As the Bucs enter their bye week at the midway point of the season compared to earlier in the schedule the last couple of years, the Bucs could use the week off to get many players that have been injured back on the field. The last couple of seasons, Tampa Bay had to worry about implementing a new quarterback during the bye week. In 2007, however, quarterback Jeff Garcia is one of the few players that have remained healthy.
The past two seasons, the Bucs have seen quarterbacks Brian Griese in 2005 and Chris Simms in 2006 go down with season-ending injuries before the bye week. Griese was lost to a knee injury and Simms went out with his well-publicized splenectomy. However, Garcia has been able to stay on the field and is looking forward to resting up mentally and physically for the second half of the season.
It is positions such as running back, wide receiver and defensive line that are looking to get some players healthy over the bye week. Running back Michael Pittman (ankle), wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle), linebacker Quincy Black (hamstring) and defensive ends Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) and Greg Spires (calf) are just a few of the names the Bucs want to get out of the training room and back on to the practice field.
Tight end Alex Smith (ankle) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) made their return to the lineup vs. Arizona after missing two and three games respectively due to injury. Smith finished the game with two receptions for 13 yards and Kelly had one tackle and one pass defended. Smith re-aggravated his ankle vs. the Cardinals, but Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said on Monday that there was no serious issue with the injury.
One of the big problems for the Bucs with all the injuries is the lack of practice preparation. Tampa Bay is finding it difficult to practice because they don't have enough players to participate. The last two weeks, the Bucs have had to go with walk-thru practices on Wednesday so they can at least get the reps needed to be ready for game day.
"It's been a problem. On Wednesday, we haven't had a practice the last two weeks, we've had more of a walk-thru because of the injuries," Gruden said. "They have mounted at certain positions. So we have used Wednesday as a day where we've gotten our reps in, maybe even some bonus reps, but not full speed, physical or normal. We've not been accommodating; we've done what we've needed to do to prepare our team to play. What we want to do is get back to a normal schedule if we can following this bye week and to do that we need guys to practice."
Gruden gave the players Monday off to rest up and they will have their normal Tuesday off as well. However, he wants to have a clean, crisp practice on Wednesday and then give the players the rest of the week off to heal up and get extra treatment for the players who need it. Gruden is hoping the extra days of rest can allow the team to get an extra practice day, Monday, next week to prepare for the Nov. 18 road game vs. Atlanta.
Pittman's return to the offense will give the Bucs some much needed depth at the running back position. Tampa Bay traded for running back Michael Bennett after Pittman went down with an ankle injury in Week 5 vs. Indianapolis. Bennett is still trying to learn Gruden's offense so Pittman' return will give the offense a boost. Running back Earnest Graham has been a steady influence in the running game, but is eager to welcome back Pittman.
Gruden is looking forward to the return of Pittman as well.
"Pittman has always been a big part of our offense. He's a great receiver and he's one of the top third down, nickel backs in football I believe," Gruden said. "He allows us to move formations. He's a joker; he's a guy that can lineup in any eligible position and function. He's just going to supplement what we are doing and give us a good runner, an excellent receiver and certainly a very good pass protector."
With the injuries to wide receivers Paris Warren (leg) and Mark Jones (knee), Clayton's return is crucial for the Bucs at that position. Clayton seemed to be gaining momentum this season with six receptions for 109 yards (18.2 avg.) after two injury-plagued seasons that saw his production drop tremendously from his rookie season.
Clayton had 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in 2004, but had 65 receptions for 728 yards and one touchdown combined in 2005 and 2006.
Chukwurah has missed the last three weeks with a shoulder injury after returning in Week 6 from an MCL tear in his knee that came in the preseason. Spires missed Sunday's contest after injuring his calf vs. the Jaguars. The depth on the defensive line took a major hit with these two injuries and it was evident Sunday as the Bucs failed to record a sack.
In the past, the Bucs have used the bye week to clean up some of the mistakes that had been made in previous games. However, with all the injuries, Tampa Bay is just looking to get healthy for this year's stretch run.
JACKSON, PHILLIPS GIVE SECONDARY PHYSCIAL PRESENCE Bucs safeties Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips have brought back the physical play that Bucs fans have gotten used to from the position. Jackson, a rookie out of Syracuse, has made an immediate impact on the defense and Phillips is making up for his less-than-stellar play last season.
Jackson is tied for second on the team with cornerback Phillip Buchanon in interceptions with two and isn't afraid to put his shoulder down and create contact in the secondary. He proved this in Week 5 when he put a bone-crushing hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark that forced an incompletion and put Clark on the sideline. Jackson has 37 tackles and one forced fumble this season.
Phillips is leading the Bucs defense with three interceptions along with 53 tackles and one sack. Phillips' physical play against the run is allowing the Bucs defense to use him as the eighth man in the box in typical running situations. He also is breaking up passing plays with jarring hits as he did multiple times vs. the Cardinals.
Jackson and Phillips both had one interception in the 17-10 victory vs. Arizona, with Phillips' interception wrapping up the victory with under three minutes remaining.
"They played great. Tanard Jackson had five breakups, had the interception, had another near pick and had a couple big hits," Gruden said. "Jermaine Phillips, what can I say about Jermaine, he's really playing good for us, capping off plays, showing some rare range plays and some striking ability. He made a lot of adjustments and a lot of things happen back there for us."
Phillips came under heavy criticism after a sub-par season in 2006 where he missed some key tackles at crucial times in games and also had lapses in pass coverage. That was one of the reasons why the Bucs used a second round pick to draft rookie Sabby Piscitelli. Phillips, however, held off Piscitelli in training camp and preseason and is a big reason for the Bucs improved play on defense this season. In fact, it currently ranks No. 6 overall and No. 1 against the pass in the NFL.
Another reason for the improved play of Phillips and the entire secondary is the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. Phillips has praised Morris numerous times for his improvements on defense this season. Morris returned to the Bucs after leaving to become the defensive coordinator at the Kansas State University in 2006. Morris worked under former Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and also spent a season with former Bucs defensive backs coach Herman Edwards when he was the head coach for the New York Jets.
GRAHAM CAPTURES FIRST 100-YARD PERFORMANCE Forgive Bucs running back Earnest Graham if he's moving a bit slower on Monday and is a little sore, but after his 34-carry, 124-yard, one touchdown performance vs. Arizona on Sunday, Graham could use some rest. Graham established career-highs in carries and rushing yards for the second time this season in the win.
Graham set a career high in carries (19) and rushing yards (92) in a 23-16 loss vs. the Detroit Lions in Week 7. He was at it again on Sunday as he was moving piles and battling for every yard when the ball was in his hands. It was Graham's 15-yard run late in the fourth quarter that put the game away for the Bucs.
With the loss of running back Cadillac Williams for the season with a knee injury, Graham has taken advantage of his opportunity to carry the load in the backfield. Graham recorded his first 100-yard rushing performance as a starter and helped put the Bucs back into first place in the NFC South.
Gruden was impressed with what he saw from his fourth-year running back.
"Well his stamina and his ability to make some hidden yardage. A lot of runs that he made there wasn't a lot of big holes," Gruden said. "He makes good reads, he's a north-south runner, protects the ball. Great touchdown run honestly inside the 3-yard line. Some real good cutback, move-the-pile type runs. When you carry the ball 33 or 34 times I think 31 of those plays he had positive yardage and he moved around well and played well."
Graham's production in the offense this season – 454 yards rushing (3.9 avg.) on 116 carries and four touchdowns – has softened the blow of Williams' injury. With Graham, Pittman and Bennett in the backfield, the Bucs have a formidable rushing game to go with the passing attack for the final push for a playoff berth.
GRUDEN NOT HAPPY WITH ENDING VS. ARIZONA Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood wasn't able to walk off the field with his teammates vs. the Cardinals after being ejected with less than a minute remaining. Trueblood got into a scuffle as the Bucs offense tried to run out the clock and bumped into a referee.
Gruden wasn't too happy with the fact that Trueblood got ejected and didn't like how the game ended on Sunday. He doesn't envision a fine or a suspension for Trueblood and believes that the NFL will review the altercation at the end of the game.
"I don't know what to anticipate. I was disappointed in that last sequence of plays. We fumbled the snap, but obviously when you look at the replay they swatted at the ball," Gruden said. "They missed that call. Then they tried to swat the ball again and there was some after-the-whistle things going on there that the NFL should look at and I'm sure they will. I don't anticipate any fine. I just thought that was an ugly sequence of plays and we will let the league handle it."
Trueblood did leave the game in the third quarter with a shoulder stinger, but returned on the next offensive possession. Gruden didn't believe that the injury was anything to be concerned with. If a suspension does come down from the league, the Bucs would look to tackle Anthony Davis to fill in for Trueblood. Davis came in during the possession that Trueblood was on the sideline with the injury.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden on his thoughts of place kicker Matt Bryant missing two of three field goals on Sunday.
"He missed a long field goal, a 57- or 58-yarder. We would have liked to do better than that for him to set the stage for him to have a more makeable opportunity. I just think he was very upset at himself after that long miss and sometimes golfers, kickers and men that play an individual sport become their own worst enemy. I think Matt is a tremendous kicker and he just had a bad swing on the 26-yard field goal and he's got to get over it and show resolve and I know he will."
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