Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Howard Jones Delivers on Potential

Wednesday notes: The Bucs' interest in rookie DE Howard Jones dates back to the 2014 draft…Plus, Bobby Rainey expected to make a difference against the Jaguars, and more.

Photos of Jameis Winston through his first 5 games as a Buccaneer.

On August 31, 2014, the Pittsburgh Steelers waived rookie linebacker Howard Jones, a Division II pass-rushing prospect they had signed out of Shepherd University. Jones then signed with the Steelers' practice squad and spent his entire rookie season with that crew.

Nine days after Jones was cut, the Buffalo Bills waived defensive end Jacquies Smith, a former undrafted free agent out of Missouri who had been on their practice squad the year before. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers swooped in, claiming Smith off waivers and putting him on their active roster. Though it took a few weeks of assimilation, Smith eventually became the Bucs' starting right defensive end and contributed 6.5 sacks during the 2014 season.

Smith's signing was an example of the continued scouting that teams do after first establishing a report on a player in his draft year. The Buccaneers liked some of his traits and wanted to get a closer look when he became available. Obviously, that decision worked out well.

The Buccaneers' didn't claim Jones around that same time, but they didn't forget about him either. They had been impressed with his work at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine – he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash and was among the best DE/LB prospects in the vertical leap – and like the Steelers they saw pass-rushing potential. Jones was obviously a work in progress, as he arrived at Shepherd as a 185-pound receiver before putting on 50 pounds, moving to linebacker and setting the school record with 34.5 career sacks in 47 games.

Jones went back to camp with the Steelers this summer, and when he once again failed to make the last cut to the 53-man roster, Tampa Bay moved this time, signing him to their practice squad. Jones got a promotion from that unit to the active roster last Tuesday. The Bucs were banking on being able to utilize his great speed off the edge.

"That was the No. 1 attraction," said Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier. "We looked at him coming out of college as well and had some dialogue regarding him. To be able to pick him up and take a look at the long arms, as well as the speed, those were two contributing factors as we were trying to evaluate, 'Who could we bring in, what are some attributes that we're looking for?' He had them. The speed, the long arms, the athletic ability, then to go out and do what he did on Sunday, it's a good combination."

What Jones did on Sunday, in his first regular-season NFL game, was lead a six-sack charge by the Buccaneers' defense with two QB takedowns of his own. The very first time Jacksonville's Blake Bortles dropped back to pass, which also happened to be Jones's first NFL snap on defense, the former small-school star made a nice move at the line to find a lane up the middle to the quarterback. One snap into his career, he had a sack, and a drive-killing play on third down to boot. Jones got another sack, again on third down, in the second quarter.

"You take a look at the fact – your first play in the game and you get a sack," said Frazier. "That's pretty impressive. He's adjusting well, coming from a 3-4 there in Pittsburgh and then coming here putting his hand on the ground and getting off the ball. He's doing a good job and we're hoping to get more of what we saw on Sunday."

Just one game into his Buccaneer career, Jones isn't as yet as entrenched in the Bucs' defensive plans as Smith now is after the latter's breakout season and strong start to 2015. Jones also didn't take the exact came path to the Bucs' roster as Smith, who also saw time in Miami and with the New York Jets and even tried his hand for a bit in the Canadian Football League. But Jones did do the same thing that Smith did upon arriving in Tampa, and that's impress the coaches on the practice field, enough so that they felt compelled to give both players a shot.

It's a good thing, in fact, when you not only catch the eye of your own position coaches but the ones on the other side of the ball, as well.

"High motor," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "That kid's got a high motor. He gives good effort every day."

Jones didn't waste any time showing off that motor on Sunday, and in the process he likely earned himself several more chances to show what he can do on game day.

  • While Doug Martin and Charles Sims were piling up nearly 300 combined yards from scrimmage in Sunday's win over Jacksonville, the team's third tailback was getting his own yardage in a different way.

Bobby Rainey's 85 yards on three punt returns included several long scampers that set up Buccaneer scores, and they gave that trio of backs a total of 379 all-purpose yards against the Jaguars.

For his efforts, Rainey was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week on Wednesday, marking the first time a Buccaneer had won that award since 2009. In the six years since, the team has looked high and low for difference-makers in the return game; they may have finally found one in Rainey. The fourth-year back ranks third in the NFL with a 25.6-yard kickoff return average and sixth with a 13.3-yard punt return average.

And he's rapidly gaining confidence in a job in which he initially seemed to be a placeholder. Rainey ended the 2014 season as the Bucs' return men after they had cycled through such options as Solomon Patton and Trindon Holliday, and he watched as the team gave a number of rookie receivers a crack at the job this summer. Now the job is his and he wants the coaching staff to see him as one of those difference-makers.

"I pretty much go to [Smith] probably just about every week, but this week it was different because we were looking for that spark," said Rainey. "I took it upon myself. Like I told the guys on special teams, 'It's got to come from us. We can't win them all on offense or defense.' And those guys did a great job of blocking. They actually gave me a chance to get some returns in, with no penalties bringing them back, which was great."

Rainey is becoming a leader on special teams, too, which has been doubly important in recent weeks with special teams captain Russell Shepard out with a hamstring injury. Before the Jacksonville game, he implored his kick-return blockers to make sure that their phase of the game was a winning edge that day.

"I pretty much go to [Smith] probably just about every week, but this week it was different because we were looking for that spark," said Rainey. "I took it upon myself. Like I told the guys on special teams, 'It's got to come from us. We can't win them all on offense or defense.' And those guys did a great job of blocking. They actually gave me a chance to get some returns in, with no penalties bringing them back, which was great."

Rainey has returned 15 punts this season while calling for just one fair catch. However, he says he's not purposely avoiding the fair catch and will call for one when it's the best option.

"I feel like the first guy will never make a play on me, he said. "That's my mentality, period, no matter if it's on offense – the first guy will not make a play on me. So if I have room to catch the ball, I have room to make a move, and I feel like my move is better than the tackler. I wouldn't say it's my intention not to call a fair catch, but if I can make a move then I won't call a fair catch. I want to do the things I need to do to put my team in a good position."

  • Rainey also praised the work of his blockers, but his punt returns weren't the only plays of the game to feature excellent teamwork in the form of blocking. Sims' 56-yard sprint on a third-and-15 screen pass in the third quarter was probably the Buccaneers' most important offensive play of the game, and it was the handiwork of not just Sims and quarterback Jameis Winston but pretty much the full 11 on the field. On Wednesday, Lovie Smith praised the work of four players in particular on that crucial play.

"That was a screen, and the blocking on that play [was great]," said Koetter. "Kevin Pamphile, Joe Hawley, Louis Murphy and Vincent [Jackson] all had beautiful blocks – and then Chuck turned on the speed. He almost had enough speed to outrun that No. 50; that guy is pretty fast."

Pamphile gets the key block to spring Sims at the beginning of the play, sprinting out from his left guard spot and pushing safety Jonathan Cyprien out of the way. Downfield, Murphy walls off cornerback Aaron Colvin while Jackson drives cornerback Davon House out of bounds.

"I was downfield and the DB was coming to make the tackle, and I just peeled back and blocked him," I was just doing my job. I kind of blocked him into another D-lineman behind him."

Now with a full head of steam, Sims darts through the seam the Jackson and Murphy blocks creates and probably would have gone all the way to the end zone if not for the incredible hustle and speed of linebacker Telvin Smith. Still, it was a moment that turned nearly a sure punt into a scoring opportunity, igniting an 18-point run for the home team. Murphy says that Buc fans should expect to see more plays of that type of precision in the games ahead.

"Those are the plays that we haven't been able to get," said Murphy. "But with what we've been doing in practice, there's going to be plenty more of those."

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