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Every year, some teams encounter season-ending injuries to some of their most important players in training camp and the preseason games. Those injuries can take a post-season team and turn them into a team watching the playoffs. Sometimes the injuries occur in the first month of the season, and cause the player to miss the rest of the year or a vital stretch of games.

The Buccaneers saw that happen in 2003 when they were defending Super Bowl champions. The injuries to Mike Alstott, Brian Kelly, and Joe Jurevicius all contributed to Tampa Bay missing the playoffs and finishing with a losing record.

The other NFC South teams have incurred debilitating injuries over the six years the division has been in existence. Last season, the Saints lost workhorse running back Deuce McAllister for the second time in three seasons. The Panthers lost quarterback Jake Delhomme, and the Atlanta Falcons lost quarterback Michael Vick for the second time in six years.

Injuries to young players can delay the development of their careers and hurt the talent level on the team, especially when those players are being counted on to perform early in their careers. Those injuries have happened in the past couple of seasons to Minnesota's Chad Greenway and San Francisco's Manny Lawson.

Tampa Bay has to keep its veterans and young starters healthy in order to make the playoffs in 2008. A key injury or two could submarine the team into a losing season. With that mind, who are the most critical players that the Bucs need to stay healthy?

The first position to check is quarterback. Behind starter Jeff Garicia, the Bucs have two quarterbacks that have won games for them in Brian Griese and Luke McCown. The Buccaneers have similar depth at running back, tight end, and along the offensive line, with the possible exception of the center position. Wide receiver appears to be less certain with unknown quantities behind star receiver Joey Galloway.

Defensively, Tampa Bay has pretty good depth along the defensive line, but is extremely reliant on less experienced pass rushers Gaines Adams and Greg White. At linebacker the team is strong at the outside linebacker positions with Derrick Brooks, Cato June, and up-and-comer Quincy Black. Middle linebacker is more uncertain behind Barrett Ruud. The secondary may be the most deep and most talented group on the roster. The Bucs have starting caliber backups at cornerback and safety.

Thus, the two players to consider from the offense are Faine and Galloway. If either player is injured and lost for a significant amount of time, it is unclear who would step into their position for them. At center, the backups are Dan Buenning and Jeremy Zuttah. Buenning had an excellent rookie season in 2005, and has been held back by injury in the following seasons. Zuttah is a rookie that has limited experience at center, although the team felt confident in his ability to play the position due to his strength and athleticism.

This offseason, head coach Jon Gruden has implemented new wrinkles in his offense due to the presence of his new center. Faine has the ability to get to the second level and make blocks downfield. This is a novel addition for the Bucs offense under Gruden. If Faine were to get injured, it is unclear whether they would be able to execute the same plays that Gruden envisions with Faine as his center. Faine also brings a physicality and strength at the point of attack that the Buccaneers did not have at center last season.

While Faine is important, he is not the end all be all for the center position. Zuttah is extremely athletic, and he seemingly should have the potential to make blocks downfield. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Buenning would provide more size and strength then the other centers, but may not have the athleticism of Faine or Zuttah. Between Buenning and Zuttah, the Bucs look like they have a few options to have a backup that can get the job done.

That does not appear to be the case with Galloway. There are many receivers on Tampa Bay's roster, but the speed threats behind the veteran are all inexperienced. Dexter Jackson, Chad Lucas, and Taye Biddle are fighting for roster spots and all are speed receivers, but none have proven big-play ability at the NFL level. Free-agent signee Antonio Bryant may be an option, but it is unclear whether he has the same breakaway speed that he had in yesteryear.

Of the offensive players, Galloway is the player the Buccaneers can least afford to lose to a season-ending injury. The organization is counting on the veteran to be a vital part of their offense. On defense, the team is relying on younger players.

Even though they are young players the Buccaneers are counting on big production out of Adams and Ruud. Adams is firmly entrenched as the starting right defensive end going into training camp. On most defenses, that is the spot for their premier pass rusher. Outside of Adams, the Bucs have Greg White returning who led the team in sacks with eight. They also could get some pass rush from defensive tackle Jovan Haye, who recorded six sacks last season. While the team has a few options other than Adams, he still is being relied upon to provide a consistent pass rush in 2008.

Going into training camp, the backup to Ruud is undefined. The Buccaneers signed free agents Matt McCoy and Teddy Lehman to compete for that role. One of them will earn the job and the other probably will not make the team. McCoy was an outside linebacker prior to coming to Tampa Bay. In the Bucs' Tampa 2 defensive scheme, he fits more as a middle linebacker. Lehman has more experience as a middle linebacker in his years with the Lions, but he may not have McCoy's speed. Both players have had issues with injuries, and it remains to be seen if one can be counted on if Ruud were to go down with an injury.

Thus, Ruud is the defensive player that is most critical for the Buccaneers to keep healthy in 2008. For this Campbell's Cover 2, we will examine which player is the most important for the Bucs to have healthy throughout the upcoming season.

Cover 1- Galloway is the Buccaneer the team can least afford losing to injury.

Over the past three seasons, Galloway has been the lone consistent weapon for the Bucs offense. In that time, the Buccaneers have had changes at quarterback, running back, the offensive line, and the starting flanker receiver opposite Galloway. The constant on offense in those years was Galloway, as he led the team's offensive output in winning the division twice in those three years.

Galloway has arguably become the best wide receiver in Tampa Bay history in only four years as a Buccaneer. Over 2005-2007, Galloway has hauled in 202 passes for 3,358 yards and 23 touchdowns. The veteran pass catcher has done that with a long list of quarterbacks. Griese, Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Tim Rattay and Garcia have thrown touchdowns to Galloway over that three-year span. In 2007, Galloway snagged 57 passes for 1,014 yards (an average of 17.8 yards per catch) and scored six times.

Considering the production with the revolving supporting cast around him, Galloway could be considered the MVP of the Buccaneers in each of the past three seasons. In being the one constant producer, it is hard to for see how the offense would have scored points without him.

In the playoff loss to the Giants last season, Galloway tried to play through a badly injured shoulder. He was limited to playing with only one arm. When New York saw the limitations of the Bucs offense without a healthy Galloway, the Giants keyed on the Bucs running game and eliminated the effectiveness of that part of the offense. Without a healthy Galloway, the passing offense struggled.

The playoff loss to New York proved that the Bucs offensive production goes through Galloway. If the team is not able to get him the ball downfield then opponents can take away the team's running game by bringing their safeties close to the line of scrimmage and overwhelming the Buccaneers' blocking schemes.

The reason for the offense going through Galloway is in part because the Bucs have not had a major threat lining up opposite him at the flanker position. Ike Hilliard led the team in receptions last season with 62. Those catches went for 722 yards and one touchdown. Hilliard was on pace to have an 80 catch season before injuries slowed him down in the second half of the year.

Michael Clayton finished last season strong. Over his final four games he caught 16 passes for 192 yards. While Clayton carried the momentum into a strong offseason, it remains to be seen whether he can recapture his rookie form and be a viable threat on the other side of Galloway.

Beyond Hilliard and Clayton, it is unclear whether wide receivers Bryant, Jackson, and Maurice Stovall will break out as an impact player opposite Galloway. If Galloway were to go down with a major injury, the Buccaneers offense would be in a very precarious situation.

In the 2000 season with the Dallas Cowboys, Galloway started the season strong in his first game with four receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Galloway tore his ACL in his left knee and was done for the season. That year, Dallas finished with a 5-11 record. Galloway's injury was part of numerous problems for the Cowboys that year.

While Ruud is an extremely valuable player for the Buccaneers, the team still has its other two linebackers of Derrick Brooks and Cato June who combined for 282 tackles last season.

Galloway is the point man for the Buccaneers putting points on the board. He is the most valuable Buc, and of all the players on the team, he is the most critical for the team to stay healthy in the 2008 season.

Cover 2- Ruud is the Buccaneer the team can least afford losing to injury.

There is no doubt that a productive Galloway is essential to the Bucs' efforts to repeat as division champions. However, the Buccaneers have always been led by their defense, and without the defense's most important player it will be difficult for the team to repeat.

Last season, Ruud broke out onto the NFL landscape with an excellent season. He led the team in tackles with 169, three tackles for a loss, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and four passes broken up. He was defensive player of the month for September, and was their most consistent linebacker last year. The Buccaneers expect their young Mike (middle) linebacker to only improve on his production, and make more splash, game-changing plays.

In 2007, Ruud led the Bucs linebackers in splash plays. He had more interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries then the other two starting linebackers combined (eight from Ruud and five from Brooks and June). Tampa Bay will need Ruud to match that production if not improve on it in 2008. The reason for that is due to the linebackers playing around Ruud.

Buccaneer great Brooks had a better season in 2007 then he did in 2006. Brooks upped his tackle total and increased his forced fumbles. However, last year was the first year that Brooks did not record an interception since his rookie season. At 35, Brooks is closing in on retirement and the Hall of Fame. He does not look as fast as he was five or six years ago, so the Buccaneers will need to get more splash plays out of their other linebackers.

That demand falls primarily on Ruud. This is in part due to the Tampa 2 defensive scheme that the Buccaneers play. The Sam (strongside) linebacker June turned in a good year for the Bucs and increased the tackle total from that position. June did a fine job, however, the Bucs defense puts the Mike and Will linebacker in position to make more splash plays than the Sam linebacker.

The Sam linebacker also comes off the field when Tampa Bay goes to the nickel formation, which they went to for 42 percent of their defensive plays in 2008. Brooks and June split the snaps for the Will linebacker when the Bucs went to the nickel. With Brooks slowing down that means much of the playmaking responsibility for the linebacking corps is being placed on Ruud.

If the Buccaneers were to lose Ruud, they would be in a vulnerable position. As stated earlier, Ruud's backup is unclear going into training camp. Both Lehman and McCoy have had problems with injuries in their career. They each flashed in one season, but have not stayed healthy and maintained a spot in the lineup. According to NFL.com, the best seasons for each player appear below.

Lehman 2004 16 starts 102 tackles 1 interception
McCoy 2006 10 starts 66 tackles

Lehman had flashed more in his one season of significant playing time. The '04 season was his rookie year, and since then he has totaled 45 tackles in three injury-plagued years. McCoy may offer more athletically, but Lehman may offer more knowledge and experience as a Mike linebacker. Sources have indicated to Pewter Report that McCoy has been impressive this offseason. His speed and physicality have stood out. In judging the response from sources, it sounds as if McCoy is in the early lead to back up Ruud at this time.

With Antoine Cash and Ryan Nece having some experience at the Mike linebacker, they may be moved back there if the team feels they need them there. The Bucs feel a lot of their linebackers are interchangeable, and they will keep the best six or seven linebackers, regardless of whether they went to training camp as a Will, Mike, or Sam.

If Ruud were to go down with an injury, it is unclear whether Lehman or McCoy would do a suitable job as his backup. Without effective play from the middle linebacker, the Buccaneers defense has suffered.

When middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson left the team after the 1999 season, the Bucs turned to his backup, Jamie Duncan, to be their Mike. While Duncan did decent, he was a definite drop off from Nickerson, and the defense suffered. When Duncan's contract was up after the 2001 season the team did not re-sign him.

Shelton Quarles took Duncan's place, and Quarles was a definite upgrade making the Pro Bowl in his first season at middle linebacker. With Quarles as the Mike, the Bucs defense was the top ranked unit in the league, and won the Super Bowl in 2002.

With Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber not making the Pro Bowl last season, Ruud may be the next closest player that deserves to go. Comparing the statistics from last season would indicate that Ruud is already Pro Bowl caliber. Looking at the statistics of the Pro Bowl middle linebackers from NFL.com, Ruud stacks up with the best of the NFC.

Barrett Ruud
169 tackles 2 INT 3 FF
Patrick Willis 174 tackles 0 INT 2 FF
Lofa Tatupu 109 tackles 4 INT 3 FF
Brian Urlacher 123 tackles 5 INT 0 FF

The Bucs defense needs its young playmakers to step up in 2008. Brooks and Barber are still key contributors, but the rest of the defense needs to provide splash plays that the defense used to get from the likes of Quarles, Kelly, Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, and John Lynch. Ruud proved he could do it last year, and this year the Bucs need him to at least duplicate that if not increase his tackles and turnovers.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have always been led by their defense when they have had playoff teams. In order to repeat as division champions or earn a Wild Card playoff spot, the Bucs defense will need to have another superb season. Ruud is the most valuable player on the defense, and is the player the team can least afford to lose for a significant amount of time.

Conclusion

Considering how much of the team's scoring output runs through Galloway, he is the choice in terms of the player Tampa Bay can least afford to lose to injury. The running game and passing game is dependent on the Bucs having a healthy Galloway. While Ruud has become the key cog in Tampa Bay's defense, he alone is not the point man for the production of the entire unit.

The Buccaneers have more viable backups and starters around Ruud that are good players and productive. Galloway provides room to run the football, and the Bucs do not appear to have targets that could step in for him and come close to his production.

It is hard to see Tampa Bay repeating as NFC South champions without a healthy Joey Galloway.


Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2008 training camp? Want to find out who is starring in training camp and who is underperforming, and who the Bucs are targeting in free agency and the NFL Draft next year? Find out by subscribing to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.

WATCH Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds and Jim Flynn on select Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. on Sports Zone with Al Keck and Tom Korun on ABC Action News in Tampa Bay for Bucs game highlights and the latest Bucs news. And for the best local coverage of Tampa Bay sports and Tampa Bay news, check out ABCActionNews.com.

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