Two days of training camp have told Greg Schiano a lot about what his players were doing the previous five weeks. The third day of camp will be even more revealing.
Schiano's Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened training camp on Friday morning with a practice that started fast and never slowed down over two hours and 40 minutes. It was hot and sticky, which is a staple of Buccaneer training camps, every one of which has been held somewhere in Central Florida. But the length of practice and the pedal-to-the-metal tempo were new – or at least more – and Schiano felt as if his players handled it fairly well. With two-a-day practices no longer allowed, the Buccaneers have to get in all of their allotted full-speed field time in during a single session.
On Saturday morning, the players got a small break with some welcome cloud cover that brought the temperature down a few degrees. The speed of practice was the same, however, and the players once again held up pretty well. Schiano, who clearly doesn't throw praise around lightly, knows it will progressively get better, both in the coming weeks and from season to season. What he's seen thus far has at least let him know that most of the team was committed to being ready for the start of camp.
"I think they were very serious about their training on their break," said Schiano on Saturday. "We call it a break but it's the time they have to get themselves the final parts of their preparation, and I think our team did a good job. A great job is when we come back and it's flawless and we hit the ground running, but we did a good job, especially for our first time being together. I think now we have to play our way into football shape; there's a big difference between the cardiovascular conditioning needed and football shape. That's why we try to push them out there with the tempo. It's always been my philosophy I wanted things to slow down on Sunday, not speed up, so if we can get that it's a good thing."
Schiano is talking about NFL game days when he says "Sunday," of course, but this particular week Sunday is going to bring a bump to the intensity for a different reason. After a two-day ramp-up period to start camp (not to mention an entire offseason without contact), the Buccaneers are going to put on pads for the first time in 2012 and actually hit each other. Schiano intends to run the first padded practice at the same velocity as the workouts on Friday and Saturday.
"That's the plan," he said. "As I've talked to the team about it, we play the game with pads on. This is really the time; we'll have as many opportunities to be in pads in the preseason as we will the entire season. So this is our time to lay the foundation of who we are and what we're going to be."
As Schiano points out, the Buccaneers will get to put on the pads and practice full-speed 12 times over the next two-and-a-half weeks, as compared to a maximum of 14 padded practices during the regular season. During the season, teams may put on the pads only once a week during the first 11 game weeks, and only three times overall during the last five weeks. The true foundation for how the team will play on game days – the tackling and blocking details and techniques – will be laid during training camp. That makes every practice in the coming weeks extremely important, and it's why Schiano wanted his players to report to the start of camp ready to go.
So far, it looks like they took that message to heart.
Gaitor's Opportunity Comes Early
Earlier on Saturday, we pointed out that it's not uncommon for a 90-man team to sustain a couple injuries of note during the first day or two of training camp. The other side of that coin is another common camp occurrence: A young player getting a chance to step up and prove himself.
One of the first examples of that phenomenon at Training Camp 2012: Anthony Gaitor.
The foot injury suffered by E.J. Biggers on the opening day of camp will keep the fourth-year cornerback out for at least two weeks, and probably more. With Ronde Barber currently working at safety, Biggers appeared to be one of the team's top three cornerbacks, along with Aqib Talib and Eric Wright. Biggers has been a key part of the team's secondary the past two seasons, playing in all 32 games, with 12 starts and plenty of other action as the primary nickel back.
While he's out, several young defenders will pick up significantly more snaps with the first and second-team defenses, especially in the nickel back role. Gaitor, a seventh-round draft pick (just like Biggers) out of Florida International, is definitely one of those players being asked to step up.
"It is a young-ish group but it's the guys we have on our roster and they're getting better every day," said Schiano. "You look at Anthony Gaitor – he's doing better every day. We'll bring some guys in to what we already have to bolster things and just keep moving forward and coach them and get them to understand what they're doing. My whole thing when guys go down is, we help them get better but our focus is on the guys who are going to go line up and play. That's who has got to do it. You're a first-teamer when you step up, or you're a second-teamer when you step up. You've got to be ready for your opportunity."
Gaitor believes that he is, after a rookie season in which he impressively made the 53-man roster but alternated between stretches on the game-day inactive list and the active 46. He made his mark during more extended time during the 2011 preseason, with nine tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and five passes defensed, but he mostly played on special teams during the regular season. Now he's hoping to prove he can handle an expanded role.
"You've got to put last year behind you and get better than you were last year," said Gaitor. "I'm not a rookie anymore, so there are no more excuses. I've got to keep going forward. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing. They're giving me an opportunity to step up and make plays."
After the 2011 offseason was essentially wiped away by the labor impasse, Gaitor had a much greater chance to develop his game this spring and summer. He says he worked on all aspects of his craft during the offseason, but paid particular attention to his footwork. As for the specifics of the nickel back position, which usually entails covering a slot receiver and playing in the chaos of the middle of the field, he is familiar with them from his FIU days.
"I played nickel back in college, so I'm familiar with the plays and everything," said Gaitor. "It's like playing linebacker, another linebacker spot. Otherwise, it's the same thing though, the same scheme. I'm just trying to get better. That's how the game goes. I've got to be ready when someone goes down."
A Look Ahead
Though it's hard to believe in the still early hours of training camp, the first NFL game is now just eight days away. The Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints will kick off the 2012 preseason next Sunday, August 5, with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
The Buccaneers will be under the lights just five days after that, opening their own preseason on Friday, August 10 in Miami against the Dolphins. That's right: the first live action for Greg Schiano's Buccaneers is now less than two weeks away.
There are some important dates before and after that preseason opener to remember. Here's a look at what's on the Bucs' upcoming calendar:
- Sunday, July 29: First padded practice of training camp, One Buc Place
- Saturday, August 4: Night practice, Raymond James Stadium
- Friday, August 10: Preseason opener at Miami
- Thursday, August 16: Final day of training camp
- Friday, August 17:Preseason home opener, Raymond James Stadium, vs. Tennessee
- Wednesday-Thursday, August 22-23: Joint practices with the New England Patriots, One Buc Place
- Friday, August 24:Third preseason game, Raymond James Stadium, vs. New England
- Tuesday, August 28: NFL rosters reduced from maximum of 90 players to 80
- Wednesday, August 29: Preseason finale at Washington
- Sunday, September 2:NFL rosters reduced to 53 players
- Monday, September 3: Teams may establish practice squads
- Sunday, September 9: Regular-season opener, Raymond James Stadium, vs. Carolina