The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the practice fields at One Buccaneer Place on Thursday for the team’s final OTA (organized team activity) session with sunny skies and hot conditions as temperatures were in the low 90s. The heat index was likely near 100 degrees as there was no breeze to provide any relief from the sweltering humidity.
Several players were either no-shows or were medically unable to perform. Among the missing were quarterback Brian Griese, free safety Will Allen, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, running backs Derrick Ward, Clifton Smith and Cadillac Williams, left tackle Donald Penn and left guard Arron Sears. Among the injured were quarterback Byron Leftwich (groin) wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (hamstring), cornerback Torrie Cox (helmet to the face), offensive lineman Julius Wilson (unknown), linebacker Matt McCoy (calf), defensive end Stylez G. White (motorcycle accident) and defensive tackle Greg Peterson (knee).
During the individual period, the linebackers were working on defending the toss and getting to the corner to prevent the play from getting upfield. During the individual secondary period, the defensive backs were working on closing on receivers once the catch has been made, in addition to defending posts and fade routes. Cornerback Kyle Arrington stepped in front of fellow corner Elbert Mack for a nice interception. And once again, Aqib Talib showed off his athleticism and dominated this drill, picking off several passes by going up and getting the ball at its highest point.
Right after the individual period, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris had his assistant, Jay Kaiser, blow the air horn and bring the entire team together. When the players were lollygagging around and jogging over, Morris got ticked off with their loafing and told them to go back to their individual drills and then come back to the end zone he was at in a hurry.
“Oh, Sab, we’ll wait for you!” a peeved Morris screamed as strong safety Sabby Piscitelli was taking his time coming over, "We’ll wait for you, Sabby.”
That prompted all the players to come running over in unison the second time around.
“I’ve always kind of been a yeller and a ‘get it going’ guy,” Morris said after practice. “You guys gave me the title of players’ coach. I don’t know where they came from. What’s happening in those situations? You are trying to let them know what is going on. When you guys see a sudden change in a game, you see 11 people grabbing helmets from all over the place flying to the football field trying to figure out what the situation is so they can get ready to play. You’ll see a horn go off right in the middle of an individual drill. Either we turned the ball over, or we got a turnover. Either way, there’s something going on and we have to have that urgency. You can’t have guys talking to their coach on the bench. You can’t have guys looking for their helmet. They have to be ready.”
That’s exactly what Morris told the team after getting its attention. Morris said there was a quick change and that the Bucs were down 35-34 and that they were going to go for a two-point conversion to win the game. Morris wanted first-team offense versus first-team defense with Luke McCown as the quarterback.
McCown took the snap, dropped back and fired a touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone for the game-winning score over safety Tanard Jackson. Jackson’s coverage was good, but Winslow, who had crossed paths with another receiver and headed to the back of the end zone, simply went up and made a great play in the corner on a perfectly thrown pass from McCown, who had a pretty stellar practice.
After the play, McCown and his offensive teammates were high-fiving, whooping it up and talking some trash to Morris, who promptly said, “Hey defense, we’ve gotta shut their (expletive) down!”
Then Morris called for a repeat of the two-point conversion attempt with the second-string offense and second-string defense squaring off. That meant rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who was filling in for Leftwich, commanding the second-team offense.
Freeman threw a nice fade pass to the back of the end zone for 6-foot-5 wide receiver Maurice Stovall, but instead of stopping short of the back corner, elevating and trying to make a play on the ball, he continued to track it and that allowed Arrington to break up the pass before Stovall caught the ricochet – out of bounds.
After practice, Morris addressed the increased intensity he’s beginning to apply after the earlier OTA sessions were at times a bit lackadaisical and marred by incidents, such as Talib swinging his helmet at Penn and accidentally striking Cox in the face.
“I’ve learned that they listen, that they pay attention to details. If you give them something they’ll do it,” Morris said. “And when they don’t, you can rip their faces off and they can accept it. That’s what they’ve done. We’ve had a bunch of incidents as far as people not listening and people not getting stuff done. When it is brought to their attention, you get them to respond. You’d be surprised at how much they do care.”
Linebacker Angelo Crowell was back at OTAs this week after sitting out last week with soreness in his knee. He looked fluid at times, but you can tell Crowell’s knee is not 100 percent yet. The strongside linebacker job appears to be Quincy Black’s to lose unless Crowell gets completely healthy and puts a major push on in training camp. Geno Hayes also spent some practice time at strongside linebacker along with Adam Hayward and Jamall Johnson.
It appears as if Jermaine Phillips is entrenched as the weakside linebacker for the time being, although Hayes is also competing there as well. During the Bucs’ “Go” package (pass rush unit), Black was once again playing left defensive end with Jimmy Wilkerson inside at defensive tackle along with rookie Kyle Moore. Gaines Adams was once again the right defensive end. Hayes was playing strongside linebacker in this package with Phillips at weakside and Rod Wilson playing middle linebacker in place of Ruud.
Wilson has been a stud inside and is clearly outperforming Niko Koutouvides in the offseason. That may change when the pads come on, but if Wilson can perform just as well when the bullets are flying, he’ll make the team as Ruud’s backup.
Behind starters Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton, Stovall and Brian Clark were getting work at the third and fourth wide receiver positions. Meanwhile, the struggles for last year’s second-round pick, Dexter Jackson, appear to continue. Jackson ran a sloppy route during the individual period, taking three more steps than necessary, according to the coaches, slipping down coming out of his break and then failing to catch the ball when it hit him in the hands.
Assistant coach Tim Berbenich corrected Jackson by saying, “It ain’t that ‘in cut.’ It ain’t that. It’s this.”
Berbenich then showed Jackson how to run the route by doing a jab step then making a cut in and out. By looking at his body language, Jackson didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the schooling.
While McCown and Freeman were working with the first-string and second-string offense in 7-on-7 drills, Jackson was relegated to the third-string 7-on-7 drills with Johnson and didn’t fare particularly well. Johnson threw a fade pass to Jackson in the end zone, but it was poorly underthrown and picked off by rookie cornerback Evan McCollough. However, Jackson looked back and watched McCollough intercept the pass and made no attempt to break up the pass and prevent the pick, which was disappointing to see.
On another play in the 7-on-7 session, Johnson and Jackson failed to connect when rookie cornerback E.J. Biggers broke up the pass on a go route.
Crowell was designated to third-string linebacker today and was participating in the Johnson-led 7-on-7 session rather than the McCown- and Freeman-led sessions with the first- and second-stringers on the far side of the field. Freeman had a very good day – his best as a Buccaneer by all accounts – on Thursday. In the 7-on-7 drills, Freeman zipped a touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens in between Wilson and Piscitelli on a skinny post.
During the special teams period, coordinator Rich Bisaccia took a page out of Morris’ playbook and really got on the kickoff unit for being lackadaisical coming out of break and loafing while lining up.
“You guys want a job real bad,” Bisaccia scolded. “It’s all on tape – the huddle, the break, everything. You don’t have families to feed, do you?”
Gotta love Biscaccia. He doesn’t take any crap. Morris is starting to take on that approach, too. At least it looked that way today when he got on his defensive players and coaches during the 11-on-11 period that followed special teams. The offense was sequestered to one sideline while the defense was on another during 11-on-11, but a few players and coaches were easily five yards onto the field trying to get a closer look at the action.
“Can I please get my D-line off the field?!” Morris yelled. “And my coaches, too?!”
Back to special teams. The first-team kickoff coverage on Thursday was Hayes, Piscitelli, Koutouvides, Hayward, Black, Clark, Stovall, Tanard Jackson, fullback B.J. Askew, safety Donte Nicholson and kicker Matt Bryant. The first-team kick return consisted of Hayes, Black, Piscitelli, Koutouvides and Nicholson up front, with tight end John Gilmore, Askew, Hayward and Wilkerson as the second wave. Stovall, Clark and Clayton were the return men.
New kicker Mike Nugent also took some turns kicking off with the first-team unit and belted two kicks through the back of the end zone, showing superior leg strength in comparison to Bryant.
During the 11-on-11 period, McCown made a couple great throws on deep outs. The first one was to wide receiver Amarri Jackson over the head of Tanard Jackson. The pass was laser fast and on the money. A few plays later, McCown hit Winslow over Piscitelli on an identical throw to the same part of the field right by the sidelines. Again, another high-velocity throw right on the money.
McCown showed great poise when getting blitzed by Phillips and getting inside pressure from Wilkerson by quickly locating his hot read, which was Winslow, and throwing a fade pass to him, which he jumped up and caught for a first down. The pressure on McCown was instantaneous and he did a masterful job of not only avoiding the sack, but making the play.
Yet McCown wasn’t perfect. He threw a jump ball on another similar play with Talib out-jumping Clayton and recording an interception.
Johnson was also plagued by a pick in the 11-on-11 session, when rookie cornerback DeAngelo Willingham stepped in front of Amarri Jackson to pick off the pass. Willingham raced down the left sidelines and was about to score when rookie running back Josh Vaughan tracked him down and tagged him at the 5-yard line. With Vaughan’s size, Willingham would have been tackled before recording the touchdown.
Offensive line coach Pete Mangurian used that pick to illustrate a point to all of his offensive linemen.
“If there’s a pick on your side, you have to go to the sidelines and take that away.”
Mangurian was upset because his linemen were bystanders on the play with only Vaughan pursuing Willingham.
Freeman had a good day today with the first- and second-stringers, but he still looked like a rookie at times by not going through progressions. He would read the primary receiver and throw, or read the primary and then hit the check down. Freeman is not to the point where he can quickly go from his primary read to secondary read to a check down yet, but that’s to be expected from a rookie quarterback in his third week of OTAs.
Freeman also was a little late on some throws on passes to Kelly Campbell and Clayton that resulted in drops because they were slightly behind the receivers. Those late throws are an example of the speed of the game Freeman is still adjusting to. Sometimes Freeman takes too long to release the ball, but it appears to be a case of thinking too much. There is some hesitancy in some of his reads and what he's seeing and it just takes the ball a little longer to come out because he's not 100 percent confident in those reads.
Yet on plays where the primary read is open right away and the receiver has separation, Freeman is confident in what he sees and zips it without hesitation or wasted movement. The difference between he and Leftwich, is that with Leftwich, it’s almost always a slow, wind-up delivery regardless of whether the primary read is initially open or not.
On one of Freeman’s better throws, he was flushed from the pocket to his left and he was outside the hashmarks while spotting running back Earnest Graham open in the shallow middle of the field running to the right away from Freeman. The Kansas State product showed great vision in quickly spotting Graham flash open and threw a side-armed pass across his body, hitting Graham in stride. The gain was only about 10 yards, but because he threw from left to right, the pass probably traveled 25 yards on a frozen rope. It was an impressive play that perhaps only Freeman could have made given his superior arm strength.
That arm strength was on display towards the end of practice when he launched a bomb to receiver Pat Carter, covering 60 yards in the air. Carter got tangled up with Arrington at the 1-yard line and as both players fell to the ground, Arrington was injured. The offense quickly hustled down the field and Freeman threw a beautiful fade pass to the back corner of the right side of the end zone for a touchdown, which brought cheers from his teammates and the coaches.
Unfortunately for Arrington, who was a step away from stopping Carter on both plays, he hurt his left knee on the play and had to be carted off the field after the touchdown pass. The injury didn’t look too severe as Arrington, who has been running as the team’s fourth cornerback in practice, walked from the cart to the training room with head trainer Todd Toriscelli without any assistance.
“You saw a big-time throw by the young guy,” Morris said after practice. “That’s what we knew he could do. That’s what you’ve got to ask him to do when you get a guy like that. He just had to make a good decision and he made a great decision. It was a big-time throw and it was a big-time completion, and that kind of stuff fires you up.”
Freeman is still a long ways from seeing the field on Sundays, but he did take a pretty big step today.