Every Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers use their 90-minute week-ending practice to review the game plan installed on Thursday and Friday and, just as importantly, to work on specific game situations. Head Coach Raheem Morris emphasizes situational football in preparation for every contest, and Friday is a good time to work on such things as the two-minute drill and red zone offense.
As such, the Buccaneers' starting offense spent a lot of time near the south end zone of their Pennyhill Park practice field on Friday, working on a variety of options to punch the ball in from inside the 20. The converted rugby pitch that served so perfectly as their gridiron home this week fits snugly into a small valley amid hills, and one such hill rises sharply from the back of that end zone. Watching from the top of that rise was a group of the most intense Buccaneer fans this side of the Atlantic.
Roughly 25 members of the thriving Bucs UK fan club were invited out to practice on Friday, and they stood together in a sea of red, clad in Freeman, Blount and McCoy jerseys. They chanted for certain players to get the football and cheered when a practice play appeared to work.
One such red zone play ended in an apparent touchdown for the starting offense, setting off the kind of raucous applause one normally doesn't get at a practice from up the hill. Quarterback Josh Freeman responded by getting the football back from the scoring player and lofted a tight spiral up into the crowd, where one of the Bucs UK members fielded it cleanly…then looked for somewhere to stash it as a keepsake!
That play – a very typical practice moment followed by a very atypical response – was a microcosm of the Buccaneers week in Surrey, England, in the countryside outside of London. The team arrived on Monday with the express purpose of conducting their entire, normal week of practice and preparations on site, leading up to Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium. The idea was to feel right at home by the end of the week, and that was accomplished. Still, there's no denying that the Bucs' pocket of normalcy was surrounded by some unfamiliar elements, like the nearby luxury spa or the slightly unusual lunch menu or visiting rugby teams eager to show off their own sport.
Or 25 maniacal Buccaneer fans who somehow keep up on every player and every team development despite being separated by so many miles and time zones. That was a very impressive reminder for the Buccaneer players on Friday morning as they practiced, and another reason the week in London has been considered such a success.
"We love London," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, about 90 minutes before his team would pull up stakes in Surrey and head downtown. "We love the facility they had set up for us, being out here for a week, getting acclimated to the time zone. I don't know if it was an advantage but it was certainly a lot of fun to come out here and be with guys at Pennyhill."
The Bucs UK fan club, which numbers over 300 members and will play a hotly-contested flag football game against the London Bears fan club on Saturday, was led out to Pennyhill Park by Paul Stewart, its founder. To read his thoughts from Thursday on the Bucs' visit to his neighborhood, click here.
While Stewart and company were in Buc heaven on Friday, the players were beginning to itch for a move after a week in each other's company at Pennyhill. Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik noticed during the week how the camp-like atmosphere of the situation had led to some valuable team-bonding, and that will certainly help on Sunday. Still, by the end of the work week, Morris was noticing that his players were looking for a different challenge than going up against their own teammates.
"Pennyhill Park has been awesome," said Morris. "It's a great facility, great set-up, a training camp-like environment. Our guys got a chance to be around each other, but it's time to get away from each other now. We had a few scuffles today in practice so it's time to get out of here and let these guys play against some other people."
Injury Updates: McCoy Questionable
Though he returned to practice on Wednesday, just a week-and-a-half after suffering what appeared to be a severe ankle sprain in San Francisco, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will remain a question mark for Sunday's game heading into the weekend.
McCoy was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday and he was held out of Friday's capper. The team listed him as questionable for Sunday's game against the Bears, which means his work during the week will be evaluated, as will any further improvement over the weekend.
"Gerald gave us a little bit of practice this week so he's a possibility," said Morris. "We'll have to wait and see. He did not go out today. You're just holding him back a little bit. You don't want to try to do it too fast. It's his ankle. Hopefully we can see where he is tomorrow, see how he feels tomorrow, get him some treatment, get him off of it a little bit and see if we can get him out there."
With the time difference between the U.K. and the States, the Buccaneers did not have an official injury report with game-status designations ready to release on Friday afternoon. However, Morris identified only one player as definitely out for Sunday's game – wide receiver Sammie Stroughter – though running back LeGarrette Blount is considered doubtful and center Jeff Faine may be in a similar boat. Stroughter has been sidelined since his season-opening kickoff, on which he hurt his foot at the end of a 78-yard gain, requiring surgery. He did return to practice this week, increasing the chances that he'll be able to return after the bye week that follows Sunday's contest. Faine sustained a biceps injury against New Orleans and did not practice this week. Blount missed last week's game due to a knee injury suffered in San Francisco.
Preston Parker doesn't necessarily consider himself brave for taking on a role in the Bucs' passing game that requires him to roam the middle of the field between head-hunting linebackers and safeties. Bravery, after all, can be defined as pushing forward even in the face of fear, and fear doesn't really enter into the equation.
Call him 'fearless,' then, but it wasn't anything he set out to prove.
"That's fearless? Then I guess I am," said Parker. "But I didn't know I was until they said, 'You run between the tackles? You're not scared to do this?' It's a job."
Parker has taken on a bigger role in the Buccaneers' passing attack in the absence of Stroughter, and that means filling Stroughter's usual slot-receiver duties. Like Stroughter, Parker is not a particularly big receiver, but he's solid, strong, shifty and, yes, fearless. Through six games he ranks fourth on the team in receptions, second among wideouts, with 19 grabs for 268 yards and two touchdowns. His 19-yard catch-and-run for a score last Sunday provided the eventual winning margin in the Bucs' 26-20 win over the Saints.
"You start with his toughness," said Morris. "He's absolutely one of the toughest kids on our football team. He's fearless to go over the middle, he's fearless to catch the ball in the slot, he's fearless to do just about anything we ask him to do as far as blocking."
The Bucs also have asked Parker to handle almost all of their punt and kickoff returns this season, and he approaches that job in the same manner. Parker's best returns have come when he has fielded the football and shot straight forward into the teeth of the oncoming coverage team. So far he's returned 10 punts for 97 yards and 11 kickoffs for 234 yards, with a handful of key big-gainers in the mix. For instance, his 12-yard punt return in the fourth quarter against the Saints, in which he fielded the ball in traffic near the sideline and managed to weave through several tacklers to get back to the Bucs' 40, set up the team for its final field goal drive of the afternoon.
"Then you have his ability to take back kickoffs and take back punt returns with the same fearless type of mentality," said Morris. "He makes some mistakes, but those are the mistakes you live with when you're dealing with a guy like Preston because you know he's a tough guy. We've just got to keep getting him better and that's my job and my coaching staff's job to help him with that. We are loving the effort that he is playing with. You want to talk about a guy that's playing fast, smart, hard and consistent? He's the ultimate example."
The Buccaneers have won the field-position battle in most of their outings this year with excellent special teams play, and they rank eighth in opponent punt return average and second in opponent kickoff return average. That means anything Parker gives them in the return game is usually enough to tip the scales in their favor. That could be difficult this week, however, as the Bears possess perhaps the most dangerous return man in league history, Devin Hester.
Parker and Hester share a home county of Palm Beach, and the young Buc returner would love to get the best of his Bears counterpart this weekend.
"I'm going to compete with him just because he's from Palm Beach and he's on the opposite team," said Parker. "Everybody knows it's Devin Hester. He's good and we've got to go out and stop him. I'm just going to try to match him on the other side, on my return game. It will become real competitive, especially because we're from the same county."