers recalled. "They told me that basically it was going to be slow enough to [tick] me off. That's what they told me and that's exactly what it did. I wasn't ready for it – I wasn't getting a lot of reps and I was getting frustrated. Basically, as of two weeks ago they pretty much told me, 'It's time. It's time for you to step it up and it's time for you to start making contributions.'
"They just wanted to make sure I was healthy and I was ready."
He had better be ready, because it appears that Bowers' time has really arrived now. Because starting left end Michael Bennett is considered day-to-day with a lingering groin injury that he aggravated in Green Bay, Bowers could be in the starting lineup for the first time on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. That would likely mean a bump in his overall number of snaps from about 15-20 per game to at least double that amount. Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed on Wednesday that Bowers would start if Bennett is unable to play.
While Bennett's injury is obviously the impetus for Bowers' promotion – and Bennett has certainly played well enough to keep his starting job this season –Morris said that the rookie has earned more playing time with his recent efforts, regardless.
"He's quietly been playing well," said the coach. "He's playing better throughout the season. This last game may have been one of his most productive games. The game before that was one where you saw a lot of flash from him. He's settling in over at that left end spot, getting comfortable, playing aggressive, being violent. He's starting to pick some things up pretty quickly. There's some opportunity open for him this week, the opportunity to get more playing time. I look forward to seeing what he's going to be able to do."
Morris said that there are no limits on the number of snaps Bowers could play on Sunday if Bennett is out. Bowers is still looking for his first NFL sack, but he has been around the quarterback quite a bit in limited playing time the last few weeks, and a greater helping of snaps should help him get on the board in the D-end's glamour category. Morris doesn't expect Bowers to play mistake-free football as a new starter but, as with fellow rookies Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster, he wants any mistakes to be made at full speed.
"You've got those guys out there and you forget they're 22 years old or 23," said Morris. "They do something great one play and they absolutely make a bonehead play the next. They make a mistake here and there and you've got to remind yourself [that they're young]. These guys have got to constantly come in and get their film work. I give these guys credit: They do it. But you're still going to have mistakes when you're that young. I'm not making excuses for them but we're talking about two guys who have been thrown in the fire right off the bat, in training camp and as the season has gone on. It's up to us to make things simple for them a little bit, get those guys going, but it's also up to those guys to stretch their mental capacity, to make them even more dynamic. The challenge is both ways, and I love it that way."
Despite the fact that it was a physical issue that caused him to slide into the second round in April, and to be eased more slowly than he would like into action, Bowers said the only progress he needs to make to improve his game is "mental sharpness."
"Not much on the physical part but just being mentally focused and being mentally prepared every week," he said. "That's half the battle, just knowing the ins and outs of your opponent, what they're good at and what their bad habits are."
Bowers' move into the starting 11 means the Bucs now have rookies leading the way at both ends of their defensive line. Clayborn, the team's first-round pick this past April out of Iowa, has started all 10 games so far at right end and leads the club with 4.0 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures. In fact, had it not been for the recent arm injury suffered by Gerald McCoy, who is now on injured reserve, Tampa Bay would be starting a front four made up entirely of first or second-round picks in the last two drafts. The team chose McCoy in the first round and fellow defensive tackle Brian Price in the second round in 2010, and both players were starting before McCoy's injury. Price remains a starter but McCoy has been replaced by the recently-acquired Albert Haynesworth.
Bowers thinks the 2010-11 quartet of DL draftees are going to find a lot of success together in the coming years…and down this year's stretch run, even without McCoy.
"That feeling is definitely in the air," he said. "We've got so much talent on this defensive line. I think we've got an ability to do some special things and bring back that old-school defense with the [Warren] Sapps and the Simeon Rices and the Chuck Darbys. It takes time. We've just got to build. Hopefully this offseason we'll get some camaraderie with each other, our first offseason fully together, and get some things established."
Different Look for Wideouts
Noting that the Green Bay Packers' defense was likely to spend much of the day in man-to-man coverage, Morris challenged his receivers before last Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Morris told his young pass-catchers that man coverage was an opportunity for somebody to step up and make a big play.
The receivers responded. Starting wideouts Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn turned in 83 and 75 receiving yards, respectively, and tight end Kellen Winslow caught nine passes for 132 yards to help Josh Freeman rack up a career-best 342 passing yards in the narrow loss. For a group that had been hearing outside criticism about dropped passes and internal urging for more big plays, it was perhaps the best day of the season…or at least it would have been had it resulted in a win.
"We just did better what we've been doing all year," said Williams. "We got open in man-to-man coverage. It was man the whole game. Receivers and tight ends, they got open. We helped Josh out in that one. That's what we've been looking for. If we would have got a win, it would have been excellent."
This week, however, the challenge is of a different variety. The Buccaneers expect a different look from Tennessee's secondary, and the receivers are going to have to defeat it with an effort that is as much mental as it is physical.
"[The Green Bay game] can carry over, but the Titans play zone and Green Bay played man," said Williams. "With the zone, you've got to be able to sit down, read the coverages, find the open holes. Man-to-man, you're just beating a man. With the zone, you've got to find where the big areas are in the zone, and hopefully we do that."
Tennessee ranks 18th in the NFL in pass defense, and 23rd in interceptions per pass play. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan is the leader in the secondary, though he has just one pick this year after averaging four interceptions per season over the previous three campaigns.
"They've got good corners," said Williams. "They play a lot of zone defense over there. They're a good defense and their core is together. They play together over there. They welcomed [former Buccaneer] Barrett [Ruud] right in and they look good on film."
Whatever defense Tennessee chooses to throw at the Buccaneers, Williams thinks the receivers will be ready to produce another big day. He says the team's margin of error has been reduced to virtually nothing, so his group has to pitch in by making every play possible, especially the difficult ones.
"Whatever ball we get, we've got to catch it," he said. "If it's a straight fly and an accurate pass we've got to catch it. If it's a back-shoulder pass, we've got to catch it. If it's going up and getting it over a defender, we've got to catch it. That's how we look at it."
Jackson, Watson Return to Action
Morris said the team would have to wait until the end of the week to get an accurate read on Bennett's chances of playing Sunday against the Titans. However, some good news arrived right away on Wednesday when the Bucs hit the practice field.
That good news came in the form of Tanard Jackson and Dekoda Watson running around with no apparent problems. Jackson is trying to return from a hamstring injury that kept him out of last Sunday's game at Green Bay and has been bothering him since the Week Seven game against Chicago in London. Watson has missed the last two games due to a groin injury suffered on the practice field before the Houston contest in Week Nine.
Jackson is the Bucs' starter at free safety and a player the team looks to for big plays. Despite playing in just four games so far this season he is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
"Tanard went out there and did mostly everything today, if not everything," said Morris. "He was full-go. I watched him out there run around, so I'm feeling really good about that one."
Indeed, both Jackson and Watson participated fully in practice on Wednesday. The only two Bucs who did not practice at all to start the week were Bennett and tight end Kellen Winslow, the latter of whom simply got his usual day off as part of the program to keep him active every Sunday. Defensive tackle Brian Price was limited due to a forearm ailment.
The sixth and final name on the Bucs' week-opening injury report is that of starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Trueblood missed a brief portion of Sunday's game against the Packers after linebacker Desmond Bishop rolled up on his legs from behind. The injury looked potentially serious on replay, but Trueblood came back to the game quickly and finished it out with no problem. He participated fully in practice on Wednesday despite being listed with a knee injury.
"Trueblood was fine," said Morris. "He went out there today and did everything for us. He was full-participation. He actually went back into the game. He's sore, just like everybody else in the National Football League."
As for Bennett, his potential absence prompted the Bucs to look for depth at defensive end, which they found by signing second-year man Daniel Te’o-Nesheim off Philadelphia's practice squad on Tuesday. The Bucs released defensive tackle Frank Okam to make room for Te'o-Nesheim on the 53-man roster, but Okam wasn't gone along. After he cleared waivers on Wednesday, the Buccaneers re-signed Okam to their practice squad.
To open a spot on the eight-man practice squad for Okam, the Bucs also released defensive tackle Swanson Miller. Miller originally signed with Tampa Bay on November 8.