The Tampa Bay Buccaneers received some good and bad news after practice at One Buccaneer Place on Thursday.
The good news is Bucs starting left guard Arron Sears, who was held out of Wednesday's workout with an ankle injury, practiced in a limited fashion on Thursday, giving the team hope that he will play vs. the New York Giants on Sunday.
"I am optimistic because he showed some improvement today," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of the rookie. "God knows we need him in a game like this. We're optimistic, yet cautiously optimistic."
The bad news is Bucs starting strongside linebacker Cato June missed his second consecutive practice due to the ankle/foot injury he sustained vs. Carolina last Sunday.
"Obviously it's a concern," Gruden said of June's injury. "This is a big game and he's inactive again today. We'll see how he is tomorrow. The reality is he's got an ankle injury and it's one we're concerned about."
If June cannot play vs. the Giants, sixth-year linebacker Ryan Nece would start in his place. Although they would like June, who ranked third on the team in tackles with 120 this year, to play vs. the Giants the Bucs have confidence in Nece, who has started 35 career games, including Tampa Bay's 2005 playoff game vs. Washington.
"He's a starter around here," Gruden said of Nece. "He started in the playoff game a couple of years ago. We'll have a plan and we hope Cato gets better fast.
"We'll do the best we can and we'll obviously lean on somebody else whether it's Ryan Nece or [rookie LB] Quincy Black – those guys are here for a reason. We did give them a chance in the last game to play and get ready for this. That's a real hell of a benefit of sitting some of your guys down and getting some of the younger guys some experience."
The injury news isn't much better for the Giants.
Three New York starters – center Shaun O'Hara (knee), linebacker Kawika Mitchell (knee) and cornerback Sam Madison (stomach) – were held out of practice for the second straight day on Thursday.
Out of those three injuries, the Giants seem to be most concerned with O'Hara's since he plays such a key role along New York's offensive line. With his status for Sunday's game unknown, the Bucs defenders are preparing for both O'Hara and backup C Grey Ruegamer, a ninth-year veteran.
"I really like Shaun. I've gone up against him since college when he played at Rutgers," Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan said. "We've had our battles. He's one of the better centers in the league. I give him his due respect. I saw the play in which he hurt his knee on. It's very unfortunate to hurt your MCL in the last game of the season.
"Shaun is a warrior. I'm sure he'll try to play through the pain and get ready for Sunday. It's the playoffs. I'm going to get ready for Shaun, but I'm also getting ready for Ruegamer. I'm doing extra homework this week, but at least I know I'll be fully prepared when we take the field at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday."
In other New York injury news, Giants CB Kevin Dockery (hip flexor) missed practice for the second straight day. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress (ankle) and defensive end Dave Tollefson (concussion), who missed Wednesday's practice, were limited during Thursday's workout. Tight end Mike Matthews missed Thursday's practice with the flu.
New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw (calf) and WR Sinorice Moss (back) had full participation in practice for the second consecutive day. Giants tight end Mike Matthews (illness) also did not practice on Thursday.
ANKLE INJURY LINGERS FOR PITTMAN
After going 4-12 in 2006, the 2007 season has been a fun one for the 9-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will host the New York Giants in a Wild Card playoff game on Sunday.
However, the season has not been enjoyable for Bucs running back Michael Pittman, who has played in just 10 regular season games this season due to the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 5.
As a result, Pittman has seen limited playing time and rushed for just 286 yards (4.2 avg.) and one touchdown and hauled in 26 passes for 191 yards while watching RB Earnest Graham carry the load in the running game for the Bucs.
While he's pleased with the team's success, Pittman is frustrated with the fact that he's still not 100 percent healthy heading into the playoffs.
"It's not the greatest and I'm not 100 percent, but I just have to deal with it," Pittman said of his injured ankle. "The year could be over after this week. Hopefully it's not. I have to be prepared to play. I'm not even close to 100 percent. Every game it's like a re-injury with the ankle.
"With a severe ankle injury like mine they usually tell you to put it in a cast for six weeks and rest it. I think my ankle was in a cast for about three days and I really didn't give it a chance to rest. It's been a tough year for me from an injury standpoint. I've never really been hurt and I've lost some of my burst, so I can't really do everything I want to do. I need to get back out there and play. I've been trying to do that here down the stretch."
The Bucs likely will need Pittman vs. the Giants on Sunday. New York has recorded a league-high 53 sacks, but not all of those quarterback takedowns have come from the defensive linemen.
The Giants are known for their exotic blitzing scheme, which often calls on linebackers and defensive backs to get after the quarterback. As a result, 12 different Giants defenders have recorded at least one sack this season.
Pittman is regarded as one of the best blockers in the league at his position and will need to help protect Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia if Tampa Bay is going to advance in the playoffs.
"It's very important," Pittman said of blitz pickup. "Veteran guys on this team need to expect that. I played against the Giants and defenses that are similar to the Giants. Philadelphia ran the same exact defense as the Giants. They've got very physical guys and we're going to need to pick up blitzes and block. It's a playoff game and one play could change it. That play could be a blitz pickup. We all just have to do our part."
HACKETT BRUSHES OFF OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR TALK
Media reports out of Kansas City suggest that Tampa Bay quarterback Paul Hackett could be a candidate for the Chiefs' vacant offensive coordinator position. Hackett, who signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay last January, is in his third season in Tampa, but was Kansas City's offensive coordinator from 1993-97.
Hackett was the offensive coordinator under Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards when Edwards was the head coach of the New York Jets from 2001-2004. Edwards fired offensive coordinator Paul Solari earlier this week, fueling the speculation that Hackett and Edwards could be reunited. Edwards was forced to fire Hackett after the 2004 season after the team went 10-6 and 1-1 in the postseason.
When asked if Hackett would have any interest in becoming the offensive coordinator in Kansas City if he were to be considered, he said, "Beat the Giants" before abruptly ending the interview.
BUCS FAMILIAR WITH JACOBS
Tampa Bay has made it clear that its key to defensive success on Sunday will be containing New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.
The Bucs have spent all week stressing the importance of swarming to the ball and gang tackling Jacobs, who rushed for 1,009 yards (5.0 avg.) and four touchdowns during the regular season.
Last year, Tampa Bay lost to New York 17-3 in a regular season contest. The Bucs finished the 2006 regular season ranked 17th in the NFL, and Jacobs was able to gain 41 yards on seven carries (5.8 avg.) and score one touchdown vs. the Bucs in that game.
Tampa Bay's defense, which ranks No. 2 overall in the NFL and 17th against the run this season, feels it will benefit from having already faced the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Jacobs before.
"I think it helps for the guys that are still here," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said of having played against Jacobs last year. "We got a good look at their personnel and we have a good idea of what we want to do defensively. I think we know what to expect on Sunday."
SUNDAY'S GAME A BIG STAGE FOR GRAHAM
The Buccaneers produced a 9-7 record and NFC South division championship while flying under the radar for most of the season as far as the national media is concerned.
That might be one of the reasons why the Bucs did not have a single player voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season.
The Bucs have not received a lot of national attention or recognition. In fact, Tampa Bay did not have a game on Monday Night Football and its scheduled Sunday Night Football game vs. San Francisco in Week 16 was flex-scheduled to the Washington vs. Minnesota game, which had more serious playoff implications.
Tampa Bay will undoubtedly have the national spotlight for its Wild Card playoff game vs. New York. The Bucs and Giants will clash at 1:00 p..m. on Sunday before a nationally televised audience on Fox.
Sunday's national stage at Raymond James Stadium is one several relatively unknown Bucs players outside the Tampa Bay area are looking forward to playing on.
That includes running back Earnest Graham, who started the season as a third-string running back and special teams ace, but has since taken over for injured running backs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.
"Everybody's going to be watching," said Graham. "Players that are great get judged on what they do in the playoffs. It's different when you rush for 130 yards midseason as opposed to a big game against a tough defense like the Giants. I'm a Florida guy, but everybody is going to be watching this from around the country."
Graham had a chance to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark this year, but the Bucs elected to rest him over the final two weeks of the regular season. He finished the season with 222 carries for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns and 49 receptions for 324 yards en route to helping Tampa Bay's ground game rank 11th in the NFL.
While he would have liked to have rushed for over 1,000 yards, Graham feels rested and ready for the playoffs.
"It's been great," Graham said of the rest he's received over the last two weeks. "The NFL is a rough game. It's a big deal to head into a big game, a playoff game, feeling fresh as far as your mind and body are concerned. I'm excited about the game."
FORMER BUCS DT SAPP TO RETIRE
Several media outlets are reporting that Oakland Raiders defensive tackle and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warren Sapp is retiring from the National Football League.
Sapp, 35, originally entered the NFL as a first-round pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995. He finished his career with 96.5 sacks. Sapp recorded 77 of those quarterback takedowns as a Buccaneer from 1995-2003. He needed just two sacks to break Tampa Bay's franchise sack record, which still is held by Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon.
A former Miami Hurricane standout, Sapp was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the year in 1999 and helped the Buccaneers win their first Super Bowl (XXXVII) in 2002.
STAT OF THE DAY
Everyone knows the New England Patriots went undefeated in the 2007 regular season, but how did their victims fare the following week?
Seven straight New England opponents have gone on to lose the following week after losing to the Patriots. Will the New York Giants, who lost to New England 38-35 last Saturday, keep that trend going or will they break it in Tampa Bay?
That question will be answered at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on how some of his players were overlooked elsewhere by the scouting system.
"[Quarterback Jeff] Garcia is a class example of that. Our left tackle [Donald Penn] wasn't drafted. [Running back] Earnest Graham wasn't drafted. [Linebacker Ryan Nece] wasn't drafted. We've got a number of guys playing critical roles on this team that were a bit obscure. [Defensive tackle[ Jovan Haye was another guy we found on Cleveland's practice squad. We're ‘The No-Names,' man. But we love these guys and we're really proud of them. It's a real credit to them and our scouting department."
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