Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had a strong message for his team after Wednesday's practice, especially for the youth on Tampa Bay's roster. Gruden stressed to his squad that a playoff push would hinge on the success of the younger players such as safety Tanard Jackson, left guard Arron Sears, left tackle Donald Penn and defensive end Gaines Adams.
Included in that list are also players such as right guard Davin Joseph, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and tight end Alex Smith. These players have made an impact so far this season to help the Bucs to a 4-4 record, but now must step up their game to assist the Bucs in their goal of a playoff berth.
At least that is the message that Penn, who will start his fifth game in place of left tackle Luke Petitgout who is out for the season with a knee injury, got from Gruden's speech on Wednesday.
"That's like a call out basically saying I need to step it up and the guys next to me, we are all young on the offensive line, we need to step it up," Penn said. "He did it in a way where he didn't want to call you out, but he wanted you to get the message. He's telling us for us to win we have to step it up and take it to the next level. We are doing good right now, but we can always go higher and higher. That's our motto that we try to get better every week. I wouldn't call it a call out, just motivation. Young guys, step it up. We need you; we can't depend on the old guys. So that's what we are going to take it as and we are going to try and step it up and keep getting better."
Sears and Jackson, who were drafted in the second and fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft respectively, have been in the starting lineup since the season began and Adams has seen significant playing time on defense in his first season. Jackson has 49 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble this season. Jackson put opposing teams on alert with a crushing hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark in Week 5, proving that he deserved to be a starter as a rookie.
Sears has been a big reason for the production of the running game with the Bucs gaining 855 yards (4.2 avg.) this season. He's also played a role in keeping quarterback Jeff Garcia clean for the most part as the Bucs have allowed 10 sacks in eight games this season. Sears, however, believes that there is still work to be done on his end in the final eight games of the regular season.
"I'm not a rookie anymore. The mistakes that I have made earlier I shouldn't be making them anymore," Sears said. "So that's why I come to practice week in and week out."
Adams has had a productive season so far recording 21 tackles, which leads all defensive ends drafted in the first round, and 1.5 sacks and should receive more playing time in the second half of the season. Gruden stated on Monday that he's expecting some big things from his first-round draft pick in the final eight games of the regular season.
"There are some aspects that I'm really excited about. He does give a good effort, is he leading the league in effort? Gaines, you're not leading the league in effort," Gruden said. "Kyle Vanden Bosch from Tennessee leads the league in effort. I saw that [two weeks ago] and I think Gaines Adams now had a half of a season to get a feel for this league, who is in it, how the game is played, and I believe he's ready to take off. I believe Gaines Adams has an opportunity now to sit back and look back at the first half of the season and understand that he belongs in the league, he knows how to play, he understands our defense now, and we expect big things from him."
Sears, Adams and Jackson believe that they are no longer rookies and that it's time to contribute just as much as the veteran players on the team. Including the preseason games, the Bucs rookies have played a total of 12 games, which is the equivalent of a college football season. How these players battle through the grind of an NFL season will determine how successful the Bucs can be in the second half of the season.
"I'm sure I can speak for all those guys that have been playing and even the guys who haven't been playing that we aren't rookies anymore," Jackson said. "It's time to step up and contribute just like the veterans would. We have eight games under our belts now and there shouldn't be any surprise to any of us as to what to expect on Sundays."
Running back Earnest Graham and defensive tackle Greg White have probably taken the most advantage of their opportunities this season due to injuries. With running back Cadillac Williams out for the season with a knee injury and running back Michael Pittman sidelined with an ankle injury, Graham has become the featured back. He has 330 yards (4.0 avg.) on 82 carries and three touchdowns along with 24 receptions for 163 yards (6.8 avg.) this season.
White, who was signed on Aug. 4 after playing for the Orlando Predators in the Arena League, has 20 tackles and is second on the team with 2.5 sacks. White's versatility of being able to play defensive end and defensive tackle has been a valuable commodity in the defensive line rotation.
"You talk about a guy that has stepped up, he [Earnest Graham] has stepped up," Gruden said. "What can I say; it's something that I'm really proud of. Greg White has come in here from the Arena League and stepped up and done some good things and we need a couple of other guys to do that now."
The message was received just how Gruden wanted it to be and he is looking for big things from not only rookies, but the majority of youth on the roster.
"You don't get your rookie year or second year back and you make the most of your opportunities," Gruden said. "I know a lot of guys that never get a chance. [Expletive] this is your chance so don't screw it up. We have been working out here with you guys since April. We drafted you and brought you guys in here for these opportunities so look at it that way. This is exciting and given the injuries that we do have you are going to have to step up. There's no other choice. So lets make sure that we are all on the same page."
BUCS MAKE TWO ROSTER MOVES
Tampa Bay made two roster moves Thursday, promoting wide receiver Michael Spurlock from the practice squad to the active roster and signing WR Chad Lucas to the practice squad.
There was little change to the Bucs injury report on Thursday compared to Wednesday with the exception of wide receiver Ike Hilliard being added to the list. Hilliard was limited in practice with a calf strain, which isn't a positive sign for an already depleted wide receiver unit.
Wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle) was limited again in practice and Gruden didn't see any signs of improvement. Combined with the loss of wide receiver Paris Warren to a season-ending leg injury and the release of wide receiver David Boston, Clayton and Hilliard's limitations in the practice are something to be worried about. However, Gruden did believe that tight end Alex Smith (ankle) took a step forward in Thursday's practice.
"Alex Smith is moving around better," Gruden said. "I don't see any improvement in Clayton, but today's another day and tomorrow's another one, so we'll update you as we go."
Because of the injury situation at wide receiver, the Bucs signed WR Chas Gessner to the active roster on Tuesday and promoted WR Michael Spurlock from the practice squad to the active roster on Thursday. Tampa Bay also signed WR Chad Lucas to the practice squad as well.
Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder), running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) were all limited in practice on Thursday. Defensive end Greg Spires (calf) missed his second consecutive practice and linebacker Quincy Black (hamstring) didn't practice as well.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on the importance of the game before the bye week.
"This isn't Christmas or anything like that. It's another game. Every one counts the same. Before or after the bye are big. Before the bye and falling after the bye, they're big. We need the game. We need a win. That's what we're here working for."
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