The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be on relatively unfamiliar ground on Sunday afternoon, but they're well prepared for that situation.
The Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears will do battle at Wembley Stadium in the most far-flung game on the NFL's Week Seven schedule. While the Atlanta Falcons head to Detroit and the New Orleans Saints stay home for a matchup with Indianapolis, the Bucs have flown all the way across the Atlantic to represent the NFL in its International Series game in London. That might seem like a burden, but the Buccaneers have embraced the opportunity and have fed off the obvious excitement over the game in the United Kingdom.
"You've just got to talk about the energy that London brings to this game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, hours before kickoff at Wembley Stadium. "It's Super Bowl-like for these guys. American football is played once a year over here, as far as the NFL, so they really love it. They really take it in, and it's something that you can't explain."
The Buccaneers have been in the U.K. since Monday evening, but they only moved into downtown London on Friday afternoon. In the interim, they holed up at an insular little spot known as Pennyhill Park in Surrey, about an hour's drive from the city proper. There, they found a perfect spot to practice, and to come together as a team, on a converted rugby pitch that couldn't have been more perfectly suited to their needs. For a team that has grown accustomed to taking its practices to different venues, this was just another atmosphere to soak in.
"It wasn't the Trop, it wasn't One Buc," said Morris. "We had an opportunity to set up the football field out of the pitch. We had some rugby teams come out and see us and all those experiences were awesome. They loved football. Donald Penn has made some great new relationships with those guys; they love him. It's been phenomenal, it's been great.
"Pennyhill was a great experience. To have the chance to go out there and be with that hotel crew, the way they treated us, accommodating us as well as they did. It was phenomenal, something that you can't even express right now. But we did a great job of getting our work in and everything that we needed to do, and I definitely want to say thanks to those guys."
The pitch at Pennyhill was perfectly suited to the Buccaneers' needs, fitting the entire football field in a little valley between rolling hills and serving up a week of almost unbroken good weather. But even if the grass had been less green or the skies less blue, the Bucs would have enjoyed their week in the English countryside. The organization made the decision to move its entire week-long operation to the U.K. this time around in order to give its players the best possible opportunity to become acclimated to the surroundings.
"Getting a full week of practice in for us I think was key," said Morris. "It got all our guys together, it got the element that I didn't even think about, getting all your guys around each other like a training camp environment. We kind of stole a mini-camp this week. Those guys had nowhere to go, they had the chance to be around each other and have fun with each other. It was really phenomenal for us as a team to build and grow. It's something you can't explain."
The optimism was especially strong early in the week at Pennyhill Park when it looked like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy would likely return from his ankle injury and running back LeGarrette Blount might have a shot to overcome his knee ailment. However, McCoy's practice time subsided as the week went on and Blount never actually got back onto the field. In the end, the team decided that neither starter would be ready to go on Sunday at Wembley. In addition, starting center Jeff Faine will sit out due to the biceps injury he suffered last Sunday against New Orleans.
On defense, the Buccaneers will cover for McCoy the same way they did last week, with Frank Okam starting at defensive tackle and rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers standing by to provide some pass-rushing snaps from the inside. First-year end George Johnson will be active for another week and the Bucs will once again go eight-deep on the front line in hopes of visiting as much pressure as possible on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
"They're young," said Morris of his assorted pass-rushers. "They're a bunch of those guys that you can move around, different pieces, different places. They all have fun doing different things and they've all bought into filling that role until Gerald comes back. We feel good about it, they feel good about it and we'll do whatever it takes to win."
On offense, the team will rely on two players who have done nothing but produce when given the opportunity. Earnest Graham will start at tailback in place of Blount and look to reproduce something like his 109-yard performance from last week's win over the Saints. With Faine out, left guard Jeremy Zuttah will move over to center and Ted Larsen, who opened 11 games at left guard last season, will slide back into that spot.
Morris is confident that Graham and Zuttah will help the Buccaneers' offense keep in stride without its injured starters.
"Those are two guys that really have bought in completely to the "next man up" theory," said Morris. "It's what they do. It's what we do as a team, it's what we believe as an organization. If a man goes down, his backup has to play better. We've bought into the theory and these guys have taken it to the fullest. We will be without Gerald McCoy and some of those guys, and the next guy has to step up."
The Buccaneers declared seven players inactive for Sunday's game, including McCoy, Blount and Faine. The other four inactives were WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, T James Lee and TE Zack Pianalto. Stroughter was also out due to injury, though he did return to practice this week.
The Bears declared these seven players inactive: QB Nathan Ederle, S Major Wright, T Gabe Carimi, DT Matt Toeaina, WR Earl Bennett, DE Mario Addison and DE Corey Wootton. Wright, Carimi, Toeaina and Bennett were out due to injury.
In Wright's absence, seventh-year veteran Chris Harris will start at strong safety, while ninth-year veteran Anthony Adams moves into Toeaina's usual nose tackle spot. In addition, the absence of Carimi, the Bears' first-round draft pick and a rookie starter at right tackle, forced Chicago to make a few changes to their starting O-Line. Third-year man Lance Louis, usually the starter at right guard, will slide out to Carimi's spot at right tackle, and Chris Spencer, the former Seattle Seahawk, will take over at right guard.
Those Bucs and Bears who do run out of the tunnel on Sunday afternoon will be greeted with thunderous applause from a primed crowd at Wembley Stadium that is used to creating a suffocating atmosphere for visiting football teams. Morris thinks the atmosphere will be instructional for his young team, giving it a feel for the type of stage he hopes they will be experiencing soon.
"It's a great simulation of what it's like if you get to the ultimate dance," said Morris. "These guys will be out here 87.000-strong. It's like a gladiator-type experience. We'll go out and everything else from this point on is gray matter. You've got to focus in and lock in and play your game and trust your preparation."
The Bucs and Bears kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.