LB Ryan Nece would like to trade in some practice snaps for the real thing
As Ryan Nece walked off the practice field on Tuesday afternoon, it occurred to him that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2006 regular season would begin in 18 days.
Also known as "tomorrow." Time to crank it up a notch.
The Bucs will truly go "live" against Baltimore on September 10, but as of mid-August Nece and the Buccaneers' other starters had played only a handful of game snaps. The starters were pulled after one series in the preseason opener on August 11, and the defense's own efficiency doomed that starting 11 to six plays in the follow-up on August 19. While veterans don't exactly line up to play preseason games from wire to wire, it does become increasingly hard to watch all the action from the sidelines.
Nece knows his playing time is about to increase dramatically, if not this weekend then in just a few weeks. That's a good thing.
"We know our next home game will be our season opener," said the starting strongside linebacker for the Bucs, who will finish the preseason with trips to Jacksonville and Houston. "That's right around the corner. With the third preseason game coming up, you know you're going to get a lot of snaps in that game as a starter and then probably not so many in the last game. We're not sure about that yet. You're just really excited. It's right around the corner – two games go just like that."
The remaining two preseason games, especially the finale in Houston, continue to be most important as showcases for the younger players trying to prove they belong on the team. But the veterans are starting to sniff the regular season, especially now that training camp is over, and some of them are growing anxious to play.
"Every player is different on how he prepares himself," said Nece. "I know for myself, I need the work. I'm better when I'm working. If I'm not, my mind goes elsewhere. I need to be on the field moving around. That's when I know I'm at my best, personally."
Nece has noticed and is impressed with the way fellow linebacker starters Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles can still get a lot out of a practice or a game in which they are not participating. Brooks and Quarles know how to stay involved through "mental reps" so that they can hit the ground running. Given the substitution patterns of the last two preseasons, the Bucs obviously have identified some players they believe can succeed in September without much live work in August – Cadillac Williams comes to mind.
Nece can do the same, but he'd like to pair that with a few more "physical reps," the type he will likely get on Saturday in Jacksonville.
"I don't know about [playing] every play in the preseason, but I'd like enough to keep me sharp and keep my skills sharp to be able to be successful throughout the season," he said.
So that's the split setting for the Bucs' third preseason game on Saturday – intertwined goals of veteran readiness and youth evaluation, and a series of decisions on who needs the work and who doesn't. Head Coach Jon Gruden thinks his staff has done a good job of identifying the players in each category.
"We try to not only accumulate good players but also to understand the kind of players that they are," said Gruden. "These guys do these things well, and they can thrive in these circumstances, and things of that nature. I'm not the expert, I guess, on preseason playing time although I put a lot of thought into it with my coaches. We base it on what we feel like we need to see."
Brooks, Quarles, Williams, Simeon Rice and Joey Galloway all sat out last Saturday's game. Gruden said that shouldn't be seen as some kind of reward for those men – players want to play, after all – but as an opportunity for their replacements. In other words, he understands that some of his men are itching for a little hitting.
And, since everyone knows the usual preseason pattern, starters like Nece are aware that they should get a larger chunk of playing time this weekend.
"Usually, the third game of the preseason, the starters play a lot more," said Nece. "It's usually the game where they play the most amount of snaps. So we anticipate that as starters. You look forward to really getting out there and getting after it. We're excited to put in a few good snaps and a few good plays out there."
The starters understand the dual nature of the preseason, of course, and they're quick to cheer on their replacements no matter how early they come into the game.
"We have great depth across the board, offense and defense," he said. "You want to get those guys in there working and feeling comfortable, but at the same time it's very important for your starters to play well and feel comfortable in this game."