An NFL training camp is always a series of firsts: The first practice of a new season; the first practice in pads; the first breakout star; the first significant injury, unfortunately. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 camp progressed to another annual icebreaker on Tuesday afternoon: the first session of live tackling.
Tampa Bay's 10th and final period of a 150-minute practice on a sweltering Florida afternoon was a series of move-the-ball drills featuring "real football." That meant that players in possession of the football – with the notable exception of the quarterback – were not merely detained at customs by polite defenders but actively hurled to the ground. This meant that a 15-yard run, for example, was really a 15-yard run and not a running back putting in a little extra effort after he was essentially tagged "down."
And from this live tackling period emerged a player to watch: running back Ronald Jones. With a pair of big plays on the perimeter of the defense on one "touchdown drive," Jones added a little bit of actual weight to the popular storyline of his pending second-year emergence. The real yardage gained on practice-fields is usually hard to pinpoint from the sideline, but both of Jones' eye-opening plays – one a third-down catch-and-run, the other a sweep around the edge – showcased his speed and what may be a newfound ability to break tackles with some added muscle and some added confidence in 2019.
Here's what a couple observers saw during that late-practice stretch from Jones (okay, one of the observers is me and the other is my AdventHealth Training Center cohort, Carmen Vitali):
It should be noted that the ball was loose at the end of Jones' long catch-and-run, which covered roughly half the field. There was some dispute (and no replay) as to whether Jones fumbled or was down before the ball came out, though photographic evidence seems to support the defense's argument. Head Coach Bruce Arians wasn't pleased with that last bit but it didn’t do much to dampen his enthusiasm over Jones' efforts.
“It was an unbelievable run down there – just finish it," said Arians, referring to the fumble. "He’s an explosive player. He’s going to be a happening player. He’s going to make big plays like that. In terms of third-and-13 or 14, second down-and-16 – just finishing. I liked the way we ran a hurry-up after the long run and got a hurry up in, then he walked into the end zone. Those things are a good sign.
"He’s got that breakaway speed and size. His best runs so far have been tackle to tackle until that one."
(Also worth noting is that quarterback Jameis Winston, um, hustled downfield to try to help tackle the defender with the football. For Arians, apparently, the less said about that part of the action, the better. His reaction to the play was three very short statements: "That’s enough of that. Love the effort. Always tackle left shoulder.")
The Buccaneers drafted Jones early in the second round in 2018, envisioning a speedy big-play complement to the more rugged Peyton Barber, their starting back. That tandem never materialized and Jones ended up with just 23 carries, seven catches and 77 yards from scrimmage…and perhaps a bit of deflated confidence thanks to too many runs that were snuffed out before they could get started. Arians, in his first year at the Bucs' helm, has seen nothing but good things from Jones in the offseason and the start of camp, constantly praising the former USC star for his efforts on the field and his restored confidence.
Still, it's hard to put too much stock in the high praises from Arians and others, including Winston, when nobody is really trying to bring the running back down. That's what made Tuesday's end-of-practice outburst so encouraging. Arians can definitely see a productive one-two punch emerging this year in the Bucs' backfield, and didn't even shoot down the idea of Jones challenging Barber's spot on the depth chart.
"Oh yeah, it’s going to be a heck of a one-two punch," said Arians. "Whichever one’s the winner…"
There were other standouts during the "real football" portion of Tuesday's practice, of course. Perhaps most notably, quarterback Blaine Gabbert somehow got off a perfect fading throw to wide receiver Justin Watson in the end zone while under heavy pressure and falling off to his left. A variety of defenders also got in some good lucks, though Arians felt that the offense had a good rebound day after a rough Sunday and a middling Monday.
"Obviously the offense picked it up today," he said. "Defense, it’s a nice ebb-and-flow. You don’t want you’re defense winning every day and you don’t want your offense winning every day. So our offense kind of bounced back, and we really saw the beginnings of a solid running game. The backs played really well today – a blitz pick up, we had a really good blitz pickup [period]. And they stepped up, so it’s a very nice step forward today."