The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Thursday afternoon practice was not a typical day at training camp. Most obviously, the Buccaneers weren't even within 1,100 miles of their own camp site, and half the players on the field were wearing a different uniform. This was the final workout in a three-day run of joint practices between the Buccaneers and the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts; last year, the two teams did the same thing in Tampa.
There were key differences in the format of Thursday's practice, too, which gave a hint as to what the Buccaneers and Patriots were hoping to accomplish this week and how Friday night's nationally-televised game between the two at Gillette Stadium will unfold.
Generally, teams keep their workouts very light on the day before a game, leaving the helmets and shoulder pads in the locker room and simply walking through some scripted plays. Not so for the Bucs and Patriots on Thursday; instead, they spent nearly two hours on the field and ran through a fairly long series of seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills. The practice ended with a 20-minute period in which the two teams alternated running two-minute drills with their offenses. The players wore shorts and shells and avoided contact or disruption of passes, but it was still a higher grade of work than a team would normally put in on the day before they were due to play an actual game.
And, as was the case on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well, the first-team units for both teams saw the vast majority of the action. This trend shed some light on what both the Buccaneers and Patriots saw as the best way to use their time together: The week of practices, with the "pro thud" style of hitting without tackling, allowed the first-team units to get in even more work than they would in an entire game, with a reduced chance of injury. On Friday night, the majority of the snaps will likely belong to the reserves.
Tampa Bay's starters played roughly one quarter in last week's preseason opener against Baltimore, with certain players having personalized play-time plans. The approach may not change much on Friday against the Patriots.
"We're going to work that out," said Head Coach Greg Schiano. "Maybe it's a couple more plays, maybe not. I'll talk tonight with the guys, see how everybody is feeling. The temperature was nice and all that [in Foxboro], but I think when you go against someone else you expend a little more juice. Let me just see where we are health-wise and kind of make those decisions tonight and tomorrow."
It is the third preseason game in which most teams give their starters the most extended playing time as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Still, the three days of joint practices with New England afforded the starters for both teams something of a stepping stone to that increased game exposure.
"A lot of the starters won't play much [Friday], but for them to go out and match up against the guys they'll be playing against, feel them out and test them out was good," said cornerback Leonard Johnson, who started the preseason opener against Baltimore. "It was good for everyone else, also, because everyone got a lot of reps. I'm sure it made everyone better. I think it was very productive to get out here and go against another team, clean up some mistakes and put together a solid three days of practice."
The Buccaneers could get a few players back for Friday's game, the biggest of which – in more ways than one – may be Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. Nicks practiced extensively on Tuesday against the Patriots, at full speed, and believes he'll be cleared to play for at least a short period on Friday. After missing the last nine games of 2012 with a toe injury, Nicks has been dealing with that same issue throughout training camp.
"That's the plan now, unless something changes," said Nicks. "But yeah, that's the plan. You've got to kind of bring that in line, because you don't want to jeopardize the whole season. So, I guess we'll just take it day by day."
Said Schiano on the decision to give Nicks some action in Friday's game: "I think we are going to. I just want to play it by ear, see how he feels. Right now isn't what I'm concerned with. I want to get him work if he can, I'm not going to be overly cautious, but at the same time I don't want to be silly either."
The Buccaneers also expect to have starting right defensive end Adrian Clayborn back in the mix after he missed the preseason opener with a minor groin injury.
"That will be good," said Schiano. "AC brings not only his play but his tenacious attitude and his energy. It going to be fun to have him back out there on the field."
As usual in the preseason, both teams will be chasing a victory on Friday night, but they'll be at least as focused, if not more so, on development of young players and evaluation of roster and depth chart issues. And no matter which team comes away with the 'W' in the Week Two matchup, the days of combined work that led up to the game will have made the trip worthwhile for the Buccaneers.
"I think it was real valuable, just getting a feel for an opponent that we're about to play," said linebacker Lavonte David. "Just getting together, testing us on our adjustments and things like that. I think these practices were a good thing. I think they're going to pay off. Everyone just came out and tried to do their jobs. Offense, they came out and tried to do their jobs, too. There was a competitive nature out here, I think everybody competed against each other and everything went great."