DE Greg Spires wasn't available for Thursday's practice but is expected to play on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held Greg Spires out of practice on Thursday, meaning the league's fourth-ranked defense was without its…what? Linchpin defensive tackle? Hard-working defensive end? Engine?
Call Spires any or all of those things. Clearly, he has been an indispensable presence on the Bucs' defense this season, and thus it is encouraging that his mini-holiday is not going to extend a day past Christmas into Sunday.
Spires is feeling the effects of a lower back strain, but he is probable on the Bucs' official injury report and the team is not overly concerned.
"We expect him to play," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after Thursday's two-hour practice, played on a soggy field after a brief but hard rain shower. "We rested him [for] precautionary [reasons]. We need him, obviously."
Specifically, the Bucs need Spires to start at under tackle, play some snaps at left defensive end and generally create havoc on about 90% of the defensive snaps. Last weekend, the unusual strategy of moving Spires from his customary end spot into the middle proved inspired (no pun intended), as the seventh-year veteran came up with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
"The coaches told me I did some good things," said Spires. "That was my first time really playing in the defense at that position. I did some good things. They are happy with what I did. I just have to keep building on it."
The motivation for the move was two-fold: Get more production out of the critical under tackle position and get second-year end Dewayne White on the field for more snaps. Both missions were accomplished, and White had a half a sack to give him six on the season. Between those two and right end Simeon Rice, they have produced 25 of the Bucs' 44 sacks this season. Spires is also took his impressive run-stopping abilities into the middle of the line; he's on pace for 92 tackles this season, an extremely high number for a player who has seen most of his action at defensive end.
Those statistics, while the best of his career, were not enough to gain Spires the recognition needed to earn a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team. While much of the attention following the announcement of the Pro Bowl selections on Wednesday centered on the omission of Rice and his 12 sacks, Spires's teammates also felt he was deserving of the honor.
"I fight with those guys," said an appreciative Spires. "I feel the same way about them. Everybody who made it, they deserve it. [Julius] Peppers is a great player. [Derrick] Brooks deserves it. Ronde [Barber] deserves it. Everybody got what they deserved."
Peppers, the playmaking Panthers end, did make the Pro Bowl team, along with Arizona's Bertrand Berry and Atlanta's Patrick Kerney. Spires doesn't feel any jealousy.
"I basically make goals for myself in the beginning," said Spires, "and if I am happy and can leave the field knowing that I have done everything that I can, than that is a good feeling right there and I am alright."
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, it appears as if Spires will be able to pursue his goals this Sunday.
It's never easy for an NFL team to schedule its work around the fall holidays. Coaches are generally sensitive to the desire of their players to spend holidays with their families, but also concerned with getting in as close to a regular workload as possible. It can be a difficult juggling act.
That being said, the fact that Christmas Day falls on a Saturday this year makes it about as easy as possible. The Bucs will conduct their usual Friday schedule, with meetings in the morning and a 90-minute practice ending at noon, and still get their players home in time for an enjoyable Christmas Eve. The normal Saturday schedule only calls for a walk-through in the morning before the team reconvenes at the team hotel in the evening for meetings and curfew. That is simple enough to adjust to the holidays.
"We'll move the walk-through and things of that nature back into the afternoon to let our coaches enjoy Christmas morning with their families," said Gruden. "Then we'll get right back to the hotel Saturday night in preparation for the game."
As for the game on the day after Christmas, well, that's actually a nice little piece of scheduling, historically speaking. The Buccaneers are 3-0 all-time in games played on December 26, with home wins over Detroit in 1982 and Green Bay in 1999 and a road win at Denver in 1993.