The M.A.S.H. unit, which has been the Bucs’ offensive line, recruited another member Thursday as center John Wade tweaked his ankle, limiting him in practice.
While the interchangeable Sean Mahan took the majority of snaps at center in Thursday’s practice Wade’s injury is not thought to be serious. He’s listed as probable for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mahan, in his fourth year out of Notre Dame, started the season opener against Baltimore at left guard, but has since got the nod for three games at right guard. Second-year player Dan Buenning, who was inactive for the Bucs’ season opener, started the last three games at left guard.
Mahan was bumped from the starting lineup altogether this week as rookie guard Davin Joseph’s knee is healthy enough for him to assume the starting right guard position Sunday alongside rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
“We’re excited to have [Joseph] in the lineup,” Gruden said. “It’s been a long four or five weeks without him. I’ve missed him. He’s a good friend.”
As difficult as the team’s 0-4 start has been, and considering the pressure he has put on the senior leadership throughout the week of practice, Gruden has appeared to maintain a genuine sense of optimism. After Thursday’s practice, he spoke about the test at hand.
For starters, Tampa Bay’s offense will feature three rookies – quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood – in the starting lineup.
“Hopefully [Joseph and Trueblood] play like we expect them to,” Gruden said. “But we realize we’re a young offensive team. We have three rookie starters in this game and Cincinnati poses a lot of challenges with their personnel, with their scheme and coming off a bye week. They have a tall order in front of them and we’ll see where they are right away, that’s for sure.”
With one start between them, how the right side of the Bucs’ offensive line performs on Sunday is anybody’s guess. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the game. He was, after all, the defensive coordinator at Baltimore in 2000 when the Ravens defense set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.
But four games into the 2006 campaign, the Bengals defense, ranked No. 25 in the league, isn’t faring much better than the highly criticized Buccaneers defense, which is ranked 20th.
The one thing the Bengals have excelled at this year is creating turnovers, something the Bucs have been scolded for not creating enough of. Only three teams, Chicago (15), St. Louis (15) and Baltimore (14) have forced more turnovers at this point than the Bengals (12). Six different Cincinnati players have at least one interception this season. The team has seven total.
Tampa Bay’s only interception this season came in Week 2 when linebacker Derrick Brooks intercepted Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has done everything except consult Mapquest to help third-year wide out Michael Clayton find his way back to the end zone. You have to go back to the 2004 season finale at Arizona to find the forgotten wide out’s last touchdown. That’s when Clayton turned a simple 5-yard hook into a 75-yard score. It was the seventh of his rookie season.
Since then, nada. But Coach Gruden is making the effort to keep Clayton involved in the offense and get him the ball in creative ways such as the end-around against New Orleans, which he ran for a 27-yard gain.
“He looks good,” Gruden said of Clayton. “We had a couple pretty good looks in Atlanta and we weren’t able to get him the ball, but good things happen to those who wait, I’m told. We’ll try to get him some looks down there in the red zone.”
Although points have come at a premium over the first quarter of the season, the Bucs have had success when they close in on scoring range.
“We’re just pleased that when we’ve been in the red zone, I think we’ve scored touchdowns five out of the last six times,” Gruden said. “The big thing is, we get the ball in the end zone when we’re in the red zone.”
Clayton had just one reception against the Saints and the Carolina Panthers. He did have five against Atlanta and three versus the Ravens, but that’s still way off pace from his rookie campaign, in which he totaled 80 catches for 1,193 yards, both Bucs rookie records.
“I think he’s close to being back to the Mike Clayton that we drafted and we remember,” Gruden said Thursday. “He’s working his tail off. I’m really pleased with the progress he’s made and it’s a credit to him.”
Come Sunday, Clayton may not be the most anxious player to record a touchdown and definitely not the most obnoxious. Well, that may be depending on how you view Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson’s infamous end zone celebrations.
Although you might be surprised to see who is fond of them.
“You know, I don’t see all the celebrations. I guess some of them become controversial around the league, but I like the guys who are enthusiastic, personally,” said Gruden. “I like the guys who are great players, the guys who love to play and compete. He clearly loves to do that. I don’t get into the celebrations other than I like to see a guy get excited when he scores. But I have a lot of respect for him. I did coming out of Oregon State, and he’s really turned into a great, great player.”
Aside from Terrell Owens there may not be a more entertaining offensive player in the league. Johnson led the AFC in 2005 with 1,432 receiving yards and was fifth with nine touchdowns. He has just one touchdown through four games in 2006.
With a bye week to work with, it’s a safe bet Johnson (and what you can consider a struggling Bengals offense, ranked No. 17 in the NFL) has targeted the Bucs defense to have a breakout performance.
“They’ve got a big back (Rudi Johnson) who they’re going to run. They’re going to hand him the ball and they’re going to hand it to him repeatedly,” Gruden said. “If you get too active up around the line of scrimmage they’ve got some guys who can hurt you. They operate out of the no-huddle scheme and [quarterback] Carson Palmer makes sure he keeps them in good situations. He’s not afraid to audible and he’ll use the entire clock to make sure they’re in good operating procedures.”
Gruden went on to say he doesn’t think there is a throw Palmer is incapable of making.
And that may very well be true, but if the Bucs plan on disrupting the Bengals potent offense they must revitalize their pass rush and get that big push from the front four, something that coaches have been addressing all week.
Palmer was sacked 19 times in all of last season. Through the first four games of 2005, defenses have gotten to him on 15 occasions. Tampa Bay has seven sacks, four by reserve Dewayne White. Defensive end Simeon Rice, who accounted for 14 sacks a year ago, has one.
That doesn’t mean Rice isn’t trying, or that he’s lost his swagger, Rice says. What he does believe is that he and the 0-4 Bucs are still capable of accomplishing something “real big” this year.
“I’m a guy that’s not going to run from anything,” Rice said. “For me, I started out plenty of times with four games and I had one sack. There’s still a lot to play for. But you have to believe the things that you say. If you really believe the things that you say, we can turn it around. And I’m one that truly believes we can turn this thing around.”
Never at a loss for words, Rice got on his pulpit and preached to the media about wanting to accomplish what everybody thinks is near impossible. In this case, it would be helping the winless Bucs make the playoffs this season. Only one team – the 1992 San Diego Chargers – managed to make the playoffs after starting the season 0-4.
“I relish the situation to do something that nobody has ever done before,” Rice said. “Everyone has lost a couple games. But to be able to come out of the grave, to really dig yourself out, to really believe the things that you say, that really forecast the events that could possibly take place, you have to be devoted to it. It’s not based on wins, often times. It’s based on coming out of the dark. It’s based on coming out of bad situations. I, for myself, truly believe that we can do this, it just has to be an overall perspective from top to bottom.”
Bucs CB Juran Bolden (hip), WR/PR Mark Jones (hamstring), CB Brian Kelly (foot), TE/LS Dave Moore (rib), DE Simeon Rice (shoulder) and WR Maurice Stovall (back) are questionable for Sunday’s game. Rice did not practice Thursday.
Three players – G Davin Joseph (knee), LB Ryan Nece (knee) and C John Wade (ankle) – are listed as probable. Quarterback Chris Simms (Splenectomy) is out.