The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has benefited from a string of game-turning plays from its two starting safeties in recent weeks, but it began a new week of practice on Wednesday with one of those two on the sideline.
Chris Conte, who scored on a 20-yard pick-six in a Week 10 win over Chicago and then followed up with a game-saving end zone interception the next Sunday in Kansas City, did not take part in Wednesday's workout. He suffered a chest injury late in last weekend's win over Seattle and is on the midweek injury report for the first time this season. Fifth-year veteran Keith Tandy finished up Sunday's game opposite safety Bradley McDougald, who sealed a 14-5 win with an interception near the Bucs' goal line.
Tandy likely would be asked to step in if Conte is unable to play this coming weekend in San Diego, as he did last season when Conte landed on injured reserve with two games left to play. The Buccaneers also brought back another player who was part of that 2015 safety picture, re-signing veteran Major Wright on Tuesday.
If Conte is unavailable for any length of time, it will simply mean that safety is the latest position on the Bucs' depth chart to have its depth tested. For much of the first half of the season, the team's injuries were concentrated on the defensive line and at running back, and a long list of newcomers and up-and-comers helped the Bucs weather those issues. After eight games of near perfect health, the offensive line was suddenly the next group to be tested, with players such as Ben Gottschalk and Caleb Benenoch stepping up.
Lately, a Week 11 injury to Brent Grimes and the subsequent four-game suspension of Jude Adjei-Barimah has caused some shuffling at cornerback. Veteran Alterraun Verner took over when Grimes was sidelined very early in the Kansas City game and then, with Grimes back the following Sunday, filled in for the loss of Adjei-Barimah. Verner, who had played just nine snaps of defense over the previous six contests, had a strong game against the Chiefs and a critical interception against the Seahawks.
If he's needed in the secondary, Tandy would aspire to follow Verner's example.
"Vern, he's one of the most professional guys we've got on the team," said Tandy. "He stepped right in, had a big game; the next week, another big game. So you've got to make sure you're ready. I'm always preaching that, especially to [rookie safety] Isaiah [Johnson]."
A sixth-round draft pick in 2012, Tandy made himself valuable to the team by working hard on special teams and producing good results every time he was asked to fill in on defense. He started only seven games over his first four seasons but that didn't stop the Buccaneers from re-signing him to a second contract when he was due to hit unrestricted free agency this past spring.
This season, Tandy has been one of the Bucs' key performers on special teams while also playing average of seven or eight snaps on defense per game. The trust the coaches have in him to be prepared and productive when needed on defense is the added value he brings to the roster.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, November 30th.
"Many times it's just, a guy hasn't gotten his opportunity, for one reason or another," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "If you could see the leadership that Keith puts forth on our special teams units, that's usually a pretty good precursor to how they're going to fit in on defense. Now, they're asked to do more things more often, but I've found good football players are good football players. And if Keith's a guy that we call on, then I expect he'll do fine."
That's Tandy's plan.
"If I'm called upon I'm going to be ready," said Tandy. "You've got to always be prepare like you're going to be a starter that week. Seriously, the first play of the game [if someone] catches a cramp, hurts a shoulder, you've got to be ready to go in. You've got to be ready."
Wright will also strive to be ready despite being out of the league since the Buccaneers released him on August 29, near the end of the 2016 preseason. He has the mental advantage of an offseason of preparation in Mike Smith's defense and he has strived to stay physically ready with some sort of workout every day for the last three months.
"It's very hard being out there on the street not knowing when you're going to get that call," said Wright. "It's just mentally staying into it – I think that's a big thing, knowing that if you get that call you've got to be in some type of shape. Whatever they need me to do, I feel like I'm in pretty good shape."
Added Koetter: "There's some advantage to bringing back veterans that are familiar with the system. At this point in the year – we're very serious about player development, but it's hard to bring a guy in cold off the street and start from scratch, unless he has some kind of a history with somebody, terminology-wise. Major not only was here, but he was with [Secondary] Coach [Jon] Hoke back in his Chicago days and with the situation with Chris Conte that we're in right now, it's just good timing for Major to come back right now."
Wright returns to a defense that seems to have solved some of its early-season problems adjusting to Smith's new playbook, hitting its stride during the current three-game winning streak.
"They've been playing really good ball – offense, defense and special teams – everybody hustling and doing their jobs," said Wright. "Being here during training camp and seeing everything, how it took place, I'm not surprised at all."
- Conte was one of four Buccaneers who did not practice on Wednesday, though wide receiver Mike Evans missed the workout due to non-injury reason.
Center Evan Smith, who has missed the last three games, continues to recover from a knee injury. The other new addition to the injury report is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who sat out on Wednesday due to a foot injury.
The good news on Wednesday's injury report was the full participation of running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who has missed four games with a foot injury. Rodgers returned to practice last week but was limited and ultimately deemed not quite ready to play in last Sunday's game. Since then, the team has released running back Mike James and could go into the San Diego contest with a trio of Rodgers, Doug Martin and Peyton Barber. Other than a few snaps in the first quarter of a Week Two contest at Arizona, that would mark the first time that both Martin and Rodgers were available to the offense in the same game.
Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
Martin's hamstring injury early in that Arizona game began a long string of backfield injuries, including a knee ailment to Charles Sims that has had him on injured reserve since October 10. Sims is back practicing with the team and could be activated from the IR list as soon as next Monday. The Bucs could end up with a loaded backfield for the final playoff stretch drive.
"Well we're hopeful we'll get 'Quizz' back this week and then eventually we can get Chuck back, that would help," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "Obviously, Peyton's done a nice job in their absence, but there's nothing like experience. I think Peyton's going to be a tremendous player, but getting Doug was a huge boost and getting those other guys back to take some of the load off Doug will be critical down the stretch."