Bucs Inside Slant

The injury to Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is precisely why Bucs coach Jon Gruden has kept Brad Johnson off the field for preseason for all but 22 plays.

Brad Johnson, receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, running back Michael Pittman, tight end Ken Dilger and fullback Mike Alstott get the majority of reps in practice and are spectators in the games. That's not likely to change much throughout the preseason, even though the next-to-last exhibition game traditionally calls for the starting units to play a half.

Instead, Johnson and company have utilized practice time to prepare for the first three weeks of the 2003 regular season when they will face a murderer's row of defenses: Philadelphia, Carolina and Atlanta.

"My whole thing is we get three totally different looks (on defense) right from the get-go," said Johnson.

"Philadelphia can be a base team or they can be a blitz eight from one side team. Carolina is very, very stout and they do some unique things. We've been working on them quite a bit, too, even in training camp. And Atlanta is a different look all together with a 3-4 deal. The great thing is after the Houston game, I'll have seven practices for Philadelphia. That's the great thing about that."

The Bucs finished two-a-day workouts Aug. 15 at Disney's Wide World of Sports and were fortunate not to sustain any serious injuries to key players.

In fact, expect for Warren Sapp (swollen knee) and Ronde Barber (knee), virtually no starter missed a workout.

Still lingering as a problem is the status of running back Michael Pittman, who is having an exceptional preseason.

Pittman faces possible jail time of suspension in connection with two felony assault counts against his wife and babysitter.

Originally, it was thought that the Bucs might replace Pittman with former Cardinals running back Thomas Jones. But what Tampa Bay officials are hoping for is that lawyers delay Pittman's trial until after the 2003 season.

In any case, the Bucs plan to treat Pittman's status as if they would an injury should he have to miss games during the season. They hope Jones, Aaron Stecker and six-time Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott could carry the load under that scenario.

CAMP CALENDAR: The Bucs ended 30 days of training camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports Aug. 15.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--As is custom, Bucs rookies took the veterans out to dinner on the last night of training camp in Lake Buena Vista. The offense dined at Morton's Steak House, racking up quite a bill for rookie quarterback Chris Simms.
But at the last minute, QB Brad Johnson came to the rescue and paid the entire bill.
The defense dined at Emeril's, where defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland bailed out rookie Dewayne White by paying the bill.

--Staff Sgt. Manny Herrera of the Charlie Company Tank Batallion is a huge Tampa Bay fan. While in Iraq, his tank was emblazoned with a black-white-and-red Bucs flag.
After practice Saturday, Herrera presented that flag framed in a glass case to coach Gruden.
"He said that he was overseas and had a Buc flag on top of his tank," said Gruden. "They hit some adversity over there and when his mom saw that flag on the tank, she recognized it and realized that her son was okay. So he gave that to us as a token of appreciation for his love of Tampa Bay Buccaneer football and it meant a lot to us. Obviously, we'll put that up on our facility here. We could use something like that as inspiration around here."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's 40 years old and he's coaching like he's Joe Paterno. He shouldn't be able to know that much." -- Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin on Gruden turning the big 4-oh.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bucs are working Nate Webster at strong-side linebacker to give him a chance to compete for a starting job with Dwayne Rudd.

Webster, who will become a free agent at the end of the 2003 season, has been stuck behind Pro Bowl linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles since coming to the team.

"He deserves a legitimate shot to compete for a starting job," said Gruden.

--The Bucs signed kicker Rob Bironas to a one-year contract Saturday, primarily to handle kickoff duties in the preseason until Gramatica recovers from a sore groin.

Free agent Ralf Kleinmann will continue to handle the placekicking duties in Gramatica's absence. But after watching Kleinmann miss and extra point and a 25-yard field goal last week at Miami, the Bucs wanted to have another option.

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The Bucs haven't settled on a punt or kickoff returner and there are several in the mix. Gruden said receiver Karl Williams, the club's all-time leader in return yardage, has the upper hand to keep his job. But second-year pro Tim Wansley and veteran Jacquez Green have to open eyes in the final three preseason games to win the job. On kickoffs, running back Aaron Stecker is the incumbent. But he has competition in rookie free agent Fabian Davis.

OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: With Walker and Coleman shelved at right tackle, the Bucs will take a look at Second-year tackle Mitch White and tackle/guard Dan Goodspeed also could see playing time at right tackle Monday night.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LB Ryan Nece is still not fully recovered from a torn ACL that ended his 2002 season after eight games, but his comeback appears to be on schedule. Playing both outside linebacker positions, Nece batted away a two-point conversion pass attempt by Miami quarterback Sage Rosenfels to preserve the Bucs 20-19 win last Friday.

ROOKIE REPORT: The Bucs weakest link remains their offensive line and depth is an issue. Other than Cosey Coleman and Jason Whittle battling for the right guard spot, the backup roles will be played mostly by rookies. But the Bucs are pleased with T Lance Nimmo, a fourth-round pick from West Virginia, C Austin King, a fourth rounder from Northwestern and Sean Mahan, a fifth-round pick from Notre Dame.

"All in all, we're fairly pleased," said Gruden. "But you have to be careful, because we have a lot of football to play."

INJURIES: PK Martin Gramatica has a groin strain and will not play Monday night at St. Louis. The Bucs hope to have him for the final two preseason games. RB Earnest Graham has a shoulder sprain and could miss the remainder of the preseason. RT Kenyatta Walker (right ankle sprain) and backup RT Cornell Green (right ankle sprain) are doubtful for Monday night's game at St. Louis.

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