Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia took every snap in practice on Thursday and wide receiver Ike Hilliard was full-go in practice as well. Hilliard left last Sunday's loss in Houston with a back injury and the opinion was that he wouldn't be able to play this Sunday vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
However, Hilliard was out at practice running routes and catching passes from Garcia and it seems as though he will suit up vs. the Falcons. Hilliard has been a big part of the passing game this season leading the Bucs with 58 receptions for 663 yards and one touchdown.
"Ike practiced today so that's good. That was a change, he was full participation. He's a tough guy," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.
Garcia talked on Wednesday about trying to simulate game speed as much as he could this week in practice to get ready for Sunday. Gruden has been impressed with what he's seen in practice and doesn't expect an issue with Garcia sitting out for two games.
"We tried to simulate as much speed as we could and I thought he looked sharp," Gruden said. "He's basically missed three full games. Fortunately he is experienced and we're going to have to lean on that experience in these types of situations."
Gruden joked how the two-week break for Garcia was just as detrimental to him as it was for his injured quarterback.
"The way I look at it now it was a nice break. I love him and he's challenging and just as competitive in the meeting room as he is on the field," Gruden said. "He wants to be exact and he's got some tremendous pride. Our meetings aren't just eating donuts and drinking coffee, it's on the edge of your chair and combative some time. It makes us better."
Gruden was also happy to have Hilliard back on the field and didn't hesitate this week in calling him the toughest football player that he's ever coached. Hilliard has gone through ankle, calf and knee injuries this season along with the back injury he's dealing with this week.
CLAYTON BECOMING WEAPON IN OFFENSE Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton came into this season with a lot of mystery as to what his status was on the team and in the offense as trade rumors swirled during training camp. With a couple of drops in Week 3 vs. the St. Louis Rams, his reputation for dropping passes in the past two seasons continued to be a concern.
However, Clayton seemed to be getting back into a groove in the offense with a couple of big receptions – 39-yard and 14-yard receptions that both went for first downs – vs. the Tennessee Titans. The fourth-year receiver experienced a setback when he went down with an ankle injury vs. the Detroit Lions.
Clayton never lost his confidence despite everything he's gone through during his career with the Bucs.
"Nah, not at all. My confidence level has remained steady and that's just how you have to be as a professional. That's the way you handle it," Clayton said. "I've learned a lot over the past few years [with the] ups and downs and just working through it. You come out of it a better person and a better player. When you are able to take advantage of it and seize the day when the opportunity comes, it's a feeling like no other."
With the injury to Hilliard in the first quarter of the 28-14 loss vs. the Houston Texans, Clayton got some more opportunities in the passing game. Number 80 had a season-high four receptions for 39 yards, which improved his season totals to 10 receptions for 148 yards (14.8 avg.) this season.
"It was a great feeling – one that I've missed out on week after week," Clayton said. "I feel real comfortable in the offense and it's a great feeling to feel like you've done something to help the team in a winning or losing effort. I've got my swagger back."
Clayton's ankle is finally healthy again and he keeps getting treatment during the week to keep it strong along with trying to make sure the injury doesn't happen again. With Hilliard battling various injuries this season, the Bucs need Clayton to step up and make some plays down the stretch in the playoffs. He is keeping himself sharp and just waiting for the opportunity to come his way.
"As a receiver, one of the toughest things is to stay into it. On game day, the ball is coming a little bit faster and you have to make some catches when you are getting hit. You don't see that a lot," Clayton said. "As a receiver, there's really no way to practice that. You just have to physically and mentally go through every catch that you may catch during a game. If you can stay on top of that, I think you're pretty polished going into Sunday."
BUCS WANT TO WIN DIVISION TITLE AT HOME The Bucs had the opportunity to clinch the NFC South division with a win vs. the Houston Texans last week on the road, but couldn't get the job done. Tampa Bay could have won the division with a New Orleans Saints loss on Monday night, yet that didn't happen either.
So now the Bucs have another chance to clinch the division title this Sunday vs. the Atlanta Falcons and do it in front of the home crowd. Tampa Bay is on the verge of winning its third NFC South crown since the inception of the division in 2002 and its sixth division title in franchise history. The Bucs won division titles in 1979, 1981, 1999, 2002 and 2005 with the Super Bowl championship coming in ‘02.
There are several veterans on the team in linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber that have celebrated multiple division titles. However, players like right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, defensive end Greg White and safety Tanard Jackson who have yet to win a division title.
"It would be great to win the division," White said. "We'll take it one game – and one division title – at a time."
Jackson is looking forward to winning a division title, but realizes that this team has bigger aspirations this season than just winning the division.
"That's not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to win a World Championship," Jackson said. "First, we have to qualify for the playoffs which means winning the division. Right now, we are looking at that, but looking past that. There's a bigger picture, we are looking to win a world championship and we are just taking it one game at a time."
Gruden has won four division titles as a head coach – two with the Oakland Raiders and two with the Bucs – placing him second among active coaches behind Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid and New England coach Bill Belichick who have five apiece. He is happy to have the chance to win another division title, but he has other goals on his mind.
"I would rather win that second Super Bowl. You want to qualify; you want to have a chance to compete for a championship. I try to keep myself very shallow with these guys," Gruden said. "The pressure and all that stuff, everybody can handle. We've just got to take a good look at what we can do to improve, and keep improving, and stay on the gas pedal in terms of improving. That's what I'm most interested in."
GALLOWAY PUTTING UP PRO-BOWL TYPE NUMBERS Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway is in his 13th season in the NFL and has yet to reach a Pro Bowl in his talented career. Galloway is 22 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard plateau for receiving yards for the third consecutive time during his tenure with the Bucs. Number 84 has recorded five 1,000-yard receiving seasons during his career – three with the Seattle Seahawks and two with Tampa Bay.
Galloway is having a Pro Bowl kind of season with 55 receptions for 978 yards (17.8 avg.) and six touchdowns this season. If you ask him though, he's more worried about team goals than individual goals at this point in his career.
"It wouldn't mean as much as a Super Bowl," Galloway said. "That other stuff is stuff I can't control. It is recognition, but if I wanted recognition I would probably talk more about myself."
Galloway just wants to make the playoffs and get a Super Bowl ring on his finger before he retires. He recorded 62 receptions for 1,057 yards last season with seven touchdowns, but it didn't mean much to him because the team was sitting at home during the playoffs.
"This year it would mean that I helped my team get to the playoffs," Galloway said. "Two years ago it meant that, but last year it didn't mean a whole lot. Winning games is all that matters."
The 13-year veteran is not only having a Pro Bowl caliber season, he's also one of the most underrated wide receivers in the league. He leads the league in average yards per catch with 17.8 ahead of Dallas' Terrell Owens and New England's Randy Moss. Galloway is also first in the NFL with eight catches of 40 yards or more and has as many touchdowns (six) as Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson and St. Louis wide receiver Torry Holt.
"I said this a few years ago and this is just my opinion [that Galloway is a Pro Bowl player]. He's had some physical setbacks. He hasn't had a quarterback, really, of any consistency," Gruden said. "I think he went to Dallas, had a chance to play with [Troy] Aikman and Troy went down right away. Or Joey went down right away; one or the other. Guys don't come on this planet like Galloway very often. Hopefully he makes it. Hopefully our voters out there will head to the computer and type his name in there, because he is one heck of a football player, I'll tell you that."
ADAMS GAINES HALF A SACK FROM HOUSTON GAME Bucs rookie defensive end Gaines Adams added to his sack total on Wednesday and didn't even rush the quarterback to do it. The NFL issued a scoring change from the Houston Texans game last Sunday, crediting Adams and White with a half a sack on Houston quarterback Sage Rosenfels.
Rosenfels was sacked and fumbled the ball with 1:57 remaining in the third quarter and White was given a full sack on the play. However, the league reviewed the play and gave a half a sack to White and Adams. So officially, White had two and a half sacks along with two forced fumbles and Adams had a half a sack in the loss.
INJURY UPDATE Bucs running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and linebacker Ryan Nece (groin) were limited in practice on Thursday. Garcia (back) and Hilliard (back) along with defensive end Greg Spires (calf) participated fully in practice. Fullback B.J. Askew was the only player that didn't participate in practice.
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