Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Size, Variety Help Bucs Win Red Zone

Sunday Camp Notes: Tampa Bay's first-team offense had an encouraging day in the red zone on Sunday, utilizing a wide variety of receivers and routes…Plus, injury updates and more.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent a lot of time in the red zone during Sunday morning's training camp practice, and one on particular snap Mike Evans lined up far to the left, with cornerback Mike Jenkins across from him and nobody behind Jenkins. It looked like a good setup for the 6-5, 230-pound Evans to run a fade route to the back corner of the end zone, and given Evans' size and leaping ability, that would have been a fair guess by the defense.

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Instead, Evans immediately cut inside, running across the field just in front of the goal line, as well as a picket fence of defenders. Evans' route likely helped control the depth of those defenders, which helped fellow 6-5 receiver Vincent Jackson find an open spot in the back of the end zone after coming out of the right slot. Quarterback Jameis Winston threw a high dart to that area, and Jackson reached high to snare it before tapping both toes well shy of the back line.

Tampa Bay's first-string offense didn't win every red zone rep on Sunday – again, there were a lot of them – but they scored enough to consider it a good day. Their touchdown catches were at once impressively varied in their scheme but unified by one advantage the Bucs' offense possesses in tight quarters like the red zone: size.

"We're going to be explosive," said Jackson, who scored several more times during that same practice period, including once on a perfectly executed pivot route like the one Julian Edelman ran in last February's Super Bowl. "We've got big guys that can stretch the field on the outside, and we also switch it up and put big guys on the inside and make it hard on those linebackers and safeties as well. That's what's beautiful about this offense: As dynamic as we're going to be, it's not going to be where defenses are just expecting jump balls on the outside. We're going to make it tough for them crossing the field as well."

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Evans did catch a fade pass in the corner for a touchdown during that red zone workout, and second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins scored once on a ball Winston zipped through a crowd of defenders into his stomach and once on a pass that he had to dive over the left front pylon to snare. Last year, when the Buccaneers added Evans and Seferian-Jenkins (also listed at 6-5) with their first two picks in the 2014 draft, the Bucs' pass-catching corps attracted the nickname, "Dunkaneers." Theoretically, all those big and athletic receivers were going to make the Bucs very hard to defend around the end zone; in fact, Tampa Bay's offense struggled to find any sort of identity at all. This year, that nickname might prove apt.

"Today was a big focus on the red zone, the 30-yard line going in, high red zone as well," said Jackson. "It looked really well for us on offense. The defense is making some adjustments and running through some different things. We didn't win every rep, but it's good to know that when you get down there you're going to come away with some points."

The Buccaneers have a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter, who has many years of experience as the architect of NFL attacks. There's reason to believe he can get much more out of the team's size mismatches in the red zone. The team also has a new quarterback in rookie Jameis Winston, and they hope that will make a big difference as well. Winston did a very good on Sunday of spreading the ball around to his various playmakers in the end zone. He wasn't perfect – one pass in the direction of wide receiver Tavarres King, in particular, was ill-advised and easily picked off by Alterraun Verner – but he didn't let any negative plays snowball.

"He's picking things up super-quick," said Jackson of his rookie QB. "Everything we've put on his plate, he gets better and better every practice, and that's what you want to see. Is he a young guy, is he a rookie? Of course. We're all going to make mistakes, but at the same time he's competitive. He gets right back and wants to win the next play, and that's exciting."

Verner won that play but later confirmed Jackson's theory that the Bucs' multitude of options in the red zone makes things much more difficult for the defenders. The Pro Bowl cornerback wasn't complaining, though, as he thought that kind of challenge would serve him and his defensive teammates well in the months to come.

"It's tough because the first thing you think of is a jump-ball situation, but that's not the only route that they can run down there," said Verner. "They can go slants, pick routes, crossing routes like you saw today that they were catching a lot of. It's tough, but it makes  you have to play honest. And it makes you prepared, because we have a lot of big guys in our division and a lot of big guys we're going to see. So it's good work."

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Additional notes from Sunday's practice:

  • The Buccaneers had more players on the sideline on Sunday than for any other previous camp practice, but much of that was by design. Most notably, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy got the day off, though he remained rather obviously engaged in the activities going on around him, often encouraging his teammates. It was just a scheduled day of rest for McCoy, who will get a long time to recover since a players' day off follows on Monday. Starting center Evan Smith was also rested on Sunday, while starting left guard Logan Mankins returned to practice after sitting out on Saturday. Safety Chris Conte, who has missed most of camp so far with a knee injury, was sidelined for another day.
  • The Bucs sat defensive end George Johnson for a second straight day due to what Head Coach Lovie Smith called "general soreness," but the target is to get him back on the field on Tuesday. In the meantime, Larry English has picked up extra first-team work in Johnson's place at left end. English was one of the team's top performers in Sunday's one-on-one drill between the offensive and defensive linemen, showing off his speed to beat offensive linemen off the edge on repeated reps.
  • Vincent Jackson hasn't had a day off yet, and it doesn't sound as if he's lobbying for one. The Bucs' receiving corps has a lot of very young players battling for spots, and Jackson likes to lead that group by example, taking every practice seriously. Jackson is also always working to stay in top physical shape as he enters his 11th NFL season. He has topped 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last four seasons (three of them with the Buccaneers) and six of the last seven, and he says he's not close to slowing down.
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