The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't look or sound like a team that was being punished on Sunday.
The Buccaneers conducted a 90-minute practice on Sunday, a day that was originally intended as an off day before the work began for next Saturday's game against Miami. In fact, at one point Tampa Bay's coaching staff intended to give the players the entire weekend off to rest and recuperate. Those plans changed after the Bucs dropped a 31-14 decision to the New England Patriots on Thursday night.
Lose a game, lose an off day…that's a punishment, right?
Actually, that's not at all what Head Coach Raheem Morris intended when he changed the weekend schedule. Rather, he figured that his team would want to get back to work as quickly as possible, and judging from the manner in which the Bucs attacked practice on Sunday, it looks like he was right.
"The thing that heals a young team is getting back out on the field faster," said Morris. "A lot of times when you get a loss you want to cancel the bye days and go out there on that off day Tuesday and get the guys back together, playing football again, thinking about football again, rather than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.
"I was going to give them [the weekend] off, let them get their bodies back. But getting those guys back on the field, being around each other again, is how you get rid of those cobwebs."
A very heavy rainstorm threw a wrench in the revised schedule on Saturday, washing out an intended practice in the early evening. That only increased the players' itch to get back on the field Sunday. The result was one of the team's best practices in awhile, or at least one of the most intense. As Morris explained, most of the Buccaneers' practices going forward will resemble regular-season workouts, in which the majority of the action is between starters on one side and a scout team on the other. On Sunday, the Bucs went "good-on-good" for one of the last times this year – meaning starters on offense were facing starters on defense – and both sides seemed to feel like something was at stake. The competition was palpable, and there was no shortage of talking from either side.
"Nice up-tempo practice, really lively," said Morris. "It was great to get those guys out there today, get them competing. I challenged them."
Morris knows that putting challenges in front of his players works particularly well with the young roster he has been graced with. They have responded to them in the past, and they did so again on Sunday. Morris was particularly unflinching with his receivers, who he felt could have taken more advantage of the Patriots' approach on defense Thursday.
"I challenged the receivers, that was a game they've got to win," he said. "A team comes in and plays bump-man on Mike Williams, he's got to win. A team comes in and plays bump-man on [Dezmon] Briscoe, he's got to win. Whoever – you've got to win those one-on-one battles. And that's exactly what New England did. They came in, they played man-free and they just beat us up. They had a couple zero blitzes, and they won. They made [Josh] Freeman hold onto the ball and eventually protection broke down and they hit him.
"We've got to win those battles. We always talk about Free and being perfect on protection and things of that nature, but the bottom line is, some of those plays last year Free made we didn't draw up upstairs. Mike Williams just won versus Atlanta and [Micheal] Spurlock just won against Cincinnati. Those things have to happen, too. Those plays have got to happen by big-time players. We've got a bunch of young guys for a reason. We want to be lively, we want to be energetic, kind of like our practice today."
The players will get their day off on Monday, and then a regular-season week schedule will begin, albeit a day early. The Bucs usual Wednesday/Thursday heavy practices will be Tuesday and Wednesday, and the usual Friday review will take place on Thursday. Tampa Bay plays its third preseason game on Saturday against the Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. Morris says the scout work for Miami won't be as complete as it would be in a regular season but the work will still serve as good practice for the players as to how they will soon be conducting business.
Fresh Start for McCargo
Defensive tackle John McCargo played in 40 games and made one start during five seasons in Buffalo, and that is definitely not what he thought would happen when he was chosen with the 26th overall pick in the 2006 draft.
McCargo said as much on Sunday, after his first practice as a Buccaneer, but without any bitterness in his voice. Rather, he took responsibility for the disappointment in Buffalo and sounded optimistic about his new opportunity in Tampa.
"It's in the past," said McCargo of his Buffalo years. "It definitely wasn't what I expected, but I can only blame myself for that situation. I'm going to leave the past in the past and look forward to a fresh start. My career hasn't gone the way I want it to go so far, so I'm looking forward to a fresh start. New team, new place – just going out there, going hard and getting back to the player I know I can be."
McCargo's final season with the Bills was his least satisfying, as the team switched from a 4-3 defensive base to a 3-4 and he was deactivated for all but one regular-season game. He became an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2010 season and the Bills did not make an effort to re-sign him. McCargo doesn't believe he would have been a good fit in Buffalo's new defense, moving forward, but he likes what he sees in Tampa.
"I'm definitely more comfortable in a 4-3," said McCargo, noting that the Bucs' coaches are expecting to try him at both the three-technique spot and nose tackle. "I didn't really play that much in Buffalo in that 3-4. I didn't really think it was a scheme that fit me. I like the defense here, like the coaching staff and I think it's a great situation for me to come down here, get in shape, get used to the heat – because Buffalo was a lot different – and to go in there and make some plays. I'm used to this defense, a 4-3, and penetrating.
"I'm excited to be here. It's exciting to have another opportunity to play this game. It's just exciting to be on a team, to come out here and work hard and try to make the squad."
The Buccaneers looked for help on the defensive line after losing E.J. Wilson to a season-ending Achilles heel injury against the Patriots on Thursday. McCargo came in for a workout and impressed Morris and his coaching staff. That bought him a preseason roster spot and now he'll have about two weeks to impress them enough to earn a spot on the 53-man regular-season roster.
"He did a nice job in his workout, looked good moving," said Morris. "He'll fill a role that we can use with E.J. going on I.R. He's another guy that adds to the competition."
McCargo plans to make the most of it. He said he made some mistakes in Buffalo in regards to his mindset and his thought process, but he won't repeat them in Tampa.
"I feel like I've tried to make some changes to try to do things a little bit better," he said. "I might have made some mistakes up there. When you get a second chance you don't want to go into a new situation making the same mistakes."
Reinforcements on the Way
One of the players Morris was particularly excited about in practice on Sunday was rookie tight end Luke Stocker. The Bucs' fourth-round pick out of Tennessee and a player the team intends to rely on quite a bit, Stocker missed most of training camp with a hip injury sustained in the camp's first workout. He has recently begun participating in warm-ups and some individual work, but Sunday was the first time he was back in the mix during full-team periods. Stocker absorbed and dished out hits without any trouble.
When Stocker returns to game action, the Buccaneers will begin utilizing the two-tight end sets they envisioned when they drafted Stocker in April, something New England did against Tampa Bay quite frequently – and to good effect – on Thursday night.
"I'm fired up about Luke Stocker being back out there on the field," said Morris. "He couldn't have picked a better practice to come to. You come off that little injury and you come right back into a full, live practice with a bunch of intensity going on, a bunch of situations, changing the pace. He certainly looked different in our run game, in our team run period, today and that's always good to see."
Stocker could be one of several injured players who see their first preseason action on Saturday against the Dolphins. There is a chance, Morris said, that both defensive tackle Brian Price and cornerback Aqib Talib will suit up next weekend after missing the first two games.
Morris wasn't quite ready to make a solid prediction on Price or Talib regarding the Miami game, but he sounded cautiously optimistic. Price is still overcoming injuries to both legs that required surgery during the offseason, and he is working hard to get back into football shape. Talib came into camp fine but suffered a hamstring strain before the preseason opener and hasn't seen much action since. Morris said there is a good chance Talib would return to practice on Tuesday or Wednesday.