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The Buccaneers have several injured players heading into their NFC South showdown with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Wide receiver Ike Hilliard, who has missed a significant amount of practice time this week with an ankle injury, was limited in practice again on Friday.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden suggested Hilliard, defensive end Greg Spires (ankle), cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, all of who are questionable for Sunday’s game, would be game-time decisions.

Although Hilliard was limited in practice during on Friday, he feels he will be able to go on Sunday. Despite Hilliard’s warrior attitude, this is another opportunity for wide receiver Michael Clayton to make some plays and live up to what Bucs fans saw in his rookie season. Clayton had 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in 2004. It also allows Gruden an opportunity to get wide receiver Maurice Stovall on the field and see what he can do in a meaningful game.

Clayton has had to battle through some dropped passes in the past two seasons – a dropped touchdown pass against the New York Giants and dropping a potential touchdown pass against Pittsburgh in 2006 – and gave more ammunition to his critics with a dropped pass last week against the Rams. Clayton was open and the ball hit him right in the hands with less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter, but he couldn’t hang on.

Clayton got another opportunity two plays later and caught the pass, but fumbled the ball and tight end Alex Smith jumped on the ball. Clayton has no one but himself to blame for the dropped passes, but he not making any excuses either.

“I just got to do better personally, I’ve got to catch the ball and stop thinking about making the big play and just go back to where I started just catching the ball and getting up the field,” Clayton said. “I’m looking to make a play, haven’t made a play in a while and I’m letting it get to me. I have to calm down and it’s something I just have to do. Obviously I caught the ball and I have to secure the ball. That’s all on me. It’s two mistakes that are my fault. I still want to be in the game and I know that I can get the job done and that’s all it is.”

Stovall got two starts last season and the end of the year and had seven receptions for 102 yards. The second-year receiver was the talk of training camp and had four receptions for 40 yards in four games in the preseason. Stovall, however, has yet to catch a pass in the regular season, but Gruden will try to get him some opportunities against the Panthers.

“Obviously he’s got to play better, he going to play this week and we are going to get him on the field,” Gruden said. “Once again, the last couple of weeks we haven’t thrown the ball that much. We haven’t been in a lot of open-style formations with 28-point leads and the kind of leads that we’ve had. With that said, there will be some opportunities for [Maurice], he’s got to keep working and continue to get better like every other player on our team.”

With quarterback Jeff Garcia at the helm of the Bucs offense this season, the passing game has become a weapon in attacking opposing defenses. Tampa Bay used its passing attack to put up 31 points in a victory over the New Orleans Saints. Garcia used his arm as well on the drive that put away the Rams in a 24-3 victory against St. Louis.

With two touchdown passes – 69- and 24-yard receptions from Garcia to wide receiver Joey Galloway – the Bucs quickly made a statement about their big-play ability throwing the ball down the field. Garcia then proved that he can eat up yards in chunks when he hit Hilliard for 17 yards and running back Michael Pittman for passes of 15 and 16 yards respectively in a fourth quarter drive that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown run by running back Earnest Graham.

Garcia is completing just over 66 percent of his passes so far this season and has thrown two touchdowns compared to no interceptions. The three-time Pro Bowler is doing a good job of managing the offense, making the right audibles and not turning the ball over. He has also demonstrated how effective he can be in the two-minute offense, leading two scoring drives at the end of the first half in the last two games against the Saints and Rams.

“He did a great job. The two-minute drill right before the half he was outstanding,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “There were a couple of great plays, Pro Bowl plays, in that drive. He was victimized a couple of times by dropped passes; I think Ike [Hilliard] dropped one, Mike [Clayton] dropped one. But he kept his poise and converted a couple of third-and-tens, one on his own. He pulled a Houdini act to get a first down. Opening the third quarter, he was very good. He made some real good moves in the running game (Sunday) to help us out, with audibles, things of that nature. He’s playing really good.”

Heading to Carolina, Garcia and the Bucs offense have to be licking their chops to face a Panthers defense that is struggling in pass coverage. Carolina’s defensive unit is allowing 342 yards per game, including 246 yards passing through three games this season.

Despite averaging only 185 yards passing, the Bucs have had two consecutive weeks where they didn’t have to use the passing game in length in the second half. After Atlanta quarterback Joey Harrington posted 361 yards against the Panthers last week, Tampa Bay has confidence that Garcia will be able to attack Carolina’s secondary on Sunday.

“It does [give us confidence] and until you put that fire out, if you get exposed teams are going to continue to expose that until you show you can stop it,” tight end Jerramy Stevens said. “We saw that on the film and saw that happening. We aren’t going to stray too far from what we do, but there will be [opportunities] and we will try to take advantage of that. Obviously it’s exciting since we have so many good players and you get us all on the field and try to get us some matchups.”

Gruden, however, doesn’t buy into the stats about the Panthers defense and believes it will be a challenge to exploit Carolina’s secondary.

“It is statistics, you know people grab these statistics and say they were exploited and ripped because of the yards,” Gruden said. “They threw a slant and a couple of guys slipped and fell, I think it was an 80-yard pass on one play. You don’t count on those things ever happening in football. I thought Carolina did an excellent job when they had to and shut them down. I didn’t see it like that, I saw a lot of yards, but I didn’t see anybody get exploited.”

Even if the stats don’t tell the whole story, Garcia should have some opportunities to make some big plays in the passing game. Harrington and Houston quarterback Matt Schaub had success in the passing game and Garcia should see some favorable matchups on Sunday.

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