DE Ron Warner had a sack in the Bucs' preseason finale at Atlanta
On Saturday, just a day before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were to open the regular season in Dallas, offensive line depth concerns earned rookie Leon Hires a promotion from the practice squad to the active roster.
The flip side of that move was the need to waive a man from the 53-man roster in order to make room for Hires. That player was second-year DE Ron Warner, a 1998 seventh-round pick of the New Orleans Saints who joined the Bucs this past spring after a stint in the Canadian Football League.
Other NFL teams had until 4:00 p.m. on Monday to claim Warner off waivers, but the former Kansas standout cleared that process, becoming a free agent. The Buccaneers then re-signed Warner to the team's practice squad, filling the fifth spot on that unit vacated by Hires.
Warner (6-2, 248) impressed in training camp with his speed rush and was one of five defensive ends (rookie Ellis Wyms can play inside or outside) retained on the roster after last Sunday's final cut to 53. In four preseason games, Warner pitched in with five tackles and one sack.
Warner joins DT Devone Claybrooks, CB Corey Ivy, TE Mike Roberg and G Eric Thomas on the Bucs' five-man practice squad.
With the Buccaneers' offense effectively moving the ball on Sunday but failing to capitalize on its opportunities, Tampa Bay used a formula of stout defensive and one sustained touchdown drive to beat the Cowboys by a slim 10-6 margin. However, breakdowns on special teams nearly destroyed that formula.
Most notably, the Buccaneers surrendered a 77-yard kickoff return and allowed Dallas return man Reggie Swinton a 43.7-yard average on three runbacks. In addition, a Cowboys punt was downed at Tampa Bay's one, RB Aaron Stecker received a penalty for fair catch interference, and WR Karl Williams was stopped for just 13 yards on his only kickoff return.
Dallas annually rates among the league's best special teams squads, but Dungy also believes some improvement is needed from his own units.
"We had 20 plays on special teams and we had two penalties and two long returns that we gave up. We missed a field goal. Overall, we just played a game that we could have lost on (those) 20 special teams plays, and we've got to get that corrected."
Under Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano, the Buccaneers have also been one of the league's better special teams squads during Dungy's five-year tenure. For instance, the Buccaneers have blocked more kicks than any other NFL squad in the last five years and have ranked in the top seven every season since 1997 in opponent kickoff drive start average. Dungy believes Marciano's troops can get any problems from the Dallas game corrected, but hinted that it could involve the use of more starters on special teams, if necessary.
"We just have to play better or we've got to put guys in there that are going to play better," said Dungy. "You watch (Dallas) and they have Dexter Coakley, Darren Woodson and George Teague in there. We may have to do that if we can't get it done. Hopefully that's the last resort."
On Monday, Dungy didn't sound as if he was close to going through on that threat. It may be that he is giving the unit the benefit of the doubt in the early going, as young replacements for such departed special teams standouts as Don Davis and John McLaughlin find their way.
"Minnesota started off the game with a kickoff return for a touchdown against them," said Dungy. "St. Louis has a rookie returner that fumbles the ball in the fourth quarter. So those things happen. You have to kind of figure out in your mind if you're going to stay with them and let them work through it or say , "Hey we've got to play our veteran guys no matter what.' Our thought process has always been to play the young guys and let them work through it."
That 77-yard kickoff return by Swinton actually turned into somewhat of a positive note when the Bucs held the Cowboys to just three points off of the big play.
On Monday, the postgame buzz at One Buccaneer Place continued to center around Brian Kelly's one-on-one stop of Dallas RB Emmitt Smith at the goal line, a few snaps after Swinton's return. When Smith bounced outside on a carry from the one, he found himself one-on-one with the Bucs' fourth-year cornerback. Since no one in the history of the National Football League has more rushing touchdowns than Smith, it was reasonable to assume that the Bucs would soon be on the short end of a 7-3 score.
Kelly had other ideas.
"We talked about that Friday at our meeting," said Dungy of the chances that Smith would get the ball close to the goal line. "He's had 145 rushing touchdowns, so you figure, from the one-yard line, he's going to get the ball. He's got it in most of the time in those situations. It was a great play by Brian Kelly."
Actually, Dungy gave a handful of Bucs credit in keeping Dallas out of the end zone on that possession, noting that one Cowboy or another was on the verge of scoring at least three times.
"There were actually three big plays on that (drive)," said Dungy. "Ronde Barber and Al Singleton (catching Swinton) on the kickoff return. The second-down play – they had an option play that (QB Quincy) Carter probably could have scored on, but Steve White makes a great hustle play from the backside and keeps him out. Then Brian Kelly makes a great one-on-one tackle to keep Emmitt Smith out, and keeps them from going ahead. So that was really three big plays from guys just hustling and getting the job done."