FB Mike Alstott participated fully in Saturday's workouts but is line for a bigger dose of carries in the coming days
At the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, practices are segmented into about a dozen smaller periods, precisely time and designed to work on very specific parts of the game.
Some of the full-team drills are marked on the coaches' practice schedule as 'special category,' meaning they will be used to highlight a specific game situation or strategy. The category could be anything from red zone production to two-minute drills.
On Saturday, all of the team's special-category work was aimed at the blitz. That meant the defense was working on ways to improve its blitz effectiveness and the offense was focusing on picking up the extra pass-rushers. And it wasn't just one or two blitzes; the coaching staff got exotic, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at its players.
It was a mentally demanding way to begin training camp, but the Bucs are trying very hard to challenge their players this year.
"We've been much more ambitious, maybe, than we have been in the past," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We had 32 base blitzes today; obviously we're trying to get our team ready for that aspect on both sides of the ball. We've put a lot more in, on offense and on defense, than we have in the past to challenge our players, the newcomers, to see exactly where they are. I was very impressed with a lot of the things that happened, although we still have a long way to go."
After a morning practice in which the players impressed their head coach with how much they had retained from a series of offseason film and practice sessions, Saturday's afternoon follow-up was more of the same. Though he has only one day of evidence to work with so far, Gruden says he is pleased with how well the Buccaneer players prepared for camp this year.
"Particularly the new players, the free agents, the rookies," he said. "It has been a great challenge for them to come in here and learn a new attack. And we didn't just install fragments of it; we threw just about everything we had at them. For that, I'm really impressed and encouraged. At the same time, there are some techniques and fundamentals that have a long way to go to get right."
The Buccaneers also made it through the first day of camp without any significant injuries, another development that differs from previous years. DE Simeon Rice was the only unexpected absence from Saturday's practices, but he is recovering from an illness and should be back in action shortly.
"I think we'll probably wait until Monday to be conservative," said Gruden of Rice's likely return. "There's a chance the big guy could come out tomorrow, but I think probability says it will be Monday morning."
The team does have a number of players on whom it is keeping a close eye, since they are returning from injuries that cost them parts of the 2003 season, players such as Charlie Garner, Ian Gold and Joe Jurevicius. Fullback Mike Alstott also falls into that category, but his return from a serious neck injury last year is going very well.
"He's doing good," said Gruden. "They'll be a period here, at some point in the next few days, where we give him a chance to really get into a rhythm in terms of carrying the football, catching the ball and playing the game he's been accustomed to playing. But everything looks great. All signs are good and he looks like Mike Alstott to me."
Alstott would probably like to get his turn on Monday. That's when the players throw on the pads and really starts hitting each other.
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Gruden touched on a variety of topics during the first day of training camp.
On if the defense got the better of the offense on Saturday morning: "That's hard to say. You have four downs to make a first down, the way I see offensive football. We had some breakdowns in pass protection that, quite honestly, are inexcusable. Hopefully, we get Kenyatta back and he can stabilize that second group a little bit. But all in all, our defensive line is pretty good, now. They're going to win some battles. They're a very talented crowd."
On the Buccaneers' secondary: "It's very athletic. Obviously, when you look at [Jermaine] Phillips, you look at Dwight Smith when he gets here, those are two rangy, athletic guys. Will Allen's a guy who's been a nickel corner at Ohio State, a linear guy who can cover in the slot and do some things. And we like John Howell's versatility as a free and strong safety. We feel like we've got some talent there and we've got to continue to strive for the most out of those guys."
On if Gruden's pre-camp speech was all business on Friday night: "Well, it's a business we're in. It's an exciting business. The big thing is, we've got a collection of players, as we do every year. You challenge your rookies to not spend all of their signing-bonus check the first week, you know what I mean? You straighten those guys out, you let them understand that this is a very serious matter now. We challenge our second-year players, Chris Simms and Dewayne White, to come through for us like Jermaine Phillips did a year ago. And we challenge the free agents. The recruiting process is over. We've got a number of new players like Dave Moore and the players we've mentioned, Greg Comella and Josh Bidwell, who can come in here and redeem themselves and have great seasons. And we challenge the veteran Buccaneer players, and there are a lot of them left who know what it takes to win a championship, and we're going to lean on that."
On how Charlie Garner is working into the system: "Well, he's going to be just fine. He's going to be an asset to us as a pass receiver, he's going to be a threat to carry the ball and he's going to be a guy who is comfortable picking up blitzes. I think we're going to work him out okay. I think he's going to be just fine."
On his progress since he was in Philadelphia: "He's come a long way since his rookie and second and third years when I was with him in Philadelphia. He was a great runner coming out of Tennessee – that's been well-documented. He was in a situation in Philly where he was not necessarily the lead horse there with Ricky Watters, but he made explosive plays and led the league in yard per carry in 1995. He's a guy who's really improved himself as a pass receiver and as an overall football player. That's one of the reasons he's one of the top five production backs in the league in the last five years."