DE Steve White, who was a huge factor in the Bucs' postseason defensive stand last year, is poised to step into the limelight once again
A cold rain swept across West Central Florida on Thursday, turning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' afternoon practice into a much chillier affair than the day before. Perhaps it's Mother Nature's way of easing the Bucs into the expected weekend conditions in Philadelphia.
Whatever the cause, the result was actually quite positive for the Buccaneers. Head Coach Tony Dungy believes his team displayed improved concentration in the face of worsened conditions, thus rebounding from a flat Wednesday to turn in a strong Thursday practice.
"Today was a lot better," said Dungy. "We had the rain and the wind early, and that kind of helped us get in the spirit of things. I think we were just a little more sure of what we were doing, so it was a much better day today.
"I thought yesterday was a little slow as we were trying to get a grip on what Philadelphia does, but today I thought we were sharp and we had a lot more enthusiasm. Maybe it was the rain and the bad weather, but I thought we were much better today.
"It's just getting us in the mood for going up north, and I thought we had a good day despite the conditions."
Even the ostensibly negative aspects of a day full of rain – soggy turf, spots of mud, wind-blown throws – was pleasing to Dungy on this day. "It gave us a little bit of bad footing and a little sloppy ball, so that's probably good," he said.
The players didn't seem to mind, either. The mood in the post-practice huddle and as the players left the field was cheerful. DE Steve White explained that the players felt they had accomplished quite a bit and that the wet and windy conditions hadn't slowed them down.
"I don't think so," he said. "We still had a very good practice. It was a very spirited practice. It's all about our mindset. If you want to go out and do it, it won't matter what the conditions are outside, and we went out and did it today."
That approach would please Dungy, who has refused to consider the weather in Philadelphia as a significant factor in Sunday's game.
"At this time of the year, you have to decide if it's more important to be comfortable or if it's more important to win," said Dungy. "If we go up there to win, it really doesn't matter what the weather is like."
What is a factor, of course, is who will and won't be playing for the Buccaneers. After several days of very little progress on the injury front, Thursday brought the team's first wave of good news.
Coach Dungy went down the list after practice:
"Jamie Duncan practiced today and did pretty well," said Dungy.
"Jeff Gooch did not come out; he's having not much improvement.
"Marcus Jones is walking a little bit better but is still not close to practicing.
"Steve White did okay and it looks like he'll be fine.
"Pete (Pierson) did a little bit.
"Shaun (King) was actually fine today.
"Al Singleton is doing fine and looks like he'll be able to go."
Duncan (knee), Jones (foot), White (hip), Pierson (back), King (groin) and Singleton (knee) are all on the Buccaneers' injury report, but all are considered 'probable'. Jones, however, has not practiced yet this week and could be downgraded if that continues on Friday.
Gooch is the only player currently listed as questionable, and he's looking less and less likely to be in uniform on Sunday. However, the return of Singleton, who has missed the last three games with his left knee sprain, should compensate for Gooch's absence.
"If Al is able to go full speed, I think we'll be okay," said Dungy. "It looks right now like Jeff might not be able to go. Derrick (Brooks), I think, is going to start the game and we'll see how it goes."
Ah, yes, Brooks. Did we forget to mention him?
Brooks has been topic number one on the injury watch for most of the week, perhaps because he means so much to the Bucs' defense. Brooks was able to practice on Thursday and was clearly happy to be back on the field. He was the defense's vocal leader during the workout, and even intercepted a pair of passes.
"We had no pads on so there wasn't a lot of contact and Derrick was able to go," said Dungy, who had reason to feel better about his battered linebacking corps. "Jamie Duncan actually went today. Al Singleton did fine. So we had better news on the health front."
As Jones struggles to get back on the field, the team becomes more focused on White, who is battling his own hip pointer, sustained on Sunday in Green Bay. Jones started all 16 games at right end this season, but White continued to spell him and provide a high-energy pass rush.
He could become an even more significant factor in the Bucs' postseason push, which would actually be a replay of what happened last January.
White entered the 1999 season as the starter at right end but battled injuries, particularly an ankle sprain, for much of the campaign. He still started 13 games, but really only felt completely healthy just as the regular season was coming to a close. That allowed him to finish '99 with a bang.
First, White helped the Bucs clinch the NFC Central championship on the final weekend of the regular season, recording five tackles, one sack and a key fumble recovery in Tampa Bay's January 2 win at Chicago.
After a bye in the opening round of the playoffs, White was dominant in the Bucs' narrow 14-13 win over Washington, producing seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown. Then, on the St. Louis Rams' first play from scrimmage in the NFC Championship Game, White tipped and intercepted Kurt Warner's pass to set up a Buccaneer field goal and set the defensive tone for the game.
Once again, White, who has 42 tackles and two sacks this year, may be coming to the fore just as the season is reaching its pinnacle.
"I've waited all year for this opportunity, he said. "Now I get it, and I'm a little banged up, but that's a part of football. I'll be ready to go. Hopefully, (Jones) will come around and he'll be able to play, but if not, I'll step up and play well."
White practiced without incident on Thursday, though the hip pointer continues to cause soreness in his side and lower back. He plans to be fully recovered by Sunday, when the Bucs will play the team that originally brought him to the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick in 1996. After the Eagles tried unsuccessfully to convert White to a linebacker in training camp, then released him, the Bucs quickly signed him and have watched him develop steadily at defensive end ever since.
"I felt okay," said White. "I didn't feel 100 percent, but I felt good enough to where, if we had a game today, I would play today. It's just getting better and better and we're going to keep going up until Sunday."
He's looking forward to the added motivation that a playoff game brings.
"The level gets turned up about two or three notches, so I can't wait for Sunday and we're going to go out and try to get ourselves a win," said White.