The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had to change course on one of the most watched moves of the offseason.
After re-signing free agent Jermaine Phillips, the Bucs moved the veteran from safety, where he played for the first seven years of his career, to linebacker. Throughout the organized team activities and training camp practices, Phillips was playing solely at linebacker. He also started the first two preseason games at that position. Phillips was in line to be the team's starting Will (weakside) linebacker and replace departed Bucs legend Derrick Brooks.
But that changed last week when starting free safety Tanard Jackson was suspended for the first four games of the season. The loss of Jackson has caused the Bucs to move Phillips back to safety. Head coach Raheem Morris was disappointed the move had to take place, and discussed it after practice on Tuesday.
"It impacted the preparation for Jermaine Phillips," said Morris. "We had to put him at safety rather than play him at linebacker like we wanted to do, and it is a shame because of how well he was doing. That special tackle he made on [Jacksonville RB Maurice] Jones-Drew was a play I haven't seen a linebacker make around here in awhile. The last one was probably Derrick Brooks holding his hand in the air after stopping the Saints to win the game [several years ago]."
Replacing Phillips as the starting Will linebacker is second-year pro Geno Hayes. The 2008 sixth-round pick will have to continue to earn the starting spot in the remaining two preseason games and practices leading up to the season opener. Competing with Hayes will primarily be linebacker Adam Hayward.
"That makes Geno have to step up," said Morris. "Geno, Hayward, one of those guys has to step up and become the guy. This week it will be Geno. He'll get the first crack at it."
The disappointment that Morris expressed over Phillips having to go back to safety had a lot to do with the progress Morris believed Phillips had made at his new position. In the preseason games at linebacker Phillips had a total of five tackles.
"He hasn't taken any snaps [at linebacker] this week," Morris said of Phillips. "Right now it is on hold.
"Now, having to move him back to safety is not woe-is-me because we got Geno, who is pretty good. I was starting to see something special out of Jermaine. He was learning how to play the position. He was starting to get confidence. He was starting to run around. Write a story about Jermaine Phillips, because he has been unbelievable, you're talking about a man that is completely unselfish."
The lack of depth at safety was the catalyst for Phillips being moved back to his original position, but according to his head coach it will not be a permanent move for Phillips.
"It is not done," said Morris. "You need three safeties. After Will Allen, my confidence drops off about putting the next guy in. I'm not as confident putting Donte [Nicholson] in the game. This is not a knock on Donte because what Donte does on special teams is special, so I'm not confident putting him in the game right now at safety. He's okay with that because I told him that in the team meeting.
"If you ask me about the long-term it was going to 'backer (for Phillips). I think he has a chance for a second career there. I don't know. I could be wrong, but I think he has a chance for a second career there."
Morris said that the starting safeties would be a platoon made up of Allen, Piscitelli, and Phillips. He said it is not determined who would be the starting two, and it would depend on a few possibilities.
In new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' scheme Morris said the free and strong safety positions are interchangeable. For now, Phillips will be taking his practice and game reps at free safety. Morris said there is a lot of carry over for Phillips at safety. His biggest challenge is learning to change the verbiage with a new defense.
Morris said after Jackson gets back from suspension, the lineup would be re-shuffled. Who stays in the lineup will depend on a number of things, which includes how Hayes and linebacker Quincy Black perform as the outside linebackers, and how Phillips, Allen, and Piscitelli perform and respond together as a safety unit.