High-energy battles at the line of scrimmage help to give practice a little added 'juice'
The end of Thursday's practice was mainly conducted on the back edges of fields two and three at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new facility, but the sounds of the workout could clearly be heard by those standing at the building's back doors. This was some high-spirited action for a practice, something Head Coach Jon Gruden fondly put into the category of "juice."
"Yeah, we're fired up, and we should be," said Gruden at the conclusion of the practice, which is preparing the Bucs for Sunday's away game against the New York Giants. "This is a great opportunity for us to win three straight games. We're playing an outstanding team on the road and our goal is to find a way to win."
Other portions of the workout were equally loud due to the row of speakers blaring simulated crowd noise at the offense. Thursday's selection was heavy on Bruce Springsteen, but thematically on the money not only for Springsteen's Jersey connection but for one particular track: "Born to Run."
The Bucs have run the ball much more effectively over the last three weeks, a major factor in the team's improved fortunes in that span, including two victories and one more that just slipped away at the end. After gaining just 111 rushing yards in three games before the bye week, second-year back Cadillac Williams has blasted for 287 over the last three games. A good portion of the credit goes to a very young offensive line that now has rookies starting at both right tackle (Jeremy Trueblood) and right guard (Davin Joseph).
"[They've been] pretty good," said Gruden. "We're off to a decent start. There's a long way to go, but we are showing progress. We're running the ball better, running it with more authority and consistency. I also respect the work that needs to be done."
Hard work in midweek is what leads to an outbreak of "juice" at practice, particularly when the battles are raging in the trenches. The Bucs are working not only Trueblood and Joseph but the whole offensive line hard this week to keep the running game strong and, just importantly, deal with the Giants' outstanding pass rush. New York's pass-rush fortunes have mirrored the Bucs' running-game resurgence this year; an expected strong unit that started out slow (two sacks in the first three games) but has now come on very fast (16 sakcs in the last three games).
A week after dealing with the hyperaggressive blitzing of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bucs now have to handle a defense loaded with edge-rushing talent.
"[Defensive coordinator] Tim Lewis does a great job with their scheme," said Gruden. "They use a lot of perimeter pressures, the corner blitzing, a safety blitzing. And when they don't blitz, they still play very hard. They're very physical. They've got a pass-rush, a top-notch pass rush, one of the top NFL pass rushes I've seen."
Both of the Giants' starting ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, went to the Pro Bowl last season, which was certainly reasonable in that they had 11.5 and 14.5 sacks, respectively, in 2005. Obviously, as the NFL's active sack leader, Strahan is a threat that doesn't need much embellishment. Gruden is aware, however, that the danger is just as present from Umenyiora's side, which happens to be the backside for Buccaneer quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Umenyiora leads the Giants with five sacks so far; Strahan is second with three. Seven of their eight combined sacks have come in the last three games, all Giant victories.
"He's a guy who maybe people would talk more about if they could say his name right," said Gruden of Umenyiora. "He's really something, that guy. He's got a great motor. [Antonio] Pierce is a great linebacker; I'm so impressed with him. [Michael] Strahan's having a great year. They've done a nice job with their scheme and with their personnel and they do play hard."
The Bucs have allowed opposing pass-rushers to sack Gradkowski exactly twice in each of his three starts, though the rookie's own elusiveness has helped keep that number down. That will be difficult to duplicate on Sunday in the Meadowlands, given the way the Giants' pass-rush is humming at the moment (witness: six sacks of Dallas passers just a few days ago). Still, the Bucs think they can get their protection in order with some hard work and a little added juice on the practice field. Plus a little Springsteen.
"We gave the Boss his due today," said Gruden. "We had a period right behind the speakers; 'Born to Run' was good. We're just trying to distract our players, make it loud. It's going to be that way in the Meadowlands – loud, a very excited crowd. It's going to be a challenge for us to operate in that noise."
Neither team edited its official injury report on Thursday; the Buccaneers still have seven "questionable" players, the Giants eight. However, both teams had one starter return to practice after missing Wednesday's work.
For the Buccaneers, that was cornerback Juran Bolden, who has been working through a hip injury for the past three weeks. Bolden hasn't missed a game due to the ailment and has, in fact, taken over the starting left tackle job with Brian Kelly hitting injured reserve.
For the Giants, it was wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who is dealing with a heel injury and is actually considered probable to play.
Other than quarterback Chris Simms, who is still out after his September 24 splenectomy, the Bucs had only one player miss practice on Thursday: defensive tackle Ellis Wyms. Wyms is the Bucs' new starter at defensive tackle after last week's trade of Anthony McFarland to Indianapolis, and he owns all three of the Bucs' sacks over the past two games. He finished last Sunday's game, his second career start, with an ankle injury and has not practiced this week.
"Wyms missed practice," confirmed Gruden. "Hopefully he'll be able to go tomorrow but he's still questionable for the game."
Joining Bolden and Wyms as questionable are tight end Anthony Becht (foot), wide receiver Mark Jones (hamstring), linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee), defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder) and wide receiver Maurice Stovall (back).
The Giants' questionable players are safety Jason Bell (concussion), linebacker Carlos Emmons (pec), cornerback Sam Madison (hamstring), wide receiver Sinorice Moss (quad), defensive ends Justin Tuck (foot) and Umenyiora (hip flexor), cornerback Frank Walker (hamstring) and running back Derrick Ward. Madison and Umenyiora are starters. Those two, plus Moss, Tuck and Walker did not practice on Thursday.