The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' OTA practice on Thursday was graced with two elements you might expect to encounter on a safari: heat and zebras. In this case, that also provided the right conditions for a couple of useful two-minute drills.
The Buccaneers concluded their second week of organized team activity days, also known as Phase 3 of the offseason program, on Thursday, working for more than two hours under a fiery sun. As has been the case all this week, they were joined on the field by the men in stripes, a full crew of NFL game officials armed with flags and whistles. Head Coach Dirk Koetter purposely staged a couple of two-minute situations for his offense. It just works better when there are refs on hand to make sure all the action is legal and the ball quickly gets to the right spot.
"So we've had a full NFL officiating crew here all week, so we wanted to take advantage of that and we got a couple two-minute offense sessions in," said Koetter. "Yesterday we had to go in the indoor because of the weather. It was great having the officials here. We'll practice two-minute without officials but it's just a lot more productive when they're here, throwing their flags and they're spotting the ball and all that stuff."
As Koetter noted, the Buccaneers got good use of their indoor facility on Wednesday because it rained much of the morning and afternoon. As he has noted before, however, he doesn't want his team to practice exclusively indoors. There's more room for multiple drills on the team's outside fields, more room for staffers on the sideline and, of course, a preferable natural grass field. And on this particular day, there was the type of smothering, humid heat that annually turns the Bucs' training camp into a crucible that forms participants into players who can outlast their opponents through four quarters on game day.
"It was oppressive today," said Koetter. "Really, add six or seven degrees, this is training camp today. I think the guys adjust pretty fast to that. In training camp, we practice in the morning, so today's as tough as it gets. It was warm out there today."
The officials' gaze and the challenging conditions made it the perfect environment made it the perfect test for the Bucs' ability to handle the pressure and tempo of the two-minute situation. Fourth-year quarterback Jameis Winston has done some good work in the two-minute drill early in his career, but overall the Bucs have consistently been middle of the pack in that category since his arrival in 2015.
In Winston's rookie year, the Buccaneers ranked 13th in two-minute scoring, putting up 24 points on 24 such possessions. The league average was 22 points in 20 possessions. In 2016, Tampa Bay tied for 15th in two-minute scoring (16 points in 22 possessions) and last year they occupied the 14th spot (18 points in 20 possessions. In terms of game situations, the Buccaneers are rightly focusing heavily on red zone efficiency this offseason after missing their mark by a significant amount in 2017. Still, they continue to work on all such "special category" challenges in practice, and Thursday was a two-minute day.
- The presence of the NFL officials also helped the players off the field, particularly the rookies. As Koetter noted, there are some differences between the NCAA and NFL rulebooks, and the newcomers learned about some of the nuances in the pro rules about pass interference, holding and illegal contact.
But all of the players, rookies and vets, were interested to learn more about the new helmet contact rule, which has led to hysterical reactions in some corners. From what Koetter has seen so far, the rule is most likely to do what it was designed to do: Remove the most dangerous plays from the game, or at least give them more serious consequences.
The Buccaneers were shown a video with a series of hits that would be flagged under the new rule, and Koetter expects to get additional videos with more details in the weeks between now and the start of the regular season.
"We've only seen the first series, and as you might expect, the first series are clips…a couple of those clips went back as far as five years ago and they're the most violent ones that everybody with the naked eye could see," he said. "We don't want those plays in football. I think that everybody kind of assumes that they're going to call every single bump every time a guy's helmet touches somebody, and it's still football."
Obviously, the Buccaneers aren't creating any helmet-contact test situations for the officials during OTAs, as pads and contact are not allowed. (The players do still wear helmets in most periods, but they don't hit each other at all.) Training camp, and especially preseason games, will be a better opportunity for players to learn what is and isn't outlawed by the new rule.
"Like the officials told us, they're still working through it," said Koetter. "So this series of videos that we're getting, I'm sure that's going to continue all the way up to the first game. That's what's great about having preseason games, that there's a little bit of a feeling-out period. But nobody wants the violent helmet-to-helmet shots in football. Those are the ones we want out. When they showed us those at the owners' meetings, there might have only been eight or 10 of them all year. Like I said, those are the ones that are easy. Everybody wants those out of the game."
- If NFL officials can provide practice with a slightly more game-like atmosphere, it's nothing compared to the presence of a whole other team. For the third straight year, the Buccaneers will enjoy that advantage for a couple days during training camp.
The Buccaneers have not yet formally revealed their plans to hold joint practices with the Tennessee Titans prior to the two teams' preseason game on August 18. Koetter expects that announcement soon, but it's clearly going to happen, and it will be similar to the weeks the team spent in Jacksonville the past two summers. The Bucs had not held any joint practices during Lovie Smith's tenure as head coach, but it's clear that Koetter sees value in them.
"Training camp is a fairly long process and it doesn't take too long for the players to get tired of going against each other," he said. "I mean, even out here, you're going [against] the same matchups every day. When you're the right guard for the Buccaneers and the two guys you're going against are Gerald McCoy and Vita Vea every day, you want to go against somebody else. As an offense and defense, we want to go against different schemes. The Bucs' 'O' playing the Bucs' 'D,' we sort of know each other's tendencies. So you want to see some different things, and then we also get officials so we play some situations. It's just good crossover work and we're thankful that the Titans are going to let us work with them."
The Buccaneers and Jaguars had several natural connections between them, as both Koetter and Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith had previously worked on the Jaguars' staff before they both left to coach the Falcons. It's not strictly necessary for such a connection to exist in order for two teams to make joint practice arrangements, but the Bucs happen to have one with the Titans, too. Tennessee General Manager Jon Robinson was on Jason Licht's staff in Tampa, as his director of player personnel, before getting the top job with the Titans in 2016.
- The Buccaneers added a pair of veteran defensive ends in March, signing former Eagle Vinny Curry and trading with the Giants to get Jason Pierre-Paul. They hope that will help amplify the team's pass rush after the Bucs finished last in the NFL in sacks last year. That goal will be easier to reach if the Buccaneers also get more production from two returning ends: Will Gholston and Noah Spence.
The 2017 season did not go as well as hoped for either Gholston or Spence. Gholston got a new contract in the offseason after a fine 2016 campaign in which he proved to be one of the team's best run-stoppers. Spence was seen as a breakout waiting to happen last fall after he recorded 5.5 sacks as a rookie despite dealing with a shoulder injury for most of the season. Instead, the two combined for one sack, which Spence recorded in the first game of the season before suffering another shoulder injury and spending most of the campaign on injured reserve.
In their efforts to be more productive in 2018, both Gholston and Spence are managing their weights, though they are going in opposite directions. Gholston is trimming weight in order to be quicker and Spence is packing on muscle and size to hold up better against offensive linemen.
"[Gholston] is down somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds from last year," said Koetter, adding that Gholston is the type of player who looks better on the practice field when the pads go on. "We thought he got too heavy last year, he agreed and he did a really good job of slimming it down. He looks good out there."
Koetter said that Spence's in-season target weight would probably between 253 and 259 pounds, and if that's the case then the third-year defender only needs to maintain what he has gained to this point.
"Noah has gained a lot of weight. Last I checked, Noah was 257. He was down in one point at training camp in the 230s last year. He looks good. He's pretty close to where he needs to be."