QB Chris Simms was sharp during Tuesday's morning practice, but the defense got in its shots, too
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first game of the new season isn't until Friday, but Bucs players took it upon themselves to ratchet up the competition at Tuesday morning's practice to near game-level, delivering a sharp, crisp session that pleased Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"We're very pleased with today's practice," said Gruden, who will lead his team into the preseason opener against the New York Jets on Friday at Raymond James Stadium. "We covered a lot of good situations. It was very competitive. There were not a lot of broken assignments. The offense won a few, the defense won a few – very competitive. I thought the situations that we emphasized were pretty well understood by our football team."
All morning long, the offense and defense traded shots, and the result was an overall higher level of execution by both units – and some potential highlight reel plays had it been a live game. Quarterback Chris Simms was one of the main sharpshooters, as he yet again excelled in the 7-on-7 passing drill, delivering lasers and touch passes to several different receivers. On the other side, Chris Hovan delivered a blow for the defense, devouring running back Earnest Graham and dislodging the football in the process, leading to a fumble that the defensive tackle recovered himself. Wide receiver Chas Gessner shot back with a rugged battle against cornerback Ronde Barber for a deflected football that was the result of a hard Brian Kelly hit on Derek McCoy. Gessner's catch wasn't the prettiest of plays, but it demonstrated the intensity and competitiveness prevalent throughout the morning session and throughout all levels of the Bucs' roster.
That's something that has Gruden excited about Friday night's game.
"Anybody who plays, we're anxious to see," Gruden said. "These guys have been pushing sleds and lifting weights and studying film and running hard and working their butts off for long time. I'm really excited for the whole team – guys who will play in the second quarter, the third quarter, the fourth quarter because of all the hard work they have put forth. I'm really eager to see how they do."
Two players who will be closely scrutinized by Gruden and his coaching staff Friday night are rookie offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood. Joseph, a first-round selection out of Oklahoma, has shown flashes of his potential throughout training camp, and Trueblood, the Bucs' second-round selection, has seen extensive playing time with the first team as a result of an injury to starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker.
"I'm really pleased with our young guys, let's be honest," Gruden said. "Trueblood's out here every day. He's taken every rep. Davin Joseph's out here every day, taking tons of reps – and going against great players. [Greg] Spires is a hell of a football player, very physical, so I've got a feeling Trueblood is very sore. Hopefully, Spires is a little sore, too. Davin Joseph is in there with Hovan, [Anthony] McFarland and [Ellis] Wyms – that's a tall order. And when Dewayne White comes out there and plays wherever he plays, it's been tough and challenging. When you combine that with Kenyatta's Walker absence and Torrin [Tucker]'s absence and [Toniu] Fonoti not practicing, these guys have done a good job. They need to play somebody else to see how they can adjust to a new scheme."
Joseph and especially Trueblood will see plenty of action on Friday night, but Gruden has not yet announced a starting lineup for that front five.
"Obviously, Kenyatta is missing a lot of time," said Gruden. "If he's not ready to go, [Jeremy] Trueblood will start at right tackle. And Davin Joseph – I didn't say he was starting. I don't know if anybody did. If you've seen practice, he has made a strong case to become a starter. I've seen the films, you've watched practice. We'll make those final determinations here in the next couple of days. And once again, at the end of our real preparation for this team, we'll determine the health of the team and what lines and what players will play."
Making Dreams Come True
Not many people have the guts to stand face-to-face with Hovan, the Bucs' massive and heavily-tattooed defensive tackle, and command him to stop in his tracks. But that's exactly what six-year old Navaree Wheeler did Tuesday after practice. Then he took on the likes of Derrick Brooks, Chris Simms, Cadillac Williams, Joey Galloway and any other Bucs player he came across. All the confronted Bucs happily complied, and, if the smile on his face was any indication, Wheeler had the time of his life.
It was all part of a "Dreams Come True" effort on behalf of Wheeler, who received a liver transplant when he was just 11 months old. He's doing well now, even though he has been diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a condition that is not life-threatening as long as it is treated. "Dreams Come True" is an organization that has allowed more than 1,800 children who are battling life-threatening illnesses to realize their dreams.
Wheeler admits he became a fan of Hovan's after playing the video game NFL Street. It also doesn't hurt that Wheeler lists tackles and defense as two of his favorite things about the Buccaneers – two things that just happen to be Hovan's specialties.
Dreams Come True and the Buccaneers arranged for Wheeler to meet Hovan. While waiting for the defensive tackle, Wheeler set his sights on multiple Bucs players who happened to walk by – and none could resist the precocious six-year old. Later, Wheeler attended a post-practice press conference with Hovan.
"Growing up you never think you'd have an impact on people's lives," Hovan said. "I'm having a good time hanging out with him right now. This is a great experience for me. I know I have one more fan out there, which is great, watching me on Sundays. He'll always be in my prayers now."
"Honoring" the Opposition?
Onlookers of Tuesday's practice might have noticed a strange-looking defender harassing quarterback Chris Simms during some of the morning's drills. Strategically positioned at the line of scrimmage stood a defender constructed from PVC pipe, complete with raised arms and wearing the jersey of Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman. It's a sign of things to come, said Gruden after practice.
"We had some balls batted down last year," Gruden explained. "It's been an area that we've tried to creatively work on. We had some balls deflected at the launching point, so we're trying to have Chris [Simms] sense passing lanes just to make it a little bit more realistic. Guys are going to sense that the ball is being delivered and raise their hand. It does add a little bit of realism to seven-on-seven, and hopefully it pays off for us.
"We had to honor Rod Coleman of the Falcons today because he's played so well against us, so we got a Falcon number 75. Tomorrow it'll be Julius Peppers. We'll try to get a well known blue chip pass rusher out there everyday to simulate congestion. You've got to move quickly, you've got to slide from left to right, sometimes you throw it sidearm. It's not always you complete a perfect throwing motion."
Allen Returns to Practice
After injuring his thumb last week and only days after surgery, free safety Will Allen – an anticipated starter for the Buccaneers this season – returned to practice Tuesday morning, wearing a cast over his left thumb and forearm. Allen participated in all of the drills but said he is limiting his contact for the time being.
"Right now, I'm just out there running around and getting my legs back, no contact," Allen explained. "I'm trying to stay away from contact because it's not completely healed yet, but I'm just out here trying to work and get better. Every day I'm just out here trying to work and just run around, and how things fall is how they're going to fall. I'm not really trying to pinpoint when I'm going to be able to play, but right now I'm practicing – that's the first step, and I'm just going to go from there."
Other Comments From Head Coach Jon Gruden
- On the QB rotation for Friday's game: "Chris [Simms] will start the game. I don't know how long he will play, and we'll adjust from there. We'll see the exact health of our team and how we'll rotate the line and whatnot. Once we have the specifics there, we'll make our final determination. It might not be until game time, honestly." * On the competition between kickers Matt Bryant and Xavier Beitia: "I don't know if Xavier is in this or not. We'll have to find out in the games. Matt kicked the ball extremely well to start camp. He hasn't been up to the performance standards that he has, here in the last couple of days. We'll see what happens. He's going to get a chance to kick in the games, and that's what it's all about. Matt is our kicker. I do want to make myself clear on that. We have confidence in him." * On the altercation between Ronde Barber and Maurice Stovall during Tuesday's practice: "I try not to make a big deal out of that. Those guys are both competitors. Barber's one of the game's great competitors. Hopefully, there is nothing personal there."