Tampa Bay RB Aaron Stecker finds a seam in the Dolphins' defense during a successful running-game drill for the Bucs
One hundred and seventy four players, thirty-odd coaches and two separate practice fields made it a little difficult to follow all of the action in and around the Florida Citrus Bowl on Friday morning. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, for instance, basically chose to stay put on the main stadium field and watch his offense take on the Miami Dolphins' defense.
Even then, linemen drills sometimes competed with receiver/defensive back one-on-ones, and so on. Still, it wasn't hard to get a feel for where the Bucs were excelling in their first inter-team work and where they seemed behind the curve.
The team's running game, for instance, appeared healthy in drills that pitted the offense minus receivers against the defense minus safeties and corners. Working behind a rebuilt offensive line that now includes Pro Bowl veterans Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel, the Bucs repeatedly found success opening holes in the middle and bouncing runs to the outside.
"I think that's going to be a strength of our team," said quarterback Shaun King after watching many of his handoffs lead to positive results. "We have two real good running backs in Warrick (Dunn) and Mike (Alstott). We added Jeff and Randall and I think that's going to improve us up front and running the ball we'll be a strength of our team."
Meanwhile, the Dolphins' excellent stable of defensive backs gave the Bucs quarterbacks and receivers all they could handle in one-on-one drills. Dungy said that type of experience is exactly what these joint practices are designed to produce.
"We did some good things, but the thing we obviously need to do is work against the bump coverage," he said. "We don't see it that much from our guys in practice, and Miami has some very good bump-and-run people. We struggled with that this morning."
It was a long morning for the Buccaneers, who began their day with a 6:00 a.m. departure from the University of Tampa. A long bus ride to Orlando brought the team to the Florida Citrus Bowl, where they will meet for two days, twice a day, with the Dolphins. The two teams come together again at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, this time with the Bucs' defense and Miami offense taking Centre Court.
In the morning, Buccaneers.com chose to stick close to Tony Dungy and focus on the team's offense, as the defense toiled in the outfield of the adjacent baseball stadium. Beyond the fine work by McDaniel and Christy, there was also the competitive debut of Pro Bowl WR Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson, a fierce competitor, relished the opportunity to get a look at a team Tampa Bay will play in both the preseason and the regular season.
"We really want to go after them and kind of send a message to them," said Johnson. "In preseason, we'll send another message and in the regular season it will be for real."
Still, the Bucs' offense message was a bit muted on Friday morning as the team continues to absorb Les Steckel's newly-imported system. Johnson didn't think his group was sharp in practice number one.
"Oh, no, not at all," said Johnson. "Not even close to being sharp. We're still learning the system and we have a long season in front of us, a long way to go. We're just now learning our checks and learning our assignments.
Everybody's working hard. Any time everybody works, you're always going to have room for improvement. Every single day you're going to improve. As long as we continue to do that, I think we'll be headed down a good track. Once quarterbacks and receivers and everybody gets the chemistry down, I think the offense is fine. I think they put the right guys in the right situations. They picked the right person (in Les Steckel) and as long as he has patience with us, I think we'll have patience with ourselves and we'll produce."
The productive Bucs' rushing attack rotated mostly between backs Warrick Dunn, Rabih Abdullah, Aaron Stecker and Ketric Sanford. Fullback/H-back Mike Alstott was held out due to a very slightly strained hamstring. Many of Tampa Bay's more successful runs involved Abdullah, who is looking to hold onto and possibly expand his backup tailback job of 1999.
In the passing game, while the physical Miami corners created some havoc, receiver Karl Williams continued to build momentum in his excellent 2000 camp by twice beating third-year corner Ray Hill on medium-range passes. With NFL officials on hand, Rookie WR Tavarus Hogans, who missed some early work this week due to a strained hamstring, also was able to draw a pass-interference penalty on fellow rookie CB Jeff Harris.
Williams was also a bright spot in the kickoff return drill near the beginning of the practice. Tampa Bay got six cracks at returning kicks, all of which were hit high and deep by Miami K Olindo Mare. While five of those six returns were unremarkable, Williams' one runback got the ball back to the Bucs' 45-yard line.
The two clubs' special teams units also got a chance to face off against each other on field goal drills, with both Mare and Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica shining. Both kickers were good on two tries from 53 yards, with Gramatica's second one making it with many yards to spare. CB Floyd Young twice got close to a block of Mare's kicks.
While recognizing the Bucs' ragged edges this early in camp, Dungy still felt satisfied by the first of the four practices. "It was a good day of work," he said. "It always is against Miami. They're real well-coached, very sound, very strong on defense. It's going to be a good four practices for us. They're going to be very good on defense, no doubt about it.
"I think we were a little sluggish. I think they had a lot to do with that. Hopefully we'll be sharper in the next three practices."
If nothing else, the sudden competition was a good wakeup call for the Buccaneers.
"A lot of people can have a tendency to get overconfident based on what happened last year and what people are saying," said Dungy. "A lot of times, you really get a good reminder of just how tough the NFL is when you go against another team."