For the first time since January 2, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on pads on Monday.
It was Day Four of the Buccaneers' 2011 training camp, the first day on which they were allowed to don their pads under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement. After the customary walk-through in the morning, the Bucs geared up and took the field shortly after 5:00 p.m., ready to do some banging.
Some nearby lightning delayed the start of Monday evening's practice by about 15 minutes, but it was worth it when a cool and cloudy evening slid in on the edge of the passing storm. That gave the players some relief from the brutal heat of a Tampa August, and made sure everyone was still full of energy when the main event rolled around near 7:00 p.m.
That would be the full-contact live goal-line drill that always stands out as one of the best moments in camp. Monday was no exception.
The Buccaneers ran a total of nine plays in the goal-line period, in each case starting out with a first down at the three-yard line, moving in. The first set of plays featured the first-team offense against the first-team defense; six more plays followed that were a mix of starters and reserves on both sides.
Defense ruled the day during the first set of downs, even when the offense pulled out a trick play just two snaps in. After a LeGarrette Blount ran around right tackle was stopped by a swarm of tacklers led by linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, fullback Earnest Graham took the handoff on play number two. As he did against Atlanta last year, Graham pulled up after bouncing to his right and threw an option pass to a wide-open tight end, this time Ryan Purvis. It looked like a sure touchdown until safety Sean Jones recovered and just got his hand on the ball before Purvis could pull it in. The third-down play was a run up the middle by running back Kregg Lumpkin, but defensive tackle Al Woods was there to plug it at the one.
Quarterback Josh Freeman ran five of the plays but handed off each time. He still enjoyed watching the big men pound away at each other.
"The first day in pads is always a fun one," said Freeman. "We've got a lot of energy, a lot of passion, and it kind of showed in the goal-line period. It was fun to go out there and watch some of our new guys, the Adrian Claybornes and Da'Quan Bowers, and other guys get after it with the O-line."
Second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made an impressive play on the fourth snap, knifing immediately through the line to drop Lumpkin in the backfield. Freeman wanted his side to score, of course, but understood that it was a difficult task against the Bucs' new defensive front.
"We know what kind of players Brian Price and Gerald and the two new guys are, Adrian and Da'Quan," he said. "They're studs, man. They're studs, there's no doubt about it."
After that, the offense got on a roll. The first touchdown of the period came on the fifth snap, when Blount ran towards left tackle, barreled into a defender at the one-yard line, broke free and stumbled into the end zone, athletically keeping his feet at the end. Score one for the O-line, and especially Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn, who was anchoring a line that was still without usual right guard starter Davin Joseph and both likely right tackle candidates, Jeremy Trueblood and James Lee.
"It's funny because Donald Penn said, 'C'mon man, run it to my side,'" said Freeman. "The first couple we ran right and he was getting pretty heated because he wanted it on his side, so we ran it [left] and we scored. I'm really excited, man. I want a repeat of this drill when we get Davin and Trueblood back."
That reset the downs, and Lumpkin's next run got down to the one-half yard line. With Josh Johnson in at quarterback, a handoff to rookie running back Allen Bradford turned into a TD, as Bradford powered over the left side to just get in. The offense scored on its final two snaps, too, a play-action pass from Johnson to Winslow and an underneath handoff to the fullback, Graham.
Johnson's fake was so well-executed that Winslow was all alone in the end zone and the quarterback was just standing in the backfield with the ball behind his back while the other 20 players worked up a scrum in the middle of the field.
"That's a fake we've been working on for a long time, trying to perfect," said Freeman. "And actually, he could have held it as long as he wanted, just sat back there and have everybody looking around and then thrown it when everybody realized he had it. That would have been pretty funny."
The defense will hang its hat on those first three snaps of one-on-ones, while the offense will be happy with the way it executed some difficult plays. Either way, both sides were happy to get a little hitting in.
"It was good," said Freeman. "I thought as today went, first day with the pads on, it's always going to be a little bit bumpy but I think a lot of guys stepped up and made some plays today."
Building on a Good Foundation
Calling himself a "big back collector," General Manager Mark Dominik drafted 250-pound running back Allen Bradford in April and envisioned Bradford alternating with starter LeGarrette Blount and/or Kregg Lumpkin and/or Earnest Graham to pound away at opponents. The Buccaneers definitely want to build the offense around a power running attack in 2011.
The question is, on what schemes will that power attack be based?
When new Head Coach Raheem Morris hired Pete Mangurian to serve as his offensive line coach in 2009, the word was that the Buccaneers would move to more of a zone-blocking scheme, which emphasizes agility and blocking on the move. In practice, the Bucs' rushing attack evolved into more of a mixture of that zone blocking and more straight ahead man-blocking.
Now the Bucs have a new Offensive Line Coach in Pat Morris, who brings 14 years of NFL experience to town. On three different occasions, Morris has helped coordinate the league's leading rushing attack. What sort of scheme does he prefer?
Morris wants his men to be ready to do it all.
"We'll probably continue on and work from the things we saw last year," said the former 49er, Lion and Viking coach. "How do people see you know? How are they going to defend you? I think you've got to have all kinds of schemes ready to go. You have to take the line and adapt to the running back in terms of your schemes to help yourself out. And then you do have to mix it up. You can't be one-dimensional in the running game."
The Buccaneers just cracked the 2,000-yard mark last year (2,001 to be exact) for the first time since the 2000 season. They set a new team record by averaging 4.6 yards per carry and finished strong despite seeing O-Line stalwarts Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine hit injured reserve. Obviously, there is something good to build on, and Morris is going to adapt to what is already in place.
"I don't know if it's really a big change," he said of his arrival. "I think it's been said already with Raheem that we've got to be a physical offensive line, we have to have our poise and we have to be under control. We have to continue our run game and get better."
Morris has to hit the ground running with his new group, given the fact that there were no offseason practices. Furthermore, he's several men down, as re-signed free agents Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and James Lee have been restricted from practicing until Thursday by the new CBA. Fortunately for Morris, the group already has good internal chemistry, especially since the team was able to bring back the aforementioned trio.
"Obviously it's going to be good but right now those guys haven't been in practice yet," said Morris. "We have to wait until the fourth to get everybody back together. I think the biggest thing with the line is that they've created a nice bond. They have to get to know me and I have to get to know them, and without OTAs that's going to be some work. So it's going to take a little extra time.
"But the number one thing is, I think it's a great working group. They're hard-working, attentive in the meetings…they care. For offensive linemen, for any football players, when they care about it it makes it easier for you as a coach."
Happy to Have Hayward Back
Raheem Morris likes players who can do a little bit of everything, players who can be slid into different roles and have specific packages built around them. Running back Earnest Graham is the poster boy for this, but there are plenty of other examples on the Bucs' roster. For instance, Morris spoke on Monday about devising a package of about 20 defensive plays specifically for linebacker Dekoda Watson, the second-year special teams ace.
Adam Hayward fits right into this mold. Adam Hayward simply fits as a Buccaneer.
The Buccaneers happily brought Hayward back on Monday, inking a new three-year contract with the unrestricted free agent, who was reportedly wooed by the San Diego Chargers. Morris was clearly pleased to have his 2010 Special Teams Captain back in the fold.
"Man, he's a warrior, a Buccaneer, a champion in the community, probably our special teams MVP last year," said Morris. "So you know he was a guy that was going to come back and give us a lot of what we've been building the last couple years and I'm very excited to have him back."
Hayward saw the most extensive defensive action of his four-year career in 2010, sharing the strongside linebacker spot with Watson during the five games that Quincy Black was out due to injuries. Hayward was actually listed as the primary back-up at weakside linebacker before Black went on injured reserve, but he has learned both positions during his career and is ready to step in at either spot. During at least one offseason he spent months learning the middle linebacker spot as well, though Morris sees him as more of an option on the outside this year. The point is, Hayward provides depth at multiple spots, which makes him a good player to have around even beyond his top-notch contributions in the kicking game.
"He has the ability to play a little bit of the SAM backer, he started that for us, he also knows WILL backer and he also does some part time MIKE for us, not to mention what he does for us on some of our [other] packages," said Morris. "When he goes in on the goal line he's the starter, when he goes in on some of our short-yardage things he's a starter. We had a couple of defenses named after him last year when we put him in the game for particular reasons, so he's become a very valuable person around here as far as his role and what he does for us and I'm happy to have him back so we can continue to do some of those things with him."