FB Mike Alstott, here taking his turn in back-on-back blocking drills, returned to practice Monday morning
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began another week of practice early Monday morning, a thick cloud cover and light breeze lent a slightly nicer atmosphere to the proceedings than usual.
If you're thinking, 'Not another training camp weather report,' please bear with us. The sun eventually broke through, mixed in with short but heavy spurts of rain, and practice was soon back to its normal steam-room environment at the University of Tampa. That was fitting, because even as the Bucs' camp is winding down, the competition on the field is heating up intensely.
Monday represents the last day of practices at the training camp facility, and thus the last set of two-a-day workouts. The Bucs are making the most of it, scheduling two full-pads workout, including the first night practice of camp (the first attempt at an evening session, in July, was rained out).
In the morning, the usual two hours was stretched to almost 150 minutes, and the players attacked each other with what seemed like added gusto. In addition to the two off days given the team (Friday and Sunday), there may be another reason for the added intensity, according to Head Coach Tony Dungy.
"Practice really determines who's going to get the time in the games," said Dungy. "Especially now, we're going into this game and we want to play our first group into the third quarter so they get the feel of coming out after halftime and making those adjustments. So there's going to be limited playing time for the other guys, and the battle for that playing time is really in practice this week."
Here's another possible factor: the return of fullback Mike Alstott, who has missed most of camp with a hamstring strain. Alstott's first full-pads workout in two weeks was a treat for the hundreds of fans in attendance Monday morning, as the 250-pound 'A-Train' routinely lowered his shoulders for hard hits during running-game drills.
Dungy was pleased with Alstott's effort, but he put him on the sideline for the last half hour of the session and will not let him take the field tonight. There was no setback on Monday morning, just a strict adherence to the comeback plan.
"We're going to see how he is on Wednesday," said Dungy. "We basically made the decision (to give him) one practice a day. He'll get another 36 hours off, and we'll see how it is on Wednesday. We don't want to bring him back too fast. If he does play in the game, we'll probably have a certain number of plays that he's going to play no matter what, just so we don't get him fatigued before he's ready."
Dungy surely welcomed the sight of one of the team's most valuable offensive players returning to the field, but he remained restrained, to no one's surprise.
"He did fine," said Dungy of Alstott's efforts. "The tendency is to want to do more. You go through certain drills that we had prescribed for him and (say), 'Oh, I feel good, I can do the next one.' But you have to fight that and stick with the plan. We did that and he came through fine."
Though he watched the final team drills from the sideline, Alstott did stay after the formal end of the session to do some extra walk-through work with Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, RB Warrick Dunn, QB Shaun King and TE Henry Lusk. The five jogged through a variety of plays and formations, mostly to keep Alstott's mental grasp of the offense sharp. That's important, because Alstott is being asked to do a lot in Steckel's newly imported attack, including catch a higher number of passes.
"I'm really excited," said Alstott about that aspect of his responsibilities in 2000. "It's just another way to get the ball in the hands and do something. We want to change it up, mix it up a little bit so we're not predictable. A lot of different formations – whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to do, obviously. But, to receive the ball, I know how to do it and I think I can do it pretty well. Right now, it's just getting used to the different routes and reading the coverage."
While Alstott will take it easy tonight, a pair of rookies who sat out the morning practice will return to action this evening, including S Ashley Cooper, who has seen very little field time during camp due to a pre-existing knee injury.
"He's going to practice – Ashley and Tarig Holman tonight," said Dungy. "They're kind of on the same thing, one practice a day, and we thought we'd put them in the night practice because it will have a little more kicking in it, and that will help them, special teams-wise."
Dungy anticipates another high-spirited practice Monday evening, particularly with the prospect of a full grandstand at Pepin-Rood Stadium. That would be a fine sendoff for what Dungy deems a successful three weeks at the University of Tampa.
"It's been a good camp," he said. "I think we've worked very hard. I think we've gotten our offense in place and I think we're rolling on the right track. Now we've got two weeks, basically, back at One Buc to kind of fine tune everything, get the squad down to 53 guys and finish up. But the first part, we're happy with."