If the 10-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to win their regular season finale vs. the 3-13 New Orleans Saints, a feat that would give them their first NFC South division title since 2002, they might have to do it without several key contributors who are currently nursing various injuries.
While the status of several players, including tight end Anthony Becht (ankle), safety Jermaine Phillips (knee), tackle Kenyatta Walker (ankle) and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (hamstring), is questionable, Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton has already been ruled out of Saturday’s contest due to a severe turf toe injury he sustained in the first quarter of last Saturday’s game vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
Ike Hilliard, who has hauled in 33 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown, will start in his place while Edell Shepherd will likely serve as the team’s No. 3 receiver in the game vs. the Saints.
The Bucs could also be without another one of their receivers, Mark Jones, who is questionable with a foot injury.
Jones has served as the team’s primary punt returner this season, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. If Jones, who didn’t practice on Wednesday, can’t play Sunday, Hilliard will field punts in his place.
In other injury news, Bucs center Scott Jackson, who had an appendectomy last week, saw limited action during Wednesday’s workout at One Buccaneer Place.
Bucs Not Taking Saints Lightly
Head coach Jon Gruden has bucked several trends in Bucs history since his arrival in 2002, ranging from such feats as winning in freezing temperatures, defeating the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Packers in Green Bay, and of course, winning a Super Bowl.
The Gruden-led Bucs will once again have the opportunity to end a dreadful streak when they take the field for their regular season finale vs. the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are 3-12 on the season, but they’ve had tremendous success vs. the Bucs in recent years. In 2002, the Saints handed the Bucs two of their four regular season losses. In fact, New Orleans is 3-0 vs. Tampa Bay in games played at Raymond James Stadium since Gruden’s arrival in 2002.
“They just beat us,” Gruden said of the Saints’ success at Ray-Jay. “We had a 10-point lead with five minutes left last year and they returned the ball, and then fumbled, and they converted a fourth-and-12 and [quarterback] Aaron Brooks did the rest. The year before that, we turned the ball over a lot in the red zone. In my first year here we had a punt blocked in overtime. Hey, they’re a good team. There’s as talented a team as we’re play all year. We’d love to have [wide receivers] Joe Horn and Donte’ Stallworth running around here, and that offensive line, and [defensive end] Charles Grant. They have a lot of great players.”
Although they defeated New Orleans, 10-3, on Dec. 4, 10-5 Tampa Bay expects to receive its division rival’s best effort on Sunday when the Bucs attempt to win the NFC South division title and clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2002.
“It’s a big game,” said Gruden. “It’s the last regular season game and I think everybody realizes what happens if you win and what happens if you lose.
“We just played them a month ago, we beat them 10-3 and we had to intercept the ball on the one-yard line to do it. If there’s a letdown this week then we’ll pay for it. I don’t expect that to happen.”
The Bucs believe the Saints are a much better team than their 3-12 record suggests, and for good reason. Of New Orleans’ 12 losses, six of them have come by seven points or less.
“They’re just a dangerous team and I think it’s because they are so talented,” said Bucs quarterback Chris Simms. “For whatever reason, they have had our number, especially at home. Since I’ve been here, this is my third time at home against them and we haven’t beaten them the first two times. Last year they won with really a great effort. They played good on defense and then the Beer Man [Michael Lewis] returned a punt on us. They’ve just found ways to win and make plays. We’ve just got to make sure we play sound football this week and make the plays when they’re available.”
Tampa Bay’s last meeting vs. New Orleans was a tough game to get up for. The game was played in Baton Rouge and there wasn’t much of an atmosphere since the displaced Saints had 20,000-plus fans attend the game.
However, the atmosphere at Sunday’s game in Raymond James Stadium should be playoff-like in nature. While they would earn a trip to the playoffs with a New York Giants win over the Oakland Raiders on Saturday night, Tampa Bay has its sights set on winning the NFC South division. The only thing standing in its way of accomplishing that feat is New Orleans.
“Defending our home turf is something we talked about way back in training camp,” said Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks. “And going 6-2 here at home, we definitely would accomplish that goal. And again, just concentrate on the next game. Continue to focus on us, more or less, New Orleans. I think in that mind set we’ll be ready to go. Just knowing that there’s another week for us to get better, win a division title, and have some momentum going into next week hosting a playoff game.”
The Bucs would love nothing more than to play another game at Raymond James Stadium this season. They would host a home playoff game by defeating the Saints on Sunday, and the Bucs know that playing at home has some advantages.
“There is a difference, I’m not going to lie about it,” Simms said of playing at home as opposed to on the road. “It’s not dramatic to where we don’t feel like we can run or offense or anything like that. But when you’re at home, the luxuries of checking to pass plays and certain situations like that are definitely a whole lot easier. Crowd noise, you don’t have to fight it. Everybody can pretty much hear, even without the signals. In a home game, they can hear what’s coming out of my mouth. In an away game, we still keep it pretty much the same but you just worry about guys jumping offsides or false starts because of the crowd noise and maybe not everybody being on the same page on every play, in and out. I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Tampa Bay is hoping the opportunity to make the playoffs and win the NFC South division title will make the difference in its attempt to find a way to end its home losing streak to the New Orleans Saints.
Cadillac Driving Into Franchise Record Books
Rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams has made plenty of marks in both the NFL’s and Bucs’ record books this season.
Last Saturday alone Williams became the first Bucs running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark since Warrick Dunn did it in 2001 by rushing for 150 yards and one touchdown on 31 carries.
Williams’ 100-yard game vs. the Falcons was his sixth of the season, which set a new franchise record. He has also broken the Bucs’ rookie rushing record held by Errict Rhett (1,011 yards in 1994) by rushing for 1,097 yards and six touchdowns on 268 carries (4.1 avg.).
While his numbers could arguably be even better since he missed two and a half games due to a foot and hamstring injury, Williams suggested Wednesday that the rest earlier in the season is allowing him to come on strong in the latter part of his impressive rookie campaign.
“I am fresh,” said Williams. “I feel like [if I had] played those four weeks, I’d still be fresh. Yes, I am fresh. I feel like that time out, me trying to heal up that injury, whatever, helped me to where I could be extra fresh.”
Rookie TE Smith Catching On
Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway has captured a fair share of the spotlight this season, and rightfully so, by catching a team-leading 79 passes for 1,249 yards and eight touchdowns.
But with WR Michael Clayton struggling to play through injuries and catching just 32 passes for 372 yards and no touchdowns after making a huge splash in his rookie season when he caught 80 passes for 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns, Bucs rookie tight end Alex Smith has stepped up and given the team’s offense another legitimate receiving threat.
Smith has caught 40 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns. While his reception total ranks second best behind Galloway, Smith is also making solid contributions in the running game as a perimeter blocker for rookie RB Cadillac Williams.
The third-round pick out of Stanford is coming off a eight-catch game vs. the Falcons and said Wednesday that he’s simply taken advantage of the opportunities that have come his way while settling in to Gruden’s offense.
“I feel like I’ve been pretty comfortable,” said Smith. “You know, it’s just a matter of having that play call for you. And just being able to make a play when that does happen. It could happen week in [and] week out, any given week it could happen.”
Quote Of The Day
Bucs QB Chris Simms on the week’s preparations being different for a home game
“Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without those speakers out there is so big. Wednesdays and Thursdays I go home with a ringing in my head because I’m yelling the whole practice. Even when I’m in the huddle calling the play I’m trying to yell because they’ve got the crowd noise…it’s more than any crowd noise you’ve ever heard before. We’re playing in front of 200,000 people out there and it’s the stadium the size of Raymond James. It’s extremely loud.”
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