RB Earnest Graham ran up against a determined and physical Buc defense on Tuesday morning
Head Coach Jon Gruden gave his players two days to get acclimated to pads at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp. On the third day, with the necessary adjustments presumably made, he turned them loose. In what has become an early-camp ritual for the Bucs, and for any team Gruden has coached, Tuesday morning's practice featured the most entertaining drill of camp: Live at the goal-line.
Three sets of downs from the three-yard line, the starting offense pitted against the starting defense, the twos against the twos and the threes against the threes. Real, full-contact football with the whistle blowing only when the ballcarrier is down. Twenty-two men fighting over nine feet of turf.
It was intense, as always. It was also apparent that some of the players have successfully acclimated themselves to pads. Fullback Mike Alstott, not surprisingly, was among those players. Of course, Mike Alstott may have been born in shoulderpads.
The first-team offense and defense got the second set of downs, following the battle of the twos. Since it was goal-line, Alstott was in the tailback spot for the starting unit, running behind fellow fullback Rick Razzano. It took all of one play for Alstott to get the ones into the end zone, even though all-world linebacker Derrick Brooks had a chance to snuff his first down run. The offensive line opened up a nice hole for Alstott over left tackle and he did the rest by lowering his pads and driving through Brooks to reach paydirt.
Brooks was displeased, of course, but he'll win the next one. And Alstott has done the same thing to many, many defenders during his 11 years in the league.
The always lingering problem of judging the success of a training camp play holds here. Do you celebrate the offense's achievement or worry about the defense's failure? In this case, Gruden was pleased simply to see the physical level of play on both sides of the ball.
"It's only the third day of pads and we're on the goal line," said Gruden. "The second day [in pads], we want to come out a little bit more explosive in our movements. And the third day we're going to operate live, as we have every year since I've been a head coach. The number-two offense stuck it in there on the number-two defense. It took the number-one offense one play for [Mike] Alstott to score against our number-one defense. We got a fumbled exchange with our third group but they managed to push it in on the other couple downs."
Cadillac Williams, the starting tailback in most situations, ran with the second team and got the ball in the end zone on his second carry thanks to nice blocks on the left side of the line from tackle Torrin Tucker and guard Toniu Fonoti. The third-team offense, as Gruden mentioned, fumbled the snap on second down but got the ball into the end zone two plays later on running back Derek Watson's counter run to the left.
Of course, successful defensive stands on first-and-goal from the three are relatively uncommon, so the three defenses were admittedly in a tough spot. They could take their encouragement from the handful of plays that didn't work, such as the one Jermaine Phillips blew up by shooting the gap that Watson was trying to come through. Barrett Ruud, Alan Zemaitis and Antoine Cash all had notable stops during that period, too.
Overall, it was a useful simulation of game-like conditions.
"We got six or seven live snaps at goal line, and sometimes you go through a regular season and don't get six snaps," said Gruden. "But it is an area that we have isolated hard and will continue to [isolate.] We'll see that drill one more time before training camp ends.
"We got some good work. There are plenty of places where we can improve but it was overall a pretty good today."
His Job to Keep
In a never-ending quest to get a spark on kickoff return, the Bucs have given return reps to eight or nine different players already in camp. Perhaps this is the beginning of a serious competition for the job, with some of the younger players hoping to use it to gain a foothold on a roster spot. Perhaps not. Running back Michael Pittman already knows who will be deep for the first kickoff of the regular season.
"It's my job," said Pittman. "It's my job and I'm not going to lose it. I'll be here all season doing it."
Pittman, who finished the 2005 season as the primary kickoff returner, concedes that he could have that task taken off his plate if something sidelines Cadillac Williams and he is back in the starting tailback role. Even then, he will only give it up reluctantly.
"I'm still going to try to stay on there, even if that happens," he said. "I asked to do it last year. I went to Coach Rich Bisaccia and he had to go to Coach Gruden and ask if I could do it, and Coach Gruden gave us the green light."
Pittman didn't make his request until the end of the season. He got the nod for the season finale against New Orleans and took to the job immediately, returning three kickoffs for 85 yards, an average of 28.3 per runback. In the playoff game against Washington, Pittman tacked on four more carries for 96 yards, an average of 24.0 yards each.
Pittman had similarly brief cameos as the kickoff returner in Arizona during his first two seasons, notching six returns in 1988-89. This time he wants to hold onto the job longer.
"I think it's fun," he said. "I run down the field hard and I already envision myself breaking one. Hopefully it will happen this year. I'm just having a good time back there. I think with my speed and the guys blocking for me upfront I'll have an opportunity to break one. I'm going to hit a small gap full speed and those guys on the other team aren't going to want to tackle me full-speed. They'd rather tackle a receiver."
Pittman thinks backs are more naturally suited for the job anyway, given their usual style of play.
"I just run straight upfield hard," he said. "With a running back returning kicks as compared to receivers, we're used to seeing little holes and little gaps. With me running the ball like that with a big open field, I've got so many gaps I can pick from. I know it's going to be fun."
More from Coach Gruden
Gruden touched on a variety of additional topics after Monday's first practice.
On how the team executed in practice: "Oh, pretty good at times, both sides. We had a live goal-line scrimmage, which was our first real live contact period of training camp. ."
On how the protection schemes are working on offense: "Pretty good. You put a rookie quarterback in there, I know what's going to happen the first time he plays. People are going to blitz him so we're trying to put him in some really adverse situations. We've been doing quite well against the blitz. Bruce [Gradkowski] obviously has areas that he's got to learn from today, but it's going to be a process."
On Chris Simms: "Well, I don't want to say too many positive things because it's so early in camp, but he's doing a great job with our offense right now. He's throwing the ball tremendously. He's seeing things. He's handling a lot of situation football extremely well. He's picking up right where he left off last year, as a very good young quarterback who's getting better. He's emerging, I think, as a player at that position."
On if there were any issues with the QB-center exchange on Tuesday: "Well, [Jonathan] Clinkscales was in there at center; he hasn't taken a lot of reps. Bruce and that battery obviously backfired on us down at the goal line, but I'm not real concerned about it. I can honestly think, I can probably say nobody practices the center-quarterback exchange more, but we have had three or four throughout the first seven or eight practices, and you can't have any because it's the most basic fundamental in football."
On players who didn't participate in practice: "[Michael] Pittman had a wisdom tooth taken out and he'll be back. I'm not going to comment on David Boston every day; he's on a program that we're monitoring and he's doing quite well. He'll be back when the schedule says."
On his running wind sprints and signing autographs with WR Joey Galloway: "We do that every year since he's been healthy. We have our own little ritual, we have our own little agreement. Part of it is, six 100s whenever the head coach feels like he needs to get a little exercise. I love that guy. I love what he's bringing to our football team and I want to make sure that we meet up to the contract that we have with one another. Nobody's more appreciative of the fans than I am. If signing autographs for 15 minutes is any token of appreciation, well that's not enough because they're coming out here in full force every day. Their passion is, I think, helping us through some tough hot moments right now."
On G Jeb Terry: "He's doing some good things in there. He's taking a lot of snaps at right guard and he's doing some good things, just as we had expected."