With tight end Luke Stocker’s availability this Sunday at San Francisco unlikely, Tampa Bay will look to rookie backups Collin Franklin and Zack Pianalto to help fill the void.
“Like Rah says, next man up,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said during a Thursday afternoon press conference, referring to head coach Raheem Morris. “I’ve talked to [tight ends coach] Alfredo [Roberts], Rah, [general manager] Mark Dominik and everybody, and we said, well, we signed these guys so let’s see if they can play. They have an opportunity this week to show us they can play and they belong on this team. We’ll get a chance this Sunday to see.”
Morris didn’t elaborate on the severity of Stocker’s condition Thursday, but described him as “week-to-week.” Stocker has not participated in practices this week.
“I’m not sure exactly about the extent of the injury, but he got rolled up so he’ll be a week-to-week guy. We still have to practice without him, obviously, but he’s a tough kid. I’m looking forward to him getting back pretty soon.”
Stocker, the Bucs’ fourth-round draft pick out of Tennessee this year, has started all four games for Tampa Bay this season and plays primarily in two-tight sets. The 6-foot-5, 253-pounder has caught five of the eight balls thrown his way for a total of 59 yards [11.8 yards per reception] and no touchdowns.
As for Pianalto and Franklin, both undrafted this year, neither has seen many live game reps nor have they registered any statistics. Franklin the practice squad prior to the Indianapolis Colts game – saw playing time Monday night. Pianalto was inactive against Detroit and Indianapolis and did not see the field during the Minnesota and Atlanta
Both untested rookies are similar sized tight ends. Pianalto [6-foot-4, 250-pounds] played his college ball at North Carolina and set a Tar Heel record for the most career receptions  by a tight end in team history. Franklin [6-foot-5, 252-pounds] went to Iowa State and ranked second nationally with 4.5 receptions per game and was an All-Big 12 second team selection.
Olson said both Pianalto and Franklin have displayed the ability to receive passes during practice, but their productivity as run blockers will be put to the test in San Francisco.
“I would classify both of them as having very good hands,” Olson said. “Pianalto made some really nice catches here a couple weeks ago and Franklin made a fantastic catch in today’s practice. So they’ve both shown the ability to catch the football, but we’ll get a chance to see them in the run game this weekend.”
Morris also spoke of the effect Stocker’s absence will have on Sunday’s personnel packages and the running game.
“If Kellen’s got to take a little bit of a heavier load, he’s got to take a little bit of a heavier load,” he said of starting tight end Kellen Winslow. “We’ll just get ready to go out there and run our plays and get the ball to LeGarrette Blount. [We’ll] put a little more weight on what [fullback Erik] Lorig means to us, a little bit of Earnest Graham and lean heavier on our tackles and get those guys going heavier in their double teams.”
The Bucs have averaged 153.5 yards rushing over the past two weeks and will be going up against a 49ers defense ranked No. 4 in the league against the run this season, surrendering only 74.0 yards per game. In the past 26 games, San Francisco hasn’t allowed an opposing running back to reach the 100-yard rushing mark.
“They’re pretty good and they’ve been pretty good for a while,” Morris said when asked about the San Francisco front seven. “They’ve got [defensive end] Justin Smith up there – that’s a machine, that’s a man. This 49er defense has been playing very well. They’ve been playing well against the run, against the pass. I think they ranked pretty high if you’re talking about stats. They’re doing a nice job so we’ve got a nice challenge ahead of us.”