After two days off for the team's veteran players – a product of "Victory Monday" following Sunday's win over Arizona – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got back to work Wednesday with an afternoon practice on the first chilly day of the fall. After that workout, Head Coach Bruce Arians met with the press and discussed the state of the team and its preparations for the Saints' visit this weekend. Here are some of the topics on which Arians touched:
1. RoJo's career-best receiving day might just be the tip of the iceberg.
Second-year running back Ronald Jones led the Buccaneers with eight receptions against the Cardinals on Sunday, turning them into 77 yards to go with his 29 yards and one touchdown on the ground. Those eight grabs were by far a career-high and were more than half as many as he had recorded in his previous 17 NFL games combined.
On several occasions, Jones turned quick screen passes into gains of more than 10 yards, including a 17-yarder that converted a third-and-15. However, some of his catches posed a higher level of difficulty in terms of route-running and catching the football. Arians said Jones could become even more involved in the passing game as his array of available routes continues to grow.
"I think even more than just screens – [he's] just being a receiver," said the coach. "He’s starting to build confidence in his hands, his route-running ability is starting to grow [and] that tree of his has grown a little bit as we get more comfortable with him. When he gets the ball in his hands, a lot of great things can happen, so the more you can use him [the better]."
Arians also gave some of the credit for Jones's development as a pass-catcher to Running Backs Coach Todd McNair, who worked diligently with the young back on his hands during the offseason. McNair was an excellent pass-catching back during his eight-year NFL playing year, and he developed his own skills in that area after arriving in the NFL.
"Todd’s done a great job with him on and off the field," said Arians.
2. Recently-promoted cornerback Mazzi Wilkins could be around for a while.
With Tuesday's release of Vernon Hargreaves and the current injury questions surrounding Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, the Buccaneers were in need of depth at the cornerback position and created some by promoting rookie Mazzi Wilkins from the practice squad. Wilkins played his prep ball in the Tampa Bay area and then stood out at nearby USF, but his promotion is more than just a feel-good story. Arians thinks he can play in the NFL.
"He’s a competitor," said Arians. "I loved him in the preseason. He gives us everything he has out there every single day and I really like his future. He plays fast. A lot of guys don’t time fast [but] they play fast. He plays fast."
As for the status of Davis and Stewart, Arians said that more would be known about Davis on Thursday but that Stewart might miss three to four weeks with his knee injury. Neither participated in Wednesday's practice.
3. The Bucs' young secondary will face a stiff challenge in trying to stop Drew Brees from getting the ball to Michael Thomas.
The Saints won the first matchup in this year's series in Week Five in New Orleans, 31-24. At the time, long-time starter and future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees was sidelined by a thumb injury and Teddy Bridgewater filled in with a four-touchdown performance. Now Brees is back and though the Saints lost last Sunday to Atlanta, the veteran passer was able to get it to Michael Thomas 13 times on just 14 targets for 152 yards.
Thomas also had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs in Week Five.
"[They are] a little bit different with Drew than with Teddy," said Arians. "Obviously, Michael Thomas and Drew have a heck of a combination going with all the targets he had last week, but it will be a big challenge."
That challenge will fall to a cornerback group that only got younger with the aforementioned release of Hargreaves. Rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean will play extensively, with Wilkins and fourth-year man Ryan Smith as the only other options. They'll try to find a way to give Thomas less than he got in the first matchup. It won't be easy.
"He’s big, strong, physical and he can separate," said Arians of Thomas. "He’s got quickness for a big guy, very much so like Mike Evans, but he’s long. He doesn’t drop many passes, that’s for sure. He’s legit."