Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held one practice at a baseball stadium, went to a nearby university the next night to practice under the lights and, finally, spread their usual Friday practice schedule out over two days.
This week, a game on Monday night meant one fewer day of rest before practice, a shortened Wednesday workout that was devoted solely to walk-through periods and, eventually, a practice and a cross-country flight in a single day on Friday.
How are the Buccaneers players handling all this deviation from the usual routine? Maybe the better question is, have they even noticed?
Wide receiver Mike Williams, when asked how his team could overcome the disadvantages of a West Coast trip, said the key lay in the consistency of habit.
"We've got to just keep the same routine," said Williams. "We've got the same walk-through today and the same Thursday practice tomorrow and we travel on Friday. We've got to keep the same routine and go out there and get a win and see what happens."
It's clear that Head Coach Raheem Morris has created exactly what he wants – a team that goes about its business and gets the proper amount of work in no matter the distractions, inconveniences or unexpected twists and turns. It's akin to the "sudden change" drills that some coaches insert into a practice to see how well their team can respond to an unexpected event during a football game.
These Bucs are proving adept at handling any change, sudden or not. And that might have something to do with the franchise's reversal of fortune on the road the last couple years, especially on the long, coast-to-coast road.
"We went out to Arizona last year, had nice little success," said Morris. "We went to San Fran had success and we get to try and repeat that this year. We enjoy and we embrace the travel; we embrace the change. I've always kind of tried to do that since I've become the head coach. Let's go to the Trop. Let's go practice at USF. We try to embrace what we're going to do and when we're going to do it."
Since Week 15 of the 2009 season, the Buccaneers have ripped off nine wins in their last 11 away games. That includes contests held in Seattle (Week 15, 2009), Arizona (Week Eight, 2010) and San Francisco (Week 11, 2010). Prior to that 11-game stretch, the Bucs had lost 22 of their previous 30 road games, and they hadn't won a game on the West Coast or in Arizona since 1999 (excluding Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego). Those nine wins are the most the team has ever collected in a nine-game road span.
"It's just going out there and almost being a little bit of road warriors," said center Jeff Faine. "It's something that we kind of take a little pride in. Go out there and have fun with it. You've just got to be very, very focused and hopefully we'll be able to come away with a win."
The Bucs are headed back to San Francisco less than 11 months after not just winning in California but in blanking the 49ers, 21-0 last November 21. It was Tampa Bay's first road shutout in seven years, its first win in San Francisco since 1980 and the first whitewash suffered by the 49ers in three seasons. It was after this game that Morris first jokingly referred to his team as "West Coast Killers."
This one has an added layer of difficulty, however, as the Bucs' week is being squeezed on both ends due to the Monday night game against Indianapolis. Morris turned Wednesday's practice into a full walk-through – something he does more commonly as the season progresses – because he knew many of the players were still fighting through the soreness and aches of that Colts game.
"It's difficult because it's a shorter week," said tackle Donald Penn. "It's a real short week because we leave on Friday. The only good thing is that it's a little lighter and that helps our bodies recover. Usually, today, I would have had two days off before today, and I'm hurting a lot more, I'm a lot sorer than I would be if [the previous game] was played on Sunday. People have got to take care of their bodies. We've got to recover faster than we usually would and we've got to put in the extra work with the game plan. We put in a lot last week and we're going to be able to carry it over this week, too. We had success on the West Coast the last two years; hopefully we can make it three."
And, of course, this year's 49ers are 3-1 under new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, after starting last year 0-5. San Francisco is coming off a rousing comeback win in Philadelphia this past Sunday and is likely to head into its Week Five contest against the Bucs with player confidence riding sky-high.
That's just another obstacle for the Buccaneers to overcome…if it even registers as an obstacle. This team appears to relish every challenge.
"It's difficult because the week's shorter, and on top of that we're going across the country," said Faine. "So it's going to be a very, very fast week. The bumps and bruises don't really take effect, also, until about halfway through the week. So there are challenges there, but we're looking forward to this challenge and looking forward to the next step. We've got a big week ahead of us."
Freeman's Feet Force Adjustments
If there's one person who is uniquely qualified to judge how effective Josh Freeman is as a scrambling quarterback, it's the man just behind Freeman on the depth chart, Josh Johnson.
Johnson sees all of Freeman's plays from the Bucs' sideline, shares time with him on the practice field, watches film with him in the meeting room and shares thoughts on the playbook with him throughout the week. Oh, and Johnson happens to be one of the most talented runners at the quarterback position in the NFL, so he knows firsthand of what he speaks.
Obviously, Johnson enjoys it as much as the next Buccaneer fan when Freeman takes off on a key third down and beats the defense for a conversion, as he did on a key seven-yard play on the game-winning drive on Monday night. But on Wednesday, the very analytical Johnson offered an interesting take on such plays that reveals the value in them beyond the Bucs' rushing stats and third-down conversions.
According to Johnson, the fact that Freeman so regularly succeeds on his scrambles – he was the NFL's second-leading rusher among passers last year, behind Michael Vick – is making it easier for him to succeed through the air as well. Defenses are adjusting to the threat of Freeman's legs, and that is serving the offense well overall.
"They're actually defending us with a respect to him running," said Johnson. "So he's getting those coverages now that a scrambling quarterback would get – spying him, or not as much man[-to-man] in certain situations. I know he hardly ever sees two-man. A lot of the elite quarterbacks in this league see that a lot because teams are afraid of them beating them long. It's a credit to him."
Johnson's analysis points out that defenses that are worried about the quarterback running are likely to play more zone defense because they don't want the backs of their defenders to the pocket. They want their defensive backs to be able to react quickly once Freeman does take off. On the other hand, they are less likely to play the type of Cover Two zone with two deep safeties because they want another defender closer to the line of scrimmage.
"It makes the game a lot more predictable in his situation as to how teams are going to defend him," said Johnson. "His running ability has made defenses notice him. That's what you want to do, get them to switch up their schemes and a lot of their elements to account for something they don't have to prepare for week-in and week-out. Free has been doing a great job of that."
While Johnson came out of San Diego with a reputation as a duel threat, thanks to his 9,699 career passing yards and 1,864 career rushing yards, the running game wasn't part of Freeman's scouting report that was often emphasized. And, indeed, Johnson would surely beat his fellow Buc passer in a footrace. But Johnson has gained a rather deep appreciation for Freeman's ability to scramble in the last two years.
"He's a lot more athletic than people give him credit for," said Johnson. "I think it just might be a game to him, because if you see him in practice, Free isn't that fast. But on Sundays he turns into another guy. I think a lot of it is due to his competitiveness. He makes movements that most 6-6, 6-5 guys can't do. He's not necessarily being noticed for his speed because he didn't run the fastest 40s, but he moves good."
New Lineman Joins Practice Squad
A spot on the Buccaneers' eight-man practice squad opened up on Wednesday when the Miami Dolphins plucked tackle Will Barker off Tampa Bay's practice squad to place on their active roster. Players on any team's practice squad are always eligible to be signed by any other team, as long as it is for the new team's 53-man roster. A player that moves teams in this manner must then be kept on the active roster for at least three weeks.
The Bucs moved quickly to fill that spot and keep their offensive line at full strength for practice, signing former Illinois State tackle Chris Riley. Riley, who first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals in July, came to Tampa midway through September for a tryout. After his signing on Wednesday, he was at Buc headquarters in time to take part in the afternoon practice.
The 6-5, 315-pound Riley started 30 of the Redbirds' 33 games over the last three seasons, manning left tackle as a sophomore and junior before moving to the right edge in 2010. He helped ISU put together one of the best passing attacks in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in his final two seasons after blocking for the 10th-best rushing season in team history as a sophomore. He hails from Evanston, Illinois.