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The first week of Tampa Bay's 2009 training camp is just about in the books. Pewter Report has shared the majority of its training camp observations in its Training Camp Insider reports, but here are a few random thoughts from the first week of Bucs training camp.
Where Do The Bucs Put Cadillac?
Tampa Bay's offensive backfield is loaded with talented running backs. This group includes Derrick Ward (1,000-yard rusher from 2008), Earnest Graham (rushed for 14 touchdowns over past two seasons), Cadillac Williams (former NFL Rookie of the Year) and Clifton Smith (Pro Bowl return specialist).
That's a good problem to have, right? Sure, but the loaded backfield may create some problems for the Bucs when they attempt to determine their active roster on Sundays. As for right now, only 47 of a team's 53 players can be active for regular season games.
We know Graham and Ward will be active on game days. They will be featured quite a bit in Jeff Jagodzinski's zone blocking scheme, which is run-oriented in nature.
After that things get interesting because the Bucs will also make Smith active on game days. He will serve as the team's primary return specialist.
So, would the Bucs actually make four backs active on game days, not including their fullbacks? That's what they'd have to do in order to get Williams on the football field.
Williams is attempting to return to form after suffering two season-ending knee injuries in as many years. So far, so good for Williams, who has been doing quite well in training camp.
However, the problem with activating Williams on game days is he does not cover kickoffs or punts on special teams, which is typically what a third- or fourth-string player must do to justify his spot on an active roster. Complicating matters if the fact that Williams is scheduled to earn over $2 million in base salary in 2009.
The Bucs have been giving Williams an awful lot of work as a punt and kickoff return man. That job should be Smith's, but some have been wondering if the Bucs would rotate return men based on Jagodzinski's game plan from week to week, meaning Smith, who is not yet a proven running back in the NFL, could be active one game and Williams could be active the next.
If the Bucs decide to make four running backs active on game days, it likely would mean Tampa Bay would keep just one fullback on its active roster, especially since Graham can play both positions. That one fullback likely would be B.J. Askew, whose role in the passing game has been dramatically reduced compared to the one he had in former head coach Jon Gruden's offensive system. In addition to being a good blocker, Askew is also a solid special teams player.
It will be interesting to see how the Bucs decide to work their running backs into the rotation, and which ones, if any, they opt to make inactive on game days this season.
“You have to make it work somewhere else,” said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “Earnest Graham is a special teams guy and he’s done that for us in the past. B.J. Askew has been a great special teams player for us, and so has Jameel Cook.
“I don’t think Cadillac has ever been asked to cover on special teams. Derrick Ward was earlier in his career. The game day decisions will be made by us as a group. We’ll deal with that when we get to the games.”
Quarterbacks Need To Step Up
The Bucs fans that have read our Pewter Insider articles from training camp know the quarterback play has been competitive, but underwhelming thus far.
That's not good news for the Buccaneers since the quarterback position is arguably the most important in the NFL, even for a team that plans to run the football as much as Tampa Bay.
Luke McCown entered training camp as the slight frontrunner, but despite throwing only a few interceptions and showing good mobility and a strong arm, McCown has failed to pull away with the starting job.
That's because he has been too conservative at times in the passing game, opting to check down to a receiver instead of throwing deep off play-action, which is exactly what Jagodzinski wants his quarterback to do in this offense.
McCown hasn't made many mistakes, but he also hasn't shown enough consistency or made enough big plays in the passing game.
Byron Leftwich has really gained some ground in the competition, and at this point he probably leading. The Bucs love his experience and how he takes command of the huddle. His long delivery and lack of mobility still cause Leftwich to hold onto the football too long, which can result in too many sacks.
However, Leftwich has been going through his progressions in a much quicker fashion as of late, and he has put his cannon of an arm on display in the passing game, which has resulted in some impressive touchdown throws. Leftwich has also thrown more interceptions, though.
Second-year signal caller Josh Johnson definitely appears to be the odd man out as he's received very few reps in practice. Bucs rookie QB Josh Freeman, whom some thought could start by Week 1, has taken a major step back in the competition. In fact, Freeman's reps have been limited as a result of his erratic play, so the Bucs appear to be sticking to their plan of having their first-round pick sit and learn in 2009. However, he is expected to get more work in Friday morning's practice.
This battle is probably too close to call, and the winner won't be decided in training camp. Tampa Bay's starting quarterback will emerge in preseason games. But the Bucs need the quarterback that wins the job to win by impressing, not by default.
Big Mack Attack
If you're looking for the most impressive player of training camp so far, look no further than Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack.
A second-year player, Mack landed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent last year. Not only did he earn a 53-man roster spot as a rookie, Mack also saw significant playing time.
The Bucs thought enough of Mack to pass on a few talented and proven cornerbacks in free agency, including Jamar Fletcher and Patrick Surtain. The team also allowed Philip Buchanon to walk in free agency.
Mack was supposed to be Tampa Bay's third cornerback, but if the first week of training camp is a sign of things to come from the 5-foot-10, 175-pound player, Mack could work his way into the starting lineup by the end of preseason, but he'll also have to show the ability to bounce back after a shaky practice on Thursday afternoon.
Suggesting Mack could enter the starting lineup at some point is not a knock on Ronde Barber or Aqib Talib – that's a credit to Mack, and a well-deserved one as he has shown impressive cover skills, athleticism and ballhawking ability, leading the team in interceptions through the first week of training camp with three.
Defensive Tackles Impressing
Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates' 4-3 scheme is designed for the cornerbacks to play bump-and-run man coverage and have the defensive ends get to the quarterback.
But that's not exactly how the scheme and players have been successful through the first week of camp.
Tampa Bay's defensive tackles, particularly starters Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan, second-year player Dre Moore and rookie Roy Miller, have been quite active in the trenches, and not just against the run.
These defensive tackles have shown the ability to penetrate the offensive backfield, which has resulted in quite a few quarterback pressures and sacks, certainly more than anybody outside of One Buc Place expected heading into camp. As for the people inside the organization, the defensive tackles are doing what the defensive coaching staff is asking of them – both against the run and the pass.
“That’s not a surprise because we’ve got some different packages,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said of the pressure applied by the defensive tackles. “When we talk about the defensive tackles freeing up the ends we’re talking about first downs. But when we get into some of our third down stuff we have some packages, like the ‘Go’ package where we’ll look a lot like the Tampa 2 did last year with guys getting off the ball, getting vertical and getting penetration. That’s where you’re seeing it for the most part.”
It's also not a surprise to defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson, who is projected to be Tampa Bay's starting left end and has been impressed with what he's seen from the team's defensive tackles.
"We know what our guys inside can do," said Wilkerson. "That Hovan, Sims, Roy and even Dre can get in there and rush the passer, now. They are more than capable of getting after the passer, and anybody that's been out here can see that. They've done a good job in the weight room this offseason to do that."
Moore, last year's fourth-round pick who was relegated to the practice squad for the 2008 season, has really come on and is pulling away from Greg Peterson, who has been slowed by a knee injury. Moore has also seen some snaps at left end and has flourished there, too. He's in good position to make the team if he continues to play the way he has during the first week.
Morris Coaching Beyond His Years
At age 33, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris is the youngest head coach in the National Football League.
One of the reasons why many pundits do not believe the Bucs will make the playoffs in 2009 is because of Morris' youth and inexperience. He has, after all, never been a head coach or even a coordinator in the NFL.
But after watching Morris in action during organized team activities and through one week of training camp, one can't help but be impressed with the job he's done as a head coach.
Morris is tight with a lot of his players, which was initially cause for concern, but Morris has earned even more respect from the players by being a fair, but no-nonsense type of guy.
Morris is the players' head coach. He prefers to be their buddy, but Morris will also be a bully when he needs to be.
The Bucs are being held accountable by their head coach, and the discipline Morris has subjected the players to is making them accountable to each other.
That's the message Morris has sent by having the players run a conditioning marathon disguised as a special teams workout during OTAs following the Aqib Talib helmet-swinging incident that resulted in an injury to Torrie Cox.
Morris has continued to keep the players on their toes in training camp by having them sport full pads for the majority of practices, run gassers in practice, and even making part of a practice live because the tempo and performance were poor.
Tampa Bay's head coach has wisely challenged his players, and they have responded each time, whether it has been timing and precision, being more physical or simply executing better.
Morris' decision to show his players game tape from Tampa Bay's past several meetings versus the Carolina Panthers in order to get his point across that the Bucs need to become a much more physical team was a brilliant move, and one the Bucs should reap the benefits of down the road.
One would be hard pressed to find a pundit that is predicting the Bucs to make the playoffs in 2009. Maybe they will or maybe they won't, but one thing is for sure – this Bucs team is going to play extremely hard for Morris, whom they respect tremendously because he's been fair and honest with them.