Four teams in the NFL – Tampa Bay, Dallas, Kansas City and Minnesota – will take this coming Sunday off as the league's seven weeks of rotating byes begin, and the break will hit each of those teams differently.
The Chiefs are one of the league's surprise stories, off to a 3-0 start, and would probably prefer to keep playing rather than cooling their heels for a week. The Cowboys got off to a rougher start than many expected, at 1-2, but at least head into the off week fresh off a very encouraging win at Houston. The Vikings are similarly coming off their first win of the season, against Detroit at home on Sunday, but unlike the other teams on the list have some long-term injury concerns that make the bye a more significant occurrence.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are 2-1 and off to a better start than many outsiders anticipated, but are also feeling the sting of their first defeat, a 38-13 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. Like the Chiefs, they would rather be back on the field Sunday in order to keep their early-season momentum going and get the taste of the Steeler loss out of their mouths.
Of course, that's not an option, and the bye is upon them. And rather than focus on how the bye affects them in relation to the rest of the league, the Buccaneers will use the extra time to look inward.
"This week coming up, the bye week, is about us," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's us getting together and doing what we need to do. It's just a great time, we feel, to get speed back, to get good-on-good work, to get these guys out here competing again, going at each other with some nice live bullets."
The Buccaneers are scheduled to practice for 90 minutes each on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by four consecutive days off and then a "bonus" practice next Tuesday to begin the week of preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Five. Morris compared the two practices this week to the kind of work the team put in during OTA days in May and June. With no opposition to game-plan for, those practices focused on fundamentals, core beliefs and playbook recognition.
In this case, however, the Bucs do have a game to which they can react. The loss to Pittsburgh didn't look as bad on coaches videotape the next day as the score would indicate, but obviously there were some issues to address. That, too, will be a significant part of the work on Wednesday and Thursday.
"[The loss] didn't shake us," said linebacker Barrett Ruud. We saw what we did wrong. It wasn't like they were overwhelming us. We could have had two picks on the first two touchdowns, and nine times out of 10 we're going to have those picks. In a way, yes, it would be nice to play right away because you don't want to deal with this loss for two weeks, but at the same time there's a lot of things we'll be able to work on over this week and a half."
Ruud knows the bye week could have been even more useful if it had fallen later in the schedule. There's no perfect time for a bye when the season begins – if a team's starting quarterback happened to be injured in Week Three, then a Week Four bye might be very advantageous – but teams generally prefer to have it later in the year. It's simply more likely that a significant number of players will be dealing with minor injuries after more games have been played, so a week of rest in late October or November could come in handy. The Bucs were fortunate enough to have November byes in each of the last three seasons so it's not surprising that they found themselves on the early end of the schedule this year.
"My opinion of this bye week is that it's too early," said Ruud. "Everybody feels too good to have a bye right now. I think it will be good for us, but like I said I would have liked to have had a few more weeks before I got a rest."
The solution, of course, is to get as much as possible as the bye week as it stands. For Morris, that means using the extra practice time to fine-tune what is already a good start, to prepare the team for even more success down the stretch.
"For the most part we haven't proven anything yet. We've got a lot to prove to ourselves. I like my team and where they are and where they're going. We are 2-1, is the message to the football team and to our fans. We've got time this week to really get better, bring those young players along and be a better football team when we come back."
All Hands On Deck
The bye week is also a useful time for a team to contemplate changes to strategy, the depth chart and individual playing time. For instance, the Buccaneers will consider the possibility of carving out a larger role on offense for rookie running back .
Tampa Bay's coaching staff will also review how it is utilizing its talented but young receiving corps. Through the first three games, the team has gone with rookie Mike Williams and second-year man Sammie Stroughter as its starters, with Micheal Spurlock as the primary reserve and rookie Arrelious Benn gaining playing time. Maurice Stovall has struggled with minor injuries before the bye, but rookie Preston Parker was active for the first time against Pittsburgh in Week Three.
One consideration will be the size of the role that Stroughter will assume in the remaining games. Stroughter was a serious find as a rookie seventh-rounder in 2009, holding down the team's slot-receiver, or "Zebra" role for most of the season. He was particularly effective on third downs and finished third on the team with 31 receptions for 334 yards.
As a starter in 2010, Stroughter has caught six passes for 49 yards, with a long of 18, through three games. Morris does not consider that relative lack of production to be any indication of a downturn in Stroughter's play; for the most part, it has simply been a product of how the three games have unfolded so far. However, Morris does believe Stroughter can be more effective late in games if he is not overused in his new starting role.
"As a coaching staff, you sit back and look at that," said Morris. "You look at Sammie, he plays so hard that he wears down a little bit. He caught a couple cramps [against Pittsburgh] – he doesn't want to come out with a cramp and you've got to go pull him off the field."
Figuring out the optimum role for Stroughter, and how the other young receivers can help that come about, is another task the Bucs can accomplish over the bye week.
"Now, with Rejus [Arrelious Benn] on the come, you've got to be able to play him a little bit," said Morris. "We had Preston Parker up and some of those guys have to be able to go in there and give Sammie a spell so he can be more effective in his Zebra package, which we know he thrives in and has his best production in. That's something we can do during this bye week and that's something we can do better at when we come back."
Lorig Returns to the Active Roster
The Buccaneers have used the roster spot created by Tanard Jackson's suspension to promote rookie defensive end Erik Lorig back to the active roster from the practice squad. In turn, the vacated practice squad spot was taken by first-year linebacker J.D. Folsom.
Lorig, a seventh-round draft pick out of Stanford by the Buccaneers this past April, made the team's original 53-man roster after the final cutdown on September 4. He was inactive for the season opener against Cleveland and was then waived when cornerback Aqib Talib was activated from the reserve list.
After converting from tight end to defensive end as a sophomore, Lorig started 25 of 29 games over the next three seasons for the Cardinal. He compiled 95 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a senior and served as one of Stanford's team captains.
Lorig has recently begun making use of his offensive past, as the Buccaneers have been working the 6-4, 275-pound athlete at tight end on the practice field.
Folsom (6-3, 230) was originally drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round in 2009. He spent the majority of his rookie season on Miami's practice squad but was twice promoted to the active roster, appearing in two games. He spent the 2010 offseason with the Chicago Bears. Folsom played two seasons at Weber State, appearing in 23 games and recording 149 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and one interception.