Geno Hayes went from starter to special-teamer to part-time linebacker over the course of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last three games, and now he's right back where he started.
On Thursday, Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed that Hayes has earned back his job as the team's starting weakside linebacker, where he will play Sunday when the Buccaneers take on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Hayes was benched after Tampa Bay's Week Seven game against the Chicago Bears in London due to inconsistent play, according to Morris. He did not play a snap of defense in Week Nine at New Orleans after the team's bye week, but was incorporated back into the mix this past Sunday against the Houston Texans. Morris had moved strongside linebacker Quincy Black to the weak side and inserted Adam Hayward into the starting three at Black's old spot. Hayes got a good number of snaps against the Texans and made the most of them, convincing the coaching staff he was ready to be an asset on defense once again.
"He came out last week and performed well in a part-time role," said Morris. "He kind of did some of the things that we wanted him to do right from the beginning. He was sharp, he was fast, he was quick. He was one of the bright spots from last week and it's time to go back with him in a starting role."
The Bucs may be back to their original trio, with rookie Mason Foster in the middle, but the last two weeks have also apparently earned Hayward playing-time consideration moving forward.
"We'll still keep a little bit of rotation because Hayward is playing so well," said Morris. "I'll be able to put him in that Sam [strongside linebacker] a little bit. I'll be able to put him in that Will [weakside] a little bit. Maybe even Mike [middle]. He's done a great job for us. He's been critical for us in some of our wins and he's been critical going in to play for us and doing a bunch of good things for us."
The Bucs may be looking for a new starter at free safety, however, and the answer may be a two-parter. Tanard Jackson did not practice for the second straight day on Thursday due to his lingering hamstring injury, raising the possibility that he won't be available on Sunday against Green Bay's high-powered passing attack. Morris said he is not in "preservation mode" with Jackson, indicating that the safety has a legitimate injury concern for this game.
"He's been fighting it for a while," said Morris. "He hasn't been at practice for the last two days, so we got see if he's got anything going to tomorrow and if not, then we got to get ready to go with Larry Asante and Corey Lynch. But we'll see."
That's the potential two-part answer, a time-share between Asante and Lynch. Morris asserted the same game plan when original free safety Cody Grimm was lost for the season in Week Three, though Lynch ended up seeing the majority of the playing time. This time, it seems likely that both Asante and Lynch will get extended looks if Jackson is unavailable in Green Bay.
" They both know the position," said Morris. " They both know both positions. They've done a great job of being here and being a part of the system and really learning to get there and get the grasp of it. We put them in the last game due to unfortunate circumstances, but we got to see them both play and they both gave us physical play. They both run to the football. They both give you what you want and they both have kind of earned the right to split that, at least."
The Buccaneers did get several starters back on the practice field on Thursday for their second straight day of padded work. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and tight end Kellen Winslow, both of whom were held out on Wednesday essentially for maintenance purposes, were back in the mix and practiced without limitations. Perhaps more significantly, defensive end Michael Bennett had full participation in practice on Thursday despite being limited by a groin injury the day before. Tackle Donald Penn was added to the injury report due to a foot issue on Thursday after he had limited participation in the workout.
A Chance to Shine
One added benefit of two straight days in pads on the practice field: The receivers and defensive backs were able to mix it up a little more heavily, especially when it came time for some one-on-one competition.
That could be some very useful work come Sunday. Buccaneer receivers got a chance to battle physically against press coverage on Wednesday and Thursday, and that's something they'll probably face against the Packers' aggressive defense. Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson expects Green Bay to put an extra defender near the line of scrimmage to stop the Bucs' rushing attack and leave its cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage for much of the day. Olson knows that is both a challenge and an opportunity for his receivers.
"You're going to have to beat man coverage," he said. "Obviously we're going to get a loaded box. As we've talked about in the past, when defenses do that to us, we've got to step up on the outside, and someone's got to step in and be a playmaker. We've got to do a good job of putting the ball [on target]. When those windows are much tighter, in man coverage, you've got to rely on your quarterback putting the ball where it's supposed to be."
Receivers obviously enjoy getting a free release off the line against zone coverage, or a soft man coverage. However, beating press coverage can free up a lot of open field in a hurry. Tampa Bay's receivers worked on that part of the game on Thursday when the team ran the typical one-on-one drill between its pass-catchers and DBs.
"One-on-ones are a little bit different, a little bit more physical at the line of scrimmage to beat man [coverage]," said Morris. "You're able to simulate some of the stuff that Green Bay is going to do to us. We're able to simulate some of the stuff that we want to do in a game. So you get a little more competitive environment throwing balls down the field. You get a little more competitive environment on the outside with the wide receivers, catching the ball versus tough, tight man coverage with pads on, and holding onto the ball. You kind of escalate it a little bit and it helps your team. We hope."
Barth On Target
Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth is quietly having a very strong season. That's actually not surprising within the context of Tampa Bay's special teams play as a whole this year, which has been excellent, or Barth's own tenure with the team.
Last season, the first one in which he handled the team's placekicking duties from beginning to end, Barth made 16 of 23 attempts, with two that were blocked and another two that were from 47 yards out or farther. He did not miss on 16 tries from inside 40 yards.
This year, he has been even better, making 17 of 19 tries so far, with his only misses being a 55-yard try against New Orleans and a 46-yard attempt on Monday night against Indianapolis that hit the right upright. If maintained, his success rate of 89.4% would easily break the team's single-season record, which has held at 85.2% since Steve Christie made 23 of 27 in 1990.
And Barth hasn't stayed near 90% by taking only high-percentage attempts. Of his 19 tries so far, 10 have been from 40 yards out or further, and seven have been from 45 yards out or further. The Bucs know he can make the long-distance shot – he hit three from more than 50 yards out in Miami in 2009, a team record – and they're not afraid to let him try.
Last Sunday, he made his longest try yet, banging home a 55-yarder just before halftime in the Bucs' loss to Houston. It beat his previous career long by one yard (a 54-yarder during that amazing afternoon in Miami) and tied for the third-longest successful field goal in team history.
Overall, Barth has made 54 of his 66 field goal attempts since joining the Buccaneers at midseason in 2009. Among all players in team history with at least 10 tries, that is the second-best mark, at 81.8%. Matt Bryant, who made 98 of 118 tries from 2005-08 for the Buccaneers, holds the top spot at 83.1%. Barth could catch him soon if he extends his current streak of seven successful field goals in a row. If he were to make his next five kicks, as a matter of fact, he would pull into a tie with Bryant.
Though it has become something of a foregone conclusion in today's NFL, Barth has also been perfect on extra points since joining the Buccaneers, making all 61 of his tries so far. Only five kickers in team history with at least 10 tries have made all of their extra point attempts – also Christie, Jay Taylor, Ken Willis and Eddie Murray – and Barth has by far the most attempts in that group.