It was a typical run play, Marcus Mariota hands the ball off to Dion Lewis, who tucks the ball away and accelerates through the middle of the Titans’ offensive line. They get a good push up front, allowing enough room for Lewis to squirt through.
It looked as if Lewis was about to break one for a big gain, but as soon as the metaphorical - and redundantly used phrase - door opened, it was slammed shut by Bucs’ safety Chris Conte.
Conte absolutely leveled Lewis and the end result was a loud POP! which drew gasps from a crowd of Titan fans over thirty yards away. Sure enough, the first scuffle of this week’s joint practices broke out and everyone from players to coaches to Titans’ General Manager Jon Robinson were on the field attempting to deescalate the situation.
“I wasn’t trying to blow him up or anything, I was just trying to fit the run and things happen,” Conte explained. “I wasn’t trying to hurt him or do anything out of line. I was just trying to thud him up like how we practice. Things happen like that, but we also hope we can make some more plays during the game.”
One of multiple defenders who stood out for the Bucs this week, Conte is being counted on early and often in camp due to injuries in the secondary. The defensive line has taken some hits as well with injuries to Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein, leaving the vets along the line to carry the team just like Conte.
They were up to the task. Jason Pierre-Paul, Kwon Alexander, Conte, and others made play after play during all facets of both practices. Pierre-Paul and Taylor Lewan’s battles were fun enough just to watch on their own, as each player went after the other, battling and jawing to find out who is the superior player of the two,
One player that wasn’t even mentioned on that list was Gerald McCoy. Although he didn’t make many plays during practice, his presence was still felt. He knows what he is capable of - so does the rest of the NFL - and realizes the value in the nuances of the game during the preseason.
“My dad always raised me as, don’t try and make plays, do the things it takes to make plays, and that’s just playing technique,” McCoy told me. “That’s doing your job well within the scheme of the defense and that’s all I’m gonna do Saturday. I’ll carry over what we did in practice to the game.”
Just like the other veterans on defense, he knows how important these joint practices are to not only break the monotony of training camp, but the fact that it’s one step closer to actual game play that can provide a foundation for the season.
“For me, personally, it was good to go up against a different cadence, a different look. Compared to a game, practice is more of a controlled situation where you can get some good work in,” McCoy said. “You get to see what you need to fix, adjust, and you just kind of stack it, stack it, stack it. And then, you are able to see how it carries over into the game and keep stacking it as you go into the season.”
The Bucs’ front seven is loaded with veterans who tore after Mariota and Blaine Gabbert on both Wednesday and Thursday. The hope is that it’s a sign of things to come, which would be a tremendous improvement to the league’s worst pass-rush a year ago.
As mentioned earlier, however, not everything is golden on the defensive side of the ball. Due to some injuries at corner, safety Justin Evans has been working in the slot in nickel formations - while learning the position - and rookie Jordan Whitehead has seen plenty of action, too.
For Evans, it’s not a steep learning curve at his new position, but more of an adjustment that simply takes some time to get used to.
“It’s just different,” Evans said when referring to his new position, “I’m used to playing safety, I know all my checks. At nickel, I know most of it too, but it just takes a few reps to fully understand the position. It’s trial and error.”
Even though it’s only his second year, Evans already has the mentality of fellow veteran teammates such as JPP. In order to create as many mismatches as possible along the line, the Bucs have been lining him up on the inside in order to bring extra edge rushers when needed and to take advantage of Pierre-Paul’s excellent run defense.
Both players are willing to do whatever is needed from them to help the team succeed and in theory, that is excellent news.
Right now, the veterans are doing exactly what they need to do, which is make plays and dominate. Let’s see if McCoy and Co. can “stack it” and carry it over into not only Saturday night’s game, but the regular season as well.