The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will spend three weeks in training camp and four weeks playing preseason games, both in an attempt to winnow the best 53-man squad out of a bloated 90-man roster.
This is the only week in which those two periods of time overlap, as the Buccaneers left their camp at team headquarters on Thursday in order to fly to Missouri and take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday evening, the preseason opener for both teams. The Bucs will break camp next Tuesday and then play their preseason opener on Thursday against New England.
And thus, while Buccaneer coaches surely spent some time scouting the Chiefs, the days leading up to Fridya's opener still very much had the collegial atmosphere of training camp. Fundamental lessons were the focus; on Friday, coaches will be looking to see how well those lessons have been absorbed.
As an example, second-year RB LeGarrette Blount made strides this past week in his pass-protection, a necessary step for him if he is to see his role in the offense expand somewhat to include third downs. Blount was spectacular in a one-on-one pass-rushing drill with linebackers on Monday; now Head Coach Raheem Morris wants to see him duplicate the effort against players in opposing jerseys.
"That's what it's really about," said Morris. "You get those guys together, you teach them your system, you drill it and do it over and over again until they get it and it becomes muscle memory. That's what he's been able to do for himself in training camp, and hopefully it carries over to the games."
As a starter, Blount will have something of a limited exposure to the game on Friday night – Morris suggested he would extend his first-teamers to about 20 plays – but his progress is one of the keys for the Buccaneers this season. As a rookie, Blount rushed for 1,007 yards despite not becoming a significant part of the offense until Week Six. Tampa Bay is determined to build a consistent power rushing attack in 2011, and thus would like to see Blount's totals rise quite a bit from his already impressive 2010 debut.
So far, so good in training camp.
"He looks bigger, faster, stronger, and now he's going out and more in tune with our protection systems and the things he can do to increase his role," said Morris of the tackle-breaking back. "I'm excited about seeing him. The young man has come back ready to go, and I can't wait to see him go."
Morris is just one of millions who have been itching for some football for months, with the labor negotiations wiping out all of the usual offseason work. The Buccaneers' first practice as a team was just two weeks ago, and yet that has been plenty of time for the coaches and players to tire of facing each other and long for another team to hit.
"I'm really fired up," said Morris. "Our guys are ready to go, our guys are anxious to hit somebody else. We've been in camp for a couple weeks and these guys are really fired up and ready to go hit somebody else. We're excited to see a bunch of young guys. It's funny because I look around and I see a bunch of young football players who know they're going to have an opportunity to play if they do a good job. All our coaches are really excited about getting a chance to play these guys."
The Buccaneers go into their 2011 debut with a relatively healthy roster. Only three players did not travel with the team to Kansas City: TE Kellen Winslow, LS Andrew Economos and WR Raymond Webber. A few other Bucs who did make the trip will be held out of the game due to minor injuries, including CBs Myron Lewis and Aqib Talib, FB Erik Lorig, TE Luke Stocker and DT Gerald McCoy.
That still leaves approximately 80 players at Morris's disposal on Friday, and he's likely to get most of them into the game at some point. Tampa Bay has an incredible 73 players who have yet to celebrate their 26th birthdays – it's the youngest roster in the NFL – and there is abundant talent for the coaches to consider as they contemplate that 53-man roster. The Bucs are particularly interested in how their legion of young defensive linemen will perform.
"For us, it starts up front on both sides of the ball," said Morris. "We built our D-line through the draft with the young guys, and we also went back and re-signed our free agents on the offensive line. Those guys are all coming back and they're ready to go. It starts up front for us."
The Bucs' staff will also be keeping a very close eye on rookie LB Mason Foster, the third-round pick out of Washington who is leading the competition for the starting middle linebacker job. That's quite a challenge for a young player, but the Bucs think Foster can handle it.
"It's still really early but he's definitely come out to camp and shown to be the best Mike at this point," said Morris. "He's certainly going to have a tough battle behind him in Tyrone McKenzie and Derrell Smith. Those guys are going to come out and fight as well. That position won't be determined until these preseason games are played, but I'm looking forward to him going out there and giving it his best effort."
Foster will start in between outside 'backers Quincy Black and Geno Hayes, but it will be Black and Hayes who stay on the field when the team goes into a nickel defense. However, Foster is also running second-string behind Black in that nickel package, so he'll eventually see action in that role as well.
"He's the base 'backer, so he'll be in there when we're in our normal 4-3," said Morris. "But when we go to our 45 defense, we'll have a chance to see Quincy Black when we have the two linebackers on the field. Right now, that helps him out a little bit, helps him focus, helps him get in tune. But when we do the second group, he'll have a chance to play some 45 'backer and get out there and do those things as well and prove himself there. I'm just excited about the young man. It's a nice way to ease him into the program."
When Foster first arrived at camp two weeks ago, he did so with a plan of how he would attack the competition for a starting spot. Foster assumed he would make mistakes from time to time, but he planned to make those mistakes at 100 miles per hour. If he approaches Friday's game in that manner, he's likely to please his coaching staff.
"Right now it's just about going out and playing hard, fast, smart and consistent," said Morris. "That's always going to be the message, that's always going to be the code. If they can do those things and execute, show their coaches they can play, we'll go watch it tomorrow and grade it."
The Bucs and Chiefs kick off at 8:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.