Quincy Black got a radio receiver in his helmet on Friday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason opener at Kansas City. That's a privilege that generally falls to a team's middle linebacker, as he is often the defensive play-caller, the 'quarterback' on defense. Black, however, started the game for Tampa Bay at strongside linebacker, as usual.
Mason Foster had a wired-up helmet waiting for him on Friday, too, but not because he actually is the team's starting middle linebacker at the moment. As it turned out, he never got a chance to try it out.
Just like the offense, the defense is only allowed to have one player on the field at a time with a helmet radio. The Bucs chose to make that player Black on their starting defense for one very simple reason: He stays on the field in the team's nickel package while Foster, a rookie, does not. If Foster started the game with the special helmet, the team would have to go to hand signals only when he came off the field on third down.
The helmet-radio decision was a practical one, but it served the dual purpose of easing the load somewhat for Foster, the team's third-round pick out of Washington. Foster has taken the lead in the competition for the starting 'Mike' linebacker position in training camp, but for now the team is starting him only in its base package. Foster is learning the nickel job and is the second choice for that role behind Black; that, in fact, is why the rookie did have a helmet-radio waiting for him on Friday.
As it turned out, however, the coaching staff chose not to use Foster in the nickel package with the second team on Friday, so his introduction to the on-field voice in his helmet will have to wait at least one more game. Head Coach Raheem Morris said the team chose this particular procedure in order to have continuity with the play-calling.
"It was less about Mason Foster not calling the plays," said Morris. "It was more about getting one mic on the field at a time rather than having Mason Foster have to call plays on first and second. Then, when [Foster] comes off for third down and you have Quincy calling them, you'd have to signal to them in. We just have Quincy call them the whole time with the mic in his head and we keep it simple."
Morris thought the plan worked well against the Chiefs. In fact, he confirmed on Sunday that the team intends to continue with that procedure for the foreseeable future. Morris obviously trusts Black, the fifth-year veteran, and believes the current plan allows Foster to focus on what he is doing well right now.
"It actually worked out better for him not having to worry about getting the call from the sideline rather than just going out there and playing fast and playing physical, which he was able to do," said Morris. "It was less about taking something off his plate and more about let's just teach the other guy to use the call and signals because he's out there on every single down."
Foster did indeed handle his job well, recovering a fumble to set up the game's first touchdown and making one of the night's key tackles on a scramble by quarterback Tyler Palko. Foster played extremely fast, which is exactly what Morris wants to see from the promising newcomer.
Black handled his job well, too. Morris said he was very pleased with Black's work calling plays, though the defense did have a few hiccups with personnel packages that are to be expected in the preseason opener. On one play, the Bucs had the wrong group on the field for the call that was made, which forced Black to play middle linebacker and actually placed cornerback Ronde Barber at strongside linebacker. Fortunately, the team avoided any matchup or gap-fit disasters on the play.
"He did a great job," said Morris of Black's on-field leadership. "As far as mental errors, you have some technique errors obviously, but as far as busts, there weren't many, especially in that first group. It worked well. I like it."
Gaitor Makes a Splash
Anthony Gaitor made a lasting impression on Raheem Morris on the final night of the 2011 NFL Draft. Tampa Bay made the Florida International cornerback the first of their two seventh-round picks in the draft, the 222nd selection overall. As is customary, the team called its newest member as the pick was announced and put him on the phone with its head coach.
Morris was delighted by Gaitor's response to the news, saying he seemed as excited to go 222nd as fellow Buc draftee Gerald McCoy was to go third overall. Morris could tell that Gaitor loved football, and that he was specifically thrilled to be a Buccaneer.
That kind of first impression is nice, but it won't earn a player a spot on the 53-man roster. As far as that quest goes, Gaitor made another favorable first impression on Friday night in Kansas City.
The upbeat rookie DB was among the second-half stars that helped Tampa Bay continue its dominance as both teams turned to second and third-string players. Gaitor finished with a long stat line full of ones: one tackle, one tackle for loss, one sack, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed. Most of that came as the result of his two most visible plays.
With both Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis sitting out with minor hamstring pulls, Gaitor was one of the first defensive reserves into the game for Tampa Bay. On his very first NFL series, Gaitor was in as part of the nickel defense on a third-and-five play from the Kansas City 39. Palko tried to throw a quick curl to wide receiver Verran Tucker on the left side but Gaitor closed quickly from behind and poked the ball out of Tucker's grasp before he could secure it.
In the fourth quarter, Gaitor got the opportunity to blitz the passer, and he made the most of it. Rushing in from the offense's right, the Buc rookie got to quarterback Ricky Stanzi before he could get off a pass on third-and-five, sacking him for a loss of one.
"[It was] really good, man, to stand up on the first third down, get a knocked-down pass for his first time out," said Morris. "To come out and get a sack, run around and look really quick and fast and dynamic, having fun…I don't think anyone will have more fun than Gaitor."
Gaitor didn't nail every play as completely as those two, but he felt good about his performance overall.
"I made a mistake, a rookie mistake, but I think I did pretty good," he said on Sunday. "I played my heart out, had fun and ran around. There were some mental errors I made, being a rookie and just getting into the playbook. It was not much of a big error – you never have a perfect game. There are always some things you need to work on. But I'm ready.
"I always come out here [on the practice field] to improve on little things, but when it's time to go you can't dwell on the past."
Morris pointed out that Gaitor is one of the few rookies on the team who is currently being asked to learn two different jobs. He's getting work at the usual outside cornerback spot, but he's also learning the slot corner job so famously patrolled by Ronde Barber over the last decade and a half. Fortunately for Gaitor, Barber is still around to show him the ropes.
"It's a blessing having him in the film room, just giving me tips," said the rookie. "He's been playing the game for a long time, so he knows the game like the back of his hand."
Really good man to stand up on the first third down, get t a knock down pass for his first time out. Come out get a sack, run around look really quick and fast and dynamic, having fun, I don't think anyone will have more fun than Gaitor. It's almost better than his phone conversation as a seventh-round draft pick.. I though he was Gerald McCoy the third pick of the draft. And it's the same way on the field and it's the same way in the class room today, he was so hyped up, he got tired jumping over a pal and knocked the wind out of himself, and had to come out of the game for a few plays. It's fun, he's smart man, he's probably the only one of our rookies who is learning two positions , he's learning that Ronde position, he's been learning that all state corner. I better keep him down because I just told him about
Injuries and Roster Moves
In his postgame press conference on Friday night in Kansas City, Morris vowed to go to the game tape to find something his team did wrong during its 25-0 preseason-opening win over the Chiefs. And indeed, by Sunday afternoon, Morris had pinpointed a few areas that needed improvement, though he acknowledged they were relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. A missed gap fit here, an errant throw there – it was a short list of easily corrected items.
The big picture? That was good just about any way you look at it, especially when you consider the three main goals a team has during the preseason:
2) Evaluate talent
3) Avoid injuries
Don't assume those are in order of most importance, either. In fact, emerging from the preseason with good overall health might be the top priority for any NFL team. And in that regard, the Bucs found another reason to be happy about Friday's game.
Rookie safety Ahmad Black did sustain a high ankle sprain against the Chiefs, which put him in a walking boot as the Bucs returned to practice on Sunday. That was the team's most significant mishap in K.C., and Black's injury is not considered a long-term consider. Morris labeled his rookie safety as "week-to-week" on Sunday. Defensive tackle Roy Miller sustained a mild knee injury on the first play of the game against the Chiefs but was able to return to action on the next series. He did not practice on Sunday but is not considered a serious concern.
Meanwhile, tight end Luke Stocker (hip) and fullback Erik Lorig (Achilles) took a step towards their respective returns on Sunday, participating in pat-n-go and warm-ups at the beginning of Sunday's workout. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (shoulder) and Brian Price (hip) were held out of Friday's game but were in practice on Sunday and are expected to play against the New England Patriots in Thursday's Week Two matchup.
The Buccaneers also made a handful of roster moves on Sunday as the team neared the end of its formal training camp. Two receivers who entered the NFL in 2007 and have since landed in several different NFL locations were signed: East Carolina's Aundrae Allison and Charleston Southern's Maurice Price. One spot on the Bucs' 90-man roster was opened when rookie wide receiver Raymond Webber was placed on injured reserve as a result of the hamstring injury he suffered last week in training camp. The Bucs released rookie quarterback Mike Coughlin to create another opening.
The 6-0, 198-pound Allison was originally selected in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. In two seasons with the Vikings, he played in 26 games and recorded 18 receptions for 231 yards. As a rookie, he also helped in the return game, averaging 28.7 yards on 20 kickoff returns. Minnesota waived Allison in August of 2009 and he was claimed off waivers by the New York Jets. Before he could claim a spot on New York's 53-man roster, he suffered a torn ACL in the final 2009 preseason game and was placed on injured reserve. The Jets released Allison last August and he has since played for the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL.
Price (6-1, 200) originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs in 2007 but he spent his rookie season on injured reserve. A strong preseason in 2008 briefly won him a spot on Kansas City's 53-man roster, but he was moved to the practice squad in September and then released. Price subsequently signed with the Patriots and split the season between New England's active roster and practice squad. He has also spent time with the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, as well as the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
Both Webber and Coughlin signed with the Buccaneers as undrafted free agents in the week before training camp. The team carried five quarterbacks on the roster for about a week after signing former Tennessee Volunteer Jonathan Crompton in the middle of camp, but returned to its more typical number of four with Coughlin's release.