Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly, who has missed three games and has been sidelined in the other five games with a groin injury, will see playing time vs. the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday even though he's listed as questionable. Kelly sustained the groin injury during a season-opening loss on the road vs. the Seattle Seahawks.
Kelly's presence in the defensive backfield is something the Bucs secondary will need in facing the Cardinals offense. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt likes to spread out a defense with four-and-five wide receiver sets, which is where the experience and talent of Kelly will be a major factor on how successful the Tampa Bay defense will be.
Despite being limited in practice, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden feels good about Kelly's return to the field.
"Yeah, there is a lot of optimism. You know he's a guy that we think is a very good player obviously and he's going to be ready to go in a game I believe," Gruden said. "I think he knows that he's ready to go and that's most important when you are able to test it yourself and know in your mind that you are ready to go."
With the Cardinals possessing three talented wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, the Bucs could be using a lot of nickel and even dime formations on Sunday. The nickel formation uses four defensive linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties compared to a dime package that replaces a linebacker with a fourth defensive back.
Cornerback Phillip Buchanon was inserted in the starting lineup with the injury to Kelly and cornerback Sammy Davis was used in nickel formations.
Running back Michael Pittman is listed as questionable and was limited in practice again on Friday, but believes that he can play on Sunday. Pittman had ligament damage in his ankle in a Week 5 loss vs. Indianapolis and was supposed to be out 6 to 8 weeks. However, Pittman is more than two weeks ahead of schedule and is ready to go.
"I was supposed to be out six to eight weeks and it's only been about three and a half weeks," Pittman said. "I feel pretty good. I'm not 100 percent healthy, but I feel like I'm good enough to play."
Gruden liked what he saw out of Pittman during Friday's practice, but was hesitant in stating that Pittman would suit up on Sunday.
"Pittman is one of our more experienced players in terms of fighting through injuries and things of that nature," Gruden said. "So I always reserve judgment. He moved around better today although I don't know."
Gruden said that tight end Alex Smith (ankle) should see some action vs. the Cardinals, but wide receiver Michael Clayton is likely out for a second consecutive game with a high ankle sprain. Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) and wide receiver Ike Hilliard were limited in practice on Friday as well. All four have been listed as questionable for Sunday.
"I haven't seen Clayton really do very much so I would say his status is what it is," Gruden said. "I haven't seen him do very much. Alex Smith should be ready to go. He's missed two games so he should be ready to go, but I can only tell you that he should be ready to go, but I can't tell you he is ready to go."
Defensive end Greg Spires (calf) was ruled out of Sunday's game and linebacker Quincy Black (hamstring) is questionable.
SPURLOCK TO RETURN KICKOFFS
With all the injuries at wide receiver and the season-ending knee injury to special teams' ace Torrie Cox, the Bucs will give wide receiver Micheal Spurlock his opportunity at returning kickoffs on Sunday vs. the Cardinals. Spurlock was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster on Thursday.
Spurlock, who coincidentally was in the Cardinals organization last season, has three kickoff returns in his career for 54 yards (18.0 avg.), all coming last season with Arizona. Gruden is encouraged by Spurlock's ability to return kicks and is looking for another young player to take advantage of an opportunity to get on the field.
"We are going to see Michael Spurlock back there on Sunday and it depends on who's up, who's out and who's in before we can determine if we will have any other candidates," Gruden said. "But right now, it will be the youngster and we are excited to see what he does."
Gruden was in a joking mood when asked about Spurlock's lack of experience in returning kicks.
"Not at this level, but he has had experience doing this in his backyard much like I have," Gruden said.
As far as punt returns, it most likely will be a rotation much like last week vs. Jacksonville with wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard and cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
KEY MATCHUP IN SUNDAY'S CONTEST
One matchup to watch during Sunday's game will be the defense's ability to get pressure on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Arizona's offensive line has allowed just eight sacks this season, keeping Warner, Matt Leinart and Tim Rattay relatively clean. The Bucs, on the other hand, have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback this season.
Tampa Bay has recorded 16 sacks this season leaving them tied for 15th in the NFL in that category. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye is leading the team with four sacks and the Bucs are averaging just two sacks per contest. Warner likes to get rid of the ball quickly so Tampa Bay's defensive linemen should look to bat down passes if they can't get to the quarterback.
"They have done a nice job of getting rid of the ball. Warner is a hard guy to sack and has been," Gruden said. "He gets rid of the ball. He's got a real sense of that free blitzer and the pocket breaking down. Like most savvy NFL experienced quarterbacks, they are hard to get to."
The Bucs defense is on pace to capture more sacks this season than they did last year (25 sacks), but Gruden has stressed all season that the pass rush is not meeting his standards. The turnover battle has also been a key component in the Bucs success this season. Tampa Bay has won the turnover battle in all four wins and lost that battle in its four losses. So the Bucs must get pressure on Warner, force mistakes and get turnovers to have a chance to win on Sunday.
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