LB Barrett Ruud says the Bucs' revamped defense gives opposing offenses more to think about when game-planning their rushing attacks
It was mid-afternoon Wednesday afternoon, about the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were finishing their first practice of the week, when New York Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan announced that Kellen Clemens would start at quarterback for his team on Sunday in Tampa.
The Buccaneers may have gone into their Wednesday workout guessing that Mark Sanchez would start against them in their Week 14 matchup despite the knee injury the rookie passer suffered in a win over Buffalo last weekend. However, that doesn't mean Tampa Bay's first practice was misguided or in any way a waste. Ryan's announcement was obviously a significant one, but it won't significantly change the Bucs' approach this week.
"They're going to probably play the same game," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Remember, those guys competed and had a tough battle up there in New York for the starting [quarterback] job. I'm sure it won't change their game plan much. Their game plan is to run the football and they do that well. I'm sure that's what they'll do. We'll get ready for everything, but you know they're going to run the football. They were going to run the football no matter who played."
Nor could anyone blame the Jets for that approach, no matter who is under center. After all, New York owns the most potent ground attack in the NFL, racking up nearly 170 rushing yards per outing, and they'll be facing the league's 31st-ranked run defense.
The fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft – taken 12 spots before the Bucs nabbed their rookie starter, Josh Freeman – Sanchez has started for the Jets since opening day. Clemens has thrown just three passes, two of them last week after Sanchez was hurt, but he started eight games in 2007 and was in the running to start again this season even after Sanchez was drafted.
And while Sanchez has impressed the Jets' coaching staff, it's fair to say that the Thomas Jones-led running game and the league's second-ranked defense have had much to do with keeping the team in playoff contention. Sanchez started the season fast, with an 87.7 passer rating through three games as the Jets started 3-0, but after 12 starts he owns a 63.7 rating and an 11-17 TD-INT ratio.
If the Jets are going to turn their 6-6 mark at the beginning of the final quarter into a playoff berth, they will likely do it on the strength of their rushing attack, starting Sunday in Tampa. Former Buccaneer Thomas Jones is sixth in the NFL with 1,068 rushing yards, and even though valuable and versatile reserve Leon Washington is done for the year due to injury, rookie Shonn Greene has contributed 312 yards on 65 carries. Jones averages 4.5 yards a pop, Greene, 4.8 per tote and the Jets 4.7 as a whole to rank fourth in the league.
That sounds like a stiff challenge for the Bucs' run defense, which has allowed 160.1 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry this season. However, that crew has been much stronger in the last two weeks, giving up just 75 yards to Atlanta and a not-as-bad-as-it-looks 157 to Carolina. After the Panthers posted 80 tackle-breaking rushing yards in the first 10 minutes of Sunday's game, Buccaneer defenders started securing their stops and the run game slowed down considerably.
"What they have done in the past couple of weeks is go out and play fast, play together and play hard," said Morris of his defenders against the run. "They have to continue to grow on that. The identity that's around them has been here for years. Play fast, play hard and play together. It's never left this place. These guys reestablishing themselves on the football field is what's important. We kind of lost a little bit of our edge and we have to get that back."
Said linebacker Barrett Ruud, who clearly seems more comfortable in the Bucs' revamped scheme of the past two weeks: "I think it's a combination of mixing up our fronts a little bit more and just being a little more sound in our gaps. Whenever you're a 4-3 defense, it's all about basically doing a job, because if you call an eight-man front you should have enough people to take care of everything. It's about reading your keys and being in the right spot. The fact that we're mixing up the fronts a little bit more makes it tougher on the offense. They can't just game-plan one front; they have to be prepared for multiple ones, which makes it a little tougher on their part. They have to be a little more simplistic."
The Bucs have actually faced reserve quarterbacks the last two weeks as well. Atlanta's Chris Redman came in after Matt Ryan was hurt early and played well, though he needed seven throws from inside the 10-yard line to produce the winning touchdown in a 20-17 decision. Carolina's Matt Moore was obviously put in a role designed to minimize the chances of big plays on defense, throwing only 20 passes and only a few of any depth. The Bucs hope they can fare even better against Clemens – that is, this time they'd like to come away with a win – but they know that stopping the run remains the top priority.
That they'll be trying to stop the best running game in the league is a challenge they relish. There are no playoffs at the end of this final quarter of the season for the Buccaneers, but there is still much they can prove.
"We have four games left," said safety Sabby Piscitelli. "We have four games to establish our identities. We have to go out there and challenge them. It's one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL so we have to challenge them. We have to change our momentum and roll it right into next season. You don't want to go into the offseason on a bad note."
Talib Returns to Practice
The Buccaneers' Wednesday injury report was shorter than last week's version, and most notably it did not include cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib missed the Carolina game after aggravating a hamstring injury the previous Sunday in Atlanta. The Bucs' leading interceptor, he was unable to practice on Thursday or Friday and was finally ruled out over the weekend.
However, Talib was full-go on the practice field to open Jets week, and that's welcome news for a cornerback corps that has recently been thinned by injuries. Last week, the Bucs started veteran Ronde Barber and second-year man Elbert Mack and backed them up with a pair of players promoted from the practice squad during the season, Derrick Roberson and Brandon Anderson.
As it turns out, it was Roberson who was on the report this week, missing practice on Wednesday due to a groin injury. He was one of three Bucs who did not work out on the field to start the week, joining wide receiver Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow, both of whom are dealing with knee issues. Clayton did not play against the Panthers after sustaining his injury in Atlanta; Winslow has been able to fight through his own injury for much of the second half of the season and has not missed a game.
Linebacker Geno Hayes was limited on Wednesday due to a hamstring strain.
Sanchez was one of two Jets who did not participate in Wednesday's practice, joining reserve guard Robert Turner (knee). Five other New York players were limited: cornerback Marquice Cole (knee), defensive end Shaun Ellis (knee), linebacker Larry Izzo (neck), cornerback Dwight Lowery (ankle) and cornerback Donald Strickland (concussion). Among those five, only Ellis is listed as a starter, though Izzo is the Jets' special teams ace.
The Buccaneers have searched far and wide for additional cornerback talent this season, and now they may have found it right in their own backyard.
On Wednesday, the Bucs signed rookie cornerback Stoney Woodson to their practice squad; a spot on that eight-man unit was opened on Tuesday when running back Kareem Huggins was promoted to the active roster.
Woodson is a Tampa native who played his prep ball at Middleton High School, earning all-county honors, before heading off to South Carolina. The 5-10, 198-pound defender was a seventh-round draft pick of the New York Giants this past spring after a strong four-year collegiate career with the Gamecocks.
Woodson is the seventh cornerback the Bucs have signed to their practice squad or active roster since the beginning of the '09 regular season, following Brandon Anderson, Marcus Hamilton, Jamar Love, Marcus McCauley, Mike Mickens and Derrick Roberson. Anderson and Roberson have both been promoted to the active roster since the middle of the season, with Anderson recently getting the call-up after injuries to Torrie Cox and Aqib Talib.
The Giants made Woodson the 238th overall pick in the 2009 draft, but he suffered an ankle injury during the preseason and was given an injury settlement by New York. He later signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and had two stints on the Philly practice squad, the second one ending on Tuesday when he was released.
At South Carolina, Woodson played in 48 games and made 23 starts, finishing with 109 tackles and eight interceptions. As a senior in 2008 he started 10 games, nine at cornerback and one at safety, and played at Raymond James Stadium when South Carolina went to the Outback Bowl.