The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued with their offseason organized team activities on Thursday. The Bucs practiced in partly sunny skies and temperatures in high 80s. The team had a number of players missing from the workout. Of the 85 players on the roster Tampa Bay had 18 percent (16 players) not participating in the voluntary practice due to injury or absence.

Not practicing at One Buc Place were kicker Matt Bryant, punter Josh Bidwell, quarterback Brian Griese, cornerback Torrie Cox, running back Derrick Ward, safety Tanard Jackson, linebacker Barrett Ruud, offensive tackle Donald Penn, guard Julius Wilson, guard Arron Sears, guard/center Sean Mahan, tight end Jerramy Stevens, and defensive end Stylez G. White. Stevens was out sick.

At the practice but working on injuries with the training staff was running back Cadillac Williams (knee), offensive tackle Xavier Fulton (shoulder), and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (undisclosed).
 
Filling in for Penn as the first-team left tackle was James Lee. Replacing Jackson was Will Allen, and replacing Ruud was Rod Wilson. Interestingly, on a few plays Stroughter was listening in to the huddle of the first team offense during 11-on-11 scrimmaging after he came out from getting treatment. After the offense broke from the huddle, Stroughter would back off away from the action.

During the individual period, the running backs and coach Steve Logan worked on two unique drills that are new to the Buccaneers this year. Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris has always praised for Logan for the creativity associated with his drills and today was no different as he once again used the JUGGS machine to fire passes between pass rushing dummies towards his running backs. The backs would have to weave through the bags and make a “blind” reception as Logan would fire the ball at them as they flashed in the opening between dummies.

Starting halfback Earnest Graham easily has the best set of hands and made every catch in effortless fashion. Reserve Clifton Smith is a close second, but every other back struggled to consistently catch the ball on Thursday during this drill.

Another drill that Logan is famous for is a gigantic rubber band that is affixed to a football on one end and secured around the goal post at the other. The running backs have to grasp the football tightly, stretch the elastic to the max and touch an orange cone. Not only does this drill work on the ballcarrier’s ability to lunge for extra yardage, it also works on ball security. The further they lunge for the cone, the more the ball is being pulled out of their hands. And by lunging for the cone with one hand, the back has to concentrate on keeping his grip on the ball with one hand. All of the backs did a very good job with Graham and rookie Josh Vaughn showing the best form.

Morris came over and started yell, “He’s too small, Coach Logan! He’s too small!” to get the 5-foot-8 Smith, who is also known as “Peanut” motivated.

Logan then had the halfbacks and fullbacks work on cut blocking by diving and hitting a moving pad low to the ground. Then the backs had to high step over some pads laterally towards the back of the end zone. Meanwhile the wide receivers were running routes into the end zone and when Kelly Campbell came barging through the running backs area and started doing the high steps too after catching a pass in the back of the end zone, fullback Jameel Cook screamed, “Get the (expletive) out of our drill!” while his teammates laughed.

The defensive backs spent a lot of time working on defending end zone fade routes. They practiced using the sideline as a defender and angling the receiver out of the end zone. They also took reps intercepting the jump balls, and breaking the passes up.

They spent a significant amount of time working on jamming and re-routing the receivers. The cornerbacks would line up five yards off the line of scrimmage and step up a yard to jam a receiver and push him off his route. Defensive backs coach Joe Baker spent some extra time working with rookie corner E.J. Biggers at one point. The cornerbacks practiced switching receivers on crossing routes as well.

Bucs kicker Mike Nugent did some field goal kicking for the first time in a practice that was open to the media. Nugent displayed a powerful leg and showed no ill effects from his injury-plagued 2008 season when he had a torn quadriceps. From the 20- to 30-yard range Nugent was kicking the ball through the posts and over the protective net. A few balls banged off the exterior of the building. Nugent worked his way back and was accurate and showed plenty of leg in hitting all of his kicks between 40 and 50 yards.

Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia made it harder for Nugent by throwing some pads towards him to simulate a diving defender trying to block the kick. After some of those, Bisaccia stood back five yards and held up a long pad over his head to simulate players reaching up to block field goals. Nugent looked accurate on every kick with the possible exception of one where a thrown blocking pad hit the tee holding the ball. That kick was a low line-drive and may still have been good.

While the kicking competition between Nugent and incumbent Matt Bryant will come down to training camp and the preseason, after watching Nugent kick in person there is little doubt that he has the stronger leg. It remains to be seen if he can top Bryant in clutch kicking and accuracy.

During the special teams portion of practice, the Bucs focused on kick returns. The first-team kick return unit was comprised of safeties Will Allen and Donte Nicholson, and linebackers Geno Hayes, Niko Koutouvides and Quincy Black on the front line. Behind them were linebacker Adam Hayward, fullback B.J. Askew, defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, and tight end John Gilmore. The lead blocker for kick returner Clifton Smith was wide receiver Maurice Stovall. The second-team kicks were returned by wide receiver Dexter Jackson with cornerback Elbert Mack serving as the lead blocker.

The defense did a decent job of rushing the quarterback on Thursday. Gaines Adams put on a big pass rush and beat Lee for a sack of Leftwich. Rookie Kyle Moore had a lightning fast sack from defensive tackle. Moore shed the guard and was at Leftwich just as the quarterback was completing his drop from center. Defensive tackle Roy Miller jumped offsides at one point, and the offensive line had a few false starts. On one play, a few players jumped offsides and center Jeff Faine spiked the ball and fired up his line. One false start was committed by rookie tackle Marc Dile.

Newcomer Louis Holmes looked good rushing the passer from the right defensive end spot against Lee. Holmes has caught the eyes of his teammates and coaches and may be considered a sleeper.

In the first 11-on-11 team scrimmage, quarterback Luke McCown took the first series of reps. McCown spent a lot of practice completing underneath passes to his running backs and check downs. Running backs Smith and Graham had fabulous practices catching the ball. McCown and Smith hooked up for a number of nice gains on short 5-yard in-and-out routes that the speedy Smith turned up-field for big yardage.

Graham had some fabulous catches in the team scrimmages. A screen pass to him from Leftwich was terribly off the mark with a number of defenders in the area, but Graham made a leaping, one-handed catch to prevent an interception. Graham also showed great hands on catch over his head from McCown when the quarterback was forced to move away due to the pass rush.

McCown used his athleticism to scramble on a number of plays that were well covered by the defense. He bought time and completed dump-off passes to Graham and Smith, and the veteran quarterback also took off on a 25-yard run. The play started at the defense’s 30-yard line and McCown took off down the left side of the field and got to the 5-yard line before a defender got close enough to touch him.

One of McCown’s best passes of the practice went to wide receiver Brian Clark, who was running as the third receiver for the Bucs. McCown had perfect touch in lofting a pass into Clark in the deep middle of the field at the goal line. Clark was well covered by Hayward and Allen, but the perfect pass beat the coverage.

After that play defensive coordinator Jim Bates yelled to his defenders, “Sometimes we have to anticipate those throws!”

McCown had two interceptions in the practice. The first one was on a pass over the middle for tight end Ryan Purvis. The pass was a little short and was picked off by Koutouvides, who had Purvis blanketed near the goal line. If Winslow or Stevens were running that route instead, the pass likely would have been complete due to Stevens height and reach, and Winslow leaping ability and body control.

The other interception wasn’t really McCown’s fault as wide receiver Michael Clayton had the pass hit his hands, but safety Sabby Piscitelli and Black smacked the ball up into the air, which Allen ran underneath it and return it for a nice gain.

McCown was hurt by his receiving corps on another nice scramble. After dodging the pass rush, McCown broke out to the left side and showed run. That drew the cornerback towards him and wide receiver Antonio Bryant broke his route off and headed downfield. McCown pulled up before the line of scrimmage and lofted a pass to a backpedaling Bryant. The receiver had the ball in hand but couldn’t hold on to it as his back hit the ground. Bryant was angry with himself for not hauling in that pass.

Bryant also had another letdown when he caught a perfectly thrown pass from McCown on an intermediate crossing, only to have the ball knocked out from behind by Koutouvides. Allen came in from his safety position to recover the fumble.

Other than the completing a lot passes to the running backs, McCown completed a number of passes to tight end Kellen Winslow. McCown went to downfield on a deep out to Winslow after he had gotten open by separating from linebacker Jermaine Phillips and Allen.

While McCown had a mixed outing on Thursday, Leftwich had a shaky practice. His accuracy was off throughout the workout. In the second 11-on-11 session, Leftwich got the first team reps at quarterback.

With Leftwich at quarterback, Winslow made a fabulous diving catch just in front of safety Nicholson in the deep middle of the field. That situation was somewhat reversed a little later when Winslow dropped a well-thrown pass from Leftwich who had helped create separation by pump faking the other direction. The pair hooked up again, this time for a touchdown when Winslow ran an outstanding route where he weaved himself open through a linebacker and safety.

Leftwich completed a pass downfield to wide receiver Kelly Campbell who raced downfield but took some time to get open through a few defenders. Leftwich had all day to throw and completed the pass to Campbell. Leftwich found former Jacksonville teammate wide receiver Cortez Hankton in the deep middle of the field for a nice completion. Leftwich tried to hit Campbell in the end zone for about a 30-yard touchdown but the pass was overthrown and went out of bounds. The pass would have had to be perfect as cornerback Aqib Talib had good coverage.

In the short, intermediate, and deep part of the field, Leftwich struggled with his accuracy in the practice. Numerous passes were high or behind receivers.

Overall the two quarterbacks were playing different styles of play on Thursday. McCown completed a high percentage of his short and intermediate passes and used his check downs. Leftwich was pushing the ball downfield on a high percentage of his passes but was not completing a high percentage of his throws.

In previous years under former head coach Jon Gruden, McCown would have been his choice between the two quarterbacks. Gruden favored a ball control offense with a short passing game. But in the new offense, Leftwich is a viable starting option due to the vertical passing element that is a part of the practice. Overall, there was no clear winner in the quarterback competition between Leftwich and McCown in Thursday’s practice. McCown had only a slight advantage.

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