Bruce Arians knew the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense had stumbled through a poor practice on Monday morning – the worst in his three seasons at the Bucs' helm, he said – before he even reviewed the tape of the two-hour session. By Tuesday morning, with that review complete, Arians had the numbers to back up his initial assessment.
Fortunately, his team had just completed a much more satisfying effort that morning, so he wasn't in a sour mood about it.
"They were a hell of a lot better," said Arians. "They didn't have 25 mental errors, five turnovers and nine dropped passes so it had to be better. It couldn't be any worse."
More often than not, through 14 practices, Arians has come away from those sessions with a positive feeling, pleased with the balance between the offense and defense, the effort level and the attention to detail. The main exceptions have come from the days the team came back from a players' day off and the offense has apparently had a vacation hangover.
Of course, Tuesday was not one of those days so it was unsurprising to see the competitive balance return to training camp.
"Good solid practice, loved the effort," said Arians when the workout had wrapped up. "More of what we're used to seeing, both sides of the ball, great competition. The tape grades itself. We'll go in and grade the tape and see how good the practice was but I loved the competitive spirit and everything that was going on out there."
On Monday, Arians said the problem had been identified and the offensive players had to "grow up and man up" and fix it on their own. That certainly suggests a growing sense of urgency and a lack of patience with any wasted practices. The regular season is still almost a month off in the distance and the Buccaneers still have plenty of time to get into Super Bowl-defense shape before kicking it off against Dallas on September 9. Still, for the younger players on the roster, those in the midst of battles for spots on the active roster or the practice squad, this is not a good time for any missteps. The three upcoming preseason games, plus the Bucs' joint practices with the Titans next week, won't count in that defense but are critical for those players.
"To go against those [other] guys and to go against Tennessee in those practices and those games – that's where guys step forward," said Arians. "And that's the bottom 10 guys on the roster. They're going to make it in those practices and those games."
And those players will certainly be showcased over the next two weeks. Coaches may have to adjust their approach to the preseason schedule and player rotations now that it has been shortened from four games to three, but Arians said the first contest will be handled much as it always has been. That means nominal work for almost all starters – perhaps a drive or two – and a lot of snaps for the players down the depth chart.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The pandemic led to the cancellation of the entire preseason last summer but there was a full slate of games in Arian's first season at the Bucs' helm. In the first game that year starters on both sides stayed in for about a dozen snaps. The quarterback rotation from that game is instructive: 11 snaps for starter Jameis Winston, 12 for presumptive top reserve Blaine Gabbert and 68 for Ryan Griffin. Things could be similar in Week Two of the preseason depending upon what kind of work the Bucs get in during their two joint practices with Tennessee, which have the advantage of being scripted to include specific game situations.
"Everybody will play," said Arians of Saturday's opener against Cincinnati. "Don't know how much but everybody will play. The Titans week we're going against them for two practices. That will determine how that is as far as who plays in that [second game]. And the last one we'll play a bunch."
The Buccaneers actually had four quarterbacks on the roster at the time of their 2019 preseason opener, as Vincent Testaverde – son of former Tampa Bay signal-caller Vinny Testaverde – was briefly with the team. He didn't play in that contest but the team is probably more motivated to get their fourth quarterback into the rotation this time around. That would be Kyle Trask, the rookie drafted in the second round back in April.
And, again, Arians said "everybody" would play, so that would seem to include Trask. It will include Tom Brady, who will start but probably not stay in the game long.
We'll just wait and see how it goes," said Arians of Brady's rep count, and by extension the playing time of most offensive starters. "It's normally a drive or two. It won't be many."
* Tight end Cameron Brate made his training camp debut on Tuesday after being removed from the active/PUP list the day before.
Unlike cornerback Chris Wilcox, who came off the same list one week earlier, Brate wasn't made to wait a couple extra days before putting a helmet for practice. Arians said the veteran tight end got a "touch" of work and the team will now bring him back into the mix slowly. Regardless, Brate's presence on the practice field as Week Three of camp gets underway was good news. The fact that he had been placed on the active/PUP list before camp means the team believed there was at least a chance he would not be ready for the start of the regular season.
Two players remain on active/PUP and have not yet practice: wide receivers John Franklin and Justin Watson.
Not on the practice field Tuesday was safety Jordan Whitehead. Arians declined to elaborate on the specifics or severity of Whitehead's injury but said the team will have to "wait and see" about his prognosis.
Whitehead also missed the first week of training camp while on the COVID list but didn't take long after his return to move back into the starting lineup. Another absence of any significant length for him would be another opportunity for Mike Edwards to get first-team snaps. It would also make it more likely that the Bucs continue working cornerback Ross Cockrell at the safety position.
Edwards was opportunistic in a relatively small amount of playing time in 2020, with three interceptions in just 320 defensive snaps, postseason included. He has shown that same nose for the football in this year's camp.
"Oh, he's been a ball hawk," said Arians. "He obviously had a great day yesterday, a good solid day every single day. He's communicating so much better. He's really made a nice step forward."
* Like the team's rookies and second-year players, veteran wide receiver Antonio Brown will be making his Buccaneer preseason debut on Saturday, but for a different reason.
Brown joined the team as a midseason signing in 2020 after appearing in only one game the season before. He gave the team another dangerous weapon in a loaded passing attack and helped the Buccaneers get all the way to, and then win, the Super Bowl. Brown then re-signed with the Buccaneers on another one-year deal to help them defend that title in 2021.
"I'm beyond grateful to be here at this moment right here with my teammates at training camp. I'm putting my hand in the pile and putting my conditioning on display. I don't take for granted being here. [I'm] thankful I have great health. … I'm just happy to be here right now and do what I love and play football."
Part of Brown's great health is a surgically-repaired knee. He had the procedure – the first surgery of his career – in the offseason and is now running free in training camp. Arians, who says Brown has been dealing with a knee issue for several years, can see the difference in practice.
"This is the healthiest he's been in a few years," said the coach. "He probably needed that procedure [before] but he wouldn't do it. That first surgery is always tough. That that's his first surgery is amazing. It's remarkable how he takes care of himself. Yeah, he's playing at a speed I saw four or five years ago."
That's a frightening thought for opposing defenses. Brown had 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns in just eight regular-season games last year, plus another eight grabs and two scores in the playoffs, but he also had to sit out the NFC Championship Game because of that knee. Now the Buccaneers could get a full, healthy season of Brown to go along with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and others.
"It's a great team, something fun to be a part of," said Brown, who said he's still an 'explosive' player in his own right. "Obviously, it's a lot of great players. We're just trying to jell together – respect, loyalty and trust."