During his post-practice meeting with the media on Wednesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris stated that 22-year-old defensive tackle Brian Price would make his first NFL start on Sunday in Minnesota, which was essentially accurate, though actually impossible.
What Morris obviously meant is that, for the first time since drafting Price high in the second round in 2010, he had chosen to install him as one of the Bucs' starting defensive 11. Price will play next to Gerald McCoy, his fellow early 2010 draftee, as the two starting defensive tackles against the Vikings on Sunday in the Metrodome. Both positions are marked as "DT" on the Bucs' depth chart, though McCoy is technically the "under tackle" or "three technique" while Price is the nose tackle.
In the only five games that he appeared in last season before suffering a season-ending injury, Price was an often significant part of the D-Line rotation, but not the first man into the game at nose tackle. Throughout training camp and the preseason, Price ran behind Roy Miller on the depth chart, and the more immediate concern was how well he was recovering from two separate significant hamstring surgeries, not whether or not he would be a starter.
Thus, Morris' decision to elevate him to the top spot one week into the season seems rather significant indeed, as it is an indication of how far Price has come. At the beginning of camp, Morris was marveling simply at Price's rapid return from such serious injuries. Now he simply sees the second-year player as one of his most disruptive linemen on game day.
The thing is, thanks to the whims of the Detroit Lions' play-callers, Price actually started last Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. Roy Miller was slated to start, with Price initially coming in as a pass-rushing tackle in obvious passing downs, but the Lions came out in a spread formation on the first play of the game. The Bucs' countered with their nickel defense, which swapped Price in for Miller and extra cornerback E.J. Biggers in for middle linebacker Mason Foster. Since that was the game's first play from scrimmage, Price and Biggers were, by definition, starters.
Of course, that's all semantics to Morris, who believes that some observers are too concerned about "who runs out of the tunnel," as it takes more than 11 men to play defense in any given game. Still, the decision to name Price a starter on Sunday is meaningful for a player who has fought so hard just to be on the field. In the end, both he and Miller – as well as McCoy and defensive tackle Frank Okam, will continue to all see a significant amount of action.
"Brian Price looked good [in the opener]," said Morris. "He did a nice job last week, really played well. He'll get a chance to go out there and get some more snaps in. We'll still use our normal rotation because I want to keep those guys fresh. I want those guys to go out there and have the ability to be strong, be tough, and fight as a unit. But he certainly earned the ability to go out there and play first this week. I'm really proud of where he's at and what he's doing for us, especially where he's come from."
Price's talents have never been in doubt. In fact, he was so enticing to the team on draft weekend in April of 2010 that they took him with the 35th overall pick despite having taken McCoy at #3 overall. The defensive tackle depth in that draft was extraordinary, and the Bucs simply couldn't pass up a second player at the position that they believed had first-round talent. In the early going of 2010, Price and McCoy looked like they might develop into a formidable pair, with Price dashing off the line into seams created by double-teams aimed at his fellow rookie. However, a series of leg injuries robbed the UCLA product of most of his rookie campaign and put him on a grueling trail of recovery in 2011.
Price had to use much of camp and the preseason to fight his way back into playing shape following that extensive recovery, but his quick-twitch abilities were evident all along. Morris saw that again versus Detroit and decided he wanted to see more of it in Minnesota.
"He flashed, and not just a little bit," said Morris. "His get-off was very noticeable. I believe he had tackles for loss, he was very active, he was very hands-on. He did things at a high level and him getting out there and having the ability to do a little bit more, hopefully we can see a lot more from him."
For a few moments on Sunday, Morris thought he might be delivering news of a much less welcome kind regarding Price. In the fourth quarter, Price was chasing Lions running back Maurice Morris after forcing him to bounce a middle run outside, and the big DT went down in a pile with Biggers. Price immediately grabbed his hamstring and pounded the turf in frustration, and it was easy to worry that he had duplicated one of his significant injuries. Instead, the issue was more of a severe cramp, and while it did keep him out for the rest of the game, he was recovered enough by Wednesday to practice and eye his first "official" start on Sunday.
Morris didn't blame the young player for fearing the worst for a few seconds on Sunday, considering what he has already overcome.
"[He was] probably scared, probably more fear, being what he's been through," said the coach. "I'm sure it was probably a cramp, but when you have both of your hamstrings hammered on and ripped out with construction tools and put back together over the summer, those cramps on Sundays seem a little bit more scary for you. He's ready to go through, he's getting better, he's strong, he's fast, he's certainly fighting through it."
Bring the Noise
Last Sunday, the premier matchup along the Buccaneers' offensive line belonged to right guard Davin Joseph, who was the lineman most often matched up with second-year Detroit wrecking ball Ndamukong Suh. Suh was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 after leading all defensive tackles in the league with 10 sacks.
The Lions won the game, and Detroit's defense induced a lot of struggles for the Bucs' offense before halftime, so Suh was surely pleased with the first game of his second season. For the most part, however, he wasn't an obvious difference-maker, and that was a minor victory for the Buccaneers on an otherwise unsatisfying day. Left tackle Donald Penn said it was Joseph who should get the majority of the credit for slowing down Suh.
"Davin did a great job," said Penn. "[Suh] wasn't really a factor. A lot of other stuff factored into the way we played, but it wasn't Suh, I can tell you that."
With Suh in the rearview mirror, now it's Penn's turn to be the one in the spotlight when the Bucs head to Minnesota this weekend. Stopping the Vikings' pass-rush will be a team effort for the O-Line, as always, but Penn draws the toughest man-to-man assignment in right defensive end Jared Allen.
Last year, Allen produced 11 sacks, marking the fourth straight year and the fifth time in seven NFL seasons he has reached double digits in that category. In just three seasons in Minnesota after being traded from Kansas City, he has already produced 40 sacks, not to mention nine forced fumbles, three interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
If things had gone a little bit differently for Penn, he might be testing himself against Allen every day on the practice field.
Originally undrafted out of Utah State, Penn started his NFL career as a rookie free agent with the Vikings. He ended up on Minnesota's practice squad in the first month of his 2006 rookie season, but the Bucs swooped in to offer a spot on their 53-man roster in October, and just about a year later he was making his first start. Since then, he has developed into a Pro Bowl performer at one of the most important positions on the field.
Penn thought the Vikings missed his potential, and so he still plays with something of a chip on his shoulder when he faces Minnesota. This will be his first trip back to the Metrodome since he left for the Buccaneers, however, and he knows the atmosphere can be difficult on visiting linemen. It has been particularly hard on left tackles since Allen arrived.
"It's loud. I remember playing there and it's very loud," he said. "They've got a great fan base there that supports them and follows them, and this is their first home game so I know it's going to be sold out and loud. We're going to have to be ready. We're going to practice our silent counts this week. I'm definitely going to have to pay a lot of attention to that silent count because Jared Allen gets off that ball very well. That's going to be one of my big things, make sure I'm anticipating and getting that count."
Allen is a dangerous player anywhere the Vikings line up, but his numbers are particularly impressive in the Metrodome. In 24 regular-season games in his Viking home, Allen has 24.5 sacks; in the same number of road contests in that span, he has 15.5. Penn knows that his foe is waiting to pounce if he slips up, and slips can often be generated by the Metrodome's din.
"From watching film, lots of times he makes plays off the tackle's mistakes," said Penn. "That helps him, being at home and getting the crowd noise. Hopefully we get stuff going early. If we get stuff going early it might help me a lot, quiet the crowd down. But I really do think it plays a big, big factor in Jared Allen's game at home. It's hard for a tackle to hear, and if a tackle gets off a second late, a second means a lot in this league."
Graham: It's How You Respond
On Tuesday, we pointed out that, as the only player remaining from the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl team, CB Ronde Barber had a unique perspective among his teammates on how little a season-opening loss can mean in the long run.
But running back Earnest Graham has been around quite awhile, too – at least in comparison to most of his green-behind-the-ears teammates – and he's developed a certain long-term perspective of his own.
Graham first joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He only made the practice squad as a rookie, following a preseason injury that cost him much of the season, but he fought for a spot on the 53-man roster in 2004 and has steadily grown more and more important to the team's plans. During that time he has seen regular seasons that started bad and ended bad (2004, 2006); or started bad and ended good (2009); or started good and ended bad (2008); or started good and ended good (2005, 2010).
However, he has never seen a season that was defined by what happened on opening day. Rather, he believes that each one is defined by how a team reacts to what it learns on opening day, and maybe the whole first month, and that was a point he was eager to make on Wednesday. He did so rather eloquently.
"The first game, you try to find out about yourself," said Graham. "You find out some things at different positions, what you have to work on. And the team that recommits itself and begins to work on those things and take away their weaknesses and their holes are the teams that are successful at the end of the year. To look at that [first result] and make a sweeping judgment just doesn't make sense."
The question is, can a roster dominated by under-25-year-olds, can that sort of perspective be had? Graham believes so.
"Yeah, they get it, they get it," he said of his younger teammates. "To look at something and say something is missing or something is lacking, that's just part of the process. Nobody starts out at their peak, where they're going to be at the end. It's a long season. Guys have to look at it like this is part of the process. If it's true, it's true, so let's work on it. It's not a thing to get down about. Individually, if every time somebody said I can't run, I can't do this and that, I got down about it, I wouldn't be here. Same with the team. You can't allow that stuff to creep in."