RB Aaron Stecker returned to practice on Friday but will be inactive for Sunday's game in Miami
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy likes to see his team progress from day to day in practice, much as it is expected to improve from Sunday to Sunday during the season. If Wednesdays are often a little rusty, the team is usually stronger on Thursday and really clicking by Friday.
That wasn't the pattern this week. Friday afternoon's practice, admittedly a slower-paced workout in the first place, wasn't quite as pleasing to Dungy as many previous Friday workouts.
"Yesterday and Wednesday were very good," said Dungy. "Today, I thought we were a little slow. I don't know if it was resting up guys that were banged up a little bit. I didn't think we were as crisp as we normally are on Fridays, but we'll see."
The team did at least appear to be loose and in good spirits on the practice field, but Dungy isn't reading anything into his squad's mental state days before what could be its toughest game of the season.
"I don't know how to read these guys, I really don't," said Dungy. "I've kind of given up on that. I think we'll go down there and play hard and play well. What we do…we'll find out on Sunday."
In response to a team that has the typical long list of bumps and bruises of an NFL December, Dungy has backed off the contact this week and last, bringing his team out in shoulder pads and shorts on Wednesday and Thursday rather than full pads. The upshot is that almost every player was ready to go by Friday.
"I think, health-wise, we're probably going to be okay," said Dungy. "Donnie Abraham returned to practice today and seemed to do okay. Chidi Ahanotu did not practice, but (Head Trainer) Todd (Toriscelli) felt like another day of rest and he'd be much better on Sunday. I think we're going to be okay with the exception of (Mike) Alstott and (Al) Singleton.
"I think we'll have everyone ready to play. It's just a matter on the inactives of who needs to be up or down, but medically I think we should have everybody ready to go other than those two guys."
Alstott and Singleton are on the shelf with almost identical knee injuries, though Alstott suffered his two weeks earlier than Singleton, in Chicago on November 19. Despite a lengthy injury report, the only other player listed as worse than probable was RB Aaron Stecker, who also has a knee sprain. Stecker was considered questionable and did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday. He did return to action on Friday.
"Aaron probably could go," said Dungy. "He's not 100 percent, but he did enough in practice that, if we needed him, he'd be able to go."
Apparently, the Bucs don't need Stecker this week, however, as he was one of the Bucs' four inactives, sent up to the league office on Friday afternoon. The other three are Alstott, Singleton and T DeMarcus Curry.
Stecker has been the team's primary kickoff returner for most of the season. In his absence last week, the Bucs used rookie WR Frank Murphy, who had just been called up from the practice squad in November. Murphy returned two kickoffs for a total of 24 yards.
Two weeks ago, against Buffalo, Stecker lined up deep for the opening kickoff but turned into a blocker when the kick went to WR Karl Williams. Unfortunately, Stecker suffered his knee sprain while trying to help Williams. WR Reidel Anthony returned the last two kickoffs of that game, amassing a total of 69 yards.
Dungy didn't reveal on Friday who would be deep for kickoffs in Miami, but he didn't downplay the importance of the role, either.
"We've got to get our return game going," said Dungy. "If Aaron's up, he'll do a good job. If not, we think the other guys will. Karl's been hitting it pretty well for us and has put us in good field position a couple of times. Whoever it is, they'll have to step up and do it, but it is going to be important."
Like the Buccaneers, Miami prides itself on strong special teams. In a game expected to be a defensive slugfest, the field position provided by punt and kickoff returns could emerge as a crucial element of the competition. Miami ranks ninth in covering punts and third in covering kickoffs.
"They're excellent," said Dungy of the Dolphins' special teams. "They're an excellent coverage unit. (K Olindo) Mare hangs the ball really high on kickoffs and does a good job. You've got to be aware of the onside kicks, so that hurts your return game a little bit. And (Matt) Turk's been a Pro Bowl punter, so they've got good people and they do an excellent job covering."
A final word from Coach Dungy, who was asked if this Sunday's game in Miami was the Buccaneers' toughest of the season:
"So far, until next week," answered Dungy, with a laugh that said, 'Ask me that again next week'. "Toughest and most important. And biggest."