The Buccaneers’ worst fears were realized Monday when the team learned that two offensive starters – left tackle Luke Petitgout and running back Cadillac Williams – will need season-ending surgery to repair the knee injuries they sustained in the first half of Tampa Bay’s 20-7 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Williams was carted off the field with a severe right knee injury, which is believed to be a torn patellar tendon, late in the first quarter. Williams’ injury came on his second-longest run of the season, an 18-yarder down the right sideline.

Petitgout was forced out of the game with a knee sprain when Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins fell into his right leg early in the second quarter.

Tampa Bay, which finished the 2006 season with a 4-12 record, is off to a 3-1 start. With 12 regular season games left to play, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden stressed the importance of his team carrying on without Petitgout and Williams.

“Obviously, we lost two key members of our football team for the season,” Gruden said. “That’s a big blow. They’re great guys. We have some people that need to step up now. We certainly support them and wish them the very best in their recovery. It’s a tough day that way, but we’re very happy with the win, and we’re also very excited about the challenge that awaits us this week versus Indianapolis.”

Tampa Bay’s ground attack, which ranked 28th in the NFL last year, is currently ranked 8th overall, and Williams and Petitgout, both former first-round draft picks, have played an integral part in the Bucs’ ability to average 137 yards rushing per game this season.

Willams, who suffered a rib injury in a Week 1 loss to Seattle, carried the ball 54 times for 208 yards (3.9 avg.) and three touchdowns. That injury along with the fact that Williams fumbled the ball two times, allowed Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham to receive a significant amount of touches in the running game.

Pittman has carried the ball 30 times for 170 yards (5.7 avg.) while catching nine passes for 78 yards. Graham has run the ball 30 times for 136 yards (4.5 avg.) and scored three touchdowns.

Despite the fact that Tampa Bay was without Williams for three quarters, the Bucs rushed for 189 yards on 42 carries (4.5 avg.), which was the most the Bucs have ever rushed for against the Panthers.

The Bucs likely will use a committee approach that includes Pittman and Graham, but they could also sign a free agent, trade for a running back or even promote rookie Kenneth Darby from the practice quad to the active roster.

The team still is confident in its ability to run the football, but the Bucs also realize that the loss of Williams, the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, is significant.

“You lose a lot of skill,” said Gruden. “Watching Philadelphia yesterday (Eagles gave up 12 sacks to the Giants) play without their left tackle and their running back, you know it’s not an easy thing to overcome.”

Petitgout was signed by the Bucs in free agency during the offseason. He missed a significant amount of practice time in training camp with a back ailment. However, Petitgout was healthy and playing well for the Bucs before he suffered the knee injury Sunday. Petitgout was a key component in the running game and was responsible for protecting the blindside of quarterback Jeff Garcia, who has been sacked just six times in four games this season.

With Petitgout out, Bucs second-year offensive lineman Donald Penn will start at left tackle. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Penn originally entered the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State.

Penn was inactive for Tampa Bay’s final 13 regular season games last season, but he received a significant amount of reps during the offseason, training camp and preseason when Petitgout was sidelined with his back injury.

The timing of the injuries sustained by Williams and Petitgout couldn’t have been much worse seeing as the 3-1 Bucs are getting ready to travel to Indianapolis to take on the 4-0 Indianapolis Colts, who are defending Super Bowl champions.

However, Gruden suggested that the players replacing Williams and Petitgout are capable of playing well and helping the Buccaneers continue to build on their impressive start to the 2007 season.

“We’re confident in Donald Penn,” said Gruden. “He’s done a good job for us. We think Anthony Davis has proven in his past that he can play the

position. Michael Pittman helped us win a couple division championships here and Earnest Graham is clearly a capable runner and receiver. We’ll move on and do the best we can in the absence of these two players.”

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