It's not something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are claiming as any kind of victory in the midst of an actual defeat last Sunday in Jacksonville, but one thing was apparent during the ensuing breakdown of the game tape. Last week's efforts to simplify the defensive play-calling up front did lead to better results in terms of gap fits against the opposing rushing attack.
Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew had a memorable afternoon, scoring four touchdowns – on two one-yard runs and two five-yard catches – to become the Jaguars' all-time leader in that category. However, he was held to 85 yards, below his season average, and 3.1 yards per carry, and the only time he broke loose in a significant way produced just a 14-yard run.
Again, the result on the scoreboard and Jones' ability to find the end zone obviously keep that effort from being truly satisfying, but it was at least evidence of progress on an issue the team had stressed on the practice field. Along the same lines, Head Coach Raheem Morris has his team paying special attention to a few other key areas this week in practice in an effort to produce the fast finish that will allow the team to carry some momentum into the offseason.
The Bucs practiced for roughly 30 minutes longer than usual on Tuesday (which, given the Saturday game, was the equivalent of a normal Wednesday), and that had a lot to do with some extra emphasis on the basics.
"We did some fundamental things today, some stuff with tackling on defense," said Morris. "We did some stuff with ball security, with catching the ball and keeping it in possession on offense. We got the quarterbacks to work with those guys a little bit longer and a little bit better. We did some things with the punt return after practice with [Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne] Stukes and those guys, taking some blows right after catching it and all the things you need to do to get better.
"I was proud of our fundamental core development today with those guys. We were able to get that accomplished. We had a couple of extra periods and made practice a little bit longer, but it was worth it."
At 4-9, the Bucs head into the final three weeks without the playoff-race conversation they expected to be having this December. A tough losing streak that followed a promising beginning to the season might seem like the kind of thing that would sap morale, but Morris said his players are still dialed-in and ready to fight. He says he's having little trouble motivating the league's youngest roster.
"It's pretty easy right now," he said. "We're focusing on fundamental core beliefs. We're just talking about dealing with those things and getting better for when it's time to come, so we don't have to talk about these things when we're winning. It's a perfect time for us to talk about it.
"Right now, we're in the midst of losing, and you've got find a way to get better right now for anything you have ready in the future. These guys are pretty focused. They're doing a nice job of receiving their coaching. They're doing a nice job of accepting everything that we're asking them to do. I just hope that we can see the results when they come on Saturday."
Saturday will bring Game 14, a visit from the 7-6 Dallas Cowboys, who lost control of the NFC East with Sunday night's loss to the Giants but are still very much in the playoff picture. The game will put the Bucs on prime time for the second time this season – they beat Indianapolis on Monday Night Football in Week Four – and that likely provides extra motivation for players who want to impress a national audience. Moreover, it's the last home game of the year for the Bucs, who want to finish on a strong note for the home crowd.
"I hate to say there's an extra emphasis on [this game]; that means you didn't have emphasis on the other ones," said Morris. "It certainly is special because it's the last one, the last one this season [at home]. These guys are going to get ready to go out there and play football. It helps when it's the Dallas Cowboys. It's a night game. You've got all the atmosphere and you're looking forward to getting those guys out there and playing underneath the lights. It's always a bunch of fun, always a time to play fast. We look forward to going out there and playing in it for sure."
Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib hurt his hamstring five plays into the team's Week 13 game against Carolina, did not return to that contest and did not log a single practice snap the next week. Unsurprisingly, Talib was deactivated for last Sunday's game in Jacksonville.
That chain of events might have seemed like a harbinger of an extended absence for the fourth-year veteran, but it's quite possible he will end up missing just one outing.
That possibility certainly seemed more likely after Talib returned to practice on Tuesday, and not just in a limited fashion. Morris said the ball-hawking cornerback was able to handle a "full battery" of practice drills during what proved to be an extra-long field session to start the Dallas week.
"He actually went out and did a lot," said Morris. "I'm sure he's going to be a little sore, I'm guessing with how active he was today in practice. We'll see what he's able to do. He's one of those guys that's kind of different when it comes to healing and comes to getting better. He sits next to Ronde Barber every day; maybe that stuff rubs off on you. We'll have to see and let him go play this weekend. He's fine about playing as I know all these guys are."
The Buccaneers would certainly feel better if they had an intact secondary to face Tony Romo and the Cowboys' sixth-ranked passing attack. Fellow starter Ronde Barber took on shutdown responsibilities against Carolina's Steve Smith two weeks ago and handled them superbly, then added an interception off Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert in the next game. However, the Tampa Bay staff often asks Barber to work on the opposing tight end when he happens to be a prolific pass-catcher, and that certainly describes' Dallas Jason Witten. If the Bucs are looking for one of their corners to work specifically on either Dez Bryant or Miles Austin, it would likely be Talib, assuming he can suit up for the game.
Defensive depth may end up being more of an issue on the interior line, which lost reserve John McCargo to injured reserve on Monday. Starting nose tackle Brian Price tried to practice on Tuesday but was able to do relatively little when his pre-existing ankle injury caused him problems. Defensive tackle Frank Okam, just promoted from the practice squad, and defensive tackle Larry Divens, who took Okam's place on that eight-man crew, saw plenty of snaps during Tuesday's workout.
"We'll get [Price] ready to go and see what he can be tomorrow and the next couple of days," said Morris. "We'll try to get him out there in order to play. He's been struggling with the ankle a little bit, and it's been bothering him. It was a little sore today on him. He tried to go."
There were some promising health notes on the other side of the ball Tuesday. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn did not practice after possibly suffering a concussion Sunday in Jacksonville, but Morris said early indications are that it was a mild one. Benn has undergone the league-mandated battery of tests for players suspected of having a concussion and, while he's still waiting for the results, Morris said he had hopes for good news.
In addition, quarterback Josh Freeman appears to have emerged from his start in Jacksonville no worse for the wear, despite being landing on his sore right shoulder several times. Freeman missed the Carolina game after sustaining that injury in Tennessee, but he practiced on Tuesday and Morris does not appear to be concerned about his availability.
"He went through practice today, he didn't blink one bit," said the coach. "He's kind of got that angry demeanor thanks to [the media], so it was pretty good. Hopefully we can get him out there playing with a little bit of anger. Hopefully we can get him out there playing with a little edge and playing a little more focused and a little better and get ready for his team to go into the future."
McCoy: "I'm Ahead of Schedule"
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, on injured reserve since the start of Week Seven, doesn't particularly like having to watch his team play road games on television. His usual method of handling the disappointment of separation: Retire to his "man cave," ask everyone else to leave, put the game on TV and take it all in, the good and the bad.
Within a few weeks, McCoy will be back on the same program with the rest of his young Buccaneer teammates, as 2011 transitions into 2012 and the players begin preparing for a rebound season next fall. McCoy won't quite be on equal footing with all of his fellow Bucs, as his first focus will be the rehabilitation of his torn left biceps, but he won't be as far behind as some had feared.
McCoy successfully returned from a torn right biceps this past offseason, and that one occurred two months later in the season. He knows from experience that the prognosis for recovery from such an injury is anywhere from six to 12 months, and he also knows that he came in on the shorter end of that scale last year. Though the labor dispute made it difficult to track his offseason progress, McCoy started training camp on time and was in the lineup on opening day for 2011.
The good news: McCoy believes he's recovering that quickly again, if not even more quickly. He says he's ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and could begin training again in less than two weeks.
"It's pretty similar [to last year]," McCoy said on Tuesday. "No complications. My arm is not supposed to be able to rotate as much as it can [now], but it is. That's all God's doing."
If it's unusual and concerning that McCoy has already torn both of his biceps in just two NFL seasons, the upshot is that he believes he'll be less susceptible to that same injury moving forward. He could head into his third NFL season with more powerful arms than ever before.
"After it's surgically put back together and it heals up, it's very rare for it to tear again," he said. "For it to happen to both arms is rare, but it did. I had my surgery and I'm healing up. My left arm is stronger than ever and my right will be the same. When you have surgery, most doctors will tell you that it's stronger than it was before. That's a good thing. I haven't had any complications, so I'm feeling really positive about it."
With a new collective bargaining agreement in place, the Buccaneers and the rest of the NFL will be able to use the offseason more effectively this season. Though some of the allowed work will be scaled back by the provisions of the new agreement, there will still be mini-camps, weight-room sessions and organized team activity days (OTAs). McCoy knows he'll still be working on regaining the strength in his left arm in the spring but he thinks he'll be able to get quite a bit of work in with the rest of the team.
"I'll do as much as possible," he said. "I'll be able to do some of the drills and clubbing the bag and stuff, but I'm going to be careful with all the contact stuff…what little contact they let us have now anyway. But I'll definitely participate if at all possible."