Apparently, DE Marcus Jones' elbow injury will not keep him out of Sunday's game in Green Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran into a snag on Friday in their preparations for Sunday's game in Green Bay.
You see, it rained at the Bucs' complex during Friday's early-afternoon practice, and that's at odds with Sunday's Green Bay forecast of a dry, mid-50s day. Hopefully, somehow, the Buccaneers will find a way to overcome this weather anomaly and succeed in that unfamiliar Wisconsin clime.
Actually, the rain in Tampa lasted for only 20 minutes or so, and it certainly wasn't enough to dampen the enthusiasm of a spirited practice with, for once, near perfect attendance. Only four players – two of them usual starters – were unable to suit up on Friday.
"We have four guys who don't look like they're going to play: Eric Vance, Anthony McFarland, Jacquez Green and John Howell," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Other than that, everybody else worked today and it was encouraging.
"We're probably in better shape than we anticipated we might be."
The basis of that statement probably lies in the quicker-than-anticipated healing of several key players. On Monday, the jury was out on whether WR Keyshawn Johnson (knee), DE Marcus Jones (elbow), LB Derrick Brooks (foot), RB Warrick Dunn (hamstring), LB Nate Webster (shoulder) or WR Reidel Anthony (hip) would be ready to play in Green Bay. Each of those players practiced without incident on Friday and is expected to suit up on Sunday. Jones and Anthony had sat out Wednesday and Thursday workouts but were considered 'probable' on the team's official injury report.
Of the players on the above list, only Dunn did not play last week. As such, his return is the most anticipated, but also the biggest question mark. The issue isn't only how the team will balance his touches with Mike Alstott's, but how much action Dunn is fit to see in his first game back.
"He's doing fine," assessed Dungy. "He's actually running pretty well. His conditioning is going to be a factor. I don't think we're going to get 50 plays out of him, but when he plays, he'll play effectively. He's running well, cutting well. We just have to be smart how we use him."
Though several positions looked as if they might be dangerously thin in Green Bay due to injuries, the late week assessment is much more positive. Johnson and Anthony are likely to start and the team has plenty of depth at receiver with Karl Williams and Frank Murphy. And the linebacking corps will be considerably deeper with the availability of Webster and Jeff Gooch, who has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury. The only position that seems noticeably thin is safety, where just one reserve, David Gibson, will back up both starters, free safety Dexter Jackson and strong safety John Lynch.
As for that rain during practice? All it did was put a smile on Dungy's face.
"The rain was good," he said. "It will get us ready for Lambeau."
As for the makeup of the Bucs' rushing attack, count Dunn among those that feel both he and Alstott can be productive in the same game. Those that would like to see one or the other get 30 carries should take note that, since the two became teammates in 1997, neither has ever carried the ball 30 times in a game. In fact, Alstott has just three games in which he has 25 or more carries and Dunn has exactly one.
"I don't want 30 carries," said Dunn. "I want to get into a rhythm and into the flow of the game, but I always want to be used in the passing game. I want to be able to complement everyone else. I think Mike (Alstott) and I are on the same page with that. Mike has done a good job running behind the guys. But if the offensive line doesn't block, no one runs. We both know our roles and we have to play our roles. The coaches are going to decide what's going on and all we can do is go out and try to win the football game."
The key is keeping the ball in the offense's hands long enough to give everybody their share of carries and receptions. Even though Alstott set a career high with 28 carries against the Vikings, there were still 15 carries by other players in that game, not to mention 20 receptions. The Bucs' offense ran 72 plays against Minnesota after averaging 62 per game through the first five contests, thanks in large part to eight third down conversions in 14 tries.
"If you look at the previous games that we've had, we haven't been able to sustain drives and build much," said Dunn. "So it was hard to establish the run because we got behind early. We had to throw the football, so we could not run the ball and people were starting to see that. Last week we were able to establish the run early and that was the key to the game."
QB Brad Johnson simply wants the option of getting the ball into either Dunn's or Alstott's hands.
"It's funny, because last week we had a couple of receivers missing and we had Mike step up (in Dunn's absence)," said Johnson. "That's what you have to have in this league – depth. It's great to Warrick back there. He's a playmaker. I know people talk about who should be playing, but we're just thankful we have two very good players that can make plays regardless of who's back there. We're excited about it and we expect to come out and play a great ballgame."
The Bucs' third-down success against Minnesota boosted its league-ranking in that category to 15th. The team is converting on 38.3% of its third-down tries, a number they would like to see climb into the 40s. Even at its current pace, Tampa Bay's offense is doing much better in that category than in the past two years, when it finished with third down rates of 35.2 in 1999 and 33.3 in 2000.
Keeping that number on the rise this weekend will be a difficult task, according to Johnson.
"Playing against Green Bay, they have one of the better defenses in the league," he said. "They don't give up the big, big pass play, they don't give up a lot of yards on the ground. That's where you have to be great on your third-down conversions. We have to be a little bit more successful on first downs. You have to stay away from penalties. We've really put ourselves in the hole a bunch of times by playing on a long field, getting the ball on our five or six-yard line and having to drive 95 yards. When we do get the ball in short fields, we have to be able to convert and score."