As expected, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed quarterback Chris Simms on injured reserve and activated QB Luke McCown from the physically unable to perform list on Friday evening.

Tampa Bay had until 4 p.m. ET Tuesday to either activate McCown or place him on injured reserve, but the fact that they activated him Friday is a sign that they were encouraged by the progress he had made since suffering a partial tear of the ACL back in June.

Simms, who has been out since late September after undergoing a Splenectomy, is officially out for the remainder of the 2006 season. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007.

Tampa Bay is second to last among the NFC in first downs through Week 8 with 106. The NFL average is 131.

Some of the blame for that statistic can be placed on the Bucs’ inefficiency on first down as they are one of only two teams in the league (Oakland) to average less than four yards on first down, with an NFC low 3.96 yards per play.

As a result, rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and the offense are being put in third-and-long situations. And against the Giants last week, Tampa Bay was just 2-of-16 on third down conversions. Of those 16 opportunities, only three were four yards or less as opposed to seven situations where the offense was faced with third-and-10 yards or more.

“We have to do more than just look at the stats, we have to look at the results,” Gruden said. “You know, why are we getting one yard here and two yards there? And why is this ball incomplete?

“We’re playing some pretty good defenses by the way, and it has a lot to do with that. And we’re playing a young quarterback who is being repeatedly challenged. [Defenses] don’t want you to be able to just turn around and hand the ball to your friend Carnell [Williams] without really struggling to make an inch. They are going to try to make us do some things that, gosh dangit, you don’t want to do. And until we can dig in the batters box and blast some of these pitches out of the stands, we’re going to continue to struggle on first down.”

Consequently, the team is converting a humble 33 percent of its third down opportunities, below the league average of 36.9 percent. Over the span of the last three games that percentage is even worse (28.2 percent, converting just 13-of-46 third down plays.

“Our field position, to be honest with you, is the worst in football,” Gruden said. “We’ve started four or five possessions, the whole year, on the other side of the 50. And when you have horrific field position,  like we have, sometimes it’s really hard to open it up.  But we have to do better on first down. We have to do better on third down. We have to do better, period.”

One trend that has also come to light over those same three games is the Bucs’ tendency to go with the pass over the run in short-yardage situations.  Against the Bengals, Eagles and Giants, the Bucs were in third-and-3-yards or less on 10 occasions. Of those 10, they passed seven times to just three rushes, converting first downs on four pass attempts to just one successful rush. Each of the rushes was by running back Cadillac Williams

“Oh, no doubt I’m a short yardage back,” said Williams, who showed a proficiency to get the tough yards while at Auburn. “Because the thing I can do, is that I can definitely run in the cracks and get behind my pads and move the pile.”

Obviously, memories of Saints Reggie Bush’s 65-yard game-wining punt return last time out may still be lingering in the minds of Bucs special teams players and punter Josh Bidwell.

It remains Bush’s lone touchdown of the season, and he is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a sore ankle.  

“It’s not like he is returning a punt for a touchdown every single game,” Bidwell said of Bush. “He was just the benefit of the right circumstance at the right time and he made a big play and scored a touchdown.”

Bidwell says it’s not that big of a deal in preparing for this week. As to whether the plan will be to kick away from Bush, should he return punts, Bidwell says that directional punting is not his specialty. He is more of a power punter that likes to get high punts with lots of hang time in order for his punt team to get down field and cover.

But he is one of 10 punters in the league allowing a double-digit return average. How much of that falls on Bidwell’s shoulders and how much falls on the coverage team is debatable.

Bidwell made his first Pro Bowl last season with a 45.6 gross average, the best in franchise history. His 37.5 net average was his career best and the third-best in the NFC. Both his net and his gross average are down about two yards this season.

“We take a lot of pride in punting,” Bidwell said. “Last year we dominated every game. This year we’ve not dominated as much, so it’s just something were trying to get back to where we feel like were the best in the NFL.”

Defensive linemen Ellis Wyms (ankle) and Simeon Rice (shoulder) both missed practice Friday and are listed as questionable.

Linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee) is also questionable and cornerback Juran Bolden (hip) is probable.

Chris Simms (splenectomy) is out

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