The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know they will be getting every opponent's best shot in 2021 after they took home another Lombardi Trophy last February. Apparently, even Mother Nature wants to take on the champs.
So far, she's off to a good start.
The Buccaneers are two days into their 2021 training camp, and while there have been plenty of moments that sparked cheers from the happy-to-be-back fans there has been too much sloppy play in the second half of each practice to please Head Coach Bruce Arians. The main culprits: the oppressive and inevitable heat and humidity of a West Florida summer.
"I think our guys right now are giving in to the heat," said Arians after Tuesday's practice, which was conducted amid a feels-like heat approaching triple digits. "We've got to get in shape. I'm not really pleased with the last 30 minutes of either practice so far. Love the fact that it gets really, really hot in the second half; it does in games, too, especially here. It's something that we've got to be better adjusted to as we get going, and making plays when we're tired and hot. [We] dropped way too many passes, gave up way too many plays in the second half of practice. Other than that…the first half of practice is outstanding but the second half is not very good."
This is, of course, nothing new for the Buccaneers. In 46 years the franchise has never held training camp anywhere outside of Florida and has always sought to use the local conditions as a crucible to forge a team more prepared for the conditions than visiting opponents are likely to be. It is something new each summer for a handful of newcomers, particularly ones who hail from more temperate climates. It is not something for which it is easy to prepare.
"Even for me, you can't get used to this, used to this Florida heat, man," said Lavonte David, who is in his ninth training camp at the AdventHealth Training Center. "It's different, especially further up north it's different. But you've just got to grind through it. You've just got to find your second wind somewhere out on the practice field and just grind through it, push through it, just give it effort. And then you'll get used to it pretty fast.
"You've got to stay hydrated and just push through it. Don't let it beat you down, don't let it show on film. You've got to try to grind and push it out because that's all training camp is. It's a grind and you've got to push through it the best way you can."
The best way to prepare for practicing in the Tampa heat and humidity is to, well, work out in Tampa. For those Buccaneers who didn't have or didn't pursue that opportunity, it's time to play catch up, which is why the first few days of camp have been uneven.
"It's all mental, it's all mental," said Arians. "If you didn't train here it's your own damn fault. You knew what you were getting into. So make sure that whatever you're doing, hydrating-wise, you're taking care of yourself so that we don't have soft-tissue injuries because of dehydration."
Some Buccaneer veterans choose to lean into the problem. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, now in his third Buccaneer camp after playing both his college ball and his first five NFL seasons in Colorado, wore a thick hoodie under his practice jersey on Tuesday, as did a couple of his teammates. That might seem as sensible as skinny-dipping in the Arctic Ocean but the idea is to make September game days tame by comparison.
"It makes it a little bit harder right now so when I get to game day it's a lot easier," said Barrett, also stressing the importance of constant hydration. "I most definitely have to be mentally strong, to always think that the guy I'm going against is more tired than me, so it's my opportunity to make a play," said Barrett. "And I always wants to be the guy that makes the play at the right time, so that also motivates me."
The Buccaneers return to practice on Tuesday morning and their current foe may have another punch to throw: Scattered thunderstorms are forecast for the mid-morning hours in Tampa.
- The Bucs spent a good amount of time on special game situations during Tuesday's practice, including red zone periods and a series of two-minute drills. The latter wrapped up the two hour workout with the first, second and third-string offensives all getting one drive starting with 1:25 on the clock.
The starting offense appeared to reach the end zone on a Tom Brady (simulated) sneak after running back Giovani Bernard was deemed down at the one-yard line after catching a swing pass. That group also practiced a clock-killing spike after the "touchdown," so the outcome was a bit unclear but Brady did move his crew down the field well, most of it on two connections with Mike Evans. The critical play, however, was turned in by wide receiver Scotty Miller, who turned into a defender and managed to prevent a sideline interception by Carlton Davis. Miller's play drew effusive praise from Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen.
Ross Cockrell's interception off a tipped pass ended the second-string offense's drive after just two plays. The third string got the ball down the field but might have been the beneficiary of some unrealistic action in the backfield. Overall, Arians seemed unimpressed by the two-minute session, which was in keeping with his overall assessment of the last half of practice.
"The first group was okay," said Arians. "I'm not really sure we got that last deep ball off but it would have been close. But I don't really call sacks in that drill so that we get our conditioning in. The second group was not very good at all. We'll see. We'll grade the film and watch it."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
* The Buccaneers won't put on pads and start hitting each other in practice until Saturday, which means the battles in the trenches are largely simulated at this point. However, Arians noted something the offensive line is doing well and it doesn't rely on pads or contact. Namely, the blockers up front are continuing to communicate well after finishing off 2020 with an impressive group performance in the playoffs.
Asked about Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs on Tuesday, Arians almost declined to talk about his two starting tackles for fear of jinxing them after their strong 2020 campaigns. But in doing so he tacked on some praise for the O-Line unit as a whole.
"But, yeah, they played [well], especially in the playoffs," said Arians. "I thought Donovan raised his game to where he's always been capable of playing and Tristan just got better and better. Yeah, I think both of those guys still have room for improvement. And communication – so far I think our offensive line is doing [well]. They're all veterans now – I consider Tristan a veteran – but there's good communication up front right now. And they're seeing so many different things. That's the pleasing part."
Wirfs is a veteran now, though barely, having turned in a marvelous rookie season in 2020. The 13th-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Wirfs stepped right into the starting job at right tackle and performed at what Arians has called a "Pro Bowl" level. Wirfs was only credited with allowing one sack during the entire regular season, but that doesn't mean it came as easy as it sounds. A year ago at this point, with camp just beginning, the rookie's head was spinning.
Now Wirfs has a much better grasp on his job requirements and his teammates have a better feel for him.
"I think last year at this point, I was just hanging on," he said. "I think everything is operating a little bit smoother from last year at this point compared to now. I think we all had a year together and we feel very comfortable with each other, so that's definitely a plus."
Though Wirfs was new last year, the Buccaneers' other four O-Line starters were incumbents from the season before. Smith and left guard Ali Marpet have both been starters since they were drafted in the second round in 2015; center Ryan Jensen is going into his fourth season in Tampa after signing as a free agent in 2018; and Cappa, a third-round pick in 2018, has started the past two years.
Not only has that group, and such key reserves as Aaron Stinnie and Josh Wells, grown comfortable on the field together but they've forged a tight bond off the field as well.
"It plays a big part," said Smith of the offense's continuity and camaraderie up front. "When you play with guys that you've played with for multiple years you know their tendencies and what they want to do and what they don't want to do. So, you can play off it. That's just how you jell and have a well-oiled machine. Whether right or wrong, we're always all right or all wrong. That's just how it goes. I love my crew."