Tampa Bay Buccaneer players returned to the practice field on Wednesday but without pads, and they were run through a somewhat lighter-than-usual workout by the coaching staff. The Wednesday practice is usually the first and most rigorous session in a game-preparation week, but the Buccaneers had to adjust to a Monday night outing followed by another game on Saturday.
"We start our preparation for the Browns this week, a little bit lighter practice," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "Normally on a Wednesday we'll probably go in pads, of course we didn't go in pads today.
"For us, we don't have a normal game-week routine that we're doing. We played on Monday night, so this isn't a regular week for us. We're getting a little combination of what we would do. During the course of the year, of course, we have a Wednesday schedule and normally that's a padded practice and it's first and second downs that we work on. Thursday, for us, normally when we work on some of our third-down situations, two-minute. And then Friday is a full game plan, short-yardage, goal-line type day for us. We'll get a combination of that this week since we have a short turnaround."
The Bucs did get several injured players back into the mix, albeit in a limited fashion. Safety Chris Conte, defensive end T.J. Fatinikun and tackle Kevin Pamphile all got in some work on Wednesday, though they still may not be ready for game action on the weekend. Defensive end Jacquies Smith participated in the team stretch, taking a minor step forward from his shoulder ailment. Center Evan Smith did not practice on Wednesday after being held out of Monday's game but he said the plan was for him to be ready to play by Saturday.
Some additional notes from the Bucs' locker room:
- The Buccaneers started two rookies on the offensive line in Monday night's win over the Bengals, as well as a pair of first and second-year players with little NFL game experience. The former two were 2015 second-round draft picks Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, both of whom have been considered potential opening-day starters since their arrival. The latter two were Jeremiah Warren and Reid Fragel, who filled in for injured starters at center and right tackle, respectively. Warren and Fragel have more veteran competition to overcome if they want to remain starters, but at the very least they are getting a chance to show they belong on the 53-man roster.
That may seem like a lot of youth and inexperience in the overall O-Line corps, but that's not particularly unusual in today's NFL. Veteran offensive line depth is not only difficult to come by but also a potential burden on the salary cap, given the sheer number of players needed to fill out that crew.
"Working with young offensive linemen – that's here to stay in the NFL," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "With the salary cap like it is, everyone wants to get that franchise quarterback and after you get that franchise quarterback, you've got that franchise receiver. On offense, teams have to decide where they are going to go, how they are going to build it. You are always going to be working with young O-linemen and this year here is no exception."
Fortunately, the Buccaneers have a lot of confidence in their young blockers, particularly Marpet and Smith, and that confidence is growing day by day.
"We're really excited about those two guys we drafted and there are some other guys fighting for spots in there as well," said Koetter. "Those young guys are both going to be good football players for us. Now, when we get into the real season, based on match-ups – Ali has gone against some pretty good guys right off the bat here in his match-ups but as we get into the season based on the match-ups we might have to do some stuff to help them. We don't worry a whole lot about that in the preseason because we are just trying to learn a system. We want to see them play. We want to see them compete."
- That young line stood up well to a talented Cincinnati defensive front on Monday, allowing just one sack of Jameis Winston in the first half and helping running back Doug Martin pick up 59 yards on six carries. Marpet was quick to share the credit for that latter figure with Martin, saying the fourth-year back "made us look good" with some broken tackles, but the offensive line also did a nice job of getting to second-level blocks on several occasions. Donovan Smith says that finishing plays is a point of emphasis with the Bucs' coaching staff.
"[Offensive Line] Coach [George] Warhop preaches it to us consistently," said Smith. "So does Coach [Lovie] Smith. It's very important. It's just the demeanor of the offensive line – you want to finish your blocks whether it's downfield or finish on the man. It's very important."
On one play four snaps into the game's opening drive, Smith didn't have a chance to get his hands on a second defender downfield because he was busy driving defensive end Wallace Gilberry far out of the picture. As Martin takes a handoff to the left, Smith opens a hole by pushing Gilberry toward the sideline, while left guard Logan Mankins helps seal off the defensive tackle. Linebacker A.J. Hawk sprints into the opening to take on Martin but is quickly leveled by fullback Jorvorskie Lane, allowing Martin to run through untouched and pick up 15 yards.
Even with Martin well past the line of scrimmage, Smith stayed on his man, eventually driving Gilberry all the way to the ground, a play that is known as a "pancake" in O-Line jargon. Smith's continued attention to Gilberry probably didn't add any extra yards to Martin's run, but he wasn't about to stop until the play was over.
"It's just the mentality," the rookie repeated. "You've got to be able to finish on the man, finish the play, block to the whistle. That's back to pee-wee football: Block to the whistle."
- The competition for jobs in the Bucs' linebacking corps remains fierce with just two preseason games to play. Rookie Kwon Alexander made his first start at middle linebacker in Monday night's game, while 2015 free agent acquisition Bruce Carter split time at strongside linebacker with Danny Lansanah. Carter had started the preseason opener in the middle but is now focusing on the "SAM" position, where Lansanah has been the front-runner since the offseason.
"You really don't have a choice," said Carter of moving into a different competition. "You just want to control what you can control and keep working. That's all you can do."
Lansanah started Monday's game but alternated drives on the first-team defense with Carter. Both players had a hand in a big play for Tampa Bay's defense, with Carter recovering a Jeremy Hill fumble in the second quarter to set up a Patrick Murray field goal and Lansanah stopping Cedric Peerman in the end zone for a safety in the fourth period.
"I think in our room alone we've got a lot of talent," said Carter. "I think guys are starting to compete versus one another and that's ultimately making everybody better, all the way from the last guy to Lavonte [David], our leader. Everybody's competing, everybody's getting better and ultimately that's really what you want."