What a difference a day makes.
On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' meetings lasted late into the afternoon, but when players finally left One Buccaneer Place they had a bounce in their collective step.
On Thursday, practice was over before lunchtime and meetings began early in the afternoon, but many Buccaneer players could be witnessed moving very slowly towards the showers and then the breakout rooms.
Circumstances conspired to make Thursday's practice a particularly draining one for the Bucs, if also very productive and rewarding. First, the team ran its drills at full-speed and with pads on Thursday after turning Wednesday's workout into something of a "jog-through." That's a departure from the normal weekly procedure, which usually begins with the practice in pads and amps downward from there. In this case, Head Coach Raheem Morris was making a nod to the team's fairly lengthy list of banged-up players.
Unfortunately for the players, nature doubled up on the Thursday intensity, as it was much warmer behind One Buc Place than it had been on Wednesday. The players felt if they had been transported back to the dog days of August. Earlier in the regular season, Morris had countered that sort of Thursday heat by taking his team to Tropicana Field, home of the MLB's Tampa Bay Rays, for a full-speed practice under a protective dome. No such luck this week, but the Bucs may be better for it in the long run.
"It was a hot one in Tampa today," said Morris. "It was an intense practice. It was our normal Thursday practice but it was a warm one today. We've been going over to the Trop, but I thought it was October and it would start to cool off. Everybody's cutting up pumpkins, but Tampa will fool you. Tampa brought back July today on us and we were right in the middle of training camp. But our players embrace the heat. We were able to get through it and my guys enjoyed it."
As for that injury list, it grew by two players on Thursday but not due to any practice field strains or sprains. Rather, running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Alex Magee were both limited in what they could do on this morning due to illness. Still, that pushed Tampa Bay's midweek injury report to 13 players, quite a few of whom are starters.
As with Wednesday, the Buccaneers had seven players who were held out of the workout completely, though the list wasn't exactly the same on Thursday. That's because cornerback Aqib Talib (calf) progressed from no participation to full participation on the second day of the week's work while defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) went in the opposite direction. Sitting out for a second day in a row were linebacker Geno Hayes (knee), wide receiver Preston Parker (knee), defensive tackle Brian Price (pelvis), tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) and guard Keydrick Vincent (back). In addition, center Jeff Faine has already been ruled out with a quad injury that has cost him the last two outings as well.
It is the Bucs' offensive line that is obviously taking the most significant number of hits. The team was already without two front-line starters (Faine and Vincent) in its win over St. Louis last Sunday, and now Trueblood, the starting right tackle, is an added concern for the upcoming game in Arizona. The good news: Forced to make full use of their offensive line depth, the Buccaneers have liked what they've discovered in the heat of the fire.
For instance, rookie Ted Larsen, a waiver claim after early September's league-wide roster cutdown to 53, stepped in at left guard for Vincent against the Rams and performed well next to Faine's replacement at center, Jeremy Zuttah.
"He made some mistakes but he went out there and played tough, played physical, showed us all the attributes he shows us in practice," said Morris of Larsen's debut start. "He had a few mistakes, very correctable mistakes of course. He did a nice job. Those guys all helped him out. [Donald] Penn did a nice job of helping him out, along with Zuttah. Zuttah's a very talented and smart player so he can look over there and give him whatever he needs. And Larsen's locked-in as well.
Faine, as mentioned, will miss a third consecutive game this weekend, keeping Zuttah in the lineup at center. With the uncertain status of both Vincent and Trueblood, it's possible the team could go into its Week Eight game against the Cardinals with 60% of its offensive line missing. Fortunately, the very strong play of Penn at left tackle is helping to keep the whole group together, even if it is rarely mentioned.
"That's the beauty of it – you don't talk about those guys and the best thing you can say about those guys is nothing," said Morris, who knows that the best way for a lineman to draw attention is through a sack or a holding penalty. "But he's been playing really well, playing with a nasty demeanor and playing tough, playing physical. He's protecting well and they've been communicating well up front. I can't say it's been a surprise, but he's been what we expected of him and even more."
Arizona's injury report changed very little on Thursday, though one player was added. Reserve defensive tackle Alan Branch was not on the report to start the week but showed up as a limited participant on Thursday due to a back ailment. Otherwise, the remaining eight players on the list repeated their Wednesday practice designations, with only linebacker Clark Haggans sitting out entirely.
Quarterback Max Hall practiced without limitations for the second day, making it even more likely he would start against the Buccaneers on Sunday despite leaving last weekend's game due to a blow to the head. He may have another weapon at his disposal, too; starting wide receiver Steve Breaston has missed the last three games due to a knee injury but has been a limited participant in practice this week. Wide receiver Early Doucet (groin), linebacker Joey Porter (groin) and cornerback Greg Toler (back) have also been limited.
A Long-Ranging Streak
University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals have called home since 2006, has not only a retractable roof but a retractable field. The entire 234-foot wide, 403-foot long expanse of natural grass is contained in a single tray weighing 18.9 million pounds that can slide right out of the stadium on embedded tracks in about an hour. The field actually spends about 350 days a year outside in order to receive sunlight and water.
A pretty cool stadium feature, right? Sure, but don't try to tell that to Mike Williams on Sunday. He won't exactly be on speaking terms with the stadium turf.
Why the man-on-flora hostility? Well, it's kind of a ritual.
Raheem Morris explains: "Mike Williams on the road he has a tendency to go out and run his routes [in warmups] and then kick the grass. He's angry at the grass because it's not his home turf. He tells himself what he's going to do that day and has a nice pregame ritual of being angry at the opposing stadium. It's kind of a cool thing to see when nobody's there and those guys get themselves all riled up."
At this point, if Williams wanted to kick the opposing pylons and curse the opposing scoreboard, who would argue? In two career NFL road games, Williams has nine catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Something's working, and it might as well be lawn rage.
For that matter, something is working for the entire Buccaneers team when they jet around the country these days. Dating back to last December, Tampa Bay has won four straight games away from home. If the Bucs can down the Cardinals in their own nest on Sunday, they will match the longest such streak in franchise history. From December 15, 2002 through October 12, 2003, the Buccaneers won five straight road games (at Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington) to set the team record.
And it's not as if the last four trips have been easy. It started in Seattle, and West Coast trips have rarely ended in victory for the Buccaneers during their 35-year history. The next stop was New Orleans, where Tampa Bay upset the team that would win the Super Bowl a scant six weeks later. This year, the Bucs have already won at Carolina, which has proved to be a hostile and unlucky venue for the team more often than not, and at Cincinnati, over the defending NFC North champs.
Arizona means another set of challenges – a long trip and an opponent trying to build on two straight NFC West titles. Guard Davin Joseph said the Bucs have adopted a more serious approach to road games, thinking of them as business trips, though he concedes that every trip is "fun."
"You go into different hostile environments and it really challenges you as a player," he said. "We've turned our mindset from an away game to a business trip last year and it's paying off for us right now. We're able to go out and play well. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but we have some tough games coming up and it's going to be important to be consistent on the road."
Linebacker Geno Hayes says the actual mechanics of travel, which keeps all the players in close proximity to each other for the better part of two days, helps the team focus and grow closer as a unit.
"You're on the plane a lot," said Hayes. "You've got a couple-hour flight and the guys are all on the plane, talking and conversing. You get on the bus, in the hotel, and everybody's still around each other, so that's a good team-building thing for us. You're very limited to what you can do on away games, so it's good to have your mind stuck on the game all by itself."
Morris likens the team's reaction to opposing venues and their fans to a college mentality, and much of his young team is not far removed from college.
"We kind of like the hostile environment," said the coach. "We like when people don't believe in us. We like when people tell us what we can't do. My young team kind of thrives on it. Here we go. Back to another road game, West Coast, far away, a hostile environment."
And some grass that needs kicking.
Providing a Spark
Since the offending piece of yellow fabric was about 40 yards upfield and on the other side of a mass of players, LeGarrette Blount had a little time to celebrate his big fourth-quarter run against St. Louis last Sunday before the nasty realization set in. Referee Mike Carey eventually announced an illegal-block penalty that would erase Blount's 46-yard gain, but not before the rookie back howled let out a big yell and was swarmed by his teammates.
Even if that particular celebration was eventually rendered moot, it was clear on that afternoon at Raymond James Stadium that Blount's powerful tackle-breaking style of running was providing his team with an emotional boost. He certainly felt it.
"You can feel the excitement on the field," said Blount. "The offensive line, everybody on the sideline is jumping around – it's exciting when you break off a big run after you've broken a tackle or two. Those guys, when you get on the sideline, they'll tell you to keep running hard. 'If you're running downhill, they're scared to tackle you,' stuff like that. That just inspires me to run even harder next time I get the ball."
Blount had to break through one group of tacklers at the beginning of that run, but it probably wasn't even his most impressive carry of the day. That would be a spinning, bouncing, tackle-shedding 14-yarder in the first quarter that – yes – was also called back by penalty. On the plays that weren't accompanied by hankies, Blount pick up 72 yards on 11 carries and made an obvious impact on Ram defenders.
"It changes the people tackling him, how they tackle, when they want to tackle him," said Morris of Blount's size and style of attack. "It wears down a team. It does some really positive things for your team. It's like a slam dunk in a basketball game – it just brings a little momentum, creates a little bit more drive. It keeps the defense on the sideline while you run the ball on people and take some life out of them, so to speak. When you can do that, it's big-time. We've been on the other end of that a couple times."
Paired with starter Cadillac Williams, Blount could very well give the Bucs the sort of grind-it-out attack they would like to make Option A. As has been thoroughly discussed but still remains the crux of the issue, Blount's role will likely expand as quickly does his knowledge of the team's protection schemes.
"I feel like I can get better during the course of the season; I feel like I can get better every day because we practice every day," he said. "From the first game I've been in to now, you can see how much difference there is in my playing time. I'm going to continue to try to do everything I can to be a bigger part of this offense."
Blount's necessarily steep learning curve is a result of his path to the Buccaneers' roster. Undrafted out of Oregon in April, he landed first in Tennessee. To his surprise, he was cut when the Titans formed their 53-man roster, probably with a ticket to the practice squad, but the Bucs swooped in with bigger things in mind. If he could do it over again, Blount might try to land in Tampa in the first place.
I'm happy that [the hard work] is paying off," he said. "I wish I knew I was going to be here so I could have been at training camp. I definitely feel like I could have had a bigger role at the beginning of the season. I'm just going to try to continue to pick everything up. Me running the football is not an issue for them; it's just the blitz pick-ups and the pass protection that are the things they're worried about. Mainly, that's what I focus on."