There is a frustrating trend that is becoming a normal occurrence for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden during his Monday press conference. After staying relatively healthy during the preseason and for the first three weeks of the regular season, Tampa Bay has had a major injury to report in each of the last four weeks.
Kickoff and punt return specialist Mark Jones and wide receiver Michael Clayton were the players talked about on Monday. Jones, who has played a big part in the success of the special teams, was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. This was the same injury that ended running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams' season in Week 4.
Clayton had an MRI on his ankle after leaving the 23-16 loss vs. the Detroit Lions on Sunday early in the first quarter. Clayton made a 20-yard reception on the first drive of the game, but left the game with an ankle injury and didn't return. The Bucs are classifying the injury as a high ankle sprain until they receive the results of the MRI.
The aforementioned Williams, left tackle Luke Petitgout (knee), wide receiver Paris Warren (broken ankle), fullback Mike Alstott (neck), safety Sabby Piscitelli (leg), quarterback Chris Simms (spleen) and linebacker Antoine Cash (knee) have all been put on injured reserve this season.
Running back Michael Pittman has missed the last two games with an ankle injury and will miss at least two more weeks, if not longer. Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah has missed games due to an MCL injury in his knee and a shoulder injury. Cornerback Brian Kelly has missed multiple games with a groin injury that has bothered him the entire regular season.
The Bucs have been able to overcome the loss of these talented players and battle to a 4-3 record, but Gruden admits that the injuries are starting pile up.
"It's frustrating. It's not baseball," Gruden said. "You can't make a trade and put a guy in your lineup and say ‘Hey, go play right field and hit fourth.' No disrespect to baseball, but you have got to know the formations, the snap count, the audible system and the two-minute drill. All the things you learn in training camp and OTA's and things of that nature, but when you lose three running backs, three receivers, a tight end, a left tackle, a cornerback and a defensive end… They do add up and we will be tested this week with the [Jacksonville] Jaguars. They are an outstanding football team."
If Clayton, who has caught six passes for 33 yards through seven games, is lost for a significant amount of time, the Bucs will have to look to the waiver wire or free agency to try and add a wide receiver. The depth at wide receiver is becoming thin with the season-ending injury to Warren in the last preseason game and the release of David Boston after the Seattle Seahawks contest in Week 1. Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall are currently the only healthy wide receivers on the active roster.
"Yes there is [a possibility of going to the waiver wire] and once again we've already lost Paris Warren for the season so our depth right now will be stressed," Gruden said. "There are a couple of guys we are going to look at I'm sure, and we will update you when we find out what Mike Clayton's status is."
With the injury to Jones, who was averaging an impressive 11.9 yards per punt return and 28.6 yards per kickoff return, the Bucs may use several players as return specialists. Galloway and Hilliard, cornerback Phillip Buchanon or even running back Michael Bennett could see some action fielding punts and kickoffs.
"It could be [a rotation] and we do have a couple of other candidates that we will consider," Gruden said. "But I do know this, when we do get somebody back there we are hoping we can continue to do the things Mark Jones did because he's going to be a big loss for us."
BENNETT TRYING TO GET COMFORTABLE Bucs running back Michael Bennett showed a small snippet of what he can do in the open field with the ball in his hands in Detroit on Sunday. Bennett, who gained 22 yards on three carries, had an 18-yard gain in the second half that displayed his speed out of the backfield. That is the kind of production the Bucs are hoping for while battling through the injuries to Williams and Pittman.
"They are going to have to plan for all of us because we all bring different things to the game," Bennett said. "And once I'm able to get comfortable and get out there a lot to rotate with Earnest [Graham], to really get in and give a great change of pace, that's going to be one of the great things we will have as a running back tandem."
Bennett has been so consumed with football since he was acquired in a trade last week with the Kansas City Chiefs that he hasn't had time to find a place to live. He's hoping to find some time this week to find a house before turning his attention back to learning a little more about Gruden's complicated playbook.
The speedy running back was quoted last week saying that learning Gruden's offense was like trying to learn to speak Chinese in 48 hours.
"It's getting a little better, getting a little better," Bennett said. "I might even go out for some Chinese food tonight so maybe that will help the process a little better."
Gruden was satisfied with what he saw out of Bennett vs. the Lions.
"We liked him. Obviously he got into a situation there on short notice," Gruden said. "I don't even think he knows most of his coaches or teammates by name or number yet, but he got in and got three carries and was in on a couple of other pass action passes. I believe he played five or six plays. He's a guy that has kickoff return capabilities. I think Michael Bennett is meeting with our coaching staff right now trying to learn and get caught up in terms of our offense. We like to expand his role, clearly he's a guy with some speed and he's a great guy and a good learner and hopefully we can get him out there more next week."
QUOTE OF THE DAY Jon Gruden on if he was encouraged by anything he saw on offense in Detroit.
"Well, there's a lot to be encouraged by. [Running back] Earnest Graham had close to 100 yards rushing and 100 yard receiving in his second career start. [Quarterback] Jeff Garcia, I don't know if he was 20-for-20 at halftime or close to it. It's hard to imagine him playing much better. He did some great things. Obviously losing [Michael] Clayton on the second play of the game didn't help. Hopefully we can get the full supporting cast healthy and ready to go here for the second half of the season to help him. It's unfortunate that we weren't able to finish some drives better, and we had a couple breakdowns, obviously, in special teams that hurt us. But there were some positive things to take away form the game, there always are. But there was also, in defeat, things that make it hard to swallow."
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