Rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson contributed a season-high three special teams tackles last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, even though he was also making his first career start on defense that afternoon.
The question in retrospect is, did Watson excel in the kicking game despite of his extra duties on defense, or because of them. Though it might seem counterintuitive, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris believes it was the latter, and he would make the same claim for linebacker Adam Hayward, who is know to his teammates as "Wood."
"Dekoda actually played better last week on special teams because he played on defense," asserted Morris. "Wood was able to go out there and get some of those double-teams off him and actually make some tackles and still make a contribution on special teams. It was a good combination. It was great to see those guys play together. They were active and they both had a lot of success. We look forward to doing it again if we have to."
The Watson & Wood combo is a topic of discussion as the Buccaneers continue their preparations for their game in San Francisco on Sunday, because linebacker Quincy Black once again did not practice on Thursday. When an injured ankle kept Black from taking his customary spot at strongside linebacker against the Panthers, it was both Watson and Wood who filled the void. Expect the Buccaneers to use the same strategy if Black is sidelined for another game.
Though Morris might not have been able to predict that Watson would be a one-man wrecking crew in kick coverage against the Panthers, special teams considerations definitely did play into the Bucs' plan to replace Black.
The coaching staff could have gone exclusively with Watson, a seventh-round pick out of Florida State who in size and speed looks to be cut out of the same mold as Black. Or it could have leaned on the more experienced Hayward, who came into the league the same year as Black (2007) and has since spent time at all three linebacker spots. However, the Bucs believed that playing one of those two full-time on defense would detract from their usually excellent special teams work, and the Buccaneers place great value on that phase of the game. So both Watson and Wood played in Black's spot, but neither played too much.
Each player finished the game with three defensive stops, and one of Hayward's was a tackle for loss. The Buccaneers held Carolina to 3.8 yards per carry (the strongside linebacker in the Bucs' 4-3 scheme is most likely to come out of the game in nickel situations) and one touchdown in a 31-16 win.
"It really went well," said Morris. "Dekoda came out and got the first start of his career. He was able to go out there and be very active, run around and play fast and have a bunch of fun. We sent Wood out there and he was able to get a couple series in and do a couple of things for us. The combination of those two being able to play for us was really good for us because I didn't lose either one of them on special teams. They were still able to go out there and make some significant plays on special teams."
Of course, the Buccaneers would stick with Black if he is healthy enough to play on Sunday against the 49ers. He originally injured his ankle in the second half of Tampa Bay's Week Nine game at Atlanta, and he spent most of last week trying to get better in time for the Panthers. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated the injury slightly on Friday and was unable to play. So far this week, Black has missed both of the team's practices.
As a linebacker who often takes on big blockers at the line of scrimmage, Black needs to be able to push off adequately with his injured leg.
"He's in a position where you've got to have some backbone behind you and some sturdiness, so it's a little bit concerning for all of us," said Morris. "So we'll have to see where he is again and try to get him healthy as quickly as we can."
The recovery process appears to be progressing more rapidly for fullback Earnest Graham and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, however. Graham practiced without limitations for the second day in a row on Thursday, making it seem likely that he'll return to action this weekend. He has missed the last two games, and three of the last four, with a hamstring strain that has nagged him for much of the season.
Stroughter missed the Carolina game due to a foot injury and was still limited when this week began. However, he improved to full participation on Thursday – and the second practice of the week was the first in pads and at full speed – and could also be close to returning. When he does, the Buccaneers won't hesitate to throw him right back into a prominent role, even with the steady emergence of such receivers as Arrelious Benn, Micheal Spurlock and Preston Parker.
It helps Stroughter that he can play several different receiver positions, including flanker (commonly referred to as Z) and slot (Zebra). Mike Williams, of course, is entrenched at split end, or X.
"Sammie has been the starting Zebra since he stepped onto campus," said Morris. "He's had his role. That's kind of what he does; he's always been a guy that can work the slot. He had a couple games where he was able to start at Z for us and go out and play that position. Sammie has a couple of roles, at Z and Zebra, and he does some other things for us. We're looking for him getting back into those roles.
Tackle Jeremy Trueblood also practiced fully for the second straight game. He actually returned from his knee injury to active status this past weekend against the Panthers but did not rejoin the starting lineup at right tackle.
"He looked a lot better this week than he did last week," said Morris of the veteran lineman. "He was able to get through a bunch more periods. I look forward to making that decision at the end of the week again."
Other than Black, defensive end Kyle Moore was the only Buccaneer not to practice on Thursday, due to a shoulder injury that also kept him out of the Carolina game. Defensive tackle Ryan Sims (knee and toe, limited) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee, full participation) rounded out the Bucs' second-day injury report.
The 49ers' injury report debuted on Wednesday with just six players, though it included one tough loss for San Francisco. Starting left tackle Joe Staley, one of the team's top offensive players, will miss the game and several more after it after suffering a fractured fibula against St. Louis.
The only other 49ers to miss practice as the week began were kicker Joe Nedney (right knee) and cornerback William James (concussion). Cornerback Nate Clements (quad), running back Frank Gore (foot) and guard Adam Snyder (shoulder) all participated in practice on Wednesday without limitations.
Davis Poses Major Threat
Over the past two seasons, San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis has put up some numbers that would more normally associate with a wide receiver.
For instance: 13. That's the number of touchdown passes Davis caught last year, pacing the 49ers and becoming the first tight end to lead the NFL or tie for the league lead in that category in the Super Bowl era.
Or: 13.9. That's Davis' yards per catch so far this season, the same average posted by Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson and a better mark than has been recorded by Roddy White, Randy Morris or Larry Fitzgerald.
Of course, it all starts with this number: 4.3. That's how many seconds it took the former Maryland star to run the 40-yard dash at the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine, making Davis a white-hot commodity on draft weekend. San Francisco took him sixth overall, and though it took Davis a few seasons to find his groove, he is now showing how dangerous a man of his size (6-3, 250) and speed can be.
As Morris put it on Thursday: "Vernon Davis is a problem."
Noting that fellow 49er tight end Delanie Walker also has 16 catches for 230 yards this year, Morris is aware that San Francisco has been getting a lot out of the position this year. Davis is second on the team with 37 receptions, first with 513 receiving yards and tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches.
"Those two guys are receiving threats," said Morris. "They're fast. Vernon is not afraid to put his face in there and block. He's a big-time player in the red zone. I believe he led their team in touchdowns the year before. He's a dynamic football player. He runs like a wideout, he can block like a tight end. He's too fast for linebackers, he's too big for DBs. He presents all those kinds of challenges, the same kind a lot of the big-time dynamic players in our league present – the Antonio Gateses and the Kellen Winslows. He'll be something we'll have to deal with this weekend."
As has been noted several times this week, the Buccaneers' victory over the Panthers made them the first team to win a game in which it started seven rookies since Dallas in 2002. In all, 12 rookies played in that game for Tampa Bay, including its leading rusher (LeGarrette Blount), its leading receiver (Mike Williams), its punter (Robert Malone) and its most productive defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy).
Rookie impact has been one of the main storylines for the Bucs' 2010 season since Day One. In some cases, rookies have been thrust into the spotlight due to the loss of other starters, as was the case with Watson this past Sunday and with safety Cody Grimm earlier in the year. Of course, the Bucs' coaching staff could have gone with more veteran options as replacements in both cases. They also could have taken things much more slowly with the likes of Arrelious Benn, Ted Larsen and Erik Lorig.
Morris, however, is willing to trust his youngest players, and some of that may stem from his own background. When he first joined the Buccaneers in 2002, it was as a defensive assistant, and he quickly took on an understudy role to Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin.
"When I first got into the league I was an assistant to an assistant coach," said Morris. "My job was to get the next man ready."
Some times that entailed the rapid introduction of the defense to a young newcomer, such as safety Scott Frost, who signed with the team in December of 2003.
"Mike Tomlin would ask me, 'Hey, can Scott Frost go today? What does he know?'" recalled Morris. "I'd look at him and say, 'Well, he's good in all those calls, coach.' 'Can he do the blitz period?' 'Eh, let's kind of hold him back there.' I would develop the young guys and let him know if they were ready, and if something happened in the game they had to go in there and do it. His job was to talk to those five starters, including the nickel, and my job was to have everybody else ready to go, in case something happened with one of those five starters. Then they became starters and he had to talk to them."
Young and eager, Morris took on other jobs for the staff, such as running scout teams for Special Teams Coach Richard Bisaccia. That usually put him in contact with the very youngest players on the team, the men fighting for the 52nd and 53rd spots on the team, and he gained an affinity for such prospects. Now he's in a position to convince the same sort of players that they can handle a significant role and help the team, and he's succeeding at it.
" Those were roles you had as a young coach and the things you could develop and grow on, and it really becomes your core philosophy after awhile," he said. "I always talk about being built from the bottom up. We're only going to be as strong as the weakest man on our football team, whoever that weakest man is. The beauty of it right now is that I have a bunch of competition with nobody wanting to be the weakest man. That's how you get a bunch of strong men developed into a cohesive unit, and that's what's happening to us right now."