The good news is the Bucs won a home game and have themselves positioned to compete in the NFC South.
The bad news is another Bucs player may miss an extended period of time because of injury.
Backup offensive lineman Evan Smith, starting in place of injured center Joe Hawley, exited Sunday’s win over Chicago in the first quarter with a knee injury and never returned. Monday afternoon, NFL.com reporter Ian Rapoport posted on Twitter that Smith sustained a Grade II MCL sprain that will keep him out for about three weeks. According to the USF Department of Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, MCL sprains are graded out from I (minor) to III (severe). The ligament is partially torn at Grade II, whereas its completely ruptured at Grade III.
“We consider Evan Smith a starter, so in essence after six plays we were down three starters on the O-Line,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said during his Monday afternoon press conference.
Tampa Bay began the game Sunday without two of its starting offensive lineman – Hawley and left guard Kevin Pamphile. Rookie Caleb Benenoch started in place of Pamphile, who suffered a concussion during the Bucs’ Week 9 loss to Atlanta.
The rookie’s first live action didn’t go particularly well, Koetter said.
“Caleb, that was his first start as a rookie and it’s well documented that Caleb missed most of OTAs because of the school thing at UCLA, the semester rule,” Koetter said. “And then he was hurt for part of preseason. Caleb had kind of a rocky debut. We have very high hopes and high expectations for Caleb, but that wasn’t one of his better days.”
When Smith left at the 6:07 mark of the first quarter, 24-year-old Ben Gottschalk entered an NFL regular season game for the first time in his brief career.
“First off, Ben Gottschalk, he came up off the practice squad earlier in the week so he got very little time with the first offense,” Koetter said. “To go out there and play 69 plays like he did, I thought Ben filled in very admirably.”
Hawley was considered a game-time decision leading up to the Bears game and his status will be monitored as Tampa Bay prepares for a road test at Kansas City. As for Pamphile, the 25-year-old should also be ready to return this weekend unless there’s a concussion protocol setback.
The injury to Smith removes the luxury of having a veteran backup ready to play all three interior line positions. Aside from Week 1 in Atlanta, the former starting center has played at least one offensive snap in every game this season. Smith’s absence leaves Tampa Bay with Benenoch, Gottschalk, and 24-year-old practice squad member Josh Allen. Reserve tackles Gosder Cherilus and Leonard Wester are also on the active roster.