The Bucs haven't had a quarterback start all 16 games since Brad Johnson accomplished the feat in 2003 and it doesn't look as though the streak will end this season either. Tampa Bay starting quarterback Jeff Garcia is hoping to heal his bruised back in time to play vs. New Orleans on Sunday, but didn't seem too optimistic about his chances when he met with the media on Wednesday.
Garcia has at least seen some improvement in his injury since Monday morning, but not enough to be able to practice. He isn't worried about throwing the ball as much as he is dropping back to pass and bending down to take the snap from under center. Those are the tasks that are difficult for Garcia to do and will be a measuring stick for where he needs to be by game time.
"Right now I'm not at that point. I'm not ready to test it in that kind of way," Garcia said. "I don't think that will be a smart move on my behalf as far as needing to get to where I feel I need to be in order to play in a game. Right now to go out there and try to run around and throw the ball I think it would create a negative affect instead of a positive one."
Even if Garcia isn't able to practice at all this week, he still believes if his body is healthy enough to play that he can be successful vs. the Saints on Sunday.
"I feel really confident in our system and what I have to do as far as running this system and I will stay mentally on top," Garcia said. "Obviously you are affected as far as your timing is concerned and just your flat out speed of the game. You are going to have to adjust in a different way due to the fact that you haven't had the reps in practice. I feel like because of all the experience that I do have I would be able to adjust and would be able to take the necessary steps in order to be prepared come Sunday if I feel good and ready to go."
The Bucs are not hinting to who would be the starting quarterback on the road vs. New Orleans if Garcia can't make the start. Last week in a victory vs. Washington, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski replaced Garcia after his injury, but didn't look impressive going 9-for-19 for 106 yards. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was happy with the fact that Gradkowski didn't turn the ball over, yet hesitated to name him the starter.
"We might not want everybody to know what we are doing. So we are organizing our thoughts and having a contingency plan put in place if necessary," Gruden said. "Obviously it's difficult when you lose your starter. We lost [quarterback] Chris Simms earlier in training camp. We will prepare someone to play and both of them have to be ready certainly."
Bucs quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett was critical of Gradkowski's inability to make plays and sustain drives vs. the Redskins.
"I was happy with the overall," Hackett said of Gradkowski. "But my goodness gracious, there were half a dozen plays you would love to think that at this stage he would make those plays. I think that was the disappointing thing. The guy who is in that role has to come in and slam the door in that situation. If you don't slam the door, then you're suspect."
Quarterback Luke McCown, who has four career starts in the NFL, was the backup quarterback in Week 1 vs. Seattle and struggled as well going 1-for-4 for nine yards. McCown was impressive in the preseason – 36-of-50 (72 percent) for 394 yards with four touchdowns and one interception – but was replaced by Gradkowski as the backup because Gruden felt the second-year quarterback had more experience in the offense.
McCown was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns in 2005 and was inactive for the first 10 games and then served as the backup to Simms for six regular season games and one postseason game. McCown spent the first seven weeks of last season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list because of a knee injury in the offseason, and was inactive for the last nine games.
Gradkowski started 11 games last season after Simms was lost for the season with a spleen injury. Gradkowski finished the season 177-of-328 for 1,661 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, including being sacked 25 times. The sixth-round pick of the Bucs out of Toledo in 2006 was sacked twice vs. Washington.
Gruden stated that both players got reps in practice on Wednesday. Gruden didn't rule out a game-time decision at the quarterback position and is just taking it one day at a time.
"I just can evaluate it day to day and as he shows progress and gets better he will take more and more snaps," Gruden said. "I don't know what to expect really when guys get hurt and I just hope for the best."
GATES PROMOTED TO ACTIVE SQUAD
With the recent struggles of running back Michael Bennett in grasping Gruden's complex offensive system, the Bucs promoted running back Lionel Gates to the active roster from the practice squad on Wednesday. To make room for Gates, Tampa Bay released cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.
Gates spent the preseason with the Bucs, but was one of the final roster cuts before the regular season. The Bucs also signed guard Brian Johnson to the practice squad.
NO CHANGE IN PASS PROTECTION
Whether Garcia, Gradkowski or McCown get the start at quarterback on Sunday, the offensive line still must keep the signal caller as clean as possible. Facing a tough pass rush from New Orleans, it will be vital to limit the amount of touches on the quarterback, especially if Garcia gives it a go despite his back injury.
The Bucs offensive line ranks 12th in the league in sacks allowed, giving up 19 through 11 games this season. That's a small improvement after allowing 33 sacks last season. Garcia has played a part in the improvement with his mobility in the pocket, but left tackle Donald Penn doesn't expect the line to do anything different if Garcia is out.
"There's not really a big difference because you have to do your job not matter what. So it's like it's just another quarterback. They get ready for the game each week just like we do," Penn said. "They might not get as many snaps as some other guys, but it's not a big difference. Bruce has a lot of experience and he played last year and Luke a great player too. We just have to go out there and pass block. You have to pass block a little bit longer, protect them a little bit more so they feel a little more comfortable back there so that might be a difference. Still, you are just going out there doing the same thing because you never want your guy to hit the quarterback so it's just like doing the same thing."
Even though the Saints have two talented pass rushing defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith, New Orleans ranks 24th in the league with 19 sacks. The Bucs did a good job of keeping Smith and Grant away from Garcia in the Week 2 meeting, not allowing a sack. The offensive line will need a similar performance on Sunday as the Bucs are looking for touchdowns compared to field goals, which is what Tampa Bay had to settle for after Garcia left Sunday's game vs. Washington.
Tampa Bay's running game, which is ranked 13th in the league with 115 yards per game, will go a long way in helping the pass protection with a productive day on the ground. The Bucs gained 99 yards and scored two touchdowns vs. the Saints in Week 2, but comes into Sunday's contest with running back Earnest Graham and Bennett as the only healthy backs.
Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who made his first start in New Orleans last season, wasn't happy with the performance of the offense in the second half vs. Washington. The Bucs had four three and outs and gained only 15 yards vs. the Redskins. He understands how big this game is and how important a victory would be for the Bucs.
"You want to take it one game at a time," Trueblood said. "But you realize that there are bigger and better things out there if you win this game. They are [still in the hunt for the NFC South] and they're playing really well right now. We can't afford to lose this game and give them the opportunity to gain any ground on us."
SAINTS LOOK DIFFERENT SECOND TIME AROUND
In the first meeting between the Bucs and the Saints, both teams came into the game in the same position. Tampa Bay and New Orleans were 0-1 and trying to capture its first victory in a young season. This time around, both teams are fighting for a win but for different reasons.
Tampa Bay is looking to remain undefeated in division play and all but lock up the NFC South title and a playoff berth with the victory. New Orleans, on the other hand, is trying to get back into the division race with a win and put some heat on the Bucs heading into the final four games of the season.
"Yeah it's a big game. We feel like it's going to be the championship game, division South championship right here," tight end Alex Smith said. "If they win, that's putting ourselves into a tough bind so we just want to take care of our business. It's going to be a hostile crowd, but if we can take care of this game we feel like that will be our division South championship right there."
There isn't much that the Bucs can take from the game film of that Week 2 drubbing, 31-14, of the Saints.
"We look at what we did well and obviously look at what we didn't do well and try to correct that if we happen to see the same looks," wide receiver Ike Hilliard said. "Just try to figure out how offensively we can help ourselves win the football game."
The Saints offense has had to alter their offensive scheme a little bit from the last time the Bucs played them. New Orleans doesn't have running back Duece McAllister, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, and has had to turn to quarterback Drew Brees to make plays. Running back Reggie Bush has taken over as the main option in the backfield with 517 yards rushing, 404 yards receiving and six total touchdowns.
Brees has attempted 456 passes so far this season, tops in the NFL, and is completing just over 67 percent of his attempts. He has 18 touchdowns, but has thrown 15 interceptions despite being sacked only eight times this season. The Saints offense is averaging more than 30 points per game in their last five contests so the Bucs defense knows what they will be facing on Sunday.
"They are like night and day when it comes to their production especially on offense than they were earlier in the year," defensive end Kevin Carter said. "They are a different team and people say any given Sunday, but they really are not the same as they were last time we played them. We will be ready."
Four Bucs players didn't participate in Wednesday's practice including Garcia (back), fullback B.J. Askew (ankle), running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (team decision). Carter (groin), cornerback Brian Kelly (ankle), linebacker Barrett Ruud (knee) and defensive end Greg Spires (calf) were limited.
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