The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans conducted a pair of joint practices at the AdventHealth Training Center on Wednesday and Thursday in advance of their preseason meeting on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. In a way, those two practices were the game for the Buccaneers' starters, who got scripted live reps against Tennessee starters and will likely be rested on Saturday.
So if those two practices constituted a game for the Bucs, then the practice tape review on Wednesday afternoon was essentially halftime. And the Bucs did what any team that struggles during the first half of a game tries to do before the second half: make halftime adjustments.
Each day, the two teams split their 11-on-11 work onto two fields so that each team's starting offense could go against the other's starting defense. On Wednesday, that resulted in an uneven practice at best for Tampa Bay's offense. The Bucs' defense felt a bit better about its performance but was unhappy with some failures against the run, especially for a proud group that has led the NFL in stopping the run two years in a row.
"We know we have to get geared up for a lot of practice reps against those guys – the starters," said inside linebacker Devin White. "Our coach told us every day to treat it like a game. They got a lot of big runs on us yesterday and we went back to the drawing board like it was a halftime and we came back out and fitted those plays up and [were] able to basically be us in the running game. Everybody knows who we are in the running game."
White and company felt as if they fared much better on Thursday; in fact, he said Tampa Bay's defensed "dominated" in the practice rematch. Even so, there was a lesson in the two-day experience that White hopes can be applied to the team's performance in the regular season. Essentially, he doesn't want them to need an early setback in order to comeback with a dominant performance.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice vs. Tennessee at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"As far as the defensive side of the ball, the number-one thing we need to accomplish is being consistent," said White. "We can't get punched in the mouth and then decide we want to punch back. We have to come out there like we already got punched even before the game starts. Whatever it takes for us to do that to be able to start fast – we have to find out what it's going to take and we have to start doing it and we've got to start prepping on it now. Those guys are going to come in fired up and everybody knows we're going to get everybody's best shot. Last year, I felt like we were doing the hunting and this year we're being hunted for sure. We have to come out there hands up, ready to fight."
Head Coach Bruce Arians had to wait until after practice to see how White's group fared, as he was on the other field watching the Bucs' offense. However, he definitely saw improvement in his offense, which struggled with dropped passes on Wednesday.
"Yeah, we came back a little bit more and made the plays we're used to seeing every single day," said Arians. "I think yesterday [it was] a little bit of the newness and some of that. Coaches got on their ass pretty good, too.
"[It was] better than yesterday. We didn't perform at what we're expected yesterday. I think we did today. I think the tape will kind of prove it to me."
Whether a more competitive effort by the Buccaneers on both sides led to a more intense atmosphere on Thursday or vice versa, the end result was a much more contentious morning, including some occasional pushing and shoving.
"I can definitely tell you that the intensity was much higher today – I feel like it always is on the second day of joint practices, especially in the heat like this, tempers can get going," said wide receiver Chris Godwin. "Guys are just competitors, so I don't think there was anything out of the norm. It didn't really escalate to anything which is good. Like I said, it cranked up the intensity which is better for all of us as the practice went along."
* On Wednesday, we posited that the Buccaneers' plans for their offensive backfield were starting to take shape, plans that included new arrival Giovani Bernard getting a lot of work on third downs. On Thursday, Arians confirmed that the ninth-year veteran was indeed a significant part of that running back rotation.
After Thursday's workout, which was officially the last day of training camp, Arians was asked if Bernard had turned in a 'pretty good' camp in his first year with the team.
"I would say more than 'pretty good,'" said Arians with a chuckle. "I would say the best thing about him, he's the ultimate pro. He's super-prepared. He came every day in OTAs when he didn't have to. He wanted to be a major part of the offense and he is already."
Bernard played just four first-quarter snaps in the Bucs' preseason opener against his former team, the Cincinnati Bengals, which was a clue in and of itself, given that all the starters took a seat after one possession. Bernard turned those four snaps into two catches, both of which converted third downs. Most tellingly, he was on the field with Tom Brady for the very first third down of the game.
Arians doesn't plan to play his starters against Tennessee on Saturday night after they got plenty of competitive reps during the two joint practices. That means running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, essentially co-starters, will be out of action. Second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had a nice showing against the Bengals as well, will likely get a lot of work, followed by C.J. Prosise and Troymaine Pope, if the latter is available to play. Despite his veteran status, Bernard is expected to play against the Titans, though Arians said it would be a brief outing for him. Arians wants to give the veteran back another opportunity to "grow in this offense."
Bernard, who participated in both the Bucs' offseason OTA practices and the off-site workouts organized by Brady, surely won't mind the work on Saturday night. At the same time, there are likely to be plenty of veterans who enjoy getting the night off after a pair of spirited and intense practices against these same Titans. That will leave the majority of the reps to players who only have a few more weeks to win spots on the roster or the practice squad.
"Some of those guys that got a lot of reps are going to have to play in this game, but they're fighting for jobs so they don't mind playing," said Arians, who would like to see the Bucs get at least one shot at a two-minute drill with their reserves on Saturday night. "We didn't get the other two-minute with our young guys yesterday because they were down linemen. We got one today and then we went to all the short-field stuff. I'd like to have the young guys get more but hopefully they'll get one in the game."
* Cornerback Jamel Dean turned in one of the biggest plays of the Buccaneers' 2020 Super Bowl season, picking off an Aaron Rodgers pass early in the second quarter of a Week Six game against the Green Bay Packers and returning it 32 yards for a touchdown. At the time, the Packers had a 10-0 lead, a red-hot quarterback and all of the game's momentum.
Dean's play completely reversed that momentum, as the Buccaneers scored 38 unanswered points and Rodgers was ultimately held to 160 yards and a 35.4 passer rating. It was the biggest win of the regular season for Tampa Bay, against an obvious Super Bowl contender. The two teams would meet again in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, with the Bucs winning again.
That would be Dean's only interception of the season but it was also Tampa Bay's only defensive touchdown. Dean also finished second on the team with seven passes defensed and added three more in the playoffs. Nevertheless, it was an up-and-down season for both of the corners the Buccaneers drafted on Day Two in 2019, Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Those two traded off roles several times during the regular season as both went through some tough stretches. By the end of the playoffs, the Buccaneers' secondary was flying high, Dean included.
Still, the third-year cornerback has always very eagerly sought help from his coaches, including Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, to improve every aspect of his game. During his rookie season, that memorably manifested itself in hours of extra film study with Bowles after Dean's first big dose of defensive action resulted in an uneven performance in a loss in Seattle. The next weekend, he turned in a critical red zone interception that set up the game-winning touchdown in Tampa Bay's 30-27 defeat of the Arizona Cardinals.
That big play resulted in Dean's better understanding of what the Cardinal's pre-snap alignment meant the receivers' routes would be. Now he's working on another area of his game that was underdeveloped in 2020: Recognizing short drops and quick passes and reacting to them instantly. Bowles actually pointed to that issue in Dean's game in the second week of training camp.
"Just Dean seeing the three-step," said Bowles after an August 5 practice. "Understanding the three-step. I think a year ago, he couldn't acknowledge that, so we had to do a couple different things not to let him in that situation. This year in that situation he's seeing it like a true corner, from a growth standpoint. That showed a big step forward there, but we've got to keep working."
Dean is taking this step forward in the same way he honed his pre-snap recognition as a rookie: Going to the tape and getting input from Bowles.
"[It's] really film study and getting reps out of it," he said. "After each rep, I like asking [Bowles] what I did wrong and then he explains it to me and then I'll go up to his office to watch the film and see what I'm doing without realizing it. Then, I make it a key focus to work on it during practice."
Dean ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and definitely has catch-up speed down the field. In this case, the issue is harnessing that speed with proper technique to make a play that is over in an instant. Recognizing and reacting to quick passes is the number-one thing Dean is trying to get perfected before the regular season.
"The three-step," he said. "That's really been my biggest issue, giving up the five-yard route and knowing that I've got the speed to get to it. It's just the small steps, or false steps, I've been taking that's keeping me a yard away from making the play."