The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were about 100 seconds into a two-minute drill on Monday morning when Josh Freeman lofted a pretty spiral deep down the right hash marks. The pass was caught inside the far 20-yard line and, as this was a non-tackling drill, whistled down moments later when several defenders converged.
The pass, the route and the catch were perfect. The play was not.
In this case, the receiver still needed to do one of two things: Head to the sidelines or slide immediately to the ground. The offense was out of timeouts and, in order to get off the game-winning field goal, needed to get down the field, spike the ball and stop the clock. Barring a clear path to the end zone or the sideline, the pass-catcher needed to hit the deck to avoid wasting precious seconds or, worse, having the ball stripped from his grasp.
Head Coach Raheem Morris seized the teaching moment, immediately pointing out the mistake to the player, who said he had forgotten the details of the situation in the heat of the big play. This was the sort of game situation that Morris and his staff are working more and more into their training camp practice constructs, and for good reason. The first game, after all, is just five days away.
"That's just working on our plan, for the players and the coaches," said Morris. "When you get into a situation in a game, whether it's a backed-up [at the goal line] situation or it's the end of the game and you've got eight seconds left and you know you've got to get out of bounds, or you've got to slide and run up there and spike it, that's information your players have to have before they get into that situation.
"If you go out there and think you can just wing that thing, I promise you it's going to be mass confusion. You've got to constantly pound that stuff in their heads so if it happens it's almost muscle memory."
The Buccaneers enjoyed their first off day since the start of camp on Sunday, then went back to work on Monday with their sights set on the preseason opener in Miami this coming weekend. Each practice this week will include more of an emphasis on game situations such as that two-minute period on Monday morning and another one in which the offense started with the ball on its own one-yard line.
Freeman was sharp during his two-minute drive but felt his group could have performed better when backed up against the goal line.
"It could have been tightened up, definitely, but it was our first time this year working backed-up," he said. "Still, we've got to come out more mentally sharp in that period and come out and execute."
When he brought the first-team offense out against the first-team defense for the start of his two-minute drive, Freeman got the team across midfield in just two plays. The first was a quick checkdown to a tight end over the middle and the second was a more ambitious throw down the middle of the field to wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. Freeman played with great poise as a rookie in the two-minute situation last season and usually feels comfortable when faced with that task.
"I feel great in the two-minute because you're just out there and you know what you're going to see defensively," he said. "As an offense you're just attacking, keeping the defense off balance. Going into two-minute my mindset is to keep rattling off plays and keep just hitting them. They know they're playing Cover Two, trying not to give up anything deep so, alright, let's hit them underneath. Keep hitting them quick, quick, let our guys get some yards after the catch and just keep hitting them, keep attacking them. And then when we get them out of the Cover Two, get them more where they're trying to slow us down a little bit, then we pop one over their heads."
Freeman should be even better in that high-pressure game situation in 2010 if Morris' assessment of his young quarterback's development is on the mark. The 2009 first-rounder obviously has the arm strength to make all the downfield throws but he's showing significant improvement on the passes that require more touch than velocity.
"The other day I made a tape and evaluated all of Josh Freeman's 'easy' throws last year, whether it was a checkdown or a shallow cross or something where he looked deep, brought it down and dropped it of somewhere," said Morris. "[I wanted] to see the accuracy of it, where it was, the placement. He wasn't bad last year, but I was so impressed because I did the same thing in training camp and looked at all those throws. I watched the checkdowns and the timing and not forcing things downfield and getting it to the back and getting it to the crossing route. He's getting better and better.
"What we're trying to preach to him is that's what all the great guys do. Drew Brees beats you with an 80-yard bomb every once in awhile but a lot of times he dinks and dunks you. He takes what he gives you and at the end of the day he has 400 yards passing because he did hit the big bomb later."
Of course, Freeman has been hungrily ingesting any and all game tape he can get his hands on since February, so it's not surprising that he is getting a firmer grasp on game situations. But the Buccaneers have 80 players on the roster who need to do the same thing, and soon. Thus this week's emphasis on specific situations on the practice field, following an opening week of camp spent largely on fundamentals and learning the playbook.
"What you've got to do now is get them prepared," said Morris. "We're not going to game-plan where we do a full all-out scheme. Really, you want to keep it simple. You want to see the guys play fast. You want to see the guys that can play. You want to put them in some situations that are going to be tough on them a little bit to see who responds. For these guys, it's a great challenge."
A Receiver By Trade
On Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, as the Buccaneers warmed up for their two-hour night practice in front of 24,000 fans, wide receiver Micheal Spurlock delighted the crowd and cranked up the rivalry between the team's return men by fielding seven punts in a row. Little detail we should mention: Spurlock never let go of any of the seven footballs after he caught them.
In a continuation of a little drill that has become a camp-long challenge among such return men as Spurlock, Sammie Stroughter and Clifton Smith, Spurlock raised the bar with his unofficial seven, one better than the previous record. He did so by holding jamming four balls between his right arm and his side and also stashing the sixth one between his knees. That forced him to hop forward precariously to catch a short seventh kick, and there was some dispute as to whether he held on to the final ball long enough for it to count.
Morris called it a catch; Smith didn't appear to agree. Spurlock laughed on Monday and conceded that he may or may not be the reigning champion.
One thing that is not in dispute, however, is the quality of Spurlock's play during this training camp, his fifth in the NFL and his second with the Buccaneers. He originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006 and immediately began the difficult conversion from his college position of quarterback to wide receiver.
While he was able to make his mark relatively quickly as a return man, particularly when he became just the second player in Buccaneer history to return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2007, the switch to wide receiver has been a longer road. According to Morris, however, Spurlock now looks like an NFL pass-catcher to him.
Spurlock isn't ready to make that declaration yet, but he certainly can tell the difference in his game.
"I don't think I ever feel like I'm there," he said. "Am I more comfortable? Yes. It's just at the point now where this is five years of doing it. Some friends and I kind of look at it like this is my senior year now, my redshirt senior year of playing receiver. I'm more comfortable, I feel better at the position, I feel like a wide receiver. It just takes time. A lot of guys have been doing this ever since they were in middle school. I had to do it at the highest level. It's taking time and right now I feel comfortable. But I don't think I'm there yet, no."
In his travels through Phoenix, Tampa and San Francisco (where he spent a good portion of 2009 before rejoining the Buccaneers), Spurlock has had the great fortune of working alongside such standout NFL receivers as Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Isaac Bruce. He says that exposure is starting to pay off for him now.
"Just to watch them, the way they prepare, the way they practice at this, the way they work at their craft, I just kind of took something from each one of those guys and put it into my game," he said. "I'm a competitor. I hate to feel like I'm inadequate at anything. People try to give you a little leeway and say, 'Well, you were a quarterback.' I'm tired of hearing that. I am a receiver and a returner - that's what I do. Every day that I come out I'm just making strides. I try to make every day that I'm in better than the last one. That's the way I look at it."
McCoy on NFL Network Monday Night
Here's a conversation to which any Buccaneers fan would want to listen: rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy gleaning advice from former Tampa Bay great Warren Sapp.
And now you can.
Recently, McCoy sat down for an interview conducted by Sapp, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. That interview will be aired Monday night on the network's popular "Total Access" show. Fans wishing to catch it should tune in to the Network at 7:00 p.m. ET.
Since the Buccaneers drafted McCoy with the third overall pick in this year's draft, he has inspired hope among Bucs fans that he can make the same sort of impact at the all-important under tackle position as Sapp did in Tampa for so many years. The two men have spoken several times since McCoy became a Buccaneer, with Sapp offering advice on how the newcomer could reach his potential in the NFL and within Tampa Bay's defensive scheme.
This is the first time, however, that a conversation between the two has been made available for Bucs fans to enjoy. You won't want to miss it.