Like Keyshawn Johnson, WR Drew O'Connor is a big target in the red zone
In 1999, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense surrendered a total of 44 points in the 16 regular-season third quarters, one of the lowest totals in the league.
On Saturday morning in Orlando, the Buccaneers held another joint practice with the Miami Dolphins after getting together with their South Florida counterparts twice on Friday. DT Warren Sapp likened it to the third quarter of a game and, fittingly, the Bucs performed well.
A meeting of the Bucs and Dolphins brings together two of the NFL's best defenses, so Tampa Bay's results on Friday were not surprising. While the defense appeared to pick up right where it left off in '99, the offense struggled to execute against Miami's aggressive 'D' in Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl.
The trend held somewhat on Saturday, as well, but the Buccaneers made strides on offense, where they are attempting to learn the system brought in by new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel. With a good part of the workout set in the 'red zone', the Bucs showed marked improvement in the passing game as Head Coach Tony Dungy looked on.
"The offense did better," said Dungy. "We were a little sharper. As I said yesterday, Miami's very, very tough on defense. I think we got a little bit better today and got some good work in. I thought we threw the ball better and I thought we executed down in the red zone. Keyshawn Johnson is obviously going to make a difference for us down there. I just thought our tempo was a little bit better."
The Bucs are quickly realizing the advantage of having a talented receiver of Johnson's size (6-4, 212) when things get tight near the goal line. In fact, they employed two such targets in the red zone on Saturday, with 6-3, 211-pound first-year receiver Drew O'Connor also catching several passes. Johnson, O'Connor and the rest of the Buc receivers were determined to have a better showing on Saturday.
"I think we had a little more fun today," said Johnson. "It's like I said: Every single day you're going to get better. The receivers stayed in last night and watched film as a group for an extra hour to see some of the things we did wrong yesterday. We came out today and tried to execute as much as possible. I think we did a pretty good job overall, but obviously we're still a long ways away."
For the third straight practice, Dungy spent most of his time watching the Bucs' offense while the team's defense toiled on a separate field. "I didn't see a lot of the defense today, but in watching the tapes, it's been good for us," he said. "Miami's playing a lot of four wide receivers and doing some different things than we do. I thought the work has been good and we've been fairly sharp."
Sapp laughed at the report that his side of the ball had been 'ignored' by Dungy so far during the joint practices. "When you do you're job as well as we have, you kind of get forgotten," he said. "That's okay with us."
Of course, Dungy knows his defense must work just as hard as the offense to maintain the standard of excellence it has established over the last three years.
"In August, you try to get the message across that every year's a new year," he said. "You have to start from the beginning and get your fundamentals down, get your work ethic down. That's what we're trying to do right now."
Perhaps the most encouraging sight on Saturday morning came before the two teams split up, when both rosters came into the main Citrus Bowl field to work on special teams. On the slate for practice number three were field goal attempts by both teams and kickoff coverage by the Buccaneers.
While second-year K Martin Gramatica did miss two kicks after a flawless drill on Friday, he balanced that with a remarkably good effort during the kickoff work. Gramatica provided the foot for five of the Bucs' seven kickoffs during the drill (rookie punter John Shay kicked the other two) and hit all five of them high and deep.
Gramatica's kickoffs were an area of mild concern after a rookie season in which his powerful right leg didn't translate into a high number of touchbacks. That concern was certainly eased on Saturday morning, when the shortest of Gramatica's five kicks came down right at the goal line. The other four were, in order, eight yards deep in the end zone, completely out of the end zone and just under the field goal crossbar, six yards deep in the end zone and five yards deep
"Martin's worked on his kickoffs," said Dungy. "They were very good today, kicks that we should be able to cover, so that was encouraging."
After a light lunch, a round of meetings and some down time, the Bucs will join the Dolphins for one last practice before jumping on buses and heading back to Tampa. Though the 'fourth quarter' is still to be played, Dungy is already pleased with the Orlando experience.
"We feel like we get a lot of good work against Miami," he said. "We've done this for four years and I think it's been beneficial for both teams. The biggest thing is, you see a different style of play, and that helps you get ready for the season.
We've gotten some physical work, some real good work on special teams. You find out a little bit about the young guys. Who can take that information that you get in training camp, the theory on the chalkboard, and apply it in situations when the heat is on. Some guys have done really well at that."
After arriving back in Tampa, Dungy will reward those players and the rest of his tired team with a day off on Sunday before practices resume at the University of Tampa on Monday.
The Bucs trainers weren't too busy on Saturday morning, but there was one breath-stealing moment. During nine-on-seven drills, DT Warren Sapp had his right hand stepped on by a Dolphin and was taken into the locker room for an X-ray. The X-ray was negative and Sapp was back on the field in five minutes.