After pulling back to a 3-3 record and a half-game of first place in the NFC South in Week Seven, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did not much care for the way the first half of their 2016 season ended. A pair of losses in five days, in which the defense allowed a total of 73 points to the Raiders and Falcons, pushed the Buccaneers down in the standings and gave them far less room for error in the campaign's second half.
That second loss was on a Thursday night, which set up a convenient weekend break at the halfway point. Players got some much needed recovery time and coaches took advantage of an opportunity to assess what was going wrong and how to fix it. And now, with their "mini-bye week" over, the Buccaneers are back and ready to attack the rest of the 2016 schedule.
"We're looking at it as it's halftime and we've got to make adjustments and come out swinging in the second half," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It starts with communication. It starts with everybody knowing what to do and how to do it. After that, from a scheme standpoint, we've got to put our best players in position to make plays. And then the players that are playing those positions, our 'A' players have to play like 'A' players and 'B' players have to play like 'B' players. That's every team in the NFL. We're just not where we need to be in those areas right now and we've got eight games to get it right."
Those particular comments followed a question that was specifically about the Buccaneers' defense, and that's not surprising after the team gave up enough yards in the last two weeks to drop from 13th to 28th in the league rankings. Still, Tampa Bay players and coaches have spoken frequently about "complementary football" – all phases of the team helping the others out – after victories, and the same holds true in defeat. Tampa Bay's offense ranks right about in the middle of the league in most categories despite a seemingly endless string of running back injuries, but there is plenty of room for improvement, which in turn would make things easier for a beleaguered defense.
"I think the biggest issue is turnovers and penalties on offense and communication on defense," said Koetter, citing the most important improvements the team must show in order to win more consistently. "I think those are the areas that we need to make the biggest improvement on."
The Buccaneers already have made strides in the turnover department, giving the ball away just three times in the past four games after doing so 11 times in the first four. Quarterback Jameis Winston has only thrown one interception in the last month of games, the product, Koetter says, of Winston going through his read progressions better. However, in Thursday's loss to Atlanta there were two lost fumbles and 11 penalties, many of them costly momentum-killers on offense.
So Koetter and his staff looked at every position on the team and identified areas in which the players need to perform better and areas in which the coaches need to utilize those players better. On Monday, the players returned to team headquarters after their three-day break and found the coaches armed with a detailed list of tasks. The extra work day gave them time to study those issues in the classroom and work on them during a morning "bonus" practice.
READ: BUCS SIGN JOSH HUFF
"We can play better and we can coach better," said Koetter. "We addressed a lot of that stuff this morning. That's why it was great to have an extra day before we have to get knee-deep in Chicago.
"When we went back over this little mini-bye and looked at all the players, there were things that we can do better at every position, and linebacker is one of those positions. But quarterback is one of those positions, wideout is one. We have a list of things at every position and, like I said, we started addressing those things with the guys today."
- WR Mike Evans has been in the concussion protocol since the end of Thursday night's game, but he practiced on Monday which indicated progress through that procedure. He's further along in the protocol, for instance, than starting left guard Kevin Pamphile.
"Part of the protocol, at some point … to be cleared, you have to come out and practice," said Koetter. "Mike Evans is in the protocol and was able to practice today. Kevin is in the protocol and was not able to practice."
The Buccaneers were not required to put out an injury report after Monday's workout; the first report will come after Wednesday's practice. Since Monday's practice was bonus work, and relatively brief, there were potentially some absent players who could make an appearance when the real work for the Bears begins.
"There are still some guys that might make it that didn't necessarily do anything today," said Koetter. "We'll know more about that come Wednesday."
In addition to Evans taking the field, there were two other developments regarding the Bucs' receiving corps on Monday, though at the moment neither of them affects the game day depth chart. First, Louis Murphy reverted to the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means he officially will not return to action in 2016. Second, the team signed former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff to the practice squad. There was a spot open on that 10-man unit after the promotion of rookie running back Russell Hansbrough to the active roster.
VIEW: BUCS' 53-MAN ROSTER
Murphy was attempting a return from a severe knee injury suffered on October 25 of last season. He did not participate in the offseason program, instead pursuing rehab following surgery, and wasn't ready to begin training camp in late July. The Buccaneers put him on the active/PUP list to start camp and then moved him to reserve/PUP at the start of the regular season. That meant he had to miss the first six weeks of the season but could begin practicing on October 17. Murphy did exactly that, opening a 21-day window in which he could practice without counting against the 53-man roster, with the hopes that he could be activated at some point during those three weeks.
Unfortunately, Murphy suffered another, unrelated injury early in that window and has not practiced since. With that three-week period coming to an end on Monday, Murphy was not activated, which means he will remain on reserve/PUP for the rest of the season.
Huff, a third-round pick out of Oregon in 2014, was waived by the Eagles on Nov. 3 after an off-the-field transgression. The Buccaneers were able to add him to their practice squad using one of four exceptions for players with up to two accrued NFL seasons. Huff has played in 34 games with six starts, recording 48 receptions for 482 yards and four touchdowns, four carries for 17 yards and 42 kickoff returns for 1,165 yards.
Huff would have to be promoted to the Bucs' active roster – or signed away by another team – in order to add to those totals, but for now he is merely grateful to get another opportunity in the NFL.
"You live and you learn," said Huff. "Obviously, I'm mad that I put myself in this situation, but you live and you learn. I'm excited to be here and I'm excited to get going and get used to my new teammates, get used to the players around here and get used to the staff. It's going to be tough with it being the middle of the season, but I'm up for the challenge. I'm a competitor. I'm going to get into the playbook and try to do everything I can to show these coaches I'm here for a good reason."
Koetter said that Huff is just like all the other men on the practice squad – players the team would like to evaluate and develop, with the hopes that they might eventually help the team on game days. He did note that the third-year receiver has proved to be a strong contributor in the third phase of the game. Huff has an excellent career average of 27.7 yards per kickoff return and has scored twice on runbacks, including one this season.
Pictures of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 9 at Raymond James Stadium.
"He was doing well on teams as a cover man and a return man," said Koetter. "Again, he's a guy, like all these guys, he had a strong college career. He was a guy that was available and we're going to take a look at him on the practice squad. Just like Russ Hansbrough's going to get moved up this week, we've had many guys [promoted from the practice squad]."
*Koetter did not elaborate on the health status of either of the Bucs' two injured running backs, Doug Martin or Jacquizz Rodgers. Again, it is the Wednesday-Friday practice corridor that will bring more clarity to those situations. In the meantime, the Bucs will continue to get their three healthy running backs – Mike James and rookies Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough – ready for Sunday.
All three of those running backs were with the Buccaneers throughout training camp and the preseason. James, a former sixth-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2013, actually made the initial 53-man roster at the end of the preseason but he wasn't ready to play in Week One due to an injury. James waived with an injury settlement and replaced by Barber; he only returned to the Bucs' roster a week ago.
In Thursday's game against Atlanta, James ran once for three yards and caught three passes for 17 yards. Koetter said that James should be ready to do more against Chicago if needed.
"Yeah, quite a bit, quite a bit more," said Koetter. "Mike's a sharp guy and he did a good job of getting himself ready to go last week. I don't see a reason why he can't be ready to go on everything this week."
James, who posted most of his 335 career rushing yards as a rookie in 2013, has previously shown the versatility to fill a variety of backfield roles. Hansbrough, who was just promoted from the practice squad on Monday, has the typical build of a third-down back but Koetter is leery of pigeon-holing any of his available runners at this point, given all the upheaval at the position this season.
"Again, with the luck we've been having with running backs, the guys that are up have got to be ready to do everything," said the coach. "We don't know how it's going to fall. It's been a crazy year in that respect, so all those three of those guys and whoever does come back or doesn't come back – if they're up, they've got to be able to do it all."