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It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with an SR’s Fab Five, but now that Bucs training camp is over, I’ll be cranking them out on a more regular basis with about three or four per month during the regular season. Since it has been a while since the last version of SR’s Fab Five was published, I thought I would make up for lost time with this massive, 4,500-word edition.
Here’s five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. One player to keep an eye on during Monday night’s preseason contest between Tampa Bay and Cincinnati is first-year linebacker Michael Brown (number 49), who will start the game in place of injured weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks and receive a lot of playing time. Brown has had an eye-opening offseason and has continued to impress in training camp by making big plays in the passing game and on special teams, such as his amazing blocked field goal during the first week of August at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
“I have an exceptional amount of talent,” Brown modestly told Pewter Report. “I was blessed, and being able to jump was one of my attributes. On that particular play, I hopped over whoever was trying to block me because they always stay low. Most guys try to get down low and take them on and push. So I just tried something new to outsmart them. I got over and blocked the kick.”
Boy, did he ever. Brown jumped over the player in front of him, quickly regained his balance and leaped in front of Martin Gramatica’s field goal attempt and smothered the kick. The ball bounced 10 yards behind Gramatica and was scooped up by cornerback Corey Ivy and returned for a touchdown.
Although this was just one play out of literally thousands of plays that the Bucs have run during training camp, it is one of Brown’s signature plays. In a year where Tampa Bay is going overboard to shore up their special teams units, this play will mean a lot to the Bucs personnel brass and coaching staff. So far, Gramatica has had just one kick blocked, and it was by Brown. The reason why this is important is because whichever players the Bucs keep on their 2004 roster as backups will be asked to become special teams stars. Brown, who was a special teams ace in college, has the traits to play that role in Tampa Bay.
“At Louisville I blocked two field goals in my career – one against Grambling my sophomore year, and the other one was the game-winner against UK (University of Kentucky) in double overtime my senior year,” Brown said. “My junior and senior year, I was part of our kickoff return team. I was the lead blocker. We had a return man, and I was right in front of him, kind of staggered. Both of those guys were in the top 5 during the season. I played on the punt team all four years. I can play special teams.”
Brown knows that his pass breakups, interceptions and tackles on defense in camp practice have been noted by linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, but it will be the evaluation from special teams coaches Rich Bisaccia and Ron Middleton that might carry even more weight once the discussions about trimming the roster down come about. Brown knows that he has to make the Bucs roster with his special teams play.
“I have no choice,” Brown said. “Derrick Brooks is the man – a seven-time Pro Bowler. He’s still healthy and got the juice. I’m just trying to be the man behind the man, and making my mark on special teams is the way I have to do it.”
The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Brown is undersized by NFL standards, but fits right in with the Bucs, who prefer their linebackers to have speed and athleticism over size. Brown is a gifted athlete who played virtually everywhere on defense as a four-year starter at Louisville except for the defensive line, en route to posting 304 tackles, six interceptions, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, five sacks and 13 pass breakups in his career.
“I played a hybrid position called ‘Bandit,'” Brown said. “If we played a one-back team, I was the strong safety on the slot receiver, man-to-man and blitzing off the edge. If it was a two-back team, I was a linebacker pretty much either strong to the tight end, or away from the tight end, depending on the scheme we had in that week. Then there were some times that I was at corner. I had an interception my senior year playing corner against Memphis. I can pretty much do it all.”
That versatility and athleticism is what led the Bucs to Brown, who is in his second training camp with Tampa Bay. He was signed as an undrafted free agent last April before being released in August of 2003. The Bucs signed him to their practice squad for the last two weeks of the 2003 season and wanted him to participate in their offseason program.
“I had a stretch when I was in limbo, but their parting words were, ‘We’re going to call you, we just can’t promise you when we’re going to call you,'” Brown said. “Just that alone said that they had a lot of faith. They said I went above and beyond what was asked of me [last year]. They did actually call me back with a few weeks left in the season. When I walked in the door they said they wanted me here for next season. They didn’t want me going overseas [to NFL Europe]. They wanted me here all spring and summer to give me the best possible chance to make the team next year.”
Brown’s second tour of duty with the Bucs has been a breeze considering that he learned the defense last year. This summer, Brown has been reacting and following his assignments rather than thinking and trying to remember his assignments.
Aside from participating in the team’s OTA days and mandatory mini-camp, Brown got the benefit of taking part in the team’s three-day rookie mini-camp the weekend after the draft and actually coached up third-round draft pick Marquis Cooper, who is his rival in training camp. But while both he and Cooper are fighting for a roster spot and the right to back up Brooks on the weak side, Brown said that the time spent tutoring Cooper really aided him, too.
“It really helped me out,” Brown said. “When he came in, they told me to come in and actually school him up. That helped me as well as him. I got to go over all the fine points of the defense again. If you can teach it, you must really know it.”
Brown also benefitted from the fact that Cooper’s college, the University of Washington, had a late graduation date. NFL rules prohibit rookies from reporting to NFL teams until their respective schools have finished with semester exams. While most schools are out by late May, Washington’s spring graduation didn’t take place until mid-June, which gave Brown an additional two weeks worth of extra reps in the OTA workouts.
“Marquis is pretty much up to speed now,” Brown said. “They’ve coached him up well. But with him being out, it did help me out because I got a lot of reps. Helping him helped me take the fundamentals and have them sink in even more.”
In fact, there was a little pre-training camp buzz going on about Brown. Barry was quoted in Pewter Report’s Training Camp Issue as saying: “Michael Brown is a guy we signed as an undrafted rookie free agent last year. He does a ton of work as Derrick’s backup. I’m expecting him to be in the fight for one of our seven LB positions. The preseason will be big for him and he needs to play well on special teams to open some eyes. He could take the same route as Shelton Quarles, Jeff Gooch and Ryan Nece.”
With the Bucs expected to keep no more than seven linebackers, Brown may even beat Nece out for a roster spot. Brooks, Quarles and Ian Gold are expected to be starters, and the team will undoubtedly keep Cooper, Gooch and special teams ace Keith Burns around as reserves. If Tampa Bay does indeed keep seven linebackers, Brown’s special teams ability may give him an edge over Nece, who has not been that impressive in training camp this season.
Be sure to watch Brown this preseason. While he will get the chance to impress on downs one, two and three on defense in place of Brooks, what he does on fourth down on special teams may mean even more to his chances of making the team.
FAB 2. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are notorious for running a lot of nickel defense, even more than their 4-3 base alignment. The goal for the Bucs defense is to wind up playing a lot of nickel, because that generally means their opponents are having to deploy lots of three- and four-wide receiver sets and abandon their running game because they are behind. If their opponents are behind, that means the Bucs are ahead, and the team that’s ahead at the end of games naturally wins.
The fact that Tampa Bay plays so much nickel defense, which deploys three cornerbacks and just two linebackers, was one of the reasons for the acquisition of veteran Mario Edwards in free agency. With experienced players like Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly already on board, Edwards gives the Bucs yet another player who has logged a lot of playing time covering the NFL’s elite receivers.
Last year, the Bucs struggled with Tim Wansley, who was the nickel back before being moved into the starting lineup due to Kelly’s torn pectoral muscle in the fourth game of the season.
But before we anoint Edwards as the team’s nickel corner, we must point out that second-year defensive back Torrie Cox is putting on an impressive charge for that position in training camp. In fact, defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin told me last year that Cox got off to a great start in training camp and may have beaten out Wansley and Corey Ivy for the nickel corner assignment. Cox blew out his ACL in the second preseason game and that’s how Wansley wound up as the nickel.
But Edwards is the nickel corner for now, so his arrival is a strong indication that the Bucs will continue to play a lot of nickel defense, right? Well, not so fast. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his staff will have to determine if Tampa Bay is better off going to a nickel package with Edwards out on the field, or staying in their base 4-3 alignment with fleet-footed and rangy linebackers like Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and new arrival Ian Gold, who should unseat Ryan Nece as the starter on the strong side.
Just from two weeks of observing Gold at training camp it’s clear that this 25-year old is a special NFL player. The same can’t be said of Edwards, who is a good corner, but wouldn’t be considered great – at least at this stage of his NFL career. The Bucs want to get their best 11 defenders on the field for every situation, and this year, because of Gold’s arrival, that may mean playing more 4-3 and less nickel.
Gold, like Brooks and Quarles, is adept at zone and even man coverage, so he wouldn’t be a liability matched up against a slot receiver, depending on the assignment he draws. Football is a game of matchups, and what personnel groupings opposing offenses deploy will ultimately dictate which direction Kiffin goes, whether it is the 4-3 or the nickel package. But it’s going to be tough to keep Gold off the field, so bet on more plays out of the 4-3 scheme than the Bucs ran last year.
The interesting thing is that the Bucs rarely run any dime coverages, except in Hail Mary situations. Kiffin is smart enough to know that Brooks and Quarles are better players than his fourth and fifth corners, and doesn’t want them off the field.
FAB 3. You won’t hear it publicly from the team, but Bucs insiders from the players to the coaches to the front office were absolutely crushed over having to release nose tackle Darrell Russell, who reportedly tested positive for alcohol consumption despite a contractual provision that required him to abstain from drinking alcohol and adhere to the terms of his reinstatement into the NFL after serving a year-and-a-half league suspension.
Russell who was on his way to trimming down from 340 pounds to 325 pounds, was drawing positive offseason reviews from such veteran players as Shelton Quarles and linebacker Derrick Brooks, while the coaching staff was taking a more cautious and less optimistic approach.
During a June interview with Pewter Report for its Training Camp Issue, Brooks said that Russell had made a good impression during the team’s OTA (organized team activity) days.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover – that’s all I’ve got to say about him,” Brooks said. “He’s giving himself every opportunity to make this team, and that’s all he can ask for. Don’t give them a reason to cut you. At this point, I don’t think he is.
“He’s bringing something to us that we’ve never had. That size. That quickness. What is he going to do with it? Only he can tell you that. He can’t tell me. He has to show me between these white lines. So far he is.”
That was in early June. Brooks, the team and others would be proven wrong by Russell’s failure to control his behavior off the field, thus blowing his opportunity to rehabilitate his image and his pro football career in Tampa Bay.
Russell had dazzled the coaching staff and front office in the team’s three-day mini-camp in late June, and according to one team insider, was definitely in contention for the starting nose tackle job before a reported failed alcohol test prompted the Bucs to cut him, knowing that the NFL could suspend him indefinitely. The Bucs envisioned Russell playing the snaps at nose tackle primarily on run downs, such as first downs, third-and-short and goal line situations. Under those circumstances, Chartric Darby, who is now the leading candidate to start at nose tackle, would then be fresh enough to really bring his interior pass rushing skills on second- and third-and-long passing downs.
Despite entering the preseason schedule, the Bucs are still unsure of what they will do at the nose tackle position this year. While the hope is that Darby can last the 16-game schedule, his 270-pound frame suggests that he will wear down. Not helping the situation, Tampa Bay has two unproven, journeyman performers listed behind Darby in DeVone Claybrooks and Damien Gregory.
The Bucs toyed with the idea of moving 311-pound Lamar King to nose tackle at the start of training camp, but he is barely clinging to a roster spot as a third-team left defensive end. Tampa Bay doesn’t have too many other in-house options available.
With the amount of money Anthony McFarland is making, combined with his athleticism, the team would prefer to permanently move to the under tackle spot formerly owned by Warren Sapp. Fourth-year player Ellis Wyms is itching to crack the starting lineup, but desperately wants to play the three-technique position that McFarland is slated to play. While the temptation was there to move Wyms to nose tackle to help fortify the position, they wanted to boost the competition at under tackle where only Cleveland Pinkney would be left to challenge McFarland if Wyms indeed became a nose tackle.
McFarland’s history of injuries prompted the team to keep Wyms at under tackle. The Bucs also wanted Wyms to push to become the starter or push McFarland into playing better. McFarland is a pretty grounded, humble individual, but he just received a rich, new contract last year and inherited a premier starting spot, so the Tampa Bay brass wanted to make sure he was still hungry. While McFarland is currently edging him in the training camp battle, Wyms is putting up a valiant fight, which is what the Bucs wanted.
With McFarland and Wyms out of the picture, Tampa Bay’s long-standing interest in signing Dana Stubblefield was ultimately rejected because Stubblefield didn’t want to play nose tackle and wound up signing with New England as an end in their 3-4 scheme. If Stubblefield doesn’t make the cut with the Patriots, the Bucs might be his fall back option.
So where does that leave the Bucs at nose tackle? They will be forced to scour the waiver wire hard for nose tackle candidates when roster cuts come down later in the month. In fact, it is the team’s top priority. If the Bucs can’t find a nose tackle that will constantly draw double teams, McFarland will wind up getting double teamed, which will disrupt the Bucs’ schemes and give the offensive line an advantage on most plays.
There has also been some interest in either trading for Oakland defensive tackle John Parrella, who is a superb run defender, or simply waiting to see if he is released. If the 35-year old Parrella, who is entering his 12th NFL season, does not win a starting assignment this year, the Raiders may be forced to release him rather than carry his $1.85 million salary this season. Parrella is entering the third season of a six-year, $24 million contract, which included a $4.75 million signing bonus.
With the Raiders’ switch to the 3-4 defense and newcomers such as Ted Washington, Warren Sapp and Bobby Hamilton joining holdovers such as Chris Cooper, DeLawrence Grant and Grant Irons, Parrella may become expendable. It is doubtful that Al Davis and the Raiders would ever trade again with the Buccaneers given the fact that Tampa Bay beat Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII with Jon Gruden at the helm, and that this offseason general manager Bruce Allen and starting halfback Charlie Garner defected to Tampa. But if he is released, expect Allen to contact Parrella immediately.
FAB 4. During training camp, Pewter Report has been out front in its praise for Greg Comella, who appears to be the current favorite to win the backup fullback position behind Mike Alstott. The multi-dimensional, muscle-bound, 6-foot-1, 240-pounder has been a perfect fit in Jon Gruden’s West Coast offense.
With the league going to more one-back, three-wide receiver sets than ever before it seems, Comella said that teams that run a true West Coast offense like the one Gruden operates in Tampa Bay means that the fullback position lives on in the NFL.
“Is the fullback a dying position? Not in this offense,” Comella said. “I think it has to do with teams trying to find their best athletes. Some teams like the blocking angles and the mind set the fullback brings to a team. Other teams don’t feel it’s necessary. They feel like it’s become such a pass-oriented league that you are better off having a good third wide receiver than you are a fullback. It has more to do with coaching philosophy than anything else.
“But if you look at the successful teams over the years, the Super Bowl champions, they’ve all had good fullbacks. From the 1980s with the San Francisco 49ers to the 1990s with the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. Denver with Howard Griffith, and Tampa with Alstott. You find that the really good teams have really good fullbacks. I still think it is an important part of a team.”
The fullback position is an important part of Gruden’s offense, especially in the two-tight end set with Alstott as the primary ballcarrier in the halfback spot. The role of the lead blocker for Alstott in that set is primarily what Comella is auditioning for.
While he is a physical player who loves contact, as evidenced by a pancake block of linebacker Marquis Cooper and a violent, bell-ringing hit on linebacker Ian Gold in training camp, Comella is also an accomplished pass catcher with 94 career catches for 639 yards and a touchdown during the regular season. Comella has displayed good hands in camp and has shown a penchant for running precise routes as well.
“Jon does a good job of working to everybody’s strengths,” Comella said. “If that means getting down field every once in a while and catching a pass, I’m all for it. But my job, my primary focus, is still to make sure the guys surrounding me are toting the rock, and that Brad is able to drop back without any worries and throw the deep ball to those other guys.”
What is helping Comella edge out the competition at fullback, which consists of Jameel Cook, Deon Dyer and rookie Casey Cramer, is his ability to excel on special teams. Comella was the New York Giants’ special teams MVP during their Super Bowl season in 2000. But what is even more important is his ability to provide sound pass protection, which is a necessary trait for any back to have in Gruden’s offense.
“It’s a critical part of the game,” Comella said. “Defensive schemes are so complicated nowadays that I think first and foremost, he wants guys that know what they’re doing. In this offense, that can be half the battle sometimes if you put yourself in position. If you can’t pick up blitzes and rushers coming in free, you won’t last long in this league.”
That’s part of the reason why Comella is entering his seventh NFL season, and another reason why the Bucs signed him in the offseason. While he has spent time bouncing around the NFL in New York, Tennessee and Houston, Comella said that he feels right at home in the West Coast offense, which is the scheme he played in for Bill Walsh and Tyrone Willingham at Stanford.
“I’ve always said that Bill Walsh’s offense was my favorite offense,” Comella said. “But that’s changed. I really like Jon’s system here. The way he attacks defenses and finds favorable matchups, you can see why he won a Super Bowl. If you talk to defenses around the league, this offense is very difficult to typecast because of the multiple sets, formations, and personnel groupings we get into. I love it.”
While he has not cemented a roster spot just yet, Comella is loving life these days in Tampa Bay, and is anxious to suit up and play against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Bucs’ preseason opener on Monday night.
“I feel like I have my life back,” Comella said. “This has been a rebirth for me in a lot of ways. I’m very anxious and very excited to get out there and show this team what I can do.”
FAB 5. Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• One more note on Gold. His speed and coverage ability give the Bucs great flexibility in terms of their nickel package. Brooks and Quarles typically play the linebacker roles in the nickel defense, but Gold has the ability to do that as well. So not only did the Bucs get a probable new starter at strongside linebacker when they signed Gold, they also got a replacement for middle linebacker Nate Webster, who departed for Cincinnati via free agency. Webster was the first sub in for either Brooks or Quarles in the nickel defense.
• Three players whose fortunes were fading as training camp closed were former NFL first-round picks Reinard Wilson and Lamar King, and Ronyell Whitaker, a former Bucs practice squad player who started against Houston and played in four other contests at the end of the 2003 season. Wilson has been slowed by a hamstring injury and missed about a week’s worth of action in training camp, which has allowed Corey Smith to make a favorable impression in his absence. King has done little to push for a roster spot and is locked into the third-string left defensive end spot behind Greg Spires and Dewayne White. Whitaker has been out for a week due to severe dehydration symptoms. With a fierce battle going on for the fourth and fifth cornerback spots, Whitaker has lost some ground to Torrie Cox and Corey Ivy and must turn in some stellar play on defense and special teams during the preseason games to win a roster spot.
• One more quick note on Whitaker. If he does not make the final roster cutdown, expect the Atlanta Falcons to come calling. While the Bucs may want to place him on their practice squad again, former Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who is now the Falcons G.M., will likely sign him before that can take place. McKay and former Bucs director of player personnel Tim Ruskell, who is now McKay’s assistant general manager in Atlanta, signed Whitaker to an undrafted free agent contract last April. The Falcons, who need help at cornerback, will have an intriguing lobbyist for Whitaker’s services – quarterback Michael Vick, who was Whitaker’s roommate at Virginia Tech.
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