Despite the strong play of Sabby Piscitelli over the last three games, the Bucs are excited by the prospects of Jermaine Phillips' possible return this weekend
Although most fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were probably taking the turkey out of the oven and preparing for a Thanksgiving feast early Thursday afternoon, the Bucs themselves were busy getting ready for Sunday's contest against the New Orleans Saints.
Basically, it was business as usual. Although the Bucs practiced a little earlier in the day to give players and coaches at least some chance to enjoy the holiday, there was still much work to be done with a crucial intradivision game on deck.
Not only is the NFC South very much up for grabs, but a win Sunday over the Saints would give the Bucs back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2001-02.
The Bucs have eight wins already, and a handful have required nail-biting finishes. For the second day in a row, Head Coach Jon Gruden singled out the Bucs' special teams play as a key to the team's success in this down-to-the-wire decisions.
"We've been in a lot of tight football games since I've been here, in the good seasons and in the not-so-good seasons," Gruden said. "I think our placekicker has a lot to do with that. You guys that have covered the team know we have had times when we have really not done well in that phase of the game. Our special teams is making a big difference, scoring on special teams. We've blocked a punt, returned a kick, returned a punt, making our field goals, [Josh] Bidwell is a Pro Bowler in my opinion and our quarterback play has been steady. That makes a big difference in tight games."
Gruden was again asked about rookie running back Clifton Smith, a former undrafted college free agent who has come from out of nowhere to be a sparkplug in the return game for the 2008 Bucs. According to Gruden, Smith is just the latest in a string of Bucs who have emerged from humble beginnings to become important contributors, a trait the team is very proud of.
"It really is amazing," Gruden said. "We took a guy in the second round [wide receiver Dexter Jackson] to do just what [Smith is] doing. Let's be honest, the guy has come in here exploding onto the scene. We've got to get him to take care of the ball better, but Donald Penn, a lot of these guys, Earnest Graham, we've had a lot of guys come out of total obscurity and play very well here. That's something we're excited about."
And as sweet as posting his first back-to-back winning seasons in Tampa might be, the holiday-season treat that is highest on Gruden's wish list is continued success from his team in every facet of the game, especially as the playoffs near.
"I don't really think about [back-to-back winning seasons]," Gruden said. "If there's one knock [against me], there's been 150,000 knocks. If you coach in this league, you're going to have your door knocked on, that's just the way it is. We've had some tough years, and if you look at the film you can see why we've had tough years. But we've had some great years, and our goal is to keep playing great football and try to get in the tournament and win in the tournament. That's all I can say. It's a hard league to win in."
The four players on the Bucs' injury report after Wednesday's practice were all listed there again Thursday with no change in their status.
Quarterback Brian Griese (right elbow) was again limited, and wide receiver Ike Hilliard, who has been playing through a shoulder ailment, was a full participant for the second straight day.
The two Bucs on the injury list looking to make their returns to the playing field, safety Jermaine Phillips (forearm) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle), were both limited again Thursday, but Gruden expressed some hope that both players may be able to return Sunday.
"[Smith] did a little bit more, but we still have to call him limited because he wasn't full-go," Gruden said. "But he has a chance, both he and Jermaine [Phillips]. We're excited about Jermaine. It looks like he'll be able to go and Alex looks better and better."
Although second-year veteran Sabby Piscitelli has played very well in Phillips' absence, Gruden is excited to get the blend of veteran experience and hard-nosed run support that Phillips is known for back on the field.
"He's a really good player," Gruden said. "Any time you lose one, the next guy has to step up. Sabby clearly did that. That's been our mantra around here. If you go in, if you've got to replace somebody, you've got to play as good or better. Not comparing the two, but we need Jermaine Phillips. He's one of our leaders and one of our best players."
As for the Saints, there was just a single change to their injury report. Cornerback Aaron Glenn, who has been bothered by an ankle injury and did not participate in Wednesday's practice, was placed on injured reserve. The team promoted defensive end Josh Savage, who began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent in Tampa, to the active roster to take Glenn's spot.
Other than Glenn, the other three Saints on Wednesday's report experienced no change in their status on Thursday. Defensive end Jeff Charleston and fullback Mike Karney did not participate for the second consecutive day, and running back Reggie Bush was a limited participant once again.
More from Coach Gruden
Before Gruden strolled off the practice field with a hearty, "Happy Thanksgiving," for the small handful of news reporters in attendance – perhaps headed inside to finish up any last minute work before enjoying a Thanksgiving meal at home –the Bucs' head coach did discuss a few other topics:
On Cadillac Williams getting an increased workload: "I think so. If we have the ball and we're able to possess it, he's a guy that we need. We're running out of backs. We're going to need him."
On cornerback Aqib Talib's play since the season opener: "If you go back and look at that play, he just mistimed his jump. I don't know if he was a basket case. He's going to intercept that every time, I think. He just mistimed his jump. Hopefully he times his jump this week."
On how much Talib has improved since then: "He's going to be a great player. He's got everything you're looking for. He's a great kid, he's a great talent and he's really helped us in our nickel package. I think he's elevated the play of everybody. [Phillip] Buchanon is playing well, Ronde [Barber] is playing really well, and that's a good sign as we get ready for a team like this."