When the Detroit Lions came out in a spread offense on the first play of Sunday's 2011 season opener at Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers countered with a nickel defense. One result of that personnel change was that second-year defensive tackle Brian Price was awarded his first-ever NFL start.
That Price was seven suited up for the game was impressive to the Buccaneers' Head Coach, Raheem Morris. The young defensive tackle out of UCLA overcame a pair of surgeries necessitated by serious hamstring injuries to both legs during the 2011 offseason, and Morris has frequently stated his amazement that Price was ready for opening day.
It was an uncomfortable moment on Sunday, then, when Price clutched his hamstring and pounded the turf in frustration after chasing Lions running back Jahvid Best on a broken run. Fortunately, the news on Monday was quite encouraging: Morris said the injury was "light" and he referred to Price's status as day-to-day.
"[We'll] hopefully get him back," said Morris. "He played one of his better games. I'm really pleased how he played yesterday and how fast he got off the ball. When he was out there, he played well. I can't take that away from him."
On the other hand, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter will miss at least a couple games after sustaining a foot injury on his very first play of the 2011 regular season. Stroughter returned Detroit's first kickoff 78 yards to the Lions' 21 to set up Connor Barth's 38-yard game-tying field goal in the first quarter.
Still, even that prognosis is relatively encouraging considering Stroughter was due to undergo surgery on the foot on Monday. Morris said the surgery was minor and that Stroughter definitely was not in danger of missing the rest of the season.
"He will be out a few weeks and we will miss him a little bit," said Morris. "But his backup, Preston Parker, did a really good job for us yesterday and played well and he'll get better with the practice reps so we look forward to that. We've got Preston Parker, we have Spurlock and we also have [Dezmon] Briscoe going in there to do a couple things for us as well. Preston did a nice job of filling in for us yesterday and he'll do nothing but get better with all of the practice reps."
Stroughter does his best work out of the slot, and he has been one of quarterback Josh Freeman's favorite third-down targets over his first two seasons. The former seventh-round pick is also the Buccaneers' all-time leader in kickoff return average, at 32.5 yards per attempt, and he owns a Buc-record 97-yard return in addition to Sunday's big runback. Parker will help in that regard, too, though the new kickoff line of the 35 is somewhat marginalizing that part of the game. Stroughter's return in the first quarter was the only one of the game for both teams, despite a total of 10 kickoffs.
"[Stroughter's absence] hurts us in the kicking game, but Preston Parker has been a guy that stepped up yesterday and played pretty well coming into that role for Sammie," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "I know that [Special Teams Coordinator Dwayne] Stukes is really fired up about Preston as well in the special teams area. We're expecting Preston Parker to step in for Sammie and take over that position."
Morris reported no other new injuries from Sunday's opener, though Freeman had to leave the game for four offensive plays during the third quarter after being hit with leg cramps. It was a particularly hot and humid day on the Raymond James Stadium field, but Olson was surprised that his quarterback was affected enough to have to leave the game.
"That was definitely a concern him coming out," said Olson. "We've got to look at what he's doing to hydrate his body early in the week."
A Little More Swagger
Not one to sugarcoat an unpleasant truth, Morris conceded that his young team might have "blinked" during some of the tougher moments in Sunday's loss. The Buccaneers rallied impressively at the ends of both halves, as they have made a habit of doing since Freeman took over as the starter halfway through the 2009 season, but another slow start doomed them in the long run.
When Morris said his team blinked, he meant they were presented with opportunities to turn the game around and didn't take advantage of them. The Lions seized their moments more often and came away with the victory.
"We will continue to work on it," said Morris, who remains very confident in his players and wants them to exude the same confidence on the field, especially at the beginning of the game. "We have to start faster. We got to come out and be more efficient in our opener on offense. We've got to be faster starting on defense. We've got to get that three-and-out there early so we can get the ball back for our guys. You get the fast start with the kickoff return to the 20 – we've got to capitalize on all of those things and that's how you start faster. It's taking advantage of your opportunities. We said it best in our team meetings: 'Do your job.' Our guys just have to get up there and do their jobs and we've got to do our jobs early and we've got to do it often, and we got to finish with doing our job."
Olson thinks the Bucs' offense needs to develop more of a 'swagger' so that any bad moment doesn't shake its confidence.
"There's no reason for this team to blink," said Olson. "'You guys are a good football team – believe that,' is what our message is to our players. They're no reason for anyone on this team to blink. You're a 10-6 football team. You won a lot of big games last year. You're playing against a good football team certainly with the Lions, but you're a good team yourself. There's no reason for anyone on this team to blink and be in an, "Oh no" mode. We'll be fine. Just settle down, take a big breath and play football."
"You guys are a second-year group now. Some of you have been playing together for three or four years. Let's develop that swagger and make sure everyone knows what they're doing and go out there and play with a swagger."