About an hour and 40 minutes into a two-hour practice at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday afternoon, defensive linemen Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy stood near the line of scrimmage, hands on hips and heads just a little bowed. Clayborn and McCoy were visibly tired and, frankly, it would have been something of a shock if they weren't.
This was the final practice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 Training Camp, and it may have been the hottest one of them all. The sun was merciless and the Buccaneers' coaching staff was urging the team to maintain its tempo.
At the moment described above, in the middle of a full-speed, full-team drill, the Buccaneers' D-linemen grabbed a breather while they could. But when the offense approached the line, they shook off their fatigue, got in their stances and exploded into action at the snap. Clayborn and McCoy got such good initial penetration on the play that Defensive Line Coach Keith Millard yelled with excitement, repeatedly praising the two young players for their effort.
This is what NFL coaches mean when they say games are won in the middle of the week. And this was a very nice way for the Buccaneers to cap what could only be viewed as a successful training camp. Practices will continue at One Buccaneer Place, of course, but the schedule will gradually take on more of a regular-season feel. There will also be only so many opportunities for the Bucs to put on pads and bang away at each other under the guidelines of the new collective bargaining agreement.
"From this point on, we'll go into a couple other things, some padded practices still," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We'll get some good-on-good work still, still working on power football, and then after that once you get into your season you get the 14 days of pads. We'll be ready to deal with that, how we want to use them and how we want to be effective with that plan. I'm really fired up where we are, but we have a lot of room to get better."
And, of course, the sometimes-brutal Tampa heat and humidity will continue, at least through August and September. As they did on Monday and Tuesday, the Buccaneers do their best to embrace the heat, to push through it and let it make them stronger. The philosophy in Tampa has always been that conquering the heat in training camp will give the team an advantage when the regular season arrives and teams less familiar with the conditions come to Raymond James Stadium.
That's one reason why Morris chose to finish camp on a taxing, up-tempo note. Seeing players like Clayborn and McCoy continue to be effective late in practice on a sizzling day tells the coach what he can expect in the fourth quarter of the team's Week One game against Detroit. And he definitely liked what he saw on Tuesday.
"Great practice, physical practice, another one," said Morris. "That's two in a row. That's good ball for us, flying around like that, trying to get them tired and putting them into situations. Yesterday we put them into a move-the-ball situations for the offense, had to move the ball up the field on a 10-play drive."
On Tuesday, the Bucs ended the practice with two physically demanding periods, the full-speed team drill mentioned above and a two-minute drill featuring the team's youngest players. Morris knew that the players would be 'gassed' by that point on the practice schedule and wanted to see how they would respond.
Those are always taxing situations for your football team," he said. "Tomorrow, we'll pull the reins back a little bit, give them a little bit of a walk-through and get ready to play another football game."
The Bucs will have just that one post-camp practice before playing their second preseason game on Thursday night against the New England Patriots. The game will provide another indicator of how well the team used the three weeks of a training camp that, due to the new CBA, was different than any other before. Whether or not the much lighter overall practice schedule in camp proves to be a positive or a negative may not be apparent until the regular season, but at least so far the Buccaneers can feel good about what they accomplished. Their 25-0 thrashing of Kansas City last Friday was the best possible validation of their work to this point.
"I think the assessment was the other night with those guys coming out and playing fast, playing smart, playing hard and playing consistent throughout," said Morris. "But we can still get better, a lot of places to improve with timing and precision. There are a lot of places to improve with some of our situational football that we can demonstrate in practice. Those are the things we're going to continue to simulate in practice in order to be a better football team."
Williams Makes Himself Heard
Mike Williams is 24 years old and a veteran of exactly 16 regular-season NFL games. Those numbers are not usually what you find on the resume of an established team leader.
Of course, the Buccaneers don't have the usual NFL roster. With 72 players aged 25 or younger and a starting quarterback – and established team leader – who is only 23, it doesn't seem that strange to have a second-year man guiding the rest of the of the receivers.
That is, assuming the 24-year-old can handle it. Tampa Bay's wide receivers coach, Eric Yarber, believed Williams could handle it, and so he decided to give him a nudge in that direction.
"Coach Yarbs told me that I'm not a rookie anymore," said Williams. "I've got to be a leader out there and I'm trying to get everybody on the same page. I let everybody know that we can't drop anything, we've got to make the quarterback look good, we've got to finish every play. He asked me to talk, too. He said I'm leading by example already as it is, but if they hear it coming from me it will be a lot more effective. I try to go out there and talk and let everybody know what page we need to be on."
Stand on the sideline of a Buccaneer practice and you can't miss it. Early in Tuesday's workout, Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson strolled by the receivers in the middle of their individual-position drill and urged them to "set the tempo" for the whole team in the hours to come. It was a wise choice, because Williams was already working that group up with his own words.
"He's a natural leader," said Yarber. "He's a good kid, a real good kid, and he wants himself to be great and he wants the team to be great. So he takes that leadership role seriously.
"He automatically leads by example, but if they hear him trying to get them going, I know they'll respond. So I did ask him and he's taking that leadership role and he's running with it, not just out on the field but in the classroom too. He helps those young guys. He critiques the guys and the guys critique him and it's a two-way street with them."
Options in the Backfield
Second-year running back LeGarrette Blount was held out of practice on Tuesday, but there's no need for fantasy football owners who are drafting this week to panic. Blount had a minor stomach ailment and will probably be back on the field on Wednesday and in uniform against New England on Thursday.
The Bucs' running back stable did get Erik Lorig back on Monday and Tuesday, and that actually helped fill Blount's absence even though Lorig is a fullback. See, with Lorig on the field to take a good portion of the fullback snaps, the team can save a greater percentage of Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin's playing time for the tailback position.
Lorig was originally drafted by the Buccaneers in the seventh round in 2010 as a defensive end, but he converted to fullback last September and eventually helped the team get through a few portions of the season when Graham was out due to injuries. Now that he's almost a year into his new NFL job, Lorig looks even better, according to Morris.
Lorig's role will be an interesting one to watch develop. If he is proficient enough at the job of lead blocker to be at least a part-time starter, then the Bucs may have more options to replace the departed Cadillac Williams. After Blount ascended to the starting tailback job last year, Williams slid into the role of third-down back, where he excelled at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield. Graham is also outstanding at those two jobs.
Currently, Graham is listed as the Buccaneers' starting fullback and Lumpkin as the second-string running back behind Blount. That may very well be the way the depth chart shakes out to start the regular season, too. But if Lorig is available to block and Graham – who proved he was a starting-caliber tailback with 898 yards in 2007 – can help more with the rushing and passing game, Tampa Bay could potentially mix it up more in the backfield. Instead of one primary backup to Blount, as Williams was last year, the Bucs could use both Lumpkin and Graham in that role. Fewer snaps at fullback could also allow Graham and Lumpkin to help more on special teams.
"Lorig is a more confident, more lively guy [in 2011]," said Morris. "When he's back on the field it creates a lot of excitement for me, because he I s a lively, special-teams, fullback kind of guy and his willingness to do things for you is awesome. He also opens things up for Earnest Graham, he also opens things up for Lumpkin. It depends on how much he can give you."