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Thursday’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers OTA (organized team activity) session took place at Raymond James Stadium and the full session was open to the media. Everyone got a break with the weather today as conditions were partly cloudy with temps in the high 80s with a strong breeze blowing and very low humidity. In case you are wondering, there really isn’t any difference between an OTA and a mini-camp except that a mini-camp is a mandatory team function.
With Pewter Report’s Jim Flynn primarily focused on the offensive players during the OTA session, I was studying the play of the Buccaneers defenders. With the media having the ability to roam the sidelines during the first half of practice, I headed towards the defensive line drills to watch new D-line coach Larry Coyer and his pupils work on their footwork, their punches and their pass rush moves in the bag drills. During mini-camps and training camps, these defensive line drills are typically the furthest away from view, so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to be a few feet away from the likes of newcomers such as Kevin Carter, Patrick Chukwurah and Gaines Adams.
Speaking of Carter, he was about 15 minutes late to the OTA. Two notable absent defenders today were defensive end Simeon Rice, who was present earlier in the week but is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and linebacker Derrick Brooks, who is grieving the death of his mother earlier in the week.
The biggest difference I see between Coyer and his predecessors, Jethro Franklin and Rod Marinelli, is Coyer’s emphasis on power and speed. Marinelli always emphasized quickness off the line and quickness in penetrating gaps, but I don’t recall him emphasizing strength and power the way Coyer is doing. Who knows what Franklin was emphasizing last year.
Coyer has the defensive linemen go through the same “off the ball, quick first step” drills that Marinelli had done, but he seemed to want to work more with players’ strength. One of the new drills he has the defensive linemen doing is having two players holding a long stick that resembles a broom handle. The players grasp the stick from each side and try to push each other backwards to simulate a trench fight between an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman. The drill works on locking out the players’ arms so they can’t get held and engulfed by offensive linemen.
Another strength-oriented drill is having the defensive linemen kneel down and punch a blocking dummy as defensive line assistant coach Todd Wash lunges the bag towards the player. This drill not only emphasizes strength, but also works on timing. Chukwurah easily had the quickest hands of the bunch and stood out during this drill. Weighing just 250 pounds, Chukwurah was the fastest defensive lineman in most of the drills on Thursday.
Fifth-round draft pick Greg Peterson is a tall, muscular defensive lineman in the vein of Carter, although not as heavy. Peterson moved exceptionally well and stays low in drills despite being 6-foot-5. He doesn’t seem awed by being in the NFL and didn’t appear to be as raw with his techniques as he was in the rookie mini-camp.
Carter does not look like a 33-year old at all. He is an extremely well conditioned athlete and possesses great size. The interesting thing is that the body type of the Buccaneers defensive linemen has radically changed from the days of players like Warren Sapp, Chidi Ahanotu and Anthony McFarland, who were roughly 6-foot-2 and weighed around 300 pounds with guts, to a much taller, more muscular group of linemen. The heaviest player is newcomer Ryan Sims, who is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds. Ideally, the Bucs would like to see him lose about 10-15 pounds of bad weight and get in better shape. Sims practiced well in spurts on Thursday, but is not conditioned well enough to be a starter at this point in time – especially in the heat and humidity of Florida.
The three players who really stood out to me along the defensive line today were Chukwurah, who has Rice-like speed off the edge, first-year player Darrell Campbell and third-year veteran Jovan Haye, who is in his first offseason with the Buccaneers since being acquired during the 2006 football season from Cleveland’s practice squad. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Campbell impressed Pewter Report in the rookie mini-camp earlier in the month and was running with the first team at under tackle today alongside Chris Hovan. Campbell has more height than the typical Bucs defensive tackle has possessed, but plays with good pad level and has a quick burst. Campbell has gotten some rave reviews from his teammates and is on Pewter Report’s radar screen as a training camp sleeper.
Haye has really matured since he was thrown in the fire last year at under tackle after McFarland was traded and Ellis Wyms was hurt. His stock is up at One Buc Place right now and both he and Campbell, who can play all four positions along the line, might be in better standing with the team than Wyms, whose stock may be on the decline.
The interesting thing about Coyer is that he lets Wash do a lot of the instruction during drills. Coyer has his moments where he is vocal, but Wash, who was a former standout linebacker at North Dakota State and looks like he could suit up and play defensive line for the Bucs this year, has a loud, booming voice and has already commanded the respect of defensive linemen due to his hands-on approach. Don’t be surprised if the defensive line is the most improved unit on the Buccaneers in 2007 due to Coyer’s influence and Wash’s instruction.
Taking time away from the defensive line to watch the defensive backs, rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli impressed me with his fluid hips and how quickly he broke on the ball in individual drills. Several veterans have told me this week how impressed they are with Piscitelli’s athleticism, speed and professional demeanor.
Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber looks as good as ever and very quick. The same could be said for Torrie Cox, who may have the quickest feet of any Bucs cornerback in a short area.
If cornerback Brian Kelly isn’t 100 percent, he sure is close to it. In talking to some of the veterans over the past few days, seeing Kelly healthy and back at One Buc Place is a big shot of adrenaline. Kelly is well liked and respected by his peers in Tampa Bay. They know what happens to this defense when he is in the lineup and what happens to this defense when he isn’t in the lineup. I must admit that Kelly is one of my all-time favorite Bucs that I have covered because he is so good at what he does and is so underappreciated outside of Tampa Bay. How this guy hasn’t been to Pro Bowl yet is a crime. He should have gone in 2002 and ’05.
After watching last year’s fourth-round pick, cornerback Alan Zemaitis, struggle during the individual period and receive extra coaching from DBs coach Raheem Morris, it’s clear that grasping the techniques and the landmarks of the defense are what’s holding him back and what kept him from seeing any action in 2006. Granted, Zemaitis was also struggling with a shoulder injury at the end of the season, but he also seemed to struggle with the playbook and the fundamental techniques, too. It’s not fair to judge Zemaitis’ standing with the team based on one practice, but if he has struggled in previous OTAs the way he struggled today, it is safe to say that a player like Cox or newcomer Sammy Davis may beat out Zemaitis for a roster spot.
Davis has a nice mix of size and speed, but doesn’t seem as polished as Philip Buchanon. The presence of the 6-foot-2 Zemaitis, the 6-foot-1 Davis and the 6-foot Chaz Williams give Tampa Bay a much bigger set of cornerbacks than the team has had years ago when Kelly, who is 5-foot-11, was the biggest corner out of a group that included Barber, Corey Ivy and Tim Wansley among others.
Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen remain Tampa Bay’s starting safeties. Allen looks quicker and is playing more decisively with the return of Morris. Piscitelli got a lot of reps with the second string and could very well make a run at Phillips’ starting spot in 2007.
There wasn’t much to report on during the individual sessions at the linebacker position. Linebackers coach Gus Bradley was going over techniques and some coverage drops with his players, but most of my time was spent watching the defensive line and the secondary.
There wasn’t any use of the 3-4 formation or any radical blitzing during today’s practice. Perhaps it was due to the presence of the media, or perhaps that the team plans on using it very little in 2007. Pewter Report has heard some rumblings that the team will use the 3-4 a little more this year than it did in 2006, but that may mean it only goes from being used five percent of the time to 10 percent of the time. In other words, it may be used twice as much as it was a year ago, but still not enough to be ultra-relevant.
In Tampa Bay’s base 4-3 defense, the starting defensive line on Thursday featured Chukwurah at right end, Hovan at nose tackle and Campbell at under tackle with either Carter or Greg Spires manning the left defensive end position. The Buccaneers emphasized goal line offense and goal line defense today in the team drills, which is kind of boring to watch without contact and the players being in pads. The starting six-man defensive line in goal line drills today was (from left to right) Spires, Carter, Hovan, Haye, Campbell and Charles Bennett.
Adams, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2007, was worked into the rotation and fared well in goal line and regular defensive sets from what I could tell. Since he’s just learning the defense, he’s a backup like the other rookies. Piscitelli and guard Arron Sears appear to have the greatest chance of starting as rookies, followed by Adams, who may not start right away due to Rice’s presence, but will see plenty of action as a rotating defensive lineman. Adams is a rangy player with long arms that help him get past offensive tackles.
Middle linebacker Quincy Black was the darling of the team’s rookie mini-camp a few weeks ago, but he’s currently running third-string behind Barrett Ruud and Antoine Cash. He’ll have a chance to push for playing time once he learns the defense due to his athleticism and speed, but Ruud has a three-year head start on him and Cash has a two-year lead on Black.
Ruud looks really comfortable running the defense and has lost some weight. He played at 242 pounds at Nebraska and weighed about 238 pounds last year. He’s down to about 232 pounds and looks leaner and more athletic. Ruud told me that he actually has an eight-pack now and feels faster at the lighter weight.
In 11-on-11 drills, the starting defense in the regular 4-3 alignment featured Spires and Chukwurah at defensive end, Hovan and Campbell at defensive tackle, Jamie Winborn at Will (weakside) linebacker, Ruud at Mike (middle) linebacker), Cato June at Sam (strongside) linebacker, Phillips and Allen at safety and Barber and Kelly at cornerback.
Today’s second-stringers in the 4-3 defense were Carter and Adams at defensive end, Haye and Wyms at defensive tackle, rookie Adam Hayward at Will linebacker, Cash at Mike linebacker, Ryan Nece at Sam linebacker, Piscitelli and Kalvin Pearson at safety and Cox and Buchanon at cornerback.
June’s speed was impressive to witness. He can really fly around and get to the football. The same could be said for rookies Black and Hayward. June is small, though. He doesn’t look any bigger than Phillips. At 6-foot, 227 pounds, June physically resembles Brooks when he was in his first few years in the NFL before adding some bulk. As a rookie, Brooks played around 220-225 pounds like June. Now the future Hall of Famer weighs 235 pounds.
Rookie defensive tackle Justin Frick looks lighter than his 6-foot-3, 295-pound frame suggests. I don’t know how much of a chance he has to make the active roster (he’s likely pushing for a spot on the practice squad), but he demonstrated good technique today in individual drills. You can tell that he’s been well coached by Wash, who was Frick’s defensive coordinator at North Dakota State last year.
There were a couple of standout moments in 11-on-11 drills during Thursday’s practice. Flynn alluded to Pearson’s accidental hit on Ike Hilliard in his Inside Bucs OTAs – Offense report. In addition to that, Zemaitis dropped a “gimme” interception that hit him right in the hands. That punctuated a disappointing day for the second-year cornerback.
The other play that was rather mind-blowing was how 35-year old Joey Galloway hit second gear and pulled away from Davis, a cornerback with 4.3 speed, and Piscitelli, who had the proper angle, to haul in a bomb from quarterback Jeff Garcia. The trio of Galloway, Davis and Piscitelli was going full speed and plowed into a group of defensive linemen, who were doing individual drills during the 7-on-7 period. Thankfully, no one was hurt on the play.
There were some other really noteworthy plays that stood out that involved some new wrinkles on offense, but Pewter Report does not detail specific plays and reveal strategy in our Pewter Insider stories that would damage the team. But let’s just say that it was noteworthy that Florida head coach Urban Meyer was there as a guest of Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com