Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, December 2nd, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may need to sweep their remaining five games in order to qualify for the postseason, but the last four won't really gain much significance until the Buccaneers get past the Atlanta Falcons.
The 6-5 Falcons are tied with Seattle for the sixth playoff seed as Week 13 begins, though the Seahawks hold the current tiebreaker. The Buccaneers are a game back of that, at 5-6, but have an opportunity to sweep Atlanta – creating a solid tiebreaker of their own – and at least keep pace with Seattle. The Seahawks will be playing at Minnesota, which is 8-3 and also a power player in the postseason race. Other games that could eventually affect the Buccaneers hopes are going on in New York and Washington.
These aren't exactly secrets, and Tampa Bay players are likely quite cognizant of where they stand. Just in case, Head Coach Lovie Smith makes a point of keeping them updated.
"I assume they know it, but I don't take that for granted," said Smith. "I want them to know, to be aware of what's happening in the league. I let them know exactly where we stand in our division each week. I let them know exactly where we stand as far as the playoff race is concerned. I let them know who's playing – I want them to be involved in the league. I think that gives you a better picture of what we need to do. So, yes, we give them as much information as we possibly can. They can handle that."
In other words, scoreboard watching is allowed, as is frequent checking of the standings. And Smith can emphasize all this without getting away from the classic NFL trope of taking things one game at a time. If "the next game is always the most important game is a cliché," in this case it's also true. A loss would send the Bucs to 5-7 with four to play, and even winning out from there would only guarantee a nine-win season. Nine wins might be enough this season, but it would take the occurrence of a lot of events out of the Bucs' control.
"Coach made it crystal clear to the guys where we are at going into this game," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure it out. This is a big game."
Acknowledging that, and using it as motivation, is an indication that the team is confident it can win any remaining game on the schedule, starting with the Falcons.
"Guys are realists, I think, each week," said Smith. "As a football team, you kind of know where you are, you know how you match up against the teams you're playing. I think that's what gives you confidence. And for us to make a stretch run, based on that…we've played a lot of football games. We see what the teams are that we've played and how we matched up, and we know that we're a good football team and we have as good a chance as anybody else. Yeah, it's mental, and we're just being realists."
Of course, it's a big game for the Falcons, too, as they have lost five of their last six to put themselves in a bit of a precarious position in the NFC playoff race. After the Buccaneers, Atlanta has half of its remaining games against Carolina, the NFL's only undefeated team. The margin of error is slim for both teams, and that's a message Smith is unabashedly sharing with his players.
"It's one that we both need," he said. "We feel like we need it more than they do, so that's a big deal for us."
Two weeks ago, Buffalo Head Coach Rex Ryan made news when he bluntly acknowledged that the then-undefeated New England Patriots – Buffalo's next opponent – were going to win the Bills' division. The Patriots are now 10-1 and four games up with five to play, while the Bills are a game out of the last Wild Card spot. Ryan was essentially stating the obvious, but he was not conceding that particular game to the Patriots. New England eventually won a close and hard-fought contest at Gillette Stadium.
In the Bucs' case, they know they have been eliminated from the division race, and it's obvious that the 11-0 Panthers are going to be NFC South champs. But there are still important strides to be made in Tampa Bay's remaining divisional games, which also include a home game against New Orleans in Week 14 and a crack at the champs in the season finale. The Bucs have already beaten the Falcons and Saints on the road.
"We have a chance to sweep a division opponent, an opponent that really got after us last year," said Smith, referring to the Falcons. "So, yes, it is pretty important. We're not going to win the division this year but we want to make strides in our division, and one of them would be to sweep a couple teams."
- The Buccaneers may have to go for that sweep of the Falcons with a somewhat-depleted roster. Smith began his Wednesday post-practice press conference with the unwelcome words, "Longer injury list today."
The recent return from injury of such players as wide receiver Vincent Jackson, defensive end Jacquies Smith and safety Major Wright had briefly given the Buccaneers one of their slimmer injury reports of the season. That lasted all of one week.
The Bucs opened Week 13 with an official injury report that is 13 players long. New additions following the game in Indianapolis include linebacker Bruce Carter (concussion), tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (hand) and tight end Luke Stocker (back). In addition, Jackson and Smith are now back on the injury report with knee and hamstring issues, respectively. Those six and defensive end George Johnson, who has missed two games with a calf injury, were all held out of practice on Wednesday.
Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
If you're looking for good news on that injury report linked above, scroll down to Ali Marpet's line. The rookie guard was a full participant in the first practice of the week, raising hopes that he might return from an ankle injury that has cost him the last three games. Marpet was enjoying an impressive rookie season before his mishap against the Giants, and his return would help a Buccaneer team that surely wants to rely on its third-ranked rushing attack down the stretch.
"I didn't talk about him – that's a good step in the right direction," said Smith of Marpet. "He's a good football player. You need all your players during this stretch. He's been close – he was close last week – and he looked pretty good in practice today."
Marpet, who started the first eight games at right guard and displayed an ability to move defenders around in the run game, has been working hard to get back on the field.
"I think it's pretty obvious: I want to play," he said. "Watching [stinks]. So I'm going to do everything I can to get back out there. I've been doing everything I can as far as treatment goes to get back out there, so we'll see how it goes."
- One line of reasoning might hold that Marpet's bit of downtime might help keep his legs fresh for the stretch drive. With the calendar flipping to December and most college teams about to go on an extended break before bowl season, the hoary concept of the "rookie wall" became a hot topic at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday.READ: VINCENT JACKSON NAMED MAN OF THE YEAR
Essentially, the idea is that the NFL's extended schedule – with its offseason workouts, long training camp, four-game preseason and 16-game regular-season – is a shock to those young players making the jump from the NCAA. It's a reasonable point, and the phrase probably wouldn't exist if it hadn't been an issue for some players along the way, but Lovie Smith doesn't worry about it much.
Of course, maybe he can't afford to do so. The Buccaneers have started as many as six rookies at the same time this year, including their quarterback and their middle linebacker. The Bucs are a young time, which hopefully means plenty of youthful energy rather than that rookie wall.
"The group of people who think that's an issue … I just don't put a whole lot into that," he said. "Maybe that's the case. Where we are with our football team right now, where we're counting on so many of our younger players, if it is, they'd better keep it to themselves."
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Donovan Smith, the rookie second-rounder starting at left tackle for the Buccaneers, hasn't experienced any ill effects from the longer season yet. Nor has quarterback Jameis Winston.
"No, not right now," said Smith, who credits the Buccaneers training staff for providing direction in staying in peak shape. "I hope I never hit it, honestly. I'm doing everything to not hit it. It's just a credit to the guys I have around me, the older guys, the veterans, teaching me how to avoid stuff like that, giving me things they would do so I don't have to go through it. Taking care of your body, staying strong mentally."
Added Winston: "I can't speak for the other rookies, but I believe we have done a good job with keeping our bodies well-rested and keeping our minds mentally from being exhausted, so we have done a good job with that. I'm excited. This is the time football matters. These next five games are very important to us, as were the other 11 before that, but these next five games are really big."