A good portion of each practice is spent trying to educate the quarterbacks on all of the possible blitz possibilities
Jon Gruden calls it "amusing." The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line might feel differently. The Bucs' quarterbacks aren't laughing, either.
The source of amusement for Gruden? The seemingly endless variety and crazy design of the blitzes that NFL defenses are bringing this year, and in recent seasons. Gone are the days when an offense could prepare for a specific set of blitzes for a specific team and expect to see only those extra rushers on Sunday. Gone, also, are the days when "blitz" meant one extra safety crashing the line, or one linebacker steaming off the edge.
An NFL offense must now prepare for scenarios in one or both cornerbacks comes after its quarterback. Or both safeties. Or two linebackers or a safety. Or any combination thereof.
"It's very amusing sometimes to see some of these blitzes," said Gruden, his tone of voice telling a slightly different story. "It's really exciting to go out there and have that challenge put against you. It's an area that we take a lot of pride in, our blitz control and our presentation offensively. We've got to take it to another level. We've got to clearly play better than we did last week."
The Bucs allowed five sacks against the 49ers, several on blitzes. On one, for instance, Tampa Bay brought a third receiver into the game and lined him up in the left slot. The 49ers countered by covering the slot receiver with nickel back Derrick Johnson, a rookie. Johnson had no intention of covering the receiver, however. Instead, at the snap he shot in directly at Simms and, as he wasn't picked up by a blocker, sacked the quarterback for a loss of 12. If not for a successful 47-yard kick by Matt Bryant, that play would have cost the Bucs a chance to score.
Obviously, the Bucs' didn't handle that blitz correctly, but it wasn't for a lack of preparation. Because there are so many pass-rush variables these days, Buccaneer practices have become reflectively blitz-happy. Gruden estimates that many of his 14-play offensive periods during practice include as many as 12 blitz snaps. You have to prepare for just about any combination of rushers, and you still might not cover everything you'll see on Sunday.
"It's not getting easier today on quarterbacks," said Gruden. "The volume of blitzes, the volume of specialization is off the charts. With Carolina and then when you watch [Week 10 opponent] the Redskins, you're going to see that the blitz reels are longer than the base blitz reels. You're preparing a quarterback for who's coming and how they're covering as much as you're preparing him for executing the fundamentals and techniques that you want done. But we can't turn the ball over, we've got to eliminate the sacks and we've got to find a way to score points."
Then there is: Tampa Bay's quarterback, Chris Simms, is about to make the fourth start of his NFL career. The Bucs know how they would treat a young, inexperienced passer on the other side of the line, so they expect the same sort of ratcheted-up pressure on Simms. The approach goes hand-in-hand with the idea of loading up the box to stop the run, because you have a lot more players close to the line of scrimmage, a lot more hidden possibilities.
Of course, the flip side of that high- pressure strategy is some additional opportunities for Simms and the offense, if they can figure out a way to take advantage of them.
"We are definitely expecting to see eight, nine guys in the box," said running back Cadillac Williams. "We feel like Chris Simms is going to get things going and we have full confidence in the guy."
Simms knows the Panthers are coming.
"Any time a quarterback gets in there who hasn't played a whole lot…," said Simms, leaving the obvious unsaid. "Just going back to the Miami game, my first few plays they blitzed every play, like the first five plays in a row. I'm totally aware of that and I think our offense is, too."
Almost everybody blitzes in today's NFL, but some teams have more exotic packages and more risk-taking elements than others. Some teams also have better athletes, more serious threats on the pass rush. Carolina certainly falls into that second category.
"Carolina – great defense, great front four," said Simms. "They're really just an all-around great defense. The front seven, all 11 are good. They do a lot of different things on defense, a lot of different blitzes. We know it's going to be a tough game."
Carolina's blitzes weren't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
LB Derrick Brooks on how important it is to start the current part of the season off strong: "It's that, but we still look at one game at a time. This game is finishing out the second quarter of the season at 2-2 if we win, putting us at 6-2, and first place is on the line. So we don't need to look any further than the Carolina Panthers this week. We just take one game at a time, and the game this week is very important."
DE Greg Spires on how the team is going to bounce back: "I think we have a lot of leadership on this team. We'll do well. We'll bounce back. We have to not turn the ball over. And not give up the ball in our territory, in our red zone, to help put our offense in a better position to score. We needed some turnovers. We needed to change it up as a defense."
Spires on finally playing a divisional opponent: "It's an important game. They're 5-2, this is for the lead, I mean, for first place. You really don't look at who you're playing, if it's a divisional opponent or not."
WR Joey Galloway on the Carolina defense: "They're fast, physical. They're a play-making defense. We're going to have to be able to run the ball to be successful against this type of defense. We're going to have to be sharp. They like to blitz and they're effective with it. Offensively, we've got to be extremely sharp in our assignments, in our blitz pick-up and our ability to make plays when we have opportunities."
QB Chris Simms on how to counteract the Carolina defense: "As an offense we've all got to pick it up and play better football. You can't worry about a better defense; San Francisco's defense is real good. They've really just had some bumpy times because of their offense, the position they've put them in. Every week in this league you're playing good defenses. You've got good pass rushers, good guys in the secondary. You've just got to bring you're A game."
C John Wade on if it is expected that Carolina will attack the middle of the line: "I wouldn't see why not. Whatever they decide to do is what they decide to do. But I would expect, yes, until we prove we can pick that up."
CB Brian Kelly on if he gets excited to face a player like Steve Smith: "It's a great opportunity for you, as opposed to the situation we were in last week. San Francisco threw the ball maybe about eight times. We know the ball's going to get in the air this week and there are going to be some opportunities for us to make plays. They're good athletes, good players on that side of the ball. They're going to make a few plays, too, but it's a good challenge for us and we're up for it."
Brooks on what concerns him most about the Panthers: "We can't get caught up about them. It's about us. Making sure we've gotten over Sunday's loss, licked our wounds and given Carolina all the attention they deserve. Momentum's on their side but at the end of the day we've got to line up and play on Sunday."
RB Carnell Williams on the team not blaming each other for the loss at San Francisco: "That goes to show you what kind of football team we have. Nobody pointing a finger or starting on me. I didn't have the best game. I know as a whole, offense, defense, special teams, for some reason we went up there and didn't get the job done."
QB Luke McCown on how his role has changed since QB Brian Griese was placed on injured reserve: "It just put me at the second spot. It's taken me out from running the scout team now to really honing in practice, really honing in on the game plan."
Simms on how he has to lead differently now that he's starting: "Really, not a whole lot different. We just really want to keep the tempo up, say the plays and get out there and do what we've got to do. I'm not going to change much from that aspect. I understand I'm the starting quarterback now and I say what I need to say every now and then. But when there are 11 guys out there who all know what needs to be done you don't have to say a whole lot."
QB Tim Rattay on what he can do to get on the field: "I just have to keep watching film as much as I can. Learning, watching the reps out in practice, just keep studying and just keep rehearsing the plays in my mind and how to call them. I'll just try and be ready and just try to do whatever they want me to do."
Galloway on playing with different quarterbacks: "It won't change what I do. I'm going to go out and work hard and try to get on the same page with him. I think if there are any changes to be made it will come from upstairs with the play-calling, with the situations that he's put in. But as far as I'm concerned I'm going to do my job the same."
Rattay on the plays becoming more familiar: "The plays are coming. I think I feel pretty good about the plays. Now, it's just a matter of how I'm going to do a lot of formation stuff. So, just learning the formations and the shifts and just getting more familiar calling them. It was good to hear coach Jon Gruden call plays in the game, to kind of hear how it sounds. I had a headset on and to hear how it came out in a game, different audibles and checks you have to do, that was good to here that in a game situation."
McCown on being a snap away from playing: "That's the way it's changed, I guess, during practice, really. For me, mentally, it hasn't changed. I've prepared the same way since training camp. Even though I knew I was the third guy, I've prepared the same way. You know what, both of them in a game. Because for me, that happened last year [at Cleveland] over a course of two weeks. Jeff [Garcia] went down, Kelly [Holcomb] goes down the very next week, and I have to start versus New England the following week. So, you know it happens like that. You always hear coaches talking about, 'You're one play away, you're one play away.' Up until that point last year, that's never happened to me before. And getting to experience that, I think that makes you prepared. Whether you're a third string, whether you're a fourth string, it makes you prepare and get ready. Because you know it could happen."
Simms on what a quarterback has to remember when elevated to the starting position: "I think just little things like throwing the ball away. You go through all of camp and spring ball where you don't really have to throw the ball away often. When it comes to a real game, things like that are what kill a team. My sack in the early fourth quarter, I tried to get back to my fourth read. I should realize that we're on the brink of field goal position and I should just abort the ball after my first and second read so we stay in range for our field goal kicker."
Galloway on how he tries to help Chris Simms: "I think my job more so is to kind of talk to him a little, keep him calm. As this stuff starts to mount up on a young guy, the last thing you want to do is see him press and feel like he has to make plays to win the game. Really, I just try to take his mind of what's going on. That's up to the coaches to yell and scream and get their point across. My job is to come over and say, 'Look, it's alright. Just relax and play football.'"
Simms on what his teammates said since Sunday: "There hasn't been a whole lot said to me. A few guys said, 'Keep your head. Just keep leading us.' And that's what I'm going to do. It's one game, it's not going to make or break us. I think everybody on our team knows we've got a tough part of the schedule coming up and we just want to buckle down and get ready for these games."
Wade on QB Chris Simms: "He is as tough as anyone else. I don't question his toughness. Or his knowledge of the game plan, or any of that. We just got to help him. Not because he is young, or because he hasn't played, just because that's what we got to do as a line. You have to help whoever is back there. It doesn't matter if it is Chris [Simms] or its Brian [Griese], or anyone. We just got to do our job, to help them do their job."
Simms on how his college experience might help now: "Oh, yeah, that's where I learned about keeping my head up, really. You go through your high school career and there aren't too many negatives that go with being a high school quarterback. But in college you have those tough losses to some of your rivals, and you've got to bounce back and be ready for the game next week."
Galloway on if he wishes he had been playing in Head Coach Jon Gruden's system earlier in his career: "That's tough to say. I've had some great experiences. I've had some lean years where, yeah, I would have liked to have been with Gruden. But that didn't work out, I'm here now and I'm happy about it."
Simms on if Galloway's performance at his age amazes Simms: "It does, especially after two ACL surgeries. I don't think a whole lot of people bounce back to 100 percent. I don't know if he is 100 percent; you'd have to ask him. I think he is without question the fastest guy in the NFL."
Galloway on if he thinks about how long he wants to play: "I'm going forever. I'm going to try to go forever, go as long as they'll have me."
Kelly on if he looks back and thinks it's too bad the Bucs didn't have Joey Galloway all of last year: "Yeah, you're obviously getting ready to see what he can do out there on the football field. It would have been an advantage for us to have him on the field for us last year, but he's here now and he's doing great things."
DE Simeon Rice on if he was surprised about the reaction to his disciplinary issue in San Francisco: "Well, I was a little surprised, but, it's no major [problem]. I'm still here. Bruce Allen did what he needed to do. He did what he needed to do. I'm not mad at him. It's a situation. It's life."
Rice on if he had to clear the air with Head Coach Jon Gruden: "You just want to have that type of conversation in a player-coach type of situation. Let the air be real smooth. He understood where I was coming from and I understood where they were coming from. We handled it in a mature manner."
DT Anthony McFarland on DE Simeon Rice's return: "There isn't any fallout. It's a new week. It's Carolina week. We are going to load up all the hands on deck and go play. That's how we look at it. That's how I look at it. There is nothing left over, because you have to realize that regardless of what was done or what was said, you can't change anything. It's a new week. It's Carolina week."
Simms on how much difference there is in the speed of the game between the preseason and the regular season: "It's different. I don't think there's anything too drastic. I think the biggest thing for a guy like me is that I went seven weeks without playing anything at all except for a few scout-team reps. And then you're going out there in the game and it's a lot different than that. I think it's just getting acclimated to that."