TAMPA — Last season, the sight of running backs blasting up the middle of the Bucs defensive line for big yardage became all too common. But if the preseason opener against Tennessee was any indication, Tampa Bay's defensive tackles have started to close the gap.
Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims and rookie Roy Miller clamped down on the Titans' high-powered running game in the first half Saturday, helping to prevent a run of longer than 5 yards by intermission. Tennessee made six first downs in the opening half, but none came on the run — a sign that the interior line may be gelling as it prepares for Saturday's preseason game in Jacksonville.
"It's a different mentality than last year," Sims said. "We're trying to be more physical with the offensive line. We're about attacking them. So this defense is built totally different than last year."
Instead of lining up in the gaps or trying to plug them, the tackles now set up facing the offensive linemen, allowing the linebackers to shoot the gaps.
"Everything starts with your line," Hovan said. "It always sets the tone for the game. Let Barrett (Ruud) and Quincy (Black) run free and make plays. It's up to us to set the tempo at the line of scrimmage."
"We just went out there and did what we've been practicing," said Miller, a third-round pick out of Texas. "We've been doing a good job all camp against the run. And we just need to keep getting better."
Coach Raheem Morris stressed Monday that there will be a three-man rotation all season. "Obviously, they all played really well the other night. Twelve (rushing) yards at halftime with smash and dash — I'm pretty ecstatic about that."
QB decision soon: Morris is still on schedule to name the starting quarterback after the Jacksonville game. That means Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich will be No. 1 heading into the third preseason game against Miami on Aug. 27 at Raymond James Stadium. Leftwich, drafted by the Jaguars No. 1 in 2003, will play the first quarter with McCown set to play the second.
"Here's your week, here's your show," Morris said. "It's been the whole process, the whole thing. They'll be graded on what they've done and what they're going to do this week."
Morris said he has seen leadership characteristics from McCown and Leftwich. Early next week, his decision on who will guide the offense could be divulged.
Clayton back: WR Michael Clayton, out the past week with a minor hamstring injury, returned to practice Monday. "It was a good time off; I did a lot of rest and recovery," he said. Clayton acknowledged it was frustrating to miss the preseason opener, but he's thrilled to be back at work. "The atmosphere around here is one to love. Everybody's happy when they come to work. Every team that I've been on and have had success with has had this type of atmosphere. So I'm really excited about the task at hand — being able to come back out here and finish off camp strong is going to be big for me."
Injury report: In addition to Clayton, C Jeff Faine (groin) and LB Angelo Crowell (hamstring strain) returned to practice. Morris expressed enthusiasm about Crowell's development as a strong-side linebacker and his determination (having missed 2008 with a knee injury). K Matt Bryant (hamstring) will be evaluated this week and could play Saturday.