Practices at One Buccaneer Place have been running a little bit longer in recent weeks, as Head Coach Raheem Morris has taken to inserting extra periods with one football fundamental or another in the crosshairs. Ball security, run gap fits, penalty clean-up – improving in such areas has become a very obvious secondary concern, right behind winning games.
It is also fundamentally important, however – especially in pursuit of those recently-elusive victories – to get as many of your key players on the practice field as possible. On that front, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an encouraging day on Thursday.
Three important defenders who were held out of action on Wednesday were back on the field with their teammates on Thursday: defensive end Michael Bennett, linebacker Geno Hayes and defensive tackle Brian Price. Bennett, who is working through a toe injury, and Hayes, who is suffering from a knee ailment, were both back to full participation, in fact. Price returned in a limited fashion as he continues to recover from an ankle sprain.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who starts in the middle alongside Price, did not practice for the second straight day due to a knee issue, but this is becoming something of a usual pattern for him and the team.
"A couple guys came out today," said Morris. "Michael Bennett came out today. We still got limited action or no action by Haynesworth. We got some guys out there who are pretty healthy. Brian Price came out today a little bit, did some practice stuff. Geno was back out. Some of those guys came back and gave us some good action."
Generally, the Bucs have been cutting Haynesworth practice exposure in half in the interest of ensuring his availability over the weekend. Even though he missed the workouts on both Wednesday and Thursday, the veteran lineman could still be in the lineup in Charlotte on Saturday.
"Right now it's about maintenance and getting him to the game," said Morris. "For the rest of the team it's about fundamental core beliefs and getting those guys better [in practice]. You're talking about an older player, a veteran guy, and a veteran who's about 6-5 and 300-plus pounds. He's been able to do some practice things for us. When he's out there, we've got to use the most of him. When he's out there we've got to institute his plays and get him going, what he's going to be able to do for us on [Saturday]. If not, we've got to get Roy [Miller] and some of those other guys ready as well. He's done a nice job of really focusing off the field.
"The last couple weeks, he's been out there being productive. He makes some splash plays here and there. He's still gives up a little bit sometimes, but he's gotten a lot better at being gap-sound. He's got to keep growing with that and getting better. We've seen some better production out of him as far as being gap-sound and now we need those splash plays and gap-sound [work] all at the same time."
Miller is on the injury report as well due to a back issue but hasn't been limited at practice this week. Morris described the fourth-year defensive tackle as particularly tough on Wednesday, so it's likely he'll be available to play on Saturday.
Two of the Bucs' six wide receivers are also on the injury report, though both have practiced the last two days after being held out of last Saturday night's contest against the Dallas Cowboys. Starting flanker Arrelious Benn was inactive for the first time this season after suffering a concussion the previous weekend, but the concussion was diagnosed as being mild and Morris said on Thursday that he expects Benn to play against the Panthers. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter could also return after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
One key player the Bucs know they will definitely be without is starting left cornerback Aqib Talib, who landed on injured reserve earlier this week. In effect, this will mark the second straight time the Buccaneers have squared off with the Panthers and elite deep threat Steve Smith without Talib's services; Talib started the Week 13 game between the two teams but left after just five plays due to the hamstring injury that has now cost him the rest of the season.
On that afternoon, the Buccaneers adjusted by giving Talib's expected role of shadowing Smith to veteran Ronde Barber. Barber didn't cover Smith on every play, as Talib likely would have if he had avoided injury, but he drew the majority of the assignment and helped hold Smith to two catches for 32 yards. Morris said the game plan would likely be similar this Saturday in Charlotte.
Considering that Morris has taken to referring to Smith as "Freddy Krueger" – and meaning it in a respectful way – the task of containing Smith is obviously getting a lot of consideration this week.
"We'll have the ability to put Ronde out there a little bit," said Morris. "Obviously will have to mix it up because we've got some things that we need Ronde to do for us, so you'll get a chance to see some other players on his as well. But for the most part you'll get to see Ronde out there on Freddie.
"Don't fall asleep."