The Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved on to the second half of their 2011 schedule last Sunday, mathematically at least, with their Week 10 game against the Houston Texans. The team is hoping, however, that this week will prove to be a cleaner break.
Coming off a very promising 2010 season, the Buccaneers started the new campaign with a 3-1 record over the first month of play. Unfortunately, that was followed by four losses in a five-game stretch, including the last three in a row. The last one felt the worst, as the Bucs lost by four touchdowns at home to the Texans and had to question their own effort level and attention to detail afterward.
Thus came an altered practice schedule this week, leading up to a weekend trip to Green Bay, with padded practices on both Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since the regular season began. That was not the beginning of a new approach – the team is only allowed to have three more padded practices over the final six weeks – but rather an effort to refocus the players on the fundamentals of 'Buccaneer football.' At 4-5, the Bucs still have their sights set on the playoffs, which means a turnaround must be immediate.
On Friday, the week ended with the usual 90-minute review practice, and while they couldn't put the pads on for a third straight day, they could still display a higher effort level. Head Coach Raheem Morris said the emphasis on physical, fundamental play did what it was supposed to do.
"A good day – a good week – of practice," said Morris on Friday afternoon. "It was physical the first two days; today we got the speed going. We got the guys going, had some competitive moments in practice – no easy catches, no easy pass defenses. Everything was pretty good. We had a good week of practice, so practice won't be to blame this week. We've got to go out there and perform.
"It always goes back to fundamental core beliefs. I'm talking about tackling, talking about effort, talking about loafs, talking about physical play. That's what we did in practice this week to get used to it. You can see the sense of urgency in the team and how they practiced this week. You can see a sense of urgency when they competed this week. That's what you want. Going back to the basics is something you have to do when you're coming off a big loss."
Morris publicly took responsibility for the Houston effort after the game on Sunday and again this week. He said it was his job to get maximum effort out of the players, and he certainly delivered that message to his team during the week of preparation. While he said his apparent criticism of the players' effort was blown out of proportion, he did make it clear what he was looking for from every man on every snap.
"I've got a different standard for effort, when you talk about loafs and turning and running," said Morris. "When the ball's in the air, I expect my guys to put their foot in the ground and turn and run. That's why checkdowns don't go for touchdown. Everybody knows when somebody misses a tackle and you blame that guy. But I'm talking about the guys that weren't there to even have a tackle attempt. You want your linebackers there, you want your D-Line there, you want everybody there, especially on check-downs and short passes. That's what makes good defenses."
Morris enlisted his veteran team leaders to repeat this message to the entire roster, in small groups in the locker room, in meeting rooms, on the practice field. He wanted a team that was not only physical in practice this week, but also sharp on the details.
"Sometimes during the season, coaches, players, everybody can be guilty of not seeing the little things in practice," said Morris. "So this week I just wanted to focus on the little things in practice, the little things in preparation, focus on all of those things in order to detail it a little more, make it more important, create more of a sense of urgency. It's not what you didn't see or what didn't happen last week, because you felt good about last week, too. But this week you want to go back and focus on all the details. Sometimes that slips a little bit, and that's my fault, and that's why I wanted to be accountable and made sure we did it this week."
Morris didn't call out any specific players in the week after the disappointment against Houston, and there were no players benched due to anything that happened last Sunday. Weakside linebacker Geno Hayes has been promoted back to the starting lineup, but that was actually in response to his good performance against the Texans.
"We're going back to the original starting linebackers today, with Hayes," said Morris, indicating that Quincy Black will move back to the strong side. "That will be the only thing to talk about with the starters. Different people are starting in different personnel groups on both sides of the ball."
The Bucs may have to make one more lineup change on Sunday, however, if free safety Tanard Jackson is sidelined by his lingering hamstring issue. Jackson didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday and was only a limited participant on Friday, leaving him as a major question mark heading into the weekend. Morris said Jackson's availability would be a game-day decision when the team gets to Lambeau Field.
Jackson is one of only two players listed as "questionable" on the Bucs' Friday injury report, the first one of the week that bears actual game day status designations. The other is reserve linebacker Dekoda Watson, who also missed the Houston game with a groin injury he suffered on the practice field last week.
Six other Bucs are listed as probable: defensive end Michael Bennett (groin), center Jeff Faine (illness), quarterback Josh Freeman (right thumb), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee), defensive tackle Frank Okam (calf) and tackle Donald Penn (foot). Haynesworth and Faine were the only two who were held out of practice on Friday.