The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't end their losing streak on Sunday, didn't knock the now 10-0 Green Bay Packers off their nearly year-long unbeaten run. But they did put themselves in position to pull off that upset, right there in the home of the NFL's best team, and that was a direct result of what they did on the practice field in the week leading up to the game.
"We put on the pads, upped the intensity and had everybody going after it and competing," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who threw for a career-high 342 yards in the narrow 35-26 loss. "It was almost like a training camp type of feel on the offense. It was a great structured week of practice. Guys got after it and I think it showed today."
That was Freeman's description of how the Buccaneers handled practice between their troubling loss to Houston in Week 10 and last Sunday's trip to Green Bay. It was likely the most scrutinized week of practice for the Bucs in quite some time, because Head Coach Raheem Morris had promised it was going to be a cure for what was ailing them. And he was right.
Morris held back-to-back padded practices for the first time since the start of the regular season on Wednesday and Thursday. He extended the practices a bit with some drills meant to emphasize proper tackling and, perhaps more importantly, 11 men swarming to the football on defense. On offense, he ratcheted up the level of competition between the receivers and defensive backs, hoping to get his pass-catchers back in the mode of fighting for the football on Sunday.
The Bucs went straight from those practice-field drills to surely their most intense outing of the season. Even after falling behind 14-0 in the first half, the underdog Buccaneers fought for 60 full minutes and pulled within two points, at 28-26, with just over four minutes to play. Only a failed two-point conversion after Dezmon Briscoe's fourth-quarter touchdown catch kept the game from going into the final minutes in a tie.
"We competed – you can go back and watch the film," insisted cornerback Elbert Mack, who set up Briscoe's touchdown with a critical interception. "We competed each and every down. A couple of balls just didn't go our way."
The Packers competed hard, as well, and it's a credit to quarterback Aaron Rodgers – likely the league MVP – that he was still able to make plays on multiple occasions where the Buccaneers' defense had tight coverage. Tampa Bay allowed virtually no big plays in the running game, reversing a recent problem, and that was largely due to the overall hustle that usually brought a whole group of tacklers to the ball.
"They were competing," said Morris of his defenders. "Those third downs were competitive third downs. [The Packers] had some guys make some plays. They had some guys that were able to draw some pass-interference penalties. Our guys did a nice job competing. I don't think there was a touchdown that was uncompetitive other than one where we kind of lost coverage in the opening or second drive. We came out and we played the way we wanted to play. We played aggressive. We played hard and we tried to get a win. We tried to steal one from the champs."
On offense, the Bucs got much more out of their starting trio of pass-catchers – receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn and tight end Kellen Winslow – than they had all season. All three had at least five catches and 75 yards and they combined to produce 290 of the team's 342 aerial yards on the day. In addition, running back LeGarrette Blount pitched in with 107 rushing yards, much of it gained after initial contact, including a 54-yard touchdown on which he willed himself through half of the Packers' defense.
"I saw my receivers go out there and compete at the highest level they did all season," said Morris. "[I saw] those guys compete down the field making plays, Mike Williams in particular and Rejus Benn in particular, and Kellen Winslow. They made a bunch of plays in coverage on some really good DBs and really good linebackers and that's what it's got to be about. That Blount run was a direct reflection on getting back and running in pads and learning your level and making people tackle Blount in pads. That was a direct reflection in my opinion of what the practices were about last week."
Added Williams: "We knew we were going against man (coverage), so we had to go out there and beat man-to-man. We didn't really pick certain matchups. We had to beat man and we did today."
Williams deflected praise of the Bucs' offensive efforts, however, because he felt the loss rendered it incomplete, and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth confirmed what one would expect to hear from the defeated locker room: There are no moral victories. However, what the Buccaneers could take from Sunday's effort in Green Bay, if not help in the standings or any good feelings on the plane ride home, is an even firmer belief that their 2011 season is not lost.
Morris reminded his team after the game that there are still six to play, and the Bucs could still conceivably match their 10-6 record from 2010. This isn't willful disregarding of the team's situation – season-ending six-game winning streaks are not common – but it is a belief that they can beat any team in the league any weekend at any location.
"The games are played on Sunday between the lines, so I certainly think that we can compete with anybody," said Morris. "We've shown that numerous times – going to play a team like the Saints; going to play Atlanta; going to play Green Bay yesterday. We can compete with anybody and that's all that really matters in this league. The talent pool and everybody you play is so tight. That's why you rarely have blowouts in this league. It's a tough league.
"We've got six more and we've got to out there and we've got to knock off one at a time. We've got to go play each game, every game and there's still time to get hot. Those are the things that can happen for us, so we got to go out there and think that way every time step on and approach the field and every time we go out there."