After two weeks of speculation and wondering about the status of quarterback Jeff Garcia's health, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden made it perfectly clear on Monday that his starter would be back under center in practice on Wednesday. Garcia has sat out the last two games after sustaining a deep back bruise vs. Washington three weeks ago.
Tampa Bay's backup quarterback Luke McCown did a solid job starting in place of Garcia going 1-1 and getting a big division road victory vs. New Orleans two weeks ago. Garcia wanted to make the start Sunday vs. Houston, but Gruden made the decision to hold him out and make sure that he was healthy for the stretch run and the playoffs.
Gruden was happy with the performances that he got out of McCown and sees some potential for the future in the 6-foot-3, 212-pound quarterback. McCown went 25-for-38 for 266 yards in a 28-14 loss on the road vs. the Texans on Sunday. He is 55-for-79 for 588 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in three games this season.
"He did some good things yesterday. Clearly there were seven or eight plays in the game that weren't as good as some of the others, but I'm really pleased at what he's done," Gruden said. "He's handled a lot of football and some tough situations and he's moving our football team. We made a lot of first downs and I still think there are plenty of room to grow, but I think what we all see is a big, athletic guy that has promise and the potential to be outstanding. I think that's been obvious in the last two football games. There's clearly work to be done, but we all pleased with a lot of things he did do in the last two games."
Garcia's return will certainly give the offense a lift as he is the reason why the Bucs are on the verge of clinching the NFC South division title. The nine-year veteran quarterback was having another Pro Bowl type of season before his injury. Garcia has completed more than 64 percent of his pass attempts this season for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Gruden is also eager to get his play-making quarterback back on the field.
"A lot of lift; we really lost him for three games because he came out in the first or second play of the game against Washington," Gruden said. "So we've really played three full football games without him and that's a tough strain on anyone. We are eager to get him back and have him healthy and ready to go play the way he's proven he likes to play; aggressive, creative and competitively."
The one knock on McCown this season has been his lack of getting the ball out of his hands quickly. McCown is gaining a reputation of holding on to the ball too long and needs improvement in that area if the Bucs have any hope of him being the quarterback of the future.
Gruden hopes to get it corrected sooner rather than later.
"Well you ask nicely to get rid of it and then you yell and see if that works, but you just point it out to him. You have to have a clock in your head and have to have a feel for blind pursuit," Gruden said. "You can't see the backside and I don't know any human beings that have eyes in the back of their heads. Those are areas that he needs to show significant improvement. There was a second-and-1 play at the end of the first half and the ball has to be gone. Late in the game at the 5 or 6-yard line, you need to step up in the pocket, run or through it away. The other thing you have to be careful with is you are dealing with a guy that has explosive athletic ability that can scramble and create, but that is an area that Luke needs to show improvement. I am confident that he will do that."
49ERS-BUCS GAME TIME CHANGED The NFL announced on Monday that the Dec. 23 match-up between the San Francisco 49ers and Bucs has been moved from 8:15 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. This is the second time this season that Tampa Bay has had a game moved from its original time slot. This is possible because of the NFL's flex scheduling which allows the league to move a more competitive game into the national television slot on Sunday night.
The Bucs-Saints game two weeks ago was moved from a 1 p.m. start to a nationally televised slot of 4:15 on FOX.
HILLIARD'S STATUS IN QUESTION FOR SUNDAY Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard left Sunday's game with what is being classified as an upper back injury. Hilliard was hit on a helmet-to-helmet play by Houston safety Will Demps in the first quarter, fumbled the ball and remained on the ground after the play. He left the game shortly following the play in the first quarter and never returned.
Hilliard's status for this Sunday's contest vs. Atlanta will likely be a game-time decision.
"He's being evaluated now. He's got an upper back that we are looking at," Gruden said. "We are confident that he will be able to play, but we are concerned about him. I can only update you on Wednesday, but the evaluations were still ongoing as I walked in here."
If Hilliard is out for any length of time, the Bucs will look to wide receivers Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall to carry some of the load in the passing game. With teams double-teaming wide receiver Joey Galloway, Tampa Bay needs another receiver to step up and give Garcia another target. Hilliard leads the Bucs in receptions with 58 for 663 yards (11.4 avg.) and one touchdown this season.
"Obviously they have to step up. [Fullback] B.J. Askew was a game-time decision yesterday and his status for this week is very questionable," Gruden said. "It's tough right now and if B.J. can't go then [fullback] Byron Storer will have to step up and if Ike Hilliard can't go then Mike [Clayton] and Maurice [Stovall] will step up and we are confident in those guys. We don't want to lose anymore players I will be clear on that."
Clayton seems to finally be healthy again after battling an ankle injury in the middle of the season. The fourth-year wide receiver has 10 catches for 148 yards (14.8 avg.) this season. Stovall made an impression on Gruden early in training camp, but has slowly faded out of the offense and has made his contributions on special teams with 12 tackles. Stovall has 10 receptions for 86 yards (8.6 avg.) and one touchdown this season.
GRUDEN NEEDS BENNETT TO STEP UP With Bucs running back Earnest Graham carrying the entire load of the running game, Gruden is looking for running back Michael Bennett to start contributing on offense. The problem is that Bennett can't even get on the field to spell Graham when he needs a breather because Gruden doesn't have that much trust in him.
Bennett has 11 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown this season, but hasn't seen the field in three of the six games he's suited up for with the Bucs. Gruden is hoping to see improvement from Bennett and is growing frustrated with the lack of growth from him in the offense.
"We are trying hard and as you know we have always been a team who has tried to feature two running backs at one time," Gruden said. "There have been times when we have gone with our three-halfback-at-a-time attack. Right now we haven't been able to probe some of those formations. We expect Mike Bennett to pick it up down the stretch because we need him desperately."
Bennett has a different perspective in the fact that he's been having quality practices, but isn't being rewarded for his hard work. His mindset is that he just wants to get on the field and make some plays for a winning team, even if that comes on special teams.
"I always want to play even if it's three or four plays or maybe a quarter; I just don't want to be sitting on the sideline just cold and then on the spur of the moment go in and give 100 percent," Bennett said. "I can do that going in and out. I'm comfortable with three or four plays in a quarter just to get into the groove of the game. If anything does happen even though I hope it doesn't, I want to have a feeling of the game, what they are doing and the different looks they are giving. It's easy to look on the sideline, but when you are in the game it's a lot different."
Bennett says he knows enough of the playbook to be out on the field and feels frustrated about not knowing what kind of improvement that Gruden is looking for out of him.
"Yes , but the thing about it is that I can't sit up here and say what is right and what is wrong. He's the head coach and obviously I haven't gained enough of his trust to get out on the field," Bennett said. "That's kind of the way I'm looking at it. My thing is to keep going at it. I've been here a month and a half and I'm comfortable with a lot of things. I'm not going to grasp it in three or four months. If I'm here next year and the following year then I will have a chance to do that."
The Bucs will need Bennett down the stretch as Graham had some uncharacteristic drops in the loss vs. Houston. Gruden hinted that it might be due to fatigue as Graham is basically the only weapon out of the backfield with the injuries to running back Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle).
"It could be [fatigue] you know fatigue can certainly set in. I know I'm guilty of overworking him, but he gives our team the best chance to win right now. We are expecting a lot more from [running back] Michael Bennett," Gruden said. "We need him to pick it up and we hope to get Michael Pittman back some point soon. We've lost obviously two halfbacks, B.J. Askew was limited to a degree yesterday and with [fullback] Mike Alstott gone we are limited in the backfield. We are also relying on Earnest to win games for us because he's not only an outstanding runner, but he's an excellent receiver and he's proven that. He did have a couple of drops yesterday and that was uncharacteristic."
BUCS DEFENSE STRUGGLING ON THIRD DOWN Even though the Bucs defense moved up to third in the NFL in total defense and fourth in pass defense, there is one glaring weakness that needs to be fixed before the playoffs. Tampa Bay's defense has struggled for most of the season in stopping opposing offenses on third down. For the season, the Bucs are allowing 43.3 percent of third down conversions, which is the highest percentage of a defense coached by Monte Kiffin in Tampa.
In Sunday's loss vs. the Houston Texans, Tampa Bay allowed the Texans to convert 10-of-17 on third down. Houston was able to control the tempo and time of possession because of the lack of success on third down by the Bucs defense. In the last three weeks, the defense has allowed Washington, New Orleans and Houston to convert 64.4 percent of its third downs.
The opinion of how big a problem this is for the Bucs defense, however, is conflicting in the locker room.
"Okay, you're [media] making an issue of that. Our defense more often than not this season has been stellar. We've done a lot of good this season and I don't think there is a "problem" of getting off the field on third down," Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter said. "We know what we have to address and we will address it. [Defensive coordinator Monte] Kiffin is capable, we have a good cast of coaches that are here and we will get it fixed. That's all propaganda for you guys to worry about to say ‘Oh you guys have to get off the field on third down, your percentages are here'. Look at what we've done all season I don't want to hear that. I don't mean to be mean, but I look at the body of work. We will do what we have to do or we won't. That's the reality of this game so we will see what happens next Sunday."
With just over nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bucs down by a two-touchdown margin, the defense needed a three-and-out to get the ball back to the offense. Instead, the Texans were able to convert two third-down plays to run almost five minutes off the clock. The Bucs ran out of time and was unable to make the plays needed for a comeback.
"Personally for me I'm definitely thinking about getting a win and that's the whole focus in our minds," Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon said. "We lost so we have to work on the cause of the loss. For us that was probably third down on defense and I'm pretty sure we could have played better on defense. At the same time, we have to just work on it and make it better this week."
Bucs defensive end Greg White, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles on Sunday, knows that the coaching staff will discuss the third down issue all week leading up to this weekend's contest vs. Atlanta.
"It's definitely a concern and we have to go back to the drawing board and just get off [the field]. We've got to make plays and make plays as a group as far as our lineman to our DB's [defensive backs] we just got to keep making plays," White said. "I'm sure we are going to go over it long and hard today in meetings, but we will get it together hopefully this weekend when we play the Atlanta Falcons."
White has been part of the youth movement on the defensive line and is making a name for himself after battling his way onto the roster in training camp from the Arena League. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound defensive lineman has a team-high eight and a half sacks and six forced fumbles.
He is on pace to record double-digit sacks for a Bucs defense that had just 25 sacks a year ago. This season's defense has already surpassed that total with 29 sacks in 13 games. White tied a franchise record with three sacks in one game set by former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp in 1998. He isn't worried about his stats, he's just happy to be getting opportunities on the field.
"That wasn't my original plan because I just got here. I just wanted to play. If I get double-digits [sacks] it would be great," White said. "My goal was – I didn't know how much I was going to play – if I get eight sacks then I'm doing something because I'm getting a chance to play. Right now we have three more games left so it would be great if I could reach double digits."
QUOTE OF THE DAY Left tackle Donald Penn on facing Falcons defensive end John Abraham for the second time this season.
"You can't be comfortable going up against John Abraham. He's a Pro Bowl player. He had me guessing a lot in the first game. It's going to be another battle. I'm going to study the film from the last game and see what I was doing wrong and what I can do differently and combat all his moves. He's a great athlete. It might be a little better now that I have film on me going against him, but he's still John Abraham."
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