Pro Bowl G Davin Joseph thinks the Bucs have the personnel to make their new running game work
It's not exactly "If you can dodge a wrench…" territory, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches are betting that eluding a speeding medicine ball in April will help their running backs steer clear of the more malicious defensive linemen they'll face in September.
It's a practice drill that can't help but catch your eye this week at the Buccaneers' three-day mini-camp. As Tampa Bay backs take a handoff and begin a stretch run towards the sideline – a staple in the team's new zone-blocking scheme – coaches roll a ball down the line of scrimmage, parallel to the back's path. The speed of the ball changes from rep to rep, and backs have to decide when to make a hard cut underneath its path, or perhaps outrace it to the corner. The same method can be used to acclimate offensive linemen to the demands of the scheme.
"As far as the drill-work, we've been doing this for a while and know what works and what makes these guys see things," said new Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. "That ball drill's a great drill because it what it simulates is the defensive line coming, and we'll roll it at different speeds. One time you have to cut soon, one time you go outside of it. It's a really good drill to teach the running back."
It's just one short drill, a very small part of the overall work the Bucs are putting in inside meeting rooms and on the practice field. But they've used it at least once at each practice during the first two days of mini-camp, and they may very well be using it come December. That's because Jagodzinski and Offensive Line Coach Pete Mangurian have specific methods to drill their schemes into the players' heads (and their hands and feet) and they plan to stick to them. Repetition, says Jagodzinski, is essential.
"The difference between drilling it the way we're going to drill it and the way other guys do it, I think that's going to be the big factor in how these guys develop," said Jagodzinski. "They're going to hear the same thing exactly from Day One Install 'til we finish the season this year. The same things, over and over and over again. That's why I think that you can get good at this running game. Just like anything else – if you emphasize and that's what you do, that's who you are."
And you know what? The medicine ball drill kind of looks like fun. Running back Derrick Ward, one of the team's key free agent acquisitions in March, says everything about the new running attack is a blast.
"It's great," he said. "It's up-tempo, it's precision, and the run game is going to be fantastic. It's great for me because I can cut back on the moves that I make to get through the hole. We have the one-cut-and-up mentality here, so it's going to be exciting to see how that works out."
The Bucs charted this course when they hired Jagodzinski and Mangurian just weeks after promoting Raheem Morris to head coach. Both coaches have experience with the zone-blocking approach, which has been used to great success in Denver and Atlanta, among other places. Of course, many teams have "stretch" plays somewhere in their rushing attacks, so most backs and linemen are familiar with the overall concept. But making zone blocking the primary strategy means emphasizing new concepts for the backs and their blockers.
Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph thinks the Bucs are adapting to it well so far, albeit just two days into organized practices.
"We have some very versatile guys," he said. "It will be interesting to see. We're going from more of a drive-blocking scheme to more of a stretch-outside-zone kind of team, and really the guys are doing well adapting and learning. We have some excellent coaches on this staff so we're really starting to learn and getting a grasp on everything. It's exciting."
Given that the zone-blocking approach involves the running back deciding where and when to dart upfield, as opposed to taking a handoff and heading straight towards a designated area, success involves most of the offensive 11 working well in concert. The Buccaneers will spend much of this season working to develop the necessary chemistry amongst the linemen, and between the linemen and the running backs.
"I've got to be able to get in synch with the offensive line," said Ward. "That's what we're working on right now and hopefully we can get some of it down [Wednesday] afternoon and tomorrow, and when the next mini-camp comes we'll already know how to do that."
Added Jagodzinski: "As far as chemistry, I think it will take some time, but when we put it in in Atlanta the first time we ended up doing a pretty good job. We didn't have a lot of the same body types [in Atlanta] that we have here. So I think we're going to be more than fine."
Since both Ward and fellow tailback Earnest Graham – who has missed this camp while tending to a family matter – are considered smart players and "downhill" type runners who are at their best moving north and south, the team is confident that its backfield is well-suited to the new running approach. That puts the onus on a front line that is clearly loaded with young talent.
"We have some backs that are really smart with blitz pick-ups, knowing where to be, can catch the ball out of the backfield, so we've got some guys who can do just about anything," said Joseph. "So it will really be on the offensive line how good the zone-blocking scheme can be."
And how well that works out should dictate just how successful the team is on offense overall in 2009.
"I think it has to start with the run game," said Jagodzinski. "If you can't run the football in this league, I think you're going to have a hard time, because off of the run, if you get that established, everything else will fall into place for you."