The biggest advantage of a bye week – even greater than the extra time available to scout the next opponent or review your own game tape – was evident on Wednesday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the practice field to begin preparing for the Atlanta Falcons. Every player on the 53-man roster participated in the two-hour workout in some capacity.
Most notably, second-year tight end O.J. Howard was on the field in a limited capacity, running through drills with a brace on his injured knee. That injury, sustained at Chicago just before the bye week, was expected to keep him out for "at least a couple weeks," as noted by Head Coach Dirk Koetter on October 1, the day after the Bears game. That could still be the case, as Howard's game status won't be officially noted until Friday, but his return to the field on Wednesday was obviously a positive development.
Two other players who were held out of the Chicago game were also back in the mix for Wednesday's practice: defensive tackle Beau Allen and safety Jordan Whitehead. Allen hasn't played since Week Two due to a foot injury and was still limited on Wednesday, but if he could make his return by Sunday it would mark the first time the Bucs had him, Gerald McCoy and rookie Vita Vea together in their defensive tackle rotation. Whitehead was a full participant in practice and could be on the verge of his first NFL start; he was expected to open the game in Chicago for the injured Chris Conte but suffered a hamstring injury in practice that week and was eventually held out in a game-day decision.
Rookie cornerback Carlton Davis was also limited in practice on Wednesday due to a groin injury he sustained in the week leading up to the Chicago game. Despite being questionable to play against the Bears, he did suit up and play at Soldier Field but he did not finish the contest.
If Howard can suit up in Atlanta without missing a game, thanks to the timing of the bye week and his own quick healing, that would be a boon to the Buccaneers' league-leading passing attack. In his second season, the 2017 first-round draft pick has emerged as one of the team's best big-play threats, as indicated by his 20.2 yards per catch. That average was spiked by a 75-yard touchdown against Philadelphia in Week Two, a play on which he caught a medium-range pass over the middle, eluded several defenders and simply raced down the sideline for the score.
Howard's presence makes it harder for opposing defenses to pay extra attention to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and vice versa. The Buccaneers are averaging 363.3 net passing yards per game, and on Sunday they'll take on a Falcons defense that ranks 28th in the NFL in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. Given that Tampa Bay's defense is last in both of those categories, this matchup could turn into another shootout, and the Buccaneers would love to have all of their weapons at their disposal.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at the AdventHealth Training Center.
ANOTHER CHALLENGE FOR THE SECONDARY: As Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith noted on Wednesday, the Buccaneers' biggest struggles so far in 2018 have come on pass defense. Some of that bye week-induced roster health could help with that issue, as would the continued development of rookie defensive backs Davis, Whitehead and M.J. Stewart. Thinks aren't going to get any easier, however, particularly in the short run.
Though they are a surprising 1-4 on the season, the Falcons have continued to put up prolific numbers in the passing game. Atlanta is averaging 304.2 net passing yards per game, a number pushed a bit down by the 100 yards worth of sacks it has surrendered. Matt Ryan has a healthy 110.9 passer rating and Julio Jones is third in the league with 546 receiving yards. Moreover, Mohamed Sanu remains a reliable complement to Jones and rookie first-rounder Calvin Ridley has exploded onto the scene with six touchdowns.
Jones hasn't found the end zone yet this season but he's clearly seeing other benefits from Ridley's presence. He could also soon get help from a running game that is easing Devonta Freeman back into the fold after he missed several games due to injury.
"When you’ve got a guy on the other side that can stretch the field as well, it’s going to create issues," said Smith. "I think they are very good in their play-action game and that’s something that they do very well. That’s where they get their deep shots. When you’ve got two that can go down the field, it gets difficult to double cover both of those guys and be able to still be strong against the run because if you don’t stop them in the run, they’ll pound you with Freeman. He’s a very good back and so is [Tevin] Coleman."
Since the start of the 2014 season, Jones has an NFL-leading 6,881 receiving yards, the most in the NFL in that span and an average of 104.3 per outing. He's had countless huge games during that run, but the one that is fresh in the Bucs' minds is the 12-catch, 253-yard performance he put together against them the last time they visited Atlanta.
"Julio’s had some big games against a lot of folks," said Smith. "I’ve been on both sides of it. He’s an outstanding wide receiver. He is a mismatch. He creates mismatches. They do a good job in moving him around. They don’t play him every snap. He’s not an every-down player. He’s going to play upwards of 75 percent of the snaps. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got great hands and he’s got great zone awareness. He has a knack for sitting down in zones and then again playing him one-on-one and if Matt has got the time to the throw the ball, he’s going to put it in the tight spots – Julio’s going to catch it."
ROOKIE MAKES IMPRESSION: The Buccaneers began the season with nine rookies on their 53-man roster, including all eight of their 2018 draft picks. On Tuesday, that number hit 10 digits, as nearly 20 percent of that roster is now comprised of NFL newcomers.
The 10th rookie in the mix is defensive end Demone Harris, an undrafted player out of Buffalo who signed with the Buccaneers in May. Harris had spent the first five weeks of the season on Tampa Bay's practice squad, but as preparations began for the Week Six contest in Atlanta, the team decided to promote the rookie and release veteran Will Clarke.
Since Clarke was healthy at the time of his release and the move was a one-for-one switch at the same position, it stands to reason that Harris was able to impress the coaching staff on the practice field and emerge as the better option. Harris isn't sure if it was some particular skill or strength of his that prompted the decision, but he thinks the key is hard work.
"It's obvious something they're seeing upstairs, so I'm just going to try to continue to do what I do and even raise that to a higher level," he said. "I wouldn't say it's anything in particular. The thing I can control is effort and I just try to give 100 percent out there every day."
Clarke was part of an eight-man D-Line rotation during his three games on the active roster this season, though he wasn't seeing a huge chunk of playing time. He was in for 13 snaps in Week Two against Philadelphia but just five over the last two games combined. Early on, Harris will likely get a small share of work on defense, too, but he will have a chance to impress on special teams, as well. Whatever size the opportunity, he's ready to seize it.
"It's exciting," said Harris of his promotion. "I've been waiting on this moment for a while now, just working to get to this point. I'm happy I got the call. I was just sitting at home yesterday and I got the call from my agent. I was really shocked and surprised but I'm also just trying to prepare even more for the opportunity so I can take advantage of it."
As is the case every year, the practice squad is an excellent springboard to eventually playing on Sundays. The Bucs' roster is littered with players who started out on a practice squad, from Cam Brate to Demar Dotson to Brent Grimes. That said, the realities of being a practice squad player, of devoting most of your time to running on scout teams, can add to the difficulty of showing what you can do with your own team's playbook.
"I'm just learning from the other guys, really taking notes and trying to mimic what they do well and learn from their mistakes as well," said Harris. "I haven't run our defense in a couple weeks. To run the other team's defense but also still pay attention, I think that's been the biggest challenge, to try to stay engaged with our defense even though I'm doing the other teams' defenses."