Lineman Tyoka Jackson (97) is particularly valuable this week, in practice and on Sunday, because of his versatility
Tyoka Jackson and Dexter Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates, are not related. But they belong to the same group of NFL players that, even in this era of specialization, get by in large part because of their versatility.
Tyoka Jackson can play either defensive end or defensive tackle and is the only one of the Bucs' usual seven active linemen who regularly plays both inside and outside. Dexter Jackson is capable of playing either safety spot and has even been used at cornerback, primarily in nickel packages.
As the Buccaneers took the field Wednesday for their first practice of the 'Buffalo Week', Jackson and Jackson assumed larger roles, thanks to that prized versatility. Dexter will take over at free safety with Damien Robinson sliding over to Lynch's strongside slot, and Tyoka will be more prominently featured in the defensive end rotation with Marcus Jones and Chidi Ahanotu.
Jackson is needed more on the edges this week because DE Steve White is almost certain to miss the game with an ankle injury.
"Tyoka and James Cannida will roll in the mix a little bit more," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Tyoka will be the outside alternating guy, and James will alternate inside. We'll still have six guys and we'll go pretty well. John McLaughlin, if we need him, will be ready to go.
"It helps when your back-up guys can do that."
White was one of five Bucs who didn't practice on Wednesday, if you count FB Mike Alstott, who is expected to miss at least six weeks with a knee sprain. The others were Lynch, who has a shoulder sprain, S Eric Vance with an ankle sprain, G Frank Middleton, who also has a shoulder sprain, and White. Middleton is the most likely of the group to make it back to practice before the week is up. "Frank, we think, is going to be okay, but it looks we'll have to be without the other three guys," said Dungy.
As it turns out, this could be a good week for Jackson to pick up an increased role with the starting unit. One of his usual duties during a practice week would be to help imitate the opposing defense, but the Bills run a '3-4' defense much like the ones Tampa Bay saw earlier in games with New England and the New York Jets. That term means that Buffalo uses three defensive linemen and four linebackers in their base alignment, as opposed to a Buc-like '4-3' with four linemen and three 'backers. In the Bills' set, there is only one player designated as a defensive tackle.
The Bucs scout team spent Wednesday providing that look for the team' starting offense.
"Practice was pretty good," said Dungy. "We had to simulate Buffalo's 3-4, which is a little tougher for us. But we got a good look at that. I thought our tempo was good and we had a good day."
The Bucs might have felt a little extra pressure to put in a good workout on Wednesday with Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday promising to gobble up some of the week's preparation time. The team will still take the field on Thursday, but earlier in the day to allow players more time at home with their families. Thus practice will fall during the time the team usually uses on the mental side of the game.
"It's tough," said Dungy. "It happens once a year and you just have to deal with it. What we miss, basically, is the film study and some of the meeting time. We'll try to make up for it today and early on Friday."
WR Frank Murphy didn't have a new role on Wednesday, but chances are practice felt different to the rookie.
Murphy was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster on Tuesday, taking the roster spot previously held by eighth-year veteran receiver Andre Hastings. During practice, Murphy is still most likely to be running with the scout team, as he has all season, but now he could see action on Sundays as well. Dungy isn't sure when or where Murphy will be utilized in games just yet, but he's happy to have the promising young player on his 53-man squad, even if it meant Hastings' departure.
Frank has practiced very well and is doing a good job, and this was a way to reward him as well," said Dungy. "It was tough letting Andre Hastings go, because Andre practiced well, prepared, did everything we asked. It's not easy to let a guy like that go, but that was a way that we could make these moves and help us out through these injury situations."
With Murphy on the active roster, the team had an additional spot on the five-man practice squad to use on S Lemar Marshall. With Lynch, Vance and David Gibson all in various stages of injury recovery, another safety was vital to the team's practice plans.
Wednesday was also the first day for the offense to begin filling in the blanks left by Alstott's sudden unavailability. RB Warrick Dunn had already assumed a larger portion of the feature back role over the previous month, but there were obviously many ways in which the team utilized Alstott's unique talents.
One of those was in the jumbo alignment, which was designed to pick up crucial short chunks of yardage. The team may miss Alstott's tough but nimble running in those situations on third downs and at the goal line, but they have a variety of backs to put into the mix. Fans might see less of the jumbo set, however.
"We've really cut back on what we call our 'tank' package because of Mike not being in there," said Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel after Wednesday's practice.
FB Charles Kirby will take Alstott's fullback spot in two-back formations. Kirby is a fine blocker though he will not be the same threat to run the ball as the Bucs' three-time Pro Bowler. The other two backup runners, Aaron Stecker and Rabih Abdullah, may see a few more snaps as well, though Steckel didn't put either one ahead of the other.
"Right now, it depends on the design of the play," he said. "If we go with the tank package, Rabih would be our running back and Aaron would be the other guy. Goal-line type running…Rabih's real good at that."
Whoever gets the ball against Buffalo this Sunday will have his work cut out for him. The Bills have a very sizeable front seven, anchored by 330-pound nose tackle Ted Washington, and they've held opponents 79.6 rushing yards per game this season.
"It's one of the finest defenses," said Steckel. "Next to playing the Tampa Bay Bucs, I've always said Buffalo's one of the top three or four defenses we've faced in the last four years (Steckel was previously Tennessee's offensive coordinator). We've got our work cut out for us, but I trust the players will respond to the challenge, particularly playing at home."