The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bye week wasn't just about health. It was also about growth.
Older Buccaneers found the extra practices last week to be fairly relaxing, as many ceded reps to their younger compatriots. That served two purposes, simultaneously resting the legs that needed it and providing valuable learning opportunities to the players that needed that.
Since Tampa Bay's bye week fell so early in the overall season schedule, it's restorative value wasn't what it could have been. By the same token, however, the early-season development time for younger players might have been perfectly timed. The Buccaneers are off to an encouraging 2-1 start, and their offense has shown signs of emergence, largely through the work of Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow. But it's fair to say that there's room for improvement on that side of the ball, and the Bucs believe progress will come through the greater involvement of their many young prospects.
"The encouraging thing about this team is that we've got a number of young players and they are ascending," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "They should continue to grow and get better throughout the season."
The same, hopefully, can be said about the Buccaneers' offense as a whole. Freeman, the second-year starting quarterback with a veteran's presence, has been a revelation, and Williams appears to be one of the steals of the 2010 draft. Winslow has provided big plays when the Bucs have needed it and starting tailback Cadillac Williams, while still looking for a real breakout game, gamely powered the team's ball-control attack during its 2-0 start. Second-year man Sammie Stroughter, now a starter at flanker, is likely to see more action in the slot, where he was a valuable third-down weapon as a rookie.
The next step could be the addition of such intriguing contributors as rookie wide receiver Arrelious Benn, rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, first-year scatback Kareem Huggins and several others. The Buccaneers might even find a role for newly-minted tight end Erik Lorig, the rookie defensive end who has now shifted to the offensive side of the ball.
"There were a number of players we spent extra time with," said Olson of the bye week work. "Cadillac Williams took very, very limited reps last week so we were able to get our younger players on the field. It was the same with Rejus Benn at receiver – we had him playing the Z the entire week just so he becomes more comfortable with that."
Williams already has 55 carries, 49 of them in the Bucs' consecutive victories over Cleveland and Carolina to open the season. He's averaging only 2.5 yards per tote so far, but he's done a lot of his work when the Bucs were clearly sticking to the ground to drain the clock. In addition, he seems to have had particularly bad luck in regards to flags; Buccaneer coaches estimate he has lost approximately 120 yards on plays called back by penalties to his blockers. Still, Olson said Williams needs to be spelled from time to time to be as effective as possible.
And that's where Blount and Huggins could come into play, with veteran back Earnest Graham remaining in the starting fullback role and also getting the occasional carry. Blount provides a power back who could get tough yards inside when opponents are loading up the box; Huggins is the Bucs' fastest runner and might be able to get the edge as well as provide big plays on third down. Blount jumped into the conversation with his six-carry, 27-yard cameo against Pittsburgh, while Huggins has followed a strong preseason with a slow start to the regular season due to minor league injuries.
"Hopefully we get Kareem back this week off the injury bug, and LeGarrette has earned the right to have a helmet on, at least," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, indicating the possibility that both could be among the 45 active players against Cincinnati on Sunday. "So that will definitely be part of the talks this week. Cadillac has been out there and running, he's our guy that gets us going in the right direction. We'll be fired up to go see these guys play. We'll be fired up to get them their touches and get them their runs.
"These guys have kind of formed themselves into rolls, so to speak, whether it's short-yardage, goal-line, first-and-10 run, protection needs, third-down backs and all those situations that are going to come up. We know Kareem showed some dynamic speed that we'd like to see come alive here in the season for us that we haven't seen yet."
What the Buccaneers will be able to get out of Blount seems to be more of a mystery, or at least a situation still in development. He's only been a Buccaneer since September 6, when the team claimed him off waivers from the Tennessee Titans. Originally, it appeared that Blount might spend most of his rookie season in Tampa learning the offense and getting ready for a run at a larger role in the future, but he has picked up the system quickly and become a potential factor. Huggins, on the other hand, was with the team all offseason and has had time to display exactly what he can add to the Bucs' attack.
"He's a great change-of-pace back for us," said Olson. "He's got great speed, legitimate speed and I think we all witnessed that in the preseason. That's why it will be nice to have him back and get a chance to see what he can do, because we haven't had a chance to see it yet in a regular-season game. So there is some excitement on our part to see what Kareem Huggins will be able to do. He'll be able to spell Cadillac and give Cadillac that rest that we think that he needs."
The Bucs also went into the bye week looking to tweak the usage of their various receivers, all of whom are young and still carving out the roles that work best for them. Stroughter will remain the starter but will likely give up some of his reps to the likes of Benn and fellow rookie Preston Parker, an undrafted free agent.
"We're not going to start [Benn] but he's going to become more a part of the rotation," said Morris. "He's earned the right, he's developing, he's getting better every week. Last week he went out there and showed flashes. This [past] week with our OTA-like format of practices in the bye week was good for him, good for our young football team for those guys to get out there and develop even more. We like where he's going and what he's been able to do. We look forward to him in our second half of the season being able to go out there and play."
Parker was active for the first time against the Steelers in Week Three, but he was limited to kick return duties. The bye week has given fellow receiver Maurice Stovall time to rest his ailing back (Stovall was inactive against Pittsburgh) but Olson hinted that the team might still look for a way to keep Parker in the mix at Cincinnati.
"He's another player we were able to get a lot of reps last week during the bye week," said the coach. "He's more of a slot receiver. He's got great speed and great strength. He's got good size for a slot. He's not afraid to go into the middle and those are attributes that you're looking for in that slot guy, someone that's fearless over the middle, and he is that guy. He's a former running back and a tough guy. He's got a great mentality for the sport. He's certainly done some things that have earned him the right to get more reps in practice so we can get a chance to see what he's all about."
And then there's the bigger project, that of Lorig's conversion to tight end, a position he played in high school and his first season at Stanford. The 6-4, 275-pound athlete has surprising agility for his size, so the Bucs could find him to be a very useful blocker/receiving threat at either tight end or fullback. The idea is promising enough that the rookie has been issued jersey #44 in place of his old #97, as well as a new spot on the depth chart.
"We've moved Lorig over," said Olson. "I think you'll see an increased role on his part. It's probably early to say right now but we spent time with him again over this weekend. He's a guy that we've had a chance to look at on the offensive side of the ball. He's moved to us full-time now. We liked what we saw last week in the bye week. We played him at both the fullback position and the tight end position. He gives you that extra roster spot because he's able to do two different things. He looked very good at it, and we'll take a look at him again through practice this week and if we feel good about it we'll get him up and see if he can help us out in terms of what we're doing with the run game."
Time will tell if Lorig has a future with the Buccaneers on the offensive side of the ball. The Bucs hope to discover that answer soon, as well as the proper roles for such young players as Benn, Blount and Huggins. If they do, the offense could be ready to take off.
"We're just trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field," said Olson.