Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller are expected to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting defensive tackle tandem when the 2011 regular season opens. In the preseason, however, it will be at least Game Three before the two actually take the field together.
McCoy sat out the preseason opener in Kansas City last Friday with a shoulder injury suffered on the practice field roughly a week earlier. It's a minor ailment, but the team has proceeded cautiously; the day after the injury occurred, Head Coach Raheem Morris hinted that McCoy might have been able to play two days later if there was a regular-season game on the schedule.
And, indeed, McCoy is expected to play on Thursday in the Bucs' preseason home opener against New England. He just won't be lining up next to Miller quite yet.
Miller started at defensive tackle in Friday's game but incurred a bruised knee on the first play from scrimmage. The third-year lineman was able to return to the game a few minutes later, but he was held out of action when the team resumed practice back in Tampa on Sunday. Morris intends to hold Miller out a bit longer, too.
"Roy is kind of day-to-day," said Morris on Monday. "He has a knee ding and he'll be out this week. I mean, I'm not certain of that but I can almost guarantee I won't play him with a knee ding and him not practicing."
Even with a quartet of first and second-round draft picks spent on defensive linemen over the past two years, Miller – a third-round pick in 2009 – remains a front-line player for the Buccaneers. Perhaps the team's strongest player up front, he is developing into a hard-to-move run-stopper. At some point, however, Brian Price – the second-round pick in 2010 – may challenge Miller for a starting spot or a greater percentage of the snaps. That day is not quite imminent, however, as Price is still working his way back from two significant leg injuries.
Since camp opened, Morris has mentioned on several occasions that he is very impressed with how far Price has come in a relatively short time. Price still has the quick-twitch burst off the line that made him such a dominant interior force at UCLA, but he is in the process of working himself fully back into playing shape.
Morris said it might be another month before Price is completely back to where he started before the injuries. The second-year linemen took part in the early portion of Monday night's full-speed practice, which was another step forward for him.
"He's one of those guys we've got to keep monitoring and keep watching to get him ready," said Morris. "He's about a month away from where he wants to be, according to the schedule of [his recovery from] the first [injury]. Hopefully we can get him going in the right direction. You want to make them ready, you want to force them to be ready, but unfortunately that's not the case for the hamstrings or the healing process. Hopefully we will see where he is in order to get ready completely."
With the rotating injuries at the defensive tackle position, fourth-year veteran Frank Okam is getting more exposure, and he's making the most of it. A fifth-round draft pick by Houston in 2008, Okam only arrived in Tampa last November after getting a midseason release by the Texans. He started the last three games of the season after an injury to McCoy and racked up 15 stops and two tackles for loss in that span. When McCoy sat out in Kansas City, Okam got the start there, too.
According to Morris, on the other hand, Okam would be seeing regular team whether or not his fellow defensive tackles were ailing, simply on the merit of his work during training camp.
"Frank Okam came to camp with a mission," said Morris. "He's a big physical man. Last year he had a big breakout game [against Seattle] where he had a bunch of tackles. He's been moving bodies."
Okam himself is difficult to move. He's listed as 6-5 and 350 pounds on the Buccaneers' roster, and Morris doesn't think that's an exaggeration. That's not the typical mold for a Tampa Bay defensive tackle over the last 15 years or so – their scheme has generally favored quick, penetrating, one-gap DTs closer to 300 pounds – but the current coaching staff thinks they can exploit Okam's differing skill set for good results.
"He's different than we've ever seen in Tampa, he's different than we've looked at over the past couple of years with the quickness and the quick twitch," said Morris. "I don't even know what his technique is, it's just, 'Get out of the way.' It works for him and I like it. He's certainly in the mix to play. He's just a big man and he doesn't get tired. He's one of those guys where you say, 'Is he out of shape?' And then you look at him and you [say], 'No, he just looks like a refrigerator.'"
A New Challenge for Youboty
The NFL's 2011 free agency period has been unlike any the league has ever seen before. Because the labor negotiations were not resolved until late July, the open market and the opening of training camp happened almost simultaneously for the league's 32 teams and the hundreds of players with expired contracts. There was an initial flurry of player movement that was almost too fast to keep up with.
For Ashton Youboty, the former Buffalo Bills cornerback, the free agent market was even stranger. He was not signed during the initial rush, or in the two weeks that followed. Training camps went on the preseason started. Youboty did the one thing he could do while he waited for a team to contact him: He kept himself in top playing shape.
The Buccaneers finally called over the weekend and Youboty signed a two-year deal with the team on Monday. He may be a few weeks behind the rest of his 90 teammates, but he says the situation would have been the same even if he had signed in the first wave.
"Even if I was here from Day One, it's a challenge," he said after his first Buccaneer practice on Monday evening. "No matter where you go – you can go to any of the other 31 camps – Day One, Day 20 is a challenge. You've just got to come in and prove yourself no matter where you go. That's the adventure of free agency."
Youboty joins a Bucs team that is currently working without two of its top corners, Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis, due to mild hamstring injuries. However, his new position coach, Jimmy Lake, said that had nothing to do with the Bucs' interest in the former Ohio State standout.
"We're always going to be collecting corners," said Lake, who scouted Youboty before the 2006 draft and considers him a very skilled player. "That's what we're going to do as an organization. You can't have enough corners. The more able bodies that are big and fast and can run, we're going to bring them in by the dozen. There was a quality corner on the market that we thought would get picked up in free agency. A talented guy like Youboty doesn't get picked up? We're going to make room for him on our squad."
In addition to talent, Youboty has one other advantage as he throws himself into this challenge in Tampa. He played a scheme he says is very similar to what the Bucs employ during his first four years in Buffalo, under the direction of Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell. Youboty points out, also, that he has now been fortunate enough to be chosen by two head coaches – Dick Jauron and Raheem Morris – who traced their roots back to coaching defensive backs.
The Bucs will certainly give Youboty an opportunity to prove himself during the remainder of the preseason. Lake is spending extra time with his new charge in an attempt to get him ready for Thursday's game against the Patriots, and Morris is looking forward to seeing what Youboty can do.
"We just get those guys out there, let them compete," said Morris. "Right now is an opportunity to see some other people. We always talk about long term and long-term thinking in advance. You never know what's going to happen. You never know how it's going to happen. To get a guy here that we like coming out in the draft and have an opportunity to work out and then have an opportunity to sign was something that we wanted to do."
The Buccaneers conducted a 90-minute walk-through on Monday morning and, as always, finished the session with a huddle around Morris. On this day, however, the huddle was about twice as big as usual.
As soon as the horn sounded to end the walk-through, members of the Leto High School football team streamed onto the field, wearing red shirts that fit in well with the Buccaneers' practice attire. The Bucs' huddle opened on one side to let them in, and the Leto players flowed into the group swiftly and fluidly. That's either good news for fans of the Falcons this fall, or a sign that the Bucs' young guests were very excited to meet their NFL counterparts.
Or perhaps they just wanted a chance to express their gratitude.
The boys from Leto visited One Buccaneer Place on Monday as representatives of the Hillsborough County School district as a whole, following a recent unsolicited donation of equipment by the Buccaneers. Realizing it had a surplus of shoes in its equipment department, the team elected to donate roughly 200 pairs of cleats and sneakers to the surrounding school district for use by prep football players. Some of those shoes ended up at Leto, and the team came by to say thanks.
"That was good to get those guys out here," said Morris. "We had a chance to give them some free pairs of cleats and sneakers to help them get going. We're a part of the community and we want to support it."
The donated shoes came in a variety of sizes and styles, but obviously a good portion of them were in the higher size range. Such donations are often particularly helpful for high school teams, as the young men who need larger sizes can have difficulty finding them. That's one reason the shoe surplus was spread out throughout the school district.
Morris figures the visit to One Buc Place had as much impact as the donated shoes on some of the young visitors.
"It's important to feel wanted," said the Bucs' coach. "I remember when I was growing up in Jersey, how much I would have loved to go watch the New York Giants or the New York Jets. To see those guys practice and to be able to join in their huddle, it makes you feel like you're a part of that team. I think it's important to bring your community in to meet your team. I like bringing in these high school teams that we go watch on Fridays."
Leto High School is a Title 1 school and roughly two thirds of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch. In the post-practice huddle, Morris pointed out to the visiting players that some of the Bucs surrounding them grew up in similar communities.
"A lot of the guys that we get on this team have made it out of some rough neighborhoods and different communities," said Morris. "The kids from this high school, they may realize that they can make it as well, they can do the same things that some of our guys have done."