The Bucs head into their season finale vs. the Carolina Panthers this Sunday with several players in question as to whether they will play or not. Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway, however, is out for the final home game of the regular season with a shoulder injury.
Bucs running backs Earnest Graham (ankle) and Michael Pittman (ankle), defensive ends Patrick Chukwurah (hamstring) and Greg White (quad), wide receiver Ike Hilliard (knee), cornerback Brian Kelly (knee), linebacker Ryan Nece (groin) and fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) are all listed as questionable for Sunday's game.
Graham has an opportunity to reach the 1,000-yard milestone if he is able to play, but likely will sit out to rest up for the playoffs. He has been one of the feel-good stories of this year's Bucs team and has 898 yards rushing (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns this season.
Bucs running back Michael Bennett likely will see major playing time in the backfield with Pittman probably getting a few snaps at running back. Bennett has received some opportunities in the offense in the last two games after sitting on the sidelines for several games after being acquired in a trade from Kansas City on Oct. 16.
"Mike Bennett has been a work in progress because it's not easy to learn a new offense on the run but he's picking it up," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "He did some good things for us in the last two games, so yeah we expect to see a lot of Bennett. Hopefully we can use his speed and energy in the playoffs."
With White and Chukwurah hobbled heading into Sunday's contest, the Bucs are looking to play rookie defensive end Gaines Adams and Greg Spires for most of the game. Spires returned last week after injuring his calf vs. Jacksonville midway through the season. Fullback Byron Storer, who filled in for Askew in the last two games, will probably see most of the action at fullback.
After losing wide receiver Maurice Stovall for the season with a broken arm vs. San Francisco and with the injuries to Hilliard and Galloway, the Bucs signed wide receivers Brian Clark and Chad Lucas to the active roster from the practice squad this week. Clark and Lucas should see a lot of game action vs. Carolina.
"He [Lucas] has speed and versatility," Gruden said. "He will get a chance to show us where he is on Sunday."
Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton likely will be the No. 1 option for quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Luke McCown. Garcia could see some action early, but McCown might get the start so the Bucs can rest Garcia for the playoffs. Clayton has 17 receptions for 241 yards (14.2 avg.) this season.
"I'm happy that he's coming back. He's had a number of injuries – this year again, he's had a number of injuries. It has derailed him a little bit. I think he's done a heck of a job coming back. I'm really excited about him performing tomorrow," Clayton said. "If we can get a little more out of Clayton, a lot more out of him, what his expectations are and what his capabilities are…Jerramy Stevens…if we can continue to work with [Michael] Bennett and get these guys ready to compete and add some things to us in the playoffs, that will help our offense. [Sunday] will be a good gauge as to where all those guys are."
For Carolina, safety Chris Harris (neck) is doubtful and defensive end Julius Peppers (knee) was ruled out of the game earlier in the week.
SMITH REMAINS CONFIDENT DESPITE DROPS Bucs tight end Alex Smith had a roller coaster of a game in the 21-19 loss vs. San Francisco last weekend. He was second on the team with six receptions for 79 yards, but he also had two drop passes that were costly and almost had a costly turnover deep in San Francisco territory.
On the first drive of the game, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia hit Smith right in the hands inside the 5-yard line, but he dropped the pass that was a sure first down. The Bucs had to settle for a field goal instead of having first-and-goal. Late in the third quarter, Smith had a 9-yard reception and fumbled the ball which was recovered by the 49ers. The play was challenged and it was ruled that he was down by contact giving the ball back to Bucs.
On the same drive early in the fourth quarter, Smith had a pass from Bucs quarterback Luke McCown go right through his hands and it was picked off by San Francisco cornerback Nate Clements and returned deep into Bucs territory. The 49ers tacked on a touchdown that turned out to be the difference in the loss.
Because of the drops, Smith has been staying late after practice working on basic techniques of catching the ball so that he doesn't have a drop when the stage is bigger in the playoffs.
"It's not something that I ever want to happen and I pride myself on catching everything. I felt like I let the team down; one of those drops led to an interception. It's something that I told myself I would just get back to the basics and I'm back out there on the field doing the little things, catching on the jugs and staying late at practice," Smith said. "Some of the things you get away from as the season goes along. It's not going to shake my confidence at all because I know I can still go out there and make those plays. I just want to make sure I get back to the basics and get everything where it needs to be going into the playoffs."
Smith has 31 receptions for 367 yards (11.8 avg.) and three touchdowns this season.
BROOKS HELPING OUT ROOKIES Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks was steadily paying attention to the play of rookie linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward last week as they received major playing time in the second half vs. San Francisco. Instead of joking around or just sitting on the bench, Brooks, along with linebackers Barrett Ruud and Cato June, was seen following every play from the sideline.
Brooks wanted to watch every move that the two rookies made on the field to help them in their progression in the defense. Black and Hayward likely are the future at the linebacker position and Brooks is willing to help them in any aspect of their game. It's what a true professional and veteran should do.
"I think we were looking at them from more of a standpoint of helping them out," Brooks said. "Obviously we want to see them play and do well, but it was more or less to help them out. We were excited about seeing them get some defensive action."
Brooks has been in Black and Hayward's ear for most of the season, helping them with techniques and how to play the game. He also has talked to them about how to carry themselves on and off the field as a professional, something that former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson did for Brooks when he came into the league in 1995.
"It's totally different circumstances in a way because I play a different position from what Hardy played, but the things Hardy was saying in terms of being a professional, those are the things I constantly repeat to them," Brooks said. "Now that they play my position, I'm able to help them more hands on than Hardy was able to help me because we played two different positions."
Hayward is preparing for this game just like he has the other 15 this season, but he did admit that he will watch more film on Carolina.
"As far as preparing for it, I just have to look at it the same and watch the same amount of film – if not more," Hayward said. "I'm going to go in because they're going to try to rest some starters. I don't want to be in a situation where I have the coaches doubting me because I didn't prepare myself well. I'm going to prepare myself as if I was starting the whole game. Most of the time when you study, you have to do that because you never know what will happen to Derrick Brooks on any given play."
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden when asked about the production expected from wide receivers Chad Lucas and Brian Clark on Sunday.
"We signed two receivers, Brian Clark and Chad Lucas. We changed Chad Lucas's name to Lewis so it's Lewis and Clark. We're going to have to play our game a little bit and get these guys ready for the playoffs if they're the guys we have to play, see?"
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