In the whirlwind that has been the career of Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton, there have been few ups and many downs during his four years with the franchise. Clayton came into this season trying to gain a roster spot more so than looking to start for the Bucs at the receiver position.
He had just come off a second consecutive sub-par season in the offense after a stellar rookie campaign and was plagued with dropped passes, including one each in loses vs. the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. Number 80 had to show that he could still be a factor and weapon in the offense or deal with the prospect of being on his way out of Tampa Bay.
Clayton had early struggles at the start of this season as he dropped a sure first down vs. St. Louis with less than two minutes remaining in the first half with the Bucs driving for points. He got an opportunity to redeem himself two plays later and made the catch, but fumbled the ball and luckily recovered it which allowed the Bucs to kick a field goal.
Bucs fans weren't happy with Clayton's miscues and showered him with boos as the first half came to an end. He rebounded with a couple of big receptions in a victory vs. Tennessee and had a big catch vs. Detroit, but left the game with an ankle injury. Clayton battled through the injury, feels healthy and is making plays in the offense again as the playoffs approach.
"We would like to get [wide receiver] Ike [Hilliard] back in the mix and [wide receiver Maurice] Stovall, we like to get all the guys into the mix," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "We think Mike is coming on and that's good. We think he's a really good player."
He had two receptions in the 37-3 victory vs. the Atlanta Falcons, both catches for first downs, and is getting more confident with every opportunity.
"As a player you always want to be involved and I think coach Gruden has done a great job of getting different types of receivers involved and the things that we do," Clayton said. "You always have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself. I had a lot of great looks [vs. Atlanta] and I'm looking forward to getting a lot more."
Clayton has not only become a threat in the passing game, but he's also made an impact on special teams' as well. With the injury to kick return specialist Mark Jones, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, Clayton has stepped in and returned some kickoffs and has also run down on punts.
Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia is happy to see Clayton back on the field and making plays in the offense. Tampa Bay's offense is looking to gain some momentum heading into the playoffs and Clayton can help in the improvement of the running and passing game. He is an excellent blocker in the running game at the receiver position and has the size to make the tough catch in the middle of the field.
"He did a great job this past weekend in making a couple of very solid catches [and] had to fight off defenders, had to go out and get the football," Garcia said. "Made tough yards after the catch, got us first downs in two critical plays during the game. He's also exceptional on special teams, on the kickoff return team and all the things he is able to do for us. So getting him back healthy is very positive for this team and I think it just allows us to continue to grow as an offense."
Clayton has 12 receptions for 170 yards (14.2 avg.) this season, but has yet to get into the end zone. After recording 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season, Clayton had 55 receptions for 728 yards and one touchdown in 2005 and 2006.
The four-year receiver believes that the Bucs are ready to close out the regular season strong and roll into the playoffs with a lot of momentum. The question is how ready are the Bucs for the playoffs?
"Real ready. We are going into it with the same approach that we've had all season, one game at a time," Clayton said. "We want to finish strong and get ready for the postseason. We have a great opportunity to take advantage of a home [playoff] game and we will do that. We are well prepared for any task at hand and we will handle it."
BUCS DEFENSE MUST CONTAIN GORE With a young quarterback in Shaun Hill heading into his second start for San Francisco this Sunday, the 49ers will lean on running back Frank Gore even more after a 20-13 victory vs. the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. After carrying the ball 29 times for 138 yards in the win, Gore understands his importance to the offense and taking the pressure off of Hill.
On the other hand, the Bucs want to contain Gore and force the young quarterback to move the ball down the field through the air against Tampa Bay's No. 2-ranked passing defense in the NFL. Gruden was impressed with what he saw out of San Francisco's young quarterback and isn't underestimating what he can do with the football in his hands.
"Well, he played in his first start against the Bengals and protected the ball. He distributed the ball to the open receivers," Gruden said. "He has a good playing speed, he's got functional quickness and I think he showcased pretty good the first time he was out there. I have a lot of respect of the job he's done."
Hill went 21-of-28 for 197 yards and one touchdown vs. Cincinnati and was sacked two times. The Bucs defense must get pressure on Hill and forced him to make bad decisions with the football. Gore realizes that he is the focus of every opposing defense's game plan, but still finds a way to make plays.
Gore is approaching 1,000 yards – he has 919 yards on 216 carries and five touchdowns – without a consistent passing attack. He's played with three different quarterbacks – Hill, Trent Dilfer and Alex Smith – this season yet is still a force in the 49ers offense.
"I've been facing that all year because people are not respecting the passing game," Gore said. "I feel that if we just stay in the game and have more opportunities with our offense then the quarterback can get into more of a rhythm like Shaun did last week."
Gore, however, knows that the Bucs defense is a fast, aggressive defense that flies around the ball and makes plays.
"The [Bucs] defense is very experienced and has a lot of veterans and play very fast," Gore said. "They play their scheme well which is the main thing and they play really good football."
ADAMS GETTING MORE COMFORTABLE Bucs rookie defensive end Gaines Adams has been under the microscope this entire season after being selected with the fourth overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. With the release of former defensive end Simeon Rice on the first day of training camp, Adams was expected to play and contribute immediately.
Even though Adams' talent didn't pan out quite so quickly, he has began to accelerate his learning curve with the increase of playing time. Adams has recorded 4.5 of his six sacks this season in the last five games and is starting to feel more comfortable in the Bucs defensive scheme. He is ranked second on the defense in sacks behind defensive end Greg White, who leads the team with eight sacks.
"I just think that he's gotten better and we have progressively seen improvement week in and week out," Gruden said. "That's a good thing. He's figuring the pro game out a little bit and the guys around him are playing hard. That's a good combination."
The one difference for Adams in the latter part of his rookie season is seeing things on the field a little slower and understanding formations. That has allowed him to use more of his athletic ability and just react to plays on the field.
"I would say the game is slowing down for me now and just memorizing formations and things like that are starting to come better for me," Adams said. "At the beginning, I was really struggling remembering formations and what teams did out of certain formations, but now as the year as gone on, I've started to step up."
Adams still prepares for the game the same way he did when he was at Clemson, but the way he practices, plays and breaks down an opposing offense he feels is magnified 10 times in the NFL. He believes that the success that he has had in practice has begun to translate on the field on Sunday.
"In this game if you make the plays in practice then you are going to make them in the game," Adams said. "So if you can do that then it's a good sign."
BUCS PLAYOFF TICKETS AVAILABLE The Bucs announced on Wednesday that there will be a limited amount of playoff tickets available for the Wildcard playoff game that will be played at Raymond James Stadium. The game will either be played on Saturday, Jan. 5 or Sunday, Jan. 6. The tickets will go on sale Saturday at 10 a.m. and can be purchased through Ticketmaster.com, all Ticketmaster outlets or by phone at (813) 287-8844.
INJURY UPDATE Bucs defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (hamstring) and linebacker Ryan Nece (groin) did not participate in practice for the second consecutive day. Fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) was limited in practice and running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and defensive end Greg Spires (calf) participated fully in practice on Thursday.
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