Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The First Long Look

The Bucs have reason for optimism on offense as they finish the preseason, but Sunday’s opener will provide the first 60-minute test for the starters…Plus, injuries and Larry Brackins’ return

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C John Wade says the Bucs have to be prepared to keep fighting if the offense struggles early

Preseason contests are often called "rehearsals" for the games that count in the NFL, but they're not much like any rehearsal you would see on a stage or a set. How many actors say the first few lines of the script, then head offstage and put on baseball caps while understudies finish the scene?

Preseason games do a lot for an NFL team, giving young players a chance to get acclimated to the speed of the league, providing a setting for position battles to play out and offering the starting units a taste of what is to come. What they do not do is give anyone, not even the coaches and players themselves, a concrete idea of how good the starting squads will be when it's time to play 60 minutes.

There are strong hints, of course, and at most NFL headquarters, more than a little optimism. But it takes the regular season to uncover the truth, and for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that commences on Sunday with a difficult test inside Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

While the state of the Bucs' defense might be at least a little predictable, given the holdover in personnel and that unit's sustained period of success, the offense has a lot of new faces, a lot of new hope and a lot to prove. They'll be facing a Minnesota defense in almost the exact same situation.

"I'm anxious to see where we are and what we look like," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Obviously, there have been some changes and we've got a lot of young guys who are going to play key roles in this game. We're trying to get them ready for the noise and a terrific opponent. They're a very talented defensive team. They're overshadowed by their offense, but they've made huge changes in personnel on defense, [bringing in] household names. So it's going to be a great challenge and one I'm looking forward to."

Most of Minnesota's defensive replacements are proven veterans, such as defensive tackle Pat Williams, cornerback Fred Smoot and safety Darren Sharper. The Bucs added veterans Ike Hilliard and Anthony Becht to the offense but are also hoping for significant contributions from rookies Carnell Williams, Alex Smith and Dan Buenning, and potentially from a quartet of young receivers – Edell Shepherd, Paris Warren, J.R. Russell and Mark Jones. Gruden is optimistic about this mix of experience and youthful talent, and he probably has a better feel than anyone for how well the Bucs' starting offense will perform in the opener, but he chooses not to make any predictions.

"We've got a lot of good football players here," he said. "We've got some great ones. We've got some young guys who will get an exciting experience on Sunday. We'll see where we are. We feel like we're making strides, we feel like we're getting better."

Of all the young players, the Bucs obviously need the most out of Williams, the fifth overall pick in April and the new starter at running back. Williams was purposely kept to a limited schedule in the preseason, but he showed enough to justify the team's optimism regarding his possible contributions. The rookie is certainly eager to get started.

"I do feel like I am ready to go even though I didn't get much preseason action," said Williams. "The little bit I did was good. As far as practice goes it is just being out with the guys with the coaches putting me in new environments. I definitely feel like I am ready to go."

If Williams gets his NFL career off on the right foot, he could help the Bucs accomplish one of their main goals for this season. After spending too many Sunday afternoons playing catch-up over the last two years, the Bucs are determined to get off to faster starts in their games. However, if Williams and/or the rest of the offense struggles early, there will be enough veterans around him to keep everyone in the game and focused on playing 60 minutes.

"You just have to start fast, that goes for game one, the first series or Wednesday's practice," said veteran center John Wade. "I mean, to start fast all around I think is important for this team. But if things don't go well in the first half, then that's that way it is; most games are won in the fourth quarter or the last five minutes. No matter how good or bad it looks early on, we need to play the whole time and play hard and get a win."

Wade understands that no matter how much the Bucs want to start fast or run the ball with authority or pass protect perfectly, there's no guarantee they will. There is certainly nothing that happened in the last month to prove that any team is on its way to the Super Bowl, and there never will be in the preseason.

"Preseason is what it is these days," said Gruden. "You've obviously got to be careful with the injuries and things of that nature. You've got to really take a good look at your young players, your new players, to make sure you keep the right players. So it's a challenge, as always, when you get ready for an opening game, to see exactly what your opponent's going to look like and in some ways what you're going to look like."

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Full Participation

The Buccaneers' season did get off to a good start in at least one sense: Everyone participated in the first full-fledged in-season practice of the year.

The Bucs, in fact, opened the day with an official injury report that was all blanks. By the end of the day, guard Matt Stinchcomb had been added due to his ongoing battle with a lower back strain, but he is still considered probable for Sunday's game.

Wide receiver Ike Hilliard, slated to be the Bucs' third wideout behind Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, returned to the field after sitting out the "bonus" practices on Sunday and Monday. Gruden said Hilliard looks "ready to go."

The Vikings have just two names on their injury report. Reserve guard Anthony Herrera will not play due to a lower leg ailment, but starting tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser is considered probable despite a groin injury. Each team will update its injury report on Thursday, and again on Friday if necessary.

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Brackins is Back

Rookie wide receiver Larry Brackins was released on Tuesday in order to give the Bucs room on the roster to sign wide receiver Mark Jones. However, Brackins was back with the team by late Wednesday afternoon.

After clearing waivers, Brackins signed with Tampa Bay's practice squad, taking the eighth spot on that unit. As such, he can practice with the team but is not eligible to play in games unless he is added back to the 53-man roster.

With Brackins back, the Bucs now have 17 of the 20 players they drafted over the last two years on the team in some capacity. The only exceptions are 2004 seventh-round picks fullback Casey Cramer and cornerback Lenny Williams and 2005 seventh-round pick safety Hamza Abdullah.

Brackins was the Bucs' second of two fifth-round picks in April. He came to the NFL facing a significant adjustment from his previous stop at Pearl River Community College, but a hamstring injury suffered early in the summer hampered his progress. Brackins missed about half of training camp with the injury and played only sparingly in the preseason. However, the Bucs are still intrigued by the rookie's size (6-4, 205) and raw talents.

Brackins will stay in jersey number 16 as he joins the practice squad. His fellow rookie receivers, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell have been assigned new numbers, however, discarding the #15 and #14 they wore, respectively, through the preseason. Now that some of the traditional receiver numbers in the 80s have cleared, Warren will move into #82 and Russell will assume #87. Jones, who wore #13 for the Bucs in the preseason last year, was assigned #89.

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