The return of CB Ronde Barber to practice on Thursday gave the Bucs a nearly clean bill of health
Mid-70s temperatures, cool and dry air, a slight breeze and well-manicured lawns made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field surely one of the most pleasant spots in America on Thursday afternoon.
Maybe that's why everyone wanted to be there.
With 53 men on the active roster and a practice squad of five more players, there are a possible 58 participants in any given Buc practice. On Thursday, 56 of them were in action, at least when practice began.
Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland stayed inside to receive treatment on his sprained right knee. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp did not participate in the workout, though he was on the field and usually right on the edge of the action.
"It's probably the most guys we've had in awhile," said Head Coach Tony Dungy of the Thursday turnout. "Todd Yoder made it back and did okay. Donnie Abraham did a couple of things and it looks like he's improving. Ronde Barber was back. It was positive, a good, spirited practice."
Abraham (low back contusion) and Barber (hamstring strain) had missed Wednesday's practice as a precautionary measure, but have progressed from their injuries, suffered on Sunday in Green Bay, and are not expected to miss any game time. Dungy also indicated that Sapp is likely to suit up for Friday's workout and play in Detroit.
There were 55 players in action by the end of the day, as wide receiver Jacquez Green was shut down about halfway through practice. Green has spent the last three weeks attempting to recover from groin and abdominal strains. While the groin injury is nearing complete recovery, Green is still struggling with the abdominal strain. He was sent into action today as a test, but didn't fare particularly well and is likely to be downgraded on the injury report.
"He went through the individual period," said Dungy. "He's coming along and getting better, but he's really doubtful for this week."
Among the 55 men in action was tight end Todd Yoder, who suffered a concussion in Green Bay but appears to be in good condition as the week progresses. Still, concussion symptoms can be unpredictable, as safety John Howell found out last week, and the team is not taking it as a given that Yoder will be available on Sunday.
That would be somewhat of a concern, as Yoder is one of only two players on the roster to earn a spot on the team specifically as a tight end, joining starter Dave Moore. Long-snapper Sean McDermott is also a tight end, but has played only two snaps on offense this season. The Bucs were considering a contingency plan on Thursday.
"We'd probably have to find a way to activate Mike Roberg," said Dungy, referring to one of the team's five practice-squad players. "That's something we've talked about. Mike's doing a good job in practice and he'd be ready to go if Todd can't."
The Bucs have one more full-scale practice on Friday, from approximately 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., before a short walk-through Saturday morning and the team flight to Detroit. On most occasions, players who are unable to practice on Friday are not good bets to play on Sunday.
A New Batch
Detroit QB Charlie Batch's first career start in the Silverdome came against Tampa Bay early in 1998. Batch had pedestrian passing numbers in that affair – 14 of 23 for 115 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions – but he was elusive with his feet, carrying eight times for 39 yards and a touchdown and consistently scrambling out of pressure to make something happen, a la Daunte Culpepper. Detroit won, 27-6.
Batch went on to win his next two starts against the Bucs, as well, as he was out with a thumb injury when Tampa Bay defeated the Lions late in '99.
The Bucs finally figured Batch out last season, however, picking him off twice and sacking him seven times in a 31-10 victory in the Silverdome in Week Three. Batch did gain a measure of revenge in the follow-up in Tampa Bay, a 28-14 Detroit win, though he endured seven more sacks that October day.
Now it's a reworked Detroit offense that Batch must decipher, as new Head Coach Marty Mornhinweg has brought the famous West Coast offense to Motown. Batch was benched after one game this season and replaced by Ty Detmer, a West Coast-literate veteran obtained from Cleveland in a trade, but quickly reinserted after Detmer struggled in two starts.
Since returning to the field, Batch has put up strong numbers in the system, including two 300-yard passing games and a total of eight touchdowns in five games. He has run only six times in that span. Dungy has seen the steady improvement on videotape and doesn't think it's a product of being temporarily replaced.
"Not necessarily the benching, but he's just had more time in the system and he's playing better every week," said the Bucs' coach. "You see improvement week in and week out."
Like Batch, the Bucs have had plenty of opportunities to become more familiar with the West Coast attack, including two games against Green Bay already this season. The tenets of the offense haven't changed much over the years, though different variations of it crop up all around the league.
"They spread you out, throw the ball quick, keep you off balance, throw when you're thinking run and run when you're thinking throw," said Dungy. "That's kind of the basis behind it. They try to possess the ball with short passes and the running game. You have to play well on first down and not let them keep you off balance."
The Buccaneers rank sixth in the NFC in first-down offense, allowing an average of 4.95 yards per play.
The Bucs' defensive front has rushed the passer well through most of the first half of the season but has only 13 sacks in seven games to show for it. Similarly, Tampa Bay has been in position to win at least three of its four losses this season, but has just a 3-4 mark nearing the midpoint.
If those issues are chipping away at the team's confidence, you couldn't tell it from the locker-room demeanor of two of the team's proven pass-rushers. Pro Bowl defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, two straight shooters in the team's locker room, insist that the Bucs remain a confident bunch.
"I like to think that we always have confidence in here," said Sapp, who has helped turn 3-4 records into playoff berths each of the last two years. "We work on just base things, being fundamentally sound in what we're doing. The schedule never changes, (Head Coach Tony Dungy) never throws anything at us differently. We just go out and execute, just go out and practice, practice, practice, practice. We should have confidence every week that we have the proper game plan and the proper people in place to get it done. Let's just go do it."
The Bucs' most recent near-miss was the 21-20 loss at Green Bay in which the visitors held a 17-7 third-quarter lead, a defeat that dropped the team to its seemingly inevitable 3-4 record. Rice wasn't around for the 1999 and 2000 sprints from that spot in the schedule, but he still believes he has a gauge on the team's mood.
"When all else fails, we look to ourselves. That's what happened this weekend – we looked to ourselves after this last game and said we have to turn this thing around, we have to do the things we need to do to put ourselves right back in the standings where we need to be.
"Nobody's wavering. More than anything, everybody has pulled together even more because of our beginning. However, we can turn this thing around, we can flip the script and put us right back into the position we need to be in. That starts this week."
But could we look at this from another angle? Rather than gaining confidence from its previous rebounds from this mark, could a third straight slow start instead erode the team's faith?
It shouldn't," said Sapp. "Been there, done that, seen it. Go and do it again. It's just a matter of us putting ourselves in position to win games."