At times during practice on Thursday morning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting offense worked without 60% of its starting offensive line. Given the recent emergence of the St. Louis Rams' pass-rush, the Buccaneers would prefer that their starters get as much preparation time as possible this week.
Tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood were in action Thursday but between them they often found a trio of reserves, including some practice squad players who currently would not be eligible to suit up against the Rams on Sunday.
Center Jeff Faine will definitely miss that contest due to the quad injury he suffered in Cincinnati in Week Five, but he has been ably replaced by third-year man Jeremy Zuttah through the last game and a half. What has thinned out the front-line ranks in practice this week has been the minor ailments starting guards Davin Joseph and Keydrick Vincent are working through. Joseph is dealing with swelling in his knee while Vincent experienced back spasms on Thursday.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris moved his usual Thursday afternoon practice to before lunch, and afterward he seemed optimistic that Joseph and Vincent would be able to suit up on Sunday.
"Vincent's just got a little back spasm, so we'll see, but he was limited today," said Morris. "[Joseph] has been out there, he's been at a couple walk-throughs and been a part of everything. He'll be one of those guys that comes and looks me in the face and tells me what's going on tomorrow."
The Bucs would certainly appreciate some continuity up front this weekend, because the protection for quarterback Josh Freeman has been one of the team's bright spots in recent weeks. Freeman was not sacked in the loss to New Orleans last Sunday despite dropping back 43 times (backup Josh Johnson went down once for one yard while doing mop-up duty), and the Bucs' starter has only taken nine sacks through five games to this point.
Again, however, the challenge in the trenches will be a significant one this weekend as the Rams bring the NFL's 11th-best sacks-per-pass play total to Raymond James Stadium. Right defensive end James Hall, an 11th-year veteran, already has six QB takedowns, tied for fourth-best in the NFL, and his young counterpart on the left edge, Chris Long, is starting to come into his own in his third NFL campaign. Long sacked San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers twice in the Rams' 20-17 victory over the Chargers last weekend and has 2.5 on the season overall.
The second overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Long had a respectable total of nine sacks combined over his first two seasons. Morris thinks the 6-3, 276-pound pass-rusher is on his way to a bigger year in 2010, and a fine career overall.
"Chris Long is a much-improved player from what I've seen on tape this year," said the Bucs' coach. "He's playing with a low pad level, he's getting off the ball, he's playing with nice attack. Those D-linemen, they usually take about two or three years to really become who they're going to be. Some of those guys come in and have nice success early but they usually become "the guy" in year two or year three. It's no different for a guy like him. He's got a great work ethic from a great school, he's got a great pedigree and I have no doubt that he'll be a pretty good football player in this league for a long time."
Obviously, rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is drawing a good chunk of the credit for the Rams' 2010 turnaround – they're 3-3 so far this year after winning just one game in 2009 – but the St. Louis defense also appears to be improving rapidly. The Rams ranked 29th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed last year but stand 17th and 11th in those two categories in 2010. One big difference is the pressure being generated up front; St. Louis collected just 20 sacks all of last season but has 17 through six games this year.
Seven of those came last week, as Rivers absorbed the most sacks he's ever taken in a single game. Long, Hall and linebacker Larry Grant had two sacks apiece. Twelve of the Rams' 17 sacks have been recorded over the last three games, two of them St. Louis victories. Clearly, slowing down that trend will be a critical factor for the Buccaneers on Sunday, no matter who lines up between Penn and Trueblood.
The Buccaneers' injury report actually improved in several other areas on Thursday. Fullback Earnest Graham, who had been held out on Wednesday to rest the hamstring that has bothered him the last two weeks, returned to full participate on Thursday. Tight end Kellen Winslow, also held out to start the week as part of an ongoing system of protecting his knee, also practiced without limits on Thursday.
Defensive end Kyle Moore, who missed the Bucs' game against New Orleans with a shoulder injury, was limited on Thursday, as was linebacker Barrett Ruud (toe). Cornerback Elbert Mack, another player who missed the Saints game, was added to the report after not practicing on Thursday due to his heel injury.
Rookie defensive tackle Brian Price did not practice on Thursday due to a pelvis injury that has rendered him "week-to-week," according to Morris. The Bucs coach suggested that it was unlikely Price would be able to play against the Rams.
The Rams had four players sitting out when their practice week began on Wednesday: cornerback Ron Bartell (thigh), cornerback Justin King (hamstring), defensive tackle Clifton Ryan (migraines) and safety Darian Stewart (hamstring). In addition, five other players were limited in that first practice: linebacker Chris Chamberlain (toe), linebacker Na'il Diggs (knee), wide receiver Mardy Gilyard (hamstring), cornerback Jerome Murphy (hamstring) and linebacker David Vobora (hamstring).
On Thursday, the Rams' injury report stayed exactly the same, with Bartell, King, Ryan and Stewart still out and the other four still limited. That nine-man group includes just two players listed as starters on St. Louis' depth chart, Bartell and Diggs.
A Good Model
Tampa Bay's own pass rush has not yet found the spark that the Rams have recently enjoyed, despite the additions over the last two years of Price, Gerald McCoy, Roy Miller, Kyle Moore, Michael Bennett and Tim Crowder. The Bucs are confident they have assembled the front-line talent necessary to generate pressure up front; now it's a matter of translating that potential into production.
To help, Morris dusted off some game tape of the Buccaneers' famous defense from the mid-'90s through much of the 2000s and showed it to his current defense on Wednesday morning. It's a tactic he uses on occasion to try to impart to his young team the manner in which he wants them to play. Morris isn't asking McCoy to be Warren Sapp or Moore to be Simeon Rice; he just wants them to understand their responsibilities as well as Sapp and company did during their incredible run.
"I always show old tape of the Bucs' defense, but in particular you want to show that D-Line, how they got off the ball and how they played and how fast they were able to play and how much disruption they caused," said Morris. "[Former Defensive Line Coach] Rod [Marinelli] used to say, 'If the front four is playing the way they're supposed to play, you can give everybody else a pink slip.' And it was true. When they played, they made every tackle and they sacked the quarterback. We thought we were locking them down but the reality of it was Simeon Rice came off the edge and caused a sack-fumble and they picked it up and scored, or we got a tipped pass and Ronde Barber caught it and was able to score. I don't want to take credit away from all the great players that we had here, but the mentality for that room was that if they were playing the way they were supposed to play, everybody else got a pink slip."
The Buccaneers lead the league in interceptions per pass play on defense, a somewhat remarkable statistic given that the team has recorded just four sacks of opposing quarterbacks. Pressure on the passer is responsible for many turnover opportunities, and if the Bucs an add that to their defense the interceptions might really start piling up. Morris wants to make sure his defensive line is holding up its end of the bargain.
"When you come out of that room, it's either going to be hurt feelings, or it's going to be prideful men who come out of that thing and say they're going to be better," he said. "That's with me, too. If I'm not explaining something the way I want it, then we've got an issue. And then we've got to talk and we've got to fix it. And it's a process. Sapp says it best all the time to me. He says, 'We didn't get good until WE started rushing, until WE all got great.' Sapp happened to be the benefactor of all that greatness and rightfully so because he was a great football player. Now we've got some players in there right on the cusp of being very good football players."
Receivers Contribute in Other Ways
The Buccaneers have six wide receivers on their 53-man roster and, when game day rolls around, reasons to want each and every one of them on the 45-man active list.
That's not likely to happen, however. To keep the proper number of players active at other positions, the Bucs usually go with a maximum of five receivers on game day, and often only four. Thus it is an ongoing (and friendly) battle between Mike Williams, Sammie Stroughter, Micheal Spurlock, Arrelious Benn, Maurice Stovall and Preston Parker to see who is most deserving of putting on a helmet on Sunday.
Williams and Stroughter are currently the starters, and Spurlock and Benn have been active for all four games. That usually leaves the other two fighting for, possibly, one spot. The veteran Stovall would seem to have one advantage in that he is a proven asset on special teams; however, that is becoming increasingly true of some of the other young Buccaneer receivers, as well.
Parker is considered an intriguing option in the return game and he handled five of the Bucs' six kickoff returns against New Orleans when he was kept on the active list. Of course, with Spurlock and Stroughter already active, Tampa Bay does have other options for that task. What makes Parker an even more intriguing choice when the actives are named is that he has also proven to be good on kick coverage. In fact, the undrafted rookie has been active for only two games this season, but he has notched a kick coverage tackle in each one.
"Preston Parker [has] some of the return game stuff but the thing you lose focus on is some of the coverage things he's been able to do," said Morris. "He's a flyer, he goes down there on kickoffs. Playing receiver for us he's got some extra juice that maybe some of the other guys don't have. He's legitimately fast so we like what he's able to bring to us there, too."
Though he's steadily growing more involved in the passing game, and is probably ticketed for a starting spot at some point in his young career, Benn is proving quite useful on special teams, as well. Some of the same attributes that made him so interesting as a receiver on draft day – size, strength and speed – have come in very handy when covering kicks.
"That's his power," said Morris. "He's so strong and so physical. Not to say there's no thinking required on special teams, but he's able to use the strength factor of his game where there is no thinking required. He's able to go out there and just play faster than he was on offense at the beginning. And now he's starting to pick it up on offense, getting better and better, and starting to play fast there too. It's starting to be less thinking required for him on offense. The game is starting to slow down for him, so to speak."