Bucs head coach Jon Gruden doesn't want to talk about any of the players that can't practice or are limited in practice. Gruden only wants to talk about the players that will be able to help Tampa Bay get a victory on Sunday vs. the Atlanta Falcons. The issue, however, is the fact that the Bucs might not be as healthy as thought to be heading to the Georgia Dome.
Defensive end Greg Spires (calf) is the only player that Gruden could say for sure is not going to play vs. the Falcons. Wide receiver Ike Hilliard (calf), right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (shoulder) and running back Earnest Graham (ankle) were added to the usual suspects in being limited in practice on Wednesday. Fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) was limited in practice on Thursday and Gruden was very short about players that are limited this week.
"It's as is, as the list says. I'm really tired of talking about the injured guys," Gruden said. "I'd rather talk about the guys we know are playing. Those are the guys we're going to count on to win the football game. These limited guys are limited guys, and hopefully we get some guys that can play at some point soon."
Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder), linebacker Quincy Black (hamstring), running back Michael Pittman (ankle), wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle), and tight end Alex Smith (ankle) have been limited in practice for at least two weeks, if not more, so far this season, including Wednesday. Chukwurah, Black and Hilliard, however, participated fully in practice on Thursday, while Clayton, Pittman and Smith were still limited.
The one player that hasn't been limited in practice is cornerback Brian Kelly after making his return in a 17-10 victory vs. Arizona. It seems that the groin injury that had been nagging Kelly for most of the season is healed. That is at least one positive sign for the Bucs who are struggling to keep players healthy this season. Tampa Bay already has 12 players on injured reserve, the highest in the NFL this season.
Clayton and Pittman deemed themselves healthy and ready to play on Monday, but Gruden has yet to state if either is going to be on the field on Sunday.
"I'm definitely ready to go. Last week I wanted to play against Arizona; I was on the bubble last week," Pittman said. "But this week, definitely, coach is going to let me go."
Clayton had a similar reaction when asked about his status for Sunday's game.
"I'm definitely back this week. I'm full-go," Clayton said. "You never play this game 100 percent. I can run routes, I can get open and I can be physical and that's all that matters right now."
The Bucs chances of getting a victory on the road on Sunday will greatly increase if Pittman and Clayton, among others, can get back on the field.
FALCONS QUARTERBACK SITUATION IN LIMBO
Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino made it clear in a published report by the Associated Press on Thursday that quarterback Byron Leftwich is the starter in the offense – when he's healthy. It is not known, however, if Leftwich will be healthy enough to return to the field this Sunday vs. Tampa Bay. Quarterback Joey Harrington, who has led the Falcons to two consecutive victories, was caught off guard by the news, but vowed not to create any problems and just stick to doing his job.
Gruden has admiration for both quarterbacks and realizes that the Bucs will have their hands full with either Leftwich or Harrington under center on Sunday. Leftwich injured his ankle in his first start with the Falcons vs. New Orleans on Oct. 21. He underwent surgery so that he could get back on the field quickly and did just that, returning to the practice field just three weeks later.
"I'm impressed with them; I've always been. We liked Harrington coming out of college, we like Leftwich," Gruden said. "Both of these guys have had great moments in the league. They're in a new system, just like [Jeff] Garcia is. I've got a lot of respect [for them]. They're tough guys, they're experienced guys, they're leaders and they have pretty good support around them."
Harrington is completing more than 63 percent of his pass attempts in nine games this season with 1,737 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. Harrington was signed as a free agent in the offseason and was suppose to backup quarterback Michael Vick, but was thrust into the starting role after Vick's legal issues took him off the team.
"Yeah, they're coming around on offense. Coach [Bobby] Petrino makes sure that happens," Gruden said. "He's a great offensive coach. I just can't say enough, either, about their defense."
SPEED VS. SPEED IN GALLOWAY, HALL MATCHUP
Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway has made a career on blowing past opposing cornerbacks on his way to the end zone. Twenty-seven of Galloway's 76 touchdowns have come with the Bucs, but the speedy wide receiver has only scored one touchdown vs. the Falcons.
Galloway has put together solid numbers vs. Atlanta (27 receptions, 389 yards in six games), but has struggled to get into the end zone frequently. The 13-year veteran has battled Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall for the past three seasons and the four-year starter has held his own against the savvy veteran.
Hall has been known for his consistent trash talk before and during contests, but Galloway chooses to remain quiet while facing Hall.
"No, never. Not now anyhow; when I was a little younger maybe," Galloway said. "When I've gone against him there hasn't been any kind of conversation whatsoever. So I don't figure this game to be any different."
Gruden understands that he's going to have to get creative with his play-calling to get Galloway open down field. Hall has the speed to be able to stay with Galloway on deep fly patterns and Gruden knows his star wide receiver will face his biggest challenge this season.
"We'll see. Hall, he's not afraid of anybody," Gruden said. "They have a full-blitz and he's in bump-and-run coverage. It's Steve Smith one week…he takes the best receiver on your team and covers him. Joey's got a great challenge."
The Falcons are ranked 11th in the NFL in pass defense allowing 202 yards passing a game. Tampa Bay, however, is ranked 16th in the league in passing, gaining 213 yards per game. The Bucs have been able to use the big play in the passing game to gain an advantage on the scoreboard.
Galloway's 69-yard touchdown reception blew open a 31-14 victory vs. the Saints in Week 2 and his 37-yard touchdown reception vs. the Cardinals on Nov. 4, sparked a 17-point burst by the offense. Gruden understands that Hall isn't the only weapon that the Falcons have in the secondary.
"I think he's [Hall] great, that's what I think. He's a great player," Gruden said. "He's a premier player in the league. And I'm impressed with his working comrade on the other side, the rookie from Arkansas [Chris Houston]. They've got a real good tandem going. Hall is a great player."
BUCS HOLD DESTINY IN ITS HANDS
Despite all the injuries this season and letting a couple of games slip through their hands, the Bucs hold the fate of their season in the palm of their collective hands. With a victory vs. Atlanta on Sunday, Tampa Bay will remain unbeaten in the NFC South (3-0) and inch closer to capturing its third division title in six years.
With the wildcard berth likely going to either the NFC East or the NFC North, the Bucs will need to win their division to capture a postseason berth this season. Tampa Bay believes that its best football hasn't been played yet and the team will only get better as the season winds to a close. The Bucs, however, must limit their scoreboard watching and focus on their own business at hand.
"I think you scoreboard watch anyhow because that's just the nature of sports, but I think that we fill pretty good about where we are right now," Galloway said. "We haven't played our best football; we let some games get away from us that we shouldn't have. With all that said, we are still in a good spot right now. So we know that we can get a lot better, we plan on getting better and if we do that then things will fall into place."
The Bucs have an opportunity this season to go 6-0 in divisional play after going winless in the division last season. After Sunday's road contest vs. Atlanta, the Bucs only have one more road game in the division, the Dec. 2 game vs. New Orleans which will most likely decide who will win the NFC South. The Bucs face Atlanta at home on Dec. 16 and end the season with a home tilt vs. Carolina on Dec. 30.
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