With starting free safety Cody Grimm landing on injured reserve on Wednesday, both Larry Asante and Corey Lynch feel sure they will be playing in Monday night's contest, and not just on special teams. That's not overconfidence on either player's part; apparently, that's part of the game plan.
While neither player knew the specifics of the rotation yet as the practice week began on Wednesday, both reserve safeties had been informed that they would see playing time on defense. How much time each player receives will be determined by how they perform in practice this week.
On Monday, Head Coach Raheem Morris announced his intention to let Asante and Lynch battle for Grimm's starting job on the practice field, but he also hinted that he might use them both. The coaching staff fleshed out that time-share approach during their game-planning sessions on Tuesday. Of course, either Asante or Lynch could alter those plans by performing well enough to make the coaches not want to take him off the field.
"That's possible," said Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "They both played really good in the preseason. We felt good about both of those backup players that are about to be starters. There's a chance that they could both play throughout the game, or [only] one of them may play. If one of them is real hot, then I'll stick with that guy. I feel comfortable with both of them. We're going to have them battle it out this week and then whoever we feel the most comfortable with, we'll have him start."
Because the practice work comes first, however, Lynch knows he has to stay focused on the next few afternoons and put thoughts of dominating in the game on the backburner for now.
"Obviously we're sad about Cody," said Lynch. "You hate to see a friend and a teammate go down. My prayers are out to him. But, yeah, I'm looking forward to a good week of practice, mostly. The game's kind of a couple days away so I'm going to concentrate on practice, have a good week, and that will determine what happens at game time."
Last year, Lynch sealed his spot on the 53-man roster with a rousing two-interception performance in the preseason finale at Houston. This year, Lynch seemed more assured of a spot on the regular-season roster because of his continued prowess on special teams, but Asante emerged as well with a series of strong outings. Asante finished the preseason with nine solo tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. Lake particularly remembered one play in Kansas City in which Asante prevented a deep completion by hustling to the sideline and laying a perfectly-timed hit on the Chiefs receiver.
"He's played physical," said Lake of the first-year player out of Nebraska. "He had his opportunity last year against the New Orleans Saints, and the one ball that came his way he intercepted Drew Brees. So he's done some things that we're excited about. Now it's 'next man up' and it's going to be his or Corey Lynch's opportunity, and I feel great about both of them."
It might, in the end, be a very good opportunity for both players. Like Lynch, Asante is focusing not on what the final decision for the starting lineup will be on Monday, but he needs to do in the meantime to get ready to help the Bucs succeed as a team.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can do to go out and help my team win," said Asante. "I'm not really worried about who's going to start, who's not going to start – that's not my job. That's up to Raheem and [General Manager] Mark [Dominik] to decide that whoever has the best week, that's the guy that's going to start. I'm not too worried about that. I just want to go out there and do my job and help this football team win. I trust Mark and I trust Coach Rah. Whatever they decide to do, I'm a hundred percent behind them."
Barber Excels Beyond the Stats
Nominees for the NFL's Player of the Week awards are submitted on Monday and Tuesday mornings, and there's no doubt that they need to look good on paper. Fill up the stat sheet and you have a better chance of standing out among the other top defensive players of the previous day.
Ronde Barber certainly filled up his stat sheet on Sunday in Tampa Bay's win over Atlanta on Sunday. He had a hand in two of the Bucs' three takeaways during the game with an interception and a fumble recovery, and he also amassed an impressive five pass break-ups to go with four stops and one tackle for loss.
Those countable accomplishments surely helped Barber win the eighth NFC Defensive Player award of his incredible career on Wednesday, but according to Lake they do not tell the entire story of how much the 15th-year cornerback contributed to the Bucs' victory.
"You know the stats, but it was all the other little things he does," said Lake. "[The Falcons] have a lot of matchup issues, they bring a lot of different personnel groupings. He's barking about where Mason [Foster] needs to line up, telling him to cover people; he's barking about E[lbert] Mack and who he's supposed to cover; and then at the same time, he's covering his guy. There are a lot of things that didn't even show up on the stat sheet. It was a great game, a great performance by Ronde Barber."
One of those things actually was evident in the stat sheet, but only in its absence. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has had a career as long and as impressive as Barber's on the other side of the ball, came into the game as Atlanta's leading receiver but caught only two passes for 18 yards. One of those two catches was a 10-yard score, the Falcons' only touchdown, but Lake pointed out that the play was one of only a few in which the team played a standard Cover Two defense. For most of the rest of the afternoon, Barber had the primary responsibility of slowing down Gonzalez.
All game, that was our matchup," said Lake. "We had him on [Gonzalez], two future Hall of Famers. They like to get him the football on third downs. Ronde did a phenomenal job on him. Tony Gonzalez is like a basketball player, a post player. We try to play underneath him a little bit and get in that passing lane. Ronde does what he does. He studies a lot of tape and he knows his little secrets to use against him."
Though the wonder of such an award must wear off a bit when you win nine of them (he also owns one Special Teams Player of the Week plaque), Barber was gratified that it came after a game in which he and his fellow defensive backs were asked to shoulder such a heavy load. The Bucs leaned on a lot of man-to-man coverage in order to bring extra players at running back Michael Turner and quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan did throw for 330 yards but he was sacked four times and chased mercilessly, and his group only found the end zone once.
"We've got a talented group in the secondary and the linebacking corps and we feel like we're capable of doing that," said Barber. "Raheem gives us a lot to do, a lot of different packages, a lot of different coverages. Whichever one is up that week, we know we've got to win. I give our guys a lot of credit, because it wasn't an easy task. They've got a great quarterback, two great receivers and a great tight end, and we held our own.
"It was a huge game for us early in the season. We know Atlanta and New Orleans and Carolina are our challenge. If we want to win the division we've got to beat those guys. It was a step in the right direction for us. It showcased some of our young talent, some of the will that we showed last year. It was good."
Barber got a game ball from the team after the win, as well, but Morris admitted that he almost passed on handing one to his veteran corner because there was one thing missing from the true 'Ronde Barber signature game.'
"I said, 'Great game man. It's too bad I can't give you a game ball because you didn't score.' He has set his standard that high. And then I ended up giving him the game ball. He got NFC Player of the Week, so I thought it would be foolish if I didn't give him a game ball from his own team. To have all of those tackles, the five pass deflections; to play as well as he did against Tony Gonzalez; to play as well as he did outside; to play as well as he did as far as getting an interception and fumble recovery; to talk Mason out of not checking out of that one blitz…all of the things he does on the field for us, man, he's special."
Visiting Another Neighbor
Morris took his team to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg the past two Thursdays in order to give the players a one-day break from the oppressive Tampa heat. The Trop's roof and air-conditioning (and before the trip to Minnesota, it's artificial turf) were the main draws, but Morris also joked that he was hoping some of Joe Maddon's mojo would rub off on him. Maddon, the Tampa Bay Rays' skipper, has guided his team to a stunning rally in the American League Wild Card race.
That rally recently returned home, however, as the Rays have beaten the New York Yankees at the Trop the last two nights and will look to do so again on Wednesday to either win the Wild Card (with a concurrent Boston Red Sox loss) or force a one-game playoff in Tampa on Thursday (with a Sox win). Obviously, that means Tropicana Field is could be otherwise engaged for the rest of the week, so the Bucs may or may not get in another Thursday trip to St. Pete. Either way, however, Morris has decided to visit another one of the Bucs' sporting neighbors.
This Friday, the Bucs will eschew their usual late-morning practice to work out under the lights at the Frank Morsani Football Complex at the nearby University of South Florida. In this case, the draw is obviously the night-time atmosphere, as the Bucs will play on Monday Night Football for the first time in Morris' tenure as head coach, but maybe there's a little USF Bulls magic that could help the Bucs out this time around. USF is off to a 4-0 start in 2011, including an emotional opening-week win at Notre Dame, and has averaged a whopping 45.5 points per game so far.
"We just want to get under the lights a little bit and be ready to deal with how it's going to be in that environment," said Morris. "We want to experience what time it's going to be when we play, how the lights are going to look when you catch a punt, how the light will look when you catch passes. We just want to get guys used to moving around at that time of the night."
As for the Rays, Morris is rooting hard for the cross-town team and his good friend, Maddon. Though he has previously worn a Rays hat to a few press conferences, Morris decided not to do so on Wednesday for superstitious reasons – he hadn't worn it the last few days and the Rays have kept winning.
"I don't want to mess it up," he said. "My guys have been going hard and I didn't put the hat for a couple days. I'll let them go, let them go get the big win. Hopefully they win it and we go to the playoffs and we don't have to play the playoff game on Thursday. If we do, hopefully I can make an appearance, go over there with my Rays hat. I'm proud, proud of Tampa, like everybody should be."