Add Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton to the list of quick-healing players who are currently hobbled. Running back Michael Pittman, who was ruled out for 6 to 8 weeks after injuring his ankle vs. the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, stated on Wednesday that he could possibly be back after the bye week. Clayton is rehabbing a high ankle sprain that he sustained vs. the Detroit Lions on Sunday and is expected to be out a couple of weeks.
However, Clayton was seen walking around the players' locker room on Thursday with no apparent limp or affect from the injury, but did have a long, black sleeve on his leg. He believes that his ankle is healing quicker than expected and doesn't plan on missing that much time.
"I feel good. I came in on Tuesday and had a great workout," Clayton said. "It's getting better and getting better rapidly. So I'm just keeping my faith in God, letting him take care of it and just keeping everything positive right now."
The injury to Clayton came at a bad time as the fourth-year wide receiver seemed to be getting more opportunities in the passing game after a rough start to the season. Clayton, who has been plagued with dropping passes in the last two seasons, had an issue with dropped passes early this season. In a Week 3 victory vs. the St. Louis Rams, Clayton dropped a pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia with less than two minutes remaining in the first half as the Bucs were driving for a potential score. He redeemed himself with a 12-yard reception two plays later, but also fumbled on the play.
To his credit, Clayton never let those two plays linger and just kept moving forward with every game. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver finally showed the talent that wowed Bucs fans during his rookie season with two big catches in a 13-10 victory vs. Tennessee in Week 6. With two receptions for 53 yards, Clayton felt like he was becoming more of a weapon in the offense.
Clayton made another big catch vs. the Lions, a 20-yard reception from Garcia, on the first drive of the game, but left with a high ankle sprain and never returned. He is just glad that the injury is minor compared to being lost for the season. Clayton never had any swelling in his ankle from the injury.
"It didn't swell at all. My body never really swells," Clayton said. "I was fortunate because it's one of those injuries where you are not hurt at all or it's a season-ending injury. I just look back at the film and know that the man up stairs had something to do with it. I just feel like the man is on my side and I'm just keeping faith in everything."
The former first-round draft pick has six receptions for 109 yards (18.2 avg.) this season and plans on returning, at worse, after the bye week on Nov. 11. In his absence, wide receiver Maurice Stovall will get his opportunity to start in place of Clayton. Stovall recorded his first reception of the season, a 4-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter, vs. the Lions. The Bucs also activated wide receiver Chad Lucas to the active roster from the practice squad.
"No later than the bye week. Worse case scenario I will be back after the bye week," Clayton said. "At the rate that I'm going right now it could be a couple of weeks. I'm still pressing to play this weekend if it's possible. I'm approaching the situation, that's what I'm saying and what I'm professing so we will see if we can get it done."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden likes the fact that Clayton is eager to get back on the field, but is cautious about the prospect of him playing Sunday vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars. Clayton has yet to practice this week and that will be the final test from him if there's any opportunity for him to suit up this weekend.
"I don't know about that. He's got to practice," Gruden said. "We are prepared to go with Maurice Stovall and Mr. Lucas. He's got to get out here and practice. We appreciate the want-to, but he's got to get out here and practice."
THE PROSPECTS FOR RETURNING PUNTS AND KICKOFFS With the loss of kickoff and punt return specialist Mark Jones for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his knee vs. the Lions, the Bucs are trying to figure out who will handle those duties vs. Jacksonville. Cornerback Torrie Cox and Lucas were seen after practice on Thursday fielding punts.
Cox has fielded punts before, but Lucas will see his first action with the Bucs on Sunday. Lucas was on the Green Bay Packers active roster in 2005 for two weeks and actually participated in his first NFL contest vs. the Atlanta Falcons. The Bucs could also use wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard and cornerback Phillip Buchanon on punt returns.
Gruden isn't comfortable with using starters on special teams with the fear of another opportunity for an injury, but it has been done before.
"We've done that in the past, treated every situation a little bit differently," Gruden said. "But when you do have the injuries, you have to understand sometimes too that special teams' plays are just as important as any offensive or defensive plays. There's more yardage in transactions on special teams than any other play in football. Every punt is a 4-yard play and if you don't cover it you are in trouble. So we want to try to manufacture field position, not just in our return game, but in our coverage units. So it's something that you have to weigh and consider how the game is going."
Running back Michael Bennett can also return kickoffs even though he has yet to do so in the NFL. He returned kickoffs when he was at the University of Wisconsin and is excited if he is called upon in kick return duties. Bennett, however, had no idea that the Bucs had never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in franchise history.
"Wait, wait, wait. There's never been a return here. Oh, wow I didn't know that," Bennett said. "That will be a lot of fun and that's a big motivation. So, definitely, I don't know what to say about that. I'm shocked to hear that so hopefully I can get back there and take one to the house. Man, 30 years is a long time."
The Bucs are averaging 10.1 yards per punt return and 24.9 yards per kickoff return this season.
INJURY UPDATE Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman (ankle) has been ruled out of Sunday's game vs. Jacksonville. Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle) did not participate in practice for the second straight day. Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) were limited in Thursday's practice.
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