When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flew to Miami on Friday night, they left six of their 80 players behind. While most of the roster suited up on Saturday night to play the Dolphins, those six - cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis, defensive tackle Brian Price, running back Clifton Smith, tight end Kellen Winslow and safety De'von Hall - used the extra time to continue recuperating from minor injuries.
On Monday, the Buccaneers returned to the practice field, and so did five of those six players. While Hall, a first-year player signed late last year, was still on the sideline, Talib, Lewis, Price, Smith and Winslow were all back in action. In all, those five represent two of the team's first four draft picks this past April, two members of the starting lineup and a Pro Bowl return man.
In other words, the One Buc Place practice fields got a little more competitive on Monday afternoon.
In the preseason, when rosters are bloated by almost 30 extra players, an occasional missed game by an established player usually presents a silver lining. With Lewis and Talib out (the latter was actually excused from the game to deal with a family matter), second-year man E.J. Biggers had a chance to step up in the middle of a fierce battle at cornerback. With Winslow sitting out, young tight end Ryan Purvis picked up the slack with two catches for 26 yards. With Clifton Smith taking it easy on a tweaked hamstring, rookie free agent Preston Parker provided the spark in the return game with 69 yards on four punt runbacks. And so on.
Perhaps nobody seized the day as completely as Biggers. In Talib's absence, third-year man Elbert Mack stepped into the starting left cornerback spot and Biggers became the primary nickel back. All Biggers did was rack up four tackles, get one stop behind the line of scrimmage, break up a pass and alertly recover a fumble at the Bucs' 11-yard line late in the first half. His pass defensed was the result of a very quick reaction to a short slant by new Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
"You've got to talk about the job Biggers did in that first preseason game, standing up against a really good receiver, a really talented guy in this league and making a couple plays," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He made a couple plays at nickel, made a couple plays at outside corner and really played with a great energy."
Biggers had a strong training camp last year, as well, and made the opening 53-man roster despite being drafted in the seventh round. He didn't get a chance to play, however, ending up on injured reserve a few days later due to a shoulder ailment. The competition got stronger this offseason with the addition of Vanderbilt's Lewis in the third round, but circumstances allowed Biggers the first opportunity to lay claim to the nickel back job. Before he can get too comfortable, however, Lewis is now back in the mix, and that's exciting for the Bucs' coaching staff.
"You get an addition to [the competition] this week," said Morris. "We get a chance to see Mr. Lewis go out there and compete. It's exciting over there at the corner spot and I look forward to watching the matchup this week."
Biggers welcomed Lewis back on Monday, figuring his presence will make the entire group of cornerbacks compete even harder.
"I want it real bad," said Biggers. "I feel like everybody in our group wants it real bad. It's a friendly competition and everybody's going out, playing hard every day and just making everybody better.
"We have a lot of great guys out there. Any guy can step in right now and do the job. We're a very close group and everybody knows what they have to do. Everybody knows what they have to do and knows their role. Everybody's watching Talib and Ronde and trying to learn from them."
Biggers might not be as advanced in his game or as solidly in the middle of the cornerback competition had he not done exactly that all last fall as he recovered from his injured shoulder. He doesn't spend much time dwelling on the season he might have lost but rather appreciates where the developments of the last 12 months have left him.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Biggers. "I learned a lot more. I felt more comfortable out there this year watching film and learning from the older guys. Talib, Ronde [Barber], E-Mack, T-Jack [Tanard Jackson], all those guys - they talk to me every day, give me little pointers here and there. This year it feels like I'm out there playing high school football again."
Coach Morris was thrilled with Biggers' performance in Miami, but he was even more pleased on Monday when Lewis returned to turn up the heat on all of the young players vying for the nickel back job and, more importantly, a spot on the 53-man roster.
"It's about competition," said Morris. "We always talk about competition around here. We always talk about forcing your will on your opponent, whoever your opponent is that day. Some days it's your competitors, some day it's the guy that's fighting to get your job. We always like to push those envelopes. We have the ultimate competitor example in our building in Ronde Barber. He constantly thinks people want his job and he's felt like that since he was a rookie. That's what's kept him in his position, that's what's kept him in his best shape, that's what's kept him being one of the best corners in this football league for so long, because of that feeling. We're pushing those competitions. We don't shy away from it. We love it. That helps our football team, from the bottom up."
Bucs Sign USF Corner
The Buccaneers waived/injured rookie cornerback Darrell Pasco on Monday, but they used the open roster spot to sign another defensive back with ties to the area.
In fact Trae Williams, who signed with the Buccaneers on Monday, starred on the high school level in nearby Plant City and then played his college football at the University of South Florida. Before joining his hometown team, Williams was most recently with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 5-10, 195-pound Williams first entered the league as a fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2008. He was waived by the Jaguars before the regular season but quickly landed on the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad, where he spent his entire rookie campaign. Williams went to camp with the Eagles the following summer but later ended up on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad. The Steelers eventually signed him off that unit to their active roster in late December of last season but released him this past June.
At USF, Williams earned second-team All-Big East honors as a senior after snaring six interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. His 13 interceptions over the 2006-07 seasons was the most by any player in the NCAA FBS division. His seven picks in 2006 led the Big East and earned him the Bulls' Defensive Playmaker of the Year award.
Pasco, who played his prep ball at Countryside High School in Clearwater, re-signed with the Bucs on August 6. He had also briefly appeared on the roster during the offseason. Pasco played in the Bucs' preseason opener at Miami on Saturday night, notching one tackle but sustaining a shoulder injury.
Injury Updates and More from Coach Morris
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall left Saturday night's game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and it appears as if he will miss the preseason home opener against Kansas City as well. Morris said that Stovall would miss at least a week due to his mishap in Miami and will then be evaluated on a day-to-day basis.
A few other players, including rookie receiving sensation Mike Williams, were held out of practice on Monday, too, but not due to any injuries from the Dolphins game. Rather, a bug was going around One Buc Place, keeping Williams and a few teammates off the practice field due to illness. Morris said Williams will likely return to practice on Tuesday.
Morris also touched on several other topics on Monday afternoon in his first Q&A since Saturday's postgame press conference.
On what was accomplished in the preseason opener and what still needs to be accomplished:
"We went out the other day and we played fast, and we talked about playing hard and those two games got accomplished. We've just got to go out and play smarter this week. That's the focus for this week. Play hard, play fast, play smart...we got the first two accomplished. We've got to keep that going and now we've just got to go out and play smarter. If wee can eliminate some of the foolish penalties - the offsides, late hits, some of those things - we can really have an effective and efficient game for ourselves and really compete this year."
On rookie WR Arrelious Benn's first game:
"Arrelious Benn went out and he played the game slower than he'd been practicing it. It's not a scared thing or anything like that. It's just a nervous energy going through him. He wanted to do everything the right way so he tended to play a little bit slower than he had been in practice. If he can clean some of that stuff up this week, which I'm sure he will, having his second outing, being at home, being on familiar turf, I think he'll be a little bit better. He did a nice job in everything he was asked to do in the game because he didn't have many mistakes. He had a few but we can get him better, and he'll get better fast. He just needs some repetitions."
On DT Brian Price's status:
"He practiced today and he didn't look bad. He looked pretty good. He went out there and did the two-minute drill for us and did a couple other things. We're just looking forward and hoping that he remains on course and will be ready to play for us. It would be nice to put those two guys together."
On the likely quarterback rotation against Kansas City on Saturday:
"It's pretty much the same plan for Josh [Freeman]. You want to go out there and get him 12-15 snaps, unless something happens like he goes 4-4 and throws a touchdown and you say, 'Okay, that's enough.'"
On if Keydrick Vincent will start at right guard in the next game over Jeremy Zuttah:
"No, Zuttah gets the start again. He'll be out there starting. Zuttah, as you saw last week, got a couple center reps for us. He's able to play center for us a little bit and we can put Keydrick at guard so we can get a look at both of those guys out there on the field together. They both have tremendous value at what they do."
On how the defensive line played:
"Those guys played with great motor. Kyle Moore was more of a standout than I remembered in the game. He flashed, showed up a little on the quarterback, with quarterback hits and pressures. Tim Crowder always gives you great effort. Some of those ends, Michael Bennett, he showed in the game, you kind of felt him in the game. Those three ends that we talked about made some nice plays. Young Lorig came in and split a double-team, made a big-time play in the backfield. We had another great play by Roy Miller, saving us on a breakout run by Ricky Williams. He came out of a double-team, played it really well. Gerald McCoy played with good pad level and really played well against the run. We only gave up 50 yards rushing. I believe their longest run was an eight-yard run, early. We had some missed fits. I was really impressed with what they were able to do, especially in those conditions, playing out there in that mud bowl. I'm looking forward to seeing those guys playing on a dry surface."