A long weekend spent enjoying the team's Week Six bye allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to conduct a "bonus" practice on Tuesday afternoon, before the work week proper begins on Wednesday. That time off during the bye week also allowed more Buccaneers to participate in that practice.
Though there will be no official injury report or practice status for any players until Wednesday, the first 30 minutes on Tuesday were open to the media, and were encouraging. Among the players who took part in at least that part of practice after missing games due to injury were cornerback Johnthan Banks (knee), wide receiver Russell Shepard (hamstring), center Evan Smith (ankle) and tight end Luke Stocker (hip). Guard Logan Mankins participated in the team stretch but not in the drills that followed immediately thereafter. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins did not take part in the early part of practice.
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"You start the football season off with the group of guys you feel comfortable going with," said Head Coach Lovie Smith after Tuesday's field session. "Injuries kind of derail that from time to time, but you're always looking to get the full group, where you have all options available each week. Hopefully that will be the case. We pretty much have all of our options open this week."
The Buccaneers may soon have a couple more options, as two players who have spent the first half of the season on reserve lists are nearing potential returns. As reported earlier on Tuesday, the team has opened its 21-day practice/evaluation windows on tackle Demar Dotson and defensive tackle Akeem Spence, and both players were on the field in the afternoon.
Spence, who has been on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform-list due to a back injury, could be activated to the 53-man roster as soon as this week, but the team may choose to give him more time to work back into playing shape. Dotson, who got the one injured reserve/designated for return tab the Buccaneers were allowed for the season, has to miss at least eight weeks, so he is not eligible to return until the November 8 game against the New York Giants at the earliest. He may need that time in order to step back in at the same level of play he had displayed before his preseason injury.
"I don't think it's where I want it to be, but I've still got time, two more weeks before I can play," said Dotson of his knee. "By the time we come around to there, I should be where I need to be.
"It's been a long wait and I'm excited about it. I get a chance to practice for the first time and we'll see how it goes. But I'm excited man – just sitting back and watching these guys, I've been chomping at the bit."
As for the returning players already on the 53-man roster, every one of them could provide the team with a major boost, hopefully as soon as this Sunday against the Washington Redskins. Banks, for instance, would provide a lot of help for a secondary that has seen its cornerbacks shuffled around in recent weeks. The highest-rated Bucs cornerback so far this season by Pro Football Focus, Banks had followed a strong finish to the 2014 season with a good start in 2015.
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"Johnthan was one of our guys before he got hurt," said Smith. "When our guys get healthy, we get them back in as soon as we can. I'll go over the injury list a little bit later in the week, but he looked pretty good today. He's had a little bit of time to heal up. I know even last time we played, he felt bad about not being able to play. But he looked pretty good today."
- Dotson hasn't played since the preseason opener, when he suffered his knee injury in Minnesota. That means that Gosder Cherilus, the experienced veteran signed after Dotson went down, has started every game at right tackle and will do so for at least two more weeks.
While Dotson has watched Cherilus fill in rather ably, he's also seen center Evan Smith and left guard Logan Mankins go down with injuries as well. Veteran Joe Hawley, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, and 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile have stepped in at those two respective spots and helped the Bucs' offensive front stay strong.
Dotson, while itching to play, has been impressed, particularly with the way those fill-ins have battled.
"They've been competing and fighting and scratching and clawing," said Dotson. "They've been doing everything they were asked to do, and you can't ask for a better job than what those guys have been doing. Kevin stepped in and played well when Logan went down. We brought the center in from Atlanta and he steps in when Evan goes down and plays well. And Gos over there at right tackle is playing extremely well. That's a guy who's been playing this game a long time, so we expect nothing but for him to go out there and play well."
The Bucs drafted tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet with a pair of second-round picks in April, with the tentative plan to have both rookies in the starting lineup this season. Smith and Marpet proved good enough during the summer to stick with that plan, but the team had thought they would be surrounded by a steady trio of Dotson, Mankins and Evan Smith. Considering the continued upheaval that has greeted that unit instead, the play of Smith and Marpet has been even more impressive.
"The two rookies, you can't speak [enough about] them because they've done a phenomenal job," said Dotson. "I think they're both ahead of their time. When you see a guy like Ali [Marpet] and the play he's been putting on the field, for a guy coming from a D-3 [school], you've just got to tip your hat off to him and just appreciate the guy's work ethic and what he brings to the game."
- The Buccaneers' defense employed a new method to move up the league rankings last weekend: Doing nothing.
Heading into the seventh week of the 2015 season, Tampa Bay's defense ranks fifth in the league, trailing only the Jets, Broncos, Titans and Seahawks. Since Week Three, the team has steadily improved from 16th to ninth to eighth and now – by virtue of sitting back and letting other teams give up bushels of yards in Week Six – into the top five.
However, you're not going to hear a lot of crowing about that ranking coming from the Buccaneers' locker room, for one simple reason: Those rankings are based on yards allowed per game. When it comes to points allowed per game, the Buccaneers are 31st in the NFL. And it's pretty obvious which of those two rankings are more important, when it comes to determining winners and losers on any given Sunday.
"That's the big thing – we've got to limit the points," said cornerback Alterraun Verner on Tuesday. "We've got to limit the big plays, and in key situations we've got to be good. When we're in the red zone, we're giving up touchdowns. Third downs, we've got to get off the field and get our offense back the ball, and we've got to take the ball away. Those are the things we need to worry about. The yardage sounds good and all of that, but at the end of the day it's wins, losses and points on the board."
As we mentioned yesterday, one of the key areas in which the Bucs will be seeking improvement following the bye week is defense in the red zone. Tampa Bay's defense ranks 31st in the NFL in inside-the-20 touchdown percentage, allowing the end zone to be breached on 73.7% of opponent red zone drives. The team has shown steady improvement in that regard since allowing TDs on the first eight of those opportunities, but needs to become even more stingy when the goal line is near.
"It's hard for [opponents] to drive, drive, drive all the way down the field without them making a mistake or us causing a turnover," said Verner. "So that's why we've got to improve in those areas. And even when they get down there, we've got to make sure that they don't score touchdowns. We're trying to make them kick field goals and trying to get a block."
Verner, who had time like the rest of his teammates to assess where the team was during the bye week, was focusing on the big picture Sunday when it came to several topics. The Buccaneers got a win heading into the bye week, which was encouraging, and they come out of the break with a chance to get back to .500 on the season. In fact, depending upon what happens over the coming weekend in places like Carolina, New York and Detroit, the Bucs could be right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture by the time Week Eight begins.
Verner says those types of larger goals are too distracting right now, however.
"A win is going to be great no matter what the record is," he said. "We're going to take it one step at a time and make sure we just get a win. It's not necessarily being 3-3 or where we stand in the division, things like that. I think when you start worrying about those things you're overthinking and adding additional stress. Just prepare based on this game and try to get a win. Just getting a win is going to feel good for this team."