Head Coach Tony Dungy led a focused end-of-the-week practice on Tuesday
Friday practices are generally upbeat affairs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but this week's final workout felt different. That's not just because the practice was a 'Friday' session only by content, with a Thursday night game pushing the end of the week up to Tuesday. No, the Bucs came off the field on Tuesday with a collective seriousness, indicating the weight they have placed on the upcoming game against Detroit.
"It's very important," said Dungy of the seventh game for his 3-3 Bucs. "We've dug ourselves a hole where we really can't afford to lose any more home games, can't afford to lose any more division games. We've just made all these games down the stretch that much more important."
And the Lions are likely to make this one much more competitive than the first meeting between the two teams, a dominant 31-10 Buccaneer win in Detroit on September 17. Though that outcome would seem to make the Bucs heavy favorites at home, Dungy believes the 4-2 Lions will keep this contest much closer.
"I think it's easier if you didn't win the ballgame to come in with a lot more motivation," said Dungy of the rematch. "We've got to come in and know that they're going to play us tougher than they did up there."
What Dungy and his crew are less sure of is how the Lions will choose to close the gap this time around. Detroit was expected to stick to the running game in the first Bucs-Lions meeting, but abandoned that strategy quickly after gaining just 17 yards on 10 carries. In the interim, the Lions have won two of three contests with a resurgent James Stewart running the ball, and the team's top wideout, Germane Crowell, has been lost to a foot injury.
"We're not sure how they're going to play us," said Dungy. "We know they're going to come in and try to run the ball with James Stewart. Herman Moore coming back into the lineup (to replace Crowell)…he's given us problems in the past. We've got to be sharp and see if we can control the line of scrimmage."
The Buccaneers' injury situation became more muddled on Tuesday, with a few players making significant progress and a few others moving in the opposite direction.
First, the Bucs made three additions to their original list of five injured players, putting linebacker Jeff Gooch (shoulder), guard Todd Washington (hamstring) and defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson (knee) into the 'probable' category. Defensive end Steve White (ankle), linebacker Shelton Quarles (groin), safety Eric Vance (neck) and defensive end John McLaughlin (ankle) were already on the list as probable, and wide receiver Karl Williams headed the report as 'out' with his ongoing knee sprain rehabilitation.
Second, the team put Quarles and White back on the field on Tuesday, and both made it through practice without incident. It was thought that Tuesday's session would be a good determinant of whether those two would play on Thursday, and the early returns were positive.
"Shelton did okay," said Dungy. "Steve practiced. I don't know how he did - I'll have to talk to (Defensive Line Coach) Rod (Marinelli), but it looked like he made it through okay. So I think we'll be pretty close to full strength."
Gooch was one of a handful of players to get banged up during a heated workout on Monday. The second-team offense and defense, emulating the Lions' systems for the benefit of the Bucs' starters, got very enthusiastic about their role and there was a little more contact than usual.
"We had a good, spirited practice yesterday and had some guys that were a little sore after that," said Dungy. "But with 48 more hours, we should be okay. Jeff is getting an MRI. He bumped into Todd Washington yesterday and bruised his shoulder, so we're trying to see exactly what that is. We'll probably know this afternoon on him."
In fact, Dungy told Buccaneers.com later in the afternoon that Gooch's MRI was favorable. The examination was performed to check for the possibility of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and a tear was not found. He is significantly sore, however, and has been downgraded to questionable on the injury report. Dungy indicated that the decision on Gooch's availability would be made before the game on Thursday night.
The Bucs were thrilled with their breakthrough win in Detroit a month ago, but they have not added to the W column since, losing three straight before heading into the bye week. A sweep of the Lions would make a satisfying end to that streak. It would also mark the first time since 1990, that Tampa Bay has beaten the same team twice without earning any other victories in between. That dubious feat was also at the expense of the Lions. The Buccaneers won 38-21 at Detroit on September 9, lost at home to the L.A. Rams then completed the sweep of the Lions with a 23-20 win at home on September 16.
The Bucs can get back to their original success against the Lions in September, according to Dungy, by getting back to the basics. Tampa Bay has uncharacteristically given up big plays on defense and special teams in the past three week, and hasn't countered with their own big plays at the key moments.
"That's been the difference in the last three games," said Dungy. "We've got to get back to our fundamentals and make sure we're tackling well, we're hustling, pursuing, and then offensively, that we're protecting and throwing well and catching the ball when we have the opportunities.
"We've got to start making the plays. We've had some runs that could have been big plays, too, that were just a little bit off. When you try to control the ball the way we do, and you set people up, when you get those chances for the big plays, you've got to hit them."
Even though Dungy doesn't expect a repeat of the blowout in Detroit, that game can still be instructional to the now-struggling Buccaneers.
"I think it was important for all of us to go on the road, play a very good team and win and play well," he said. "I think it showed us all what we can do, what we're capable of. Now we have to get back to that and do it week in and week out."