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The 2009 football season is officially underway for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who took the field for their first training camp practice at One Buccaneer Place Saturday morning.
Although it’s the first time Bucs training camp has been held outside of the Orlando area since 2001, you wouldn’t necessarily have known it as the team did a great job setting up covered bleachers that allowed thousands of fans to observe their favorite team and players practice from literally a few yards away.
The setup was very similar to the one the Bucs had at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, but one could make a good argument that it was better for the fans that were fortunate enough to land free tickets to this morning’s practice.
While the setup resembled the training camp experience at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, the Bucs’ actual practice was very different from the ones held under former head coach Jon Gruden.
Gruden’s training camp practices were typically held in shorts, jerseys and helmets for the first two days before the team put on the pads. New head coach Raheem Morris, who is regarded as a players’ coach, probably didn’t have a lot of fans in the locker room this morning as the players walked onto the field in full pads. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as Morris’ plan is to make this team more physical and better down the stretch.
Some other things were different about Morris’ training camp practice compared to the ones held under Gruden. The offensive and defensive players were in white and red jerseys, respectively. However, the quarterbacks were in yellow practice jerseys, a clear indication that Morris wants to make sure his signal callers remain untouched by defensive coordinator Jim Bates’ pass rushers.
With so many roster changes in Tampa Bay, which is considered one of the league’s youngest teams, the Bucs added a new wrinkle to their practice jerseys, printing the last names of the players on each jersey.
The practice began with warm-ups. This included the wide receivers, who practiced catching passes. It was interesting to see cornerback Ronde Barber running routes and catching passes with the receivers. Kickers Matt Bryant and Mike Nugent were also put through these drills.
For having one month off from the last time Tampa Bay took the field together as a team at the mandatory mini-camp, the Bucs receivers looked fairly polished in this drill. However, it wasn’t perfect. Tight end Jason Pociask dropped a pass during this workout.
From there, the Bucs took their spots on the practice field for a stretching period. Temperatures for this morning’s practice were in the 90s with hot and humid conditions and no cloud cover, but surprisingly the players didn’t appear to have any cramping issues.
Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson ran his players through an interesting scramble drill this morning. He had each quarterback tuck the football away and run through cones while Olson took a good swipe at the football. Quarterbacks Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson demonstrated good ball security during this part of practice.
While Olson was working with the quarterbacks, Bucs wide receivers coach Richard Mann had his players work on catching the football while coming back to it.
This time around, the receivers showed some rust. Michael Clayton, Justin Filani and Cortez Hankton each dropped catchable passes from the quarterbacks, which drew some boos from the Bucs fans in attendance.
But Clayton rebounded by making a one-handed catch near the sideline on a pass thrown by Josh Johnson. That catch was one of the best made this morning and caused the crowd to erupt.
Veteran receiver Antonio Bryant was also guilty of a dropped pass from Leftwich this morning. He ran a great route, but Bryant attempted to make a one-handed catch across the middle and couldn’t hold onto the football. But Bryant displayed good hands overall, especially at the beginning of practice when he caught a laser from McCown while running a slant pattern.
Some receivers were quicker than others in terms of cutting in and out of routes, especially with the pads on. Two players that ran fairly solid routes were rookie Sammie Stroughter, who appears to be recovered from the hamstring injury that limited him towards the end of OTAs, and tight end Kellen Winslow.
While Stroughter is considered a sleeper and player that could earn a 53-man roster spot, the Bucs currently have Brian Clark and Maurice Stovall taking the majority of the No. 3 and 4 receiver reps, respectively.
The Buccaneers running backs started practice with a squeeze-the-ball drill. In a drill that running backs coach Steve Logan has done all offseason, he affixes a huge elastic band around the waist of the running back through a harness and then the goal of the running back is to tuck the ball in one hand and use the other hand to lean forward, stretch and reach out to touch one of three cones that Logan points to. The closer the back is to the cone, the tighter that elastic stretches. It gives the running backs a great workout and also teaches the back to secure the ball with only one hand and then fight against the pull from the elastic to get extra yards.
The X-factor this time was the fact that the players were wearing pads. Logan stressed to his players to get the ball away from the breastplate of the pads to avoid fumbling the ball.
“High and tight, guys,” Logan barked.
After a couple of minutes of doing this drill, it ended abruptly when 225-pound Earnest Graham took off on a forceful surge towards one of the cones broke the elastic away from the housing around the goal post. Laughter erupted among his teammates and Graham yelled, “That’s it for that drill!”
Incredibly, Cadillac Williams appeared to be back close to 100 percent. He was cutting during the individual period, although not at full game speed quite yet. Logan had the two supersized green beach balls that he rolled horizontally down the line of scrimmage and at 5 yards past the line of scrimmage to help his backs learn to read the flow of traffic and adjust to quickly find the cutback lane. Williams did a great job of navigating his way through the balls, showing great lateral movement and running to daylight.
Clifton Smith really stood out with his quickness in this drill.
After that, the running backs took advantage of being in full pads and ran through the gauntlet drill with their teammates taking blocking shields and whacking them with it to try to force a fumble. All of the backs did a good job of holding on to the football.
Logan had his players run the gauntlet by the sidelines, too, which added an extra element to the drill because they had to stay in bounds and try to score.
Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick, had some mixed results this morning. His first training camp practice as a pro started a little shaky when he threw two straight errant passes to wide receivers across the middle of the field.
But the rookie signal caller wasn’t the only one struggling with some passes. Leftwich, who has more playing experience than any of Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks, was high on his pass attempt across the middle for rookie tight end Ryan Purvis, who couldn’t make the grab.
Morris has been emphasizing the importance of the Bucs becoming a more physical football team in 2009, and defensive end Stylez G. White has been listening.
During a 9-on-7 session, Smith took a handoff and ran to the left side of the offensive line before being met by White, who absolutely drilled and laid out Smith on the play. It was one of the hardest hits Pewter Report has observed in its years of covering training camp practices, and drew applause and cheers from the crowd. Smith, Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl return specialist, was able to get up and go back to the huddle on his own.
The session had some mixed results for the offense, but Graham did break off a long run on the right side of the offensive line between guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
The Bucs receivers and cornerbacks went 1-on-1 during the early portion of the morning practice and the results were not good for the defense. Now keep in mind that the offense always has the advantage because the quarterback and the receiver know the route and the cornerback doesn’t. The cornerback also doesn’t have the advantage of having inside help from linebackers, nor does he have any help over the top from safeties in this drill. It’s just the QB, the receiver, the corner and a whole lot of grass.
First up were Bryant and Barber. Bryant used a juke move to create some separation from Barber and then pulled away down the field and hauled in a beautiful pass. Up next were Michael Clayton and Aqib Talib. Talib tried to bump Clayton, but the big, physical 6-foot-3, 210-pounder just about shoved the second-year cornerback to the ground before hauling in a slant pass.
It didn’t get any better for the corners. Second-year receiver Dexter Jackson had a great morning workout, showing top-end speed and some good moves. He juked nickel corner Elbert Mack, gained separation and got open to haul in a catch across the middle.
Barber got another turn, this time against Clark, who beat him and hauled in a pass down the sidelines. Barber really struggled in man coverage during the 1-on-1 session, but so did virtually every other cornerback, including Talib.
Cortez Hankton beat Torrie Cox.
Kelly Campbell beat Mack.
Joel Filani made a great leaping catch over cornerback Kyle Arrington down the right sidelines.
Jackson ran a quick slant and easily beat Talib to the ball.
Barber got another shot and went up against Clayton, who beat him down the left sidelines for a touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball from rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.
Rookie Sammie Stroughter ran a similar route against Talib that Jackson did. Talib’s fundamentals were off on the play as he crossed his feet and didn’t turn his hips as Stroughter hauled in a great pass from Freeman.
Barber took a final snap in 1-on-1 and went up against Bryant again. Bryant got a clean release from Barber and smoked him down the left sideline for a touchdown.
The drill ended mercifully for the defensive backs when Kelly Campbell beat rookie E.J. Biggers to the ball across the middle. Not every pass was catchable, but Pewter Report did not see any cornerback break up a pass or record an interception this morning in the 1-on-1 drills. That does not bode well for what is supposed to be a cornerback-driven defense playing man coverage.
And that’s the thing. The Bucs are playing man coverage this year, so the 1-on-1 drills are even more important because that is indicative of the style of defense they are playing now, rather than the Cover 2, Cover 3 and quarters coverage the Bucs played under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Tampa Bay dedicated part of this morning’s practice to special teams, which was interesting as Bryant and Nugent took turns kicking field goals. It appeared both kickers were perfect on their field goal attempts.
Once the special teams portion of practice concluded, the Bucs gathered for a 7-on-7 drill. McCown was fairly sharp this morning. One of his favorite targets was Winslow, who did a good job of catching the ball and is quick for a tight end, but did drop a pass from Leftwich during the same 7-on-7 drill.
Tight end Jerramy Stevens also dropped a pass from McCown today, and he wasn’t happy with himself after the play, throwing his hands up in frustration.
It was interesting to note that second-year linebacker Geno Hayes ran some first-team reps at strongside linebacker. That’s a position Angelo Crowell and Quincy Black were believed to be the leading candidates to start at, but Hayes has earned some reps, especially with Jermaine Phillips doing a good job of making the transition from safety to weakside linebacker.
Hayes was the only surprise on Tampa Bay’s starting defense. The second-team defensive line featured White, defensive tackles Dre Moore and Roy Miller, and rookie Kyle Moore at left defensive end.
The second-team linebackers were Rod Wilson (middle) and Adam Hayward and Hayes on the outside.
Mack and Barber served as the second-team cornerbacks while Will Allen and Donte Nicholson worked as the backup safeties.
The second-string defensive players played well this morning and gave Leftwich some fits.
In 7-on-7 drills, Hayes did a good job reading Leftwich’s telegraphed pass to Bryant and broke on the ball, swatting away the pass.
Mack got into the act (finally), too, breaking up a pass intended for Clark as Leftwich stared down his receiver. The only problem was that Mack jammed a finger or two knocking the ball down, and grimaced in pain afterward.
Leftwich has a long delivery that could get he and the offense in trouble. Leftwich was using a pump-fake during 11-on-11s this morning, but that caused his slow delivery to become even slower. Kyle Moore took advantage of this by getting to Leftwich in the pocket and causing him to fumble on a sack.
A few plays later, Dre Moore collapsed the pocket with a good rush up the middle, which forced Leftwich to roll out and throw an errant pass that was intended for Purvis, but intercepted by Mack, who showed great athleticism and hands on the pick.
On the far side of the field, rookie Josh Freeman threw a dart to a diving Jackson in the end zone, who scored a touchdown on the play. That reception drew rave applause from the crowd.
Jackson probably had the best practice that Pewter Report has seen him have since he’s been in the NFL, and that’s a real credit to him for the abuse he’s taken over the past year from fans and the media. One day won’t automatically guarantee him a roster spot, but he’s off to a good start.
After that play, the 7-on-7 period was over and the Bucs began team drills. On the first play, Barber got out of his slump and broke up a McCown slant pass intended for Bryant.
McCown bounced back with a deep throw down the right sidelines to Clark, who had a step on Talib for a big gain.
Although he was close to getting sacked on the play, Freeman looked deep and found Bryant jogging downfield. Mack was with him stride for stride, but not looking back at the quarterback. Freeman led Bryant on a bomb and all of a sudden Bryant went from jogging to sprinting after the ball. Mack had fallen asleep on the play and all of a sudden was trailing Bryant, who wound up scoring a touchdown.
Defensive end Gaines Adams came in like lightning off the right edge and would have easily sacked Leftwich. He wound up throwing the ball to Jackson, but Talib knocked away the errant pass.
Leftwich did have some good moments, too. During the 11-on-11 session, the strong-armed Leftwich threw a deep pass down the right sideline for Bryant, who made a great catch with Arrington in tight coverage. That play went for 40 yards. Leftwich also completed a 20-yard pass across the middle of the field to Strougther, who ran some great routes today.
Leftwich didn’t get help from Campbell on one particular play as he dropped a perfect pass with Barber in coverage down the left sideline.
This morning’s final 11-on-11 session didn’t end well for Leftwich, who was nearly intercepted by a diving rookie cornerback DeAngelo Willingham, who couldn’t hold onto the ball.
The biggest noticeable difference on offense is the fact that the quarterbacks are really throwing the deep ball with greater regularity than they did a year ago in Gruden's offense. That fact was not lost on Clayton, who appeared to take a valid shot at weak-armed quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese, whom the team parted ways with.
"All the quarterabcks are taking advantage of throwing the ball down the field," Clayton said. "Josh Freeman is even slinging it down the field. As long as we've got time to throw the ball, we'll be a threat. We're sending guys down the field. Unlike in the past, a guy can be 50 yards down the field and they can still get the ball there."
Bates called quite a few blitzes during practice, which also helped the defense get after the quarterback. Those blitzes appeared to work a few times, including on one play when McCown was forced to throw the ball away early with middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and Black both blitzing him.
But those blitzes weren’t necessarily needed to create pressure each time the quarterback dropped back to throw. Defensive tackle Ryan Sims turned in an outstanding practice, using his big frame and strength to clog running lanes and pressure the quarterback. Sims stuffed halfback Derrick Ward and nearly sacked McCown on consecutive plays during an 11-on-11 drill.
No matter whether it was Tampa Bay’s first-string offensive line or its second-string line, Bates’ defense was pressuring the pocket. By the way, the Bucs’ second-string offensive line consisted of James Lee at left tackle, Julius Wilson at left guard, Sean Mahan at center, Marc Dile at right guard and Anthony Alabi at right tackle.
PEWTER REPORT'S QB SCORECARD – 8/1 A.M. Because so many Pewter Insider subscribers have requested that we keep close tabs on the quarterback position during training camp, Pewter Report will be having a short QB scorecard after each practice in its Camp Insider reports.
This morning, McCown was the clear winner. He didn’t shine by throwing a ton of touchdown passes, but he was efficient and the least error-free of all the QBs. Leftwich got even reps with McCown and was inconsistent. His pump-fakes will turn into pump-sacks during the preseason. Freeman received a limited amount of reps and also was a bit uneven in his performance. Josh Johnson was relegated to fourth-string and got very little work in outside of 7-on-7 drills. He did not take any snaps during the 11-on-11 sessions.