If there's one thing every Tampa Bay Buccaneer player and coach is thankful for this year, it's relevance.
The Buccaneers held a Thanksgiving Day practice as they continued to prepare for an important game in Indianapolis on Sunday. Head Coach Lovie Smith moved the practice from the afternoon into the morning and then sent the players home to be with their families and, most likely, to watch a lot of NFL football. That's a typical approach to Thanksgiving for an NFL team not involved in one of the day's three games, but this year both parts of the day matter for the Buccaneers.
The practice, of course, couldn't be skipped because the 5-5 Bucs are finally in position to take part in the NFC playoff race, one game behind Atlanta for the second Wild Card spot. Even if they were thinking about family and turkey, the players took their morning work seriously.
"We have so much to be thankful for," said Smith. "[I'm] just excited about our football team and where we are. A lot of times you don't have a great practice on Thanksgiving Day, but we had a great practice today. Guys are enthusiastic about today. They know what's at stake. We're playing a good football team and we're a good football team.
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"I talk about being relevant, and that gives you a little bit more bounce. You take coaching a little bit better. Everybody feels a sense of urgency even a little bit more. You just want to be in it in November and have a plan, and we have that. It's not like we're having to prod guys to come out to practice. We know how important it is not just to come out to practice but to get it right. The team expects…we're all banking on all of us to do our jobs every play. So that's been the focus."
A Thanksgiving morning practice is hardly seen as a sacrifice for this year's Buccaneers, who don't want to let that newfound relevance slip away.
"I think guys are just kind of tired of [not winning], so I don't think guys are going to let up," said defensive tackle and team captain Gerald McCoy. "We like the feeling we've had the last couple weeks and we just want to keep it going."
The day's televised football matters to the Bucs, too because all six teams involved are NFC clubs and some of them are jockeying for the same playoff spots. Smith's own plans for the day included enjoying a big meal prepared by his wife, MaryAnne, but he intended to continue the tradition of watching football, too.
"Growing up, watching the Lions and the Cowboys was a big part of that and that's what we're going to do today. We had practice early today," said the coach. "I want the guys, all of our players, to be able to spend time with their families [and] watch good football. These games mean a little bit more to us, the standings and all that."
- The list of Buccaneer players who were unable to practice has shrunk to two: defensive end George Johnson (calf) and safety Keith Tandy (concussion).
Offensive lineman Evan Smith, who has started the last two games at right guard in place of an injured Ali Marpet, returned to practice in a limited fashion on Thursday. The Bucs followed a similar course of action with Smith last week to help him play through a knee ailment, and he played every snap in the win at Philadelphia. Smith may be needed in that spot again if Marpet, who was also limited for the second straight day with an ankle injury, is unable to return in Week 12.
READ: THURSDAY'S INJURY REPORT
The only other change to the Buccaneers' official injury report on Thursday was the return to full participation of defensive end Josh Shirley, who had been limited with a calf injury.
- According to Pro Football Focus, Doug Martin forced Eagle defenders into seven missed tackles during his command performance in Philadelphia on Sunday.Only Carolina's Jonathan Stewart created more missed tackles in Week 11, with eight.
Of course, some of those missed tackles came on moves he made in the open field after breaking through the first line of defense. Martin's 235 rushing yards featured runs of 84, 58 and 27 yards, long rambles made possible by a front line that had one of its best performances in a season full of them.
"I ought to give them something special for this past week," said Martin, who is sure to hand out gifts to his blockers at season's end. "They did an awesome job keeping those holes open and staying on guys. The tight ends and the receivers as well – [we] emphasize the outside guys getting involved with the run game. Jorvorskie Lane did a good job of blocking guys. They're doing an awesome job so far and I'm proud of them.
"I'm very comfortable running behind those guys, smart guys. We have some injured guys, people filling in for each other, and they're filling in just fine, carrying the flag just fine. When you know your linemen will stay on guys, I can go back there and check all my options – backside, frontside. So, yeah, I definitely feel comfortable."
The Bucs' offensive line goes out to dinner together every Thursday evening (this week being an obvious exception) and they always invite Martin to come along. The Bucs' prolific running back says that has helped him form a tight bond with the men up front. Not only does he appreciate the initial holes they open for him on Sunday, but also the way they tend to chase the play downfield when he breaks off a long run.
"It feels good," said Martin. "It feels like my brothers are coming behind me and getting in on the fight. If one guy's getting in a fight, then everybody comes in to help you. That's the type of feeling that I have."