The Bucs woes at the running back position continue to be an issue as Michael Pittman was ruled doubtful for Sunday's game vs. Washington. Defensive end Greg Spires, who has missed two games with a torn calf muscle, was ruled out and fullback B.J. Askew is questionable.

Pittman returned last week vs. Atlanta from an ankle injury he sustained in Week 5 on the road vs. Indianapolis. He was projected to be out six to eight weeks with the injury, but returned after missing only four games. Pittman, however, re-aggravated the injury in the 31-7 victory vs. the Falcons and hasn't practiced all week.

It was reported by PewterReport.com earlier in the week that head coach Jon Gruden was worried that the Bucs might have to put Pittman on injured reserve. The Bucs already have a league-high 12 players on the injured reserve list. Pittman had a solid return with 44 yards rushing on 10 carries and two receptions for 17 yards, despite having one fumble.

With Pittman likely on the sideline this week, running back Michael Bennett will be looked to for depth in the backfield. Bennett, who was acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, has been slow to pick up Gruden's offense and was inactive on the road vs. Atlanta last week.

Bennett has 57 yards rushing (5.7 avg.) on 10 carries and one touchdown since joining the Bucs in mid-October. Gruden does expect to use Bennett on Sunday, but was non-committal on how much action that he would see. Bennett has struggled in practice as of late and Gruden needs him to be more prepared for game day.

"He has to be, he's been here so he's got to be a little bit better prepared now than he was two weeks ago," Gruden said. "It's a tough process. That's why there are no trades at the trade deadline. Looks good and sounds good, but it a challenge right now. It certainly is."

Running back Earnest Graham has picked up the slack with the injuries to Pittman and Cadillac Williams, who was lost for the season with a knee injury, gaining 556 yards (4.2 avg.) and scoring five touchdowns.

Spires was injured in the 24-23 loss vs. Jacksonville in Week 8 and has been sidelined with the injury. Spires has 36 tackles and one sack this season and has battled through injuries for most of the season. Rookie defensive end Gaines Adams has stepped into Spires' starting position and is beginning to display some of the talent that made him a first-round selection.

Askew didn't participate in practice on all week long because of an ankle injuring he has battled with. Askew played through the ankle injury vs. Atlanta and Gruden said on Thursday that he expects Askew to play vs. Washington on Sunday. Graham (ankle) and wide receiver Michael Clayton (ankle) are listed as probable.

Washington will be missing safety Sean Taylor (knee), wide receiver James Thrash (ankle) and offensive lineman Randy Thomas (triceps), as all three have been ruled out of Sunday's contest. Running back Mike Sellers (back) is listed as doubtful and offensive lineman Todd Wade (knee) has been listed as questionable.

Running back Ladell Betts (illness), defensive lineman Cornelius Griffin (foot), offensive linemen Stephon Heyer (illness) and Pete Kendall (ankle), wide receivers Santana Moss (heel) and Antwan Randle-El (chest) and linebacker London Fletcher (ribs) are all listed as probable.

MCCARDELL MAKES HIS RETURN TO TAMPA
Former Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell makes his regular season return to Tampa since his departure in 2004 because of a contract dispute. McCardell was a part of the 2002 Super Bowl championship team and had two touchdown receptions in the 48-21 victory vs. the Oakland Raiders.

McCardell had a stellar season for the Bucs in 2003 with 84 receptions for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns. McCardell, however, didn't report to training camp in 2004 even though he had two years remaining on his contract with the team. With neither the Bucs nor McCardell willing to budge during his 82-day holdout, McCardell was traded to the San Diego Chargers for two draft choices.

"He had a lot to do with our championship," Gruden said. "He was a team captain here and a clutch receiver. He's still showcasing his savvy and his abilities, and he's a great guy too, off the field."

Despite the contract dispute with the Bucs, McCardell didn't hesitate when speaking about his former coach in Tampa.

"He's a hell of a coach, to be honest with you. Jon's probably the best offensive coach I've been around," McCardell said. "If you're a player that doesn't have a high football IQ, he's going to blow your mind."

BUCHANON, HILLIARD WILL KEEP RETURNING PUNTS
With the season-ending knee injury to return specialist Mark Jones, the Bucs have had to scramble to find eligible players to return punts. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon and wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway all have experience in fielding punts and have done so this season.

However, Gruden has stuck with a two-man rotation of Buchanon and Hilliard for the past two games and doesn't see a change in the future. He did state that the game situation will determine who will return punts as well.

"Sometimes it's based on the situation and how the game is going," Gruden said. "But both those guys [Hilliard and Buchanon] will see their returns and hopefully break one."

Buchanon has returned 10 punts this season for 52 yards (5.2 avg.) and Hilliard has seven returns for 48 yards (6.9 avg.). The Bucs as a team are averaging 8.2 yards a return this season. Before his injury, Jones had 12 returns for 143 yards (11.9 avg.) with his longest return being 35 yards.

QUOTE OF THE DAY
Gruden on Washington's defense if it has to play without safety Sean Taylor on Sunday.

"They're playing great defense. Their record is 5-5, but if you watch them play at Green Bay, they played well enough to win that game in Lambeau. They played well enough to beat Dallas in Dallas. They're a good football team. They had a couple critical errors that are being talked about, I'm sure, all over the country, but they played 58 great minutes in Dallas last week. Their structure hasn't changed radically without Taylor, but Taylor is one of the best I've seen. He's got incredible range and play-making ability. We'll see what happens."

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