The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept six wide receivers active among the 45 players they took into Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks, and all six caught at least one pass from quarterback Josh Freeman.
If that's a sign of good depth – and the Buccaneers believe it is – then it's an important one, because one of those six receivers didn't finish the game, and won't be playing again in 2010. Rookie wideout Arrelious Benn will be placed on injured reserve after suffering torn ligaments in his left knee in the second quarter of the Buccaneers' 38-15 victory.
Benn is the fourth member of Tampa Bay's 2010 draft class to land on I.R., following defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (Week 14) and Brian Price (Week Nine) and safety Cody Grimm (Week 13). Despite that unfortunate trend, the Bucs' assembled rookies have been extremely impressive this season and Benn was the latest of that group to be emerging as a big-time contributor.
"It was really a crushing blow to lose 'Rejus' Benn yesterday," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "He'd been playing so well as of late and getting better every week, and really was becoming a big part of our game-planning."
Benn is the Buccaneers' fourth-leading pass-catcher this season, and second among wideouts only to his fellow 2010 draftee Mike Williams. Of Benn's 25 catches and 395 yards this year, 16 and 252 have come in the last seven games. He's proved to be one of the team's best downfield threats, owning three of the team's nine receptions of 40 or more yards, and he finishes the season with an excellent 15.8 yards per catch.
The Bucs expected Benn to carry that momentum into the earliest parts of the team's 2011 offseason program, but now he'll have to concentrate first on rehabilitating his knee following surgery. That is actually the aspect of the situation that disappointed Head Coach Raheem Morris more.
"It's more sour for the fact of what I know Rejus was going to be able to do during this offseason because of how he works," said Morris. "Now he's going to spend some time rehabbing and doing some things for his knee in order to come back to where he was. I know he was going to be able to grow in the offseason in the offense. There's just something about throwing with Josh Freeman and these guys every day. They've got a unique chemistry that they formed starting last year, and it was going to be a new wave of guys that came in and were able to join that with Mike Williams and Rejus and Briscoe. I'm just more sad for him because I know how he likes to work."
As for finishing the regular season next week in New Orleans and starting a potential playoff run without their starting flanker, the Buccaneers are confident they can overcome this injury just as they have all the others over the last five weeks. Benn will be the eighth starter Tampa Bay will have placed on injured reserve since their Week 13 game at Atlanta.
"It's the NFL," said Morris. "You lose guys and you keep moving, keep ticking. You don't blink. That's kind of our mentality. I don't have a coach that blinks when something happens. He's ready to put the next guy in and coach the next guy. We've just been playing that way this year. It is what it is."
Benn sustained his injury on one of his typical hard-charging run-after-the-catch plays in the second quarter. He caught a short pass in the right flat, turned up the sideline and tried to power through several Seattle tacklers, taking a blow to the knee in the process. That was the first play of the Buccaneers' first touchdown drive of the game; there would be four more.
Freeman kept the offense moving by completing passes to 10 different players, including wide receivers Mike Williams, Micheal Spurlock, Maurice Stovall, Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe. Playing in his first NFL game, Briscoe caught two passes for 28 yards; Parker doubled his career reception total with a five-yard grab; Stovall contributed his first three catches in five games, one for a touchdown; Spurlock caught a key 20-yard pass during an impressive two-minute drill in the first half.
Williams also pitched in with two touchdown catches, but he has been an integral part of the offense since Day One, starting all 15 games and leading all NFL rookies with 61 catches for 924 yards and 10 touchdowns. The new contributions will have to come from the likes of Briscoe and Parker, though the team could also get experienced slot receiver Sammie Stroughter back from the hamstring injury that made him inactive in Week 16.
"Everybody left the [stadium] yesterday with a catch," said Morris. "It's 'all hands on deck,' and we meant it. Dezmon Briscoe got out there in his first game and it wasn't too big for him. Spurlock's going out there every week and contributing. Stovall came out and caught a touchdown; a nice little bounce-back story for him, talking about resiliency. All these guys, they contribute and they find a way to stay together. There are not any arguments going on in my receiver room about who's getting balls and who's touching it, who wants the ball more. It's competitive, it's fun, it's dynamic. They're fighting for scout-team reps, these guys. It's a little college atmosphere we've got going on. I think they think those catches in practice count. It's that serious for these guys."
Briscoe is one of the more intriguing options. Signed to the practice squad after he was released by Cincinnati at the end of the preseason, the former Kansas star has impressed on the practice field throughout the season. He earned a promotion to the 53-man roster in Week 13 and came into Sunday's game with a good grasp on the team's offense. In terms of size (he's 6-2, 210), strength and speed, he might be the closest approximation to Benn the Buccaneers can plug into the attack.
"I think our coaches do a great job of preparing the next guy," said Morris. "I really believe we get the most out of our scout team, how we prepare our guys, letting those guys go out there and call it like we call it, play it like we play it. Dezmon Briscoe's getting practice reps all year on how we call it and how we do it and it's really worked out for us well."
The Bucs' offense posted its second straight 400-yard day and tied a team single-game record with five touchdown passes. Much of that was accomplished after Benn's unfortunate exit. The team would much rather go into its do-or-die game in New Orleans with Benn in the mix, but they fully expect their other young receivers to step up when needed.