The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first game that counts this season will be played on artificial turf, as they open their 2018 regular season in New Orleans. Fittingly, when the Buccaneers decided to veer a little bit from their usual training camp routine on Thursday and conduct a "mock game," they used their own available turf, inside their new indoor training facility.
As Head Coach Dirk Koetter had explained the day before, he chose this different practice structure on Wednesday for two reasons: To break up a five-day run of practices mostly conducted in pads, and to go over some very specific game situations at a full-speed tempo.
"We said, 'How can we give these guys a little break on their legs and then still get something out of it, since we have a preseason game coming up next week?'" Koetter explained. "It's going to be a lot of situational work with all the players on the sideline going through a lot of special teams [and] a lot of special plays that are designed for certain situations."
Koetter made it clear that the word "game" in the term mock game was tenuous at best. Most of the day's work was scripted and the team moved quickly from one period to another. Among the specific situations the team practiced were onside kicks, purposeful safeties by the punter, long field goals, desperation plays from midfield, and run-pass options. One long period near the end of the practice was devoted to situations in and around the red zone in which the offense has time for just one more play and must score a touchdown.
"It was good," said Koetter. "A lot of situational work that usually we just do in a walk-through, so [it was good] to do it with the people in here, a little bit of noise – maybe it was the air conditioner – situational work that's hard to practice full-speed, and with officials. So it was some good situational work."
The defense dominated during that aforementioned red zone drill, including one play in which Keith Tandy intercepted a Jameis Winston pass in the end zone, but that was misleading to onlookers who didn't know the situation. With only one play to score and the defense crowding the end zone, the odds are heavily stacked against the offense and quarterbacks are often forced to throw low-percentage passes rather than taking a game-ending sack.
"Those were all final plays," said Koetter. "Those were all four-seconds, need a touchdown, last play of the game. So from an offensive standpoint, [those are] very difficult plays to score. If you noticed, the defense had a lot of guys in the end zone. So those are tough situations and the defense is going to win most of those."
Linebacker Kwon Alexander was less concerned about the results of that drill and more thrilled to be running around in a close approximation to game-like situations. He knows that it was another step towards the real thing, with the Buccaneers' first preseason game exactly a week away in Miami.
"It felt great," said Alexander. "It's almost there, it's almost time when you do stuff like that. We're embracing it and we're getting ready."
Besides, the offense had its moments, too, the best one coming the first time the first-team offense had the ball. Wide receiver Mike Evans got a step on his man running down the left sideline and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has consistently thrown the deep ball well in training camp, hit him in stride for a long touchdown.
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Thursday at One Buccaneer Place.
Here are some additional highlights and observations from the Bucs' "mock game" on Thursday:
· Mike Evans had another standout play a few periods later when the Buccaneers were running a two-minute drill. Evans ran a deep out and had to make a spinning catch of a pass behind him right on the sideline before he stepped out.
· An additional note on the above play: While Evans was lined up wide to the right, second-year man Chris Godwin was in the slot on the right side. Godwin's continued excellence on the practice field may be prompting the team to look for new ways to increase his snap total.
· Evans might have had another touchdown in a later period if not for the good coverage of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. The two went up for a pass near the goal line and Hargreaves was able to keep Evans from making one of his textbook contested catches. Hargreaves saw extensive action on Thursday, going back to the role in which he opened camp, as a starter on the outside in base packages and the first-team slot corner in nickel formations.
· Safety Chris Conte had an interception of a pass over the middle during the drill in which the offense was trying to make something happen from midfield in the game's final seconds.
· Rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart continues to shine. Playing in the slot, Stewart made a quick read and closed quickly to battle and knock away a quick screen down the line of scrimmage to fellow rookie Justin Watson. Later, Stewart nearly intercepted another pass down the left sideline.
· Both kickers on the roster, veteran Chandler Catanzaro and rookie Trevor Moore, hit 54-yard field goals near the middle of practice. Catanzaro actually had two cracks at it; after his first one fell a bit short and to the right, his second one cleared the crossbar with plenty of room to spare. Moore's one attempt from the distance was dead-center and had plenty of length.
· Some camp observers have noted that rookie Justin Watson seems comparable to Mike Evans in terms of body size and style of play. Late in practice, Watson was thrown the exact type of sideline end zone fade that the Bucs frequently try with Evans (and successfully so on plenty of occasions). The pass was broken up but Watson looks capable of being a red zone weapon.
· Where young players fit in on special teams can often give a hint as to how close they are to a potential 53-man roster spot. Players running on first team coverage or return units at this point in camp might be able to crack the roster based on their special teams contributions. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who earned a late-season promotion in 2017 after nearly two years on the practice squad, was on the first team kickoff return unit and he was also the second choice as Bryan Anger's "personal protector" on punts. Running back Jacquizz Green was the first choice in that role.
· WR Adam Humphries took the first reps both times the team went to a punt return drill, but in each case he was followed immediately by DeSean Jackson. The Buccaneers did not use Jackson in that capacity in his first year with the team but the veteran receiver has a history of making big plays in the return game.