LB Barrett Ruud and the Buccaneers expect the Panthers to rely on their running game no matter who is at quarterback
Raheem Morris didn't need a fiery speech on Wednesday morning to pump his team up for the week of work ahead. As much as NFL teams insist on focusing on the specific game at hand, certain seven-week-old memories are certainly intruding on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' consciousness in Week 13.
The Buccaneers lost a tight home game to the Carolina Panthers seven weeks ago, 28-21. That one was as painful as any of the 10 defeats the Bucs have absorbed this year, and one 16-play stretch, in particular, remains fresh in the minds of Buccaneer defenders.
With the game tied at 21-21 following Buc touchdowns on 97-yard kickoff return by Sammie Stroughter and a 26-yard interception return by Tanard Jackson, Carolina took over at their own 20-yard line with 8:33 left in the game. The Panthers proceeded to run 16 plays, 15 of which were runs by either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart. The last was a one-yard touchdown run by Williams to cap an 80-yard drive that sucked all but 29 seconds off the game clock.
It's seldom that an NFL team can sustain that long of a drive without mixing up its play-calling and disguising its intentions to some extent. That drive gave the Panthers 48 carries and 267 rushing yards on the day, the nadir of a difficult season for the Buccaneers' run defense. Last week, Tampa Bay adjusted its defensive schemes as Morris, the head coach, took over play-calling duties, and the result was a season-best performance against the run against the Falcons, another strong ground team.
Obviously, the Buccaneers know they can't let that happen again on Sunday in Charlotte.
"They ran over us, there's no doubt about it," said Morris. "They took the last 15 snaps, whatever it was, and they ran the football every time except for a bear pass to go ahead and win the football game. We had just had some momentum-type plays. They got the ball backed up with us having the opportunity to get the ball back and possibly score and win that football game, and we were not able to do it.
"That's all you've got to do, remind your team of that today. We're going to go out there and practice, going to practice hard, play hard, prepare ourselves to stop the run and win the football game."
The Bucs' improved outing in Atlanta was not merely due to the change in play-callers. Morris himself pointed out that the most important thing Buccaneer defenders did in Atlanta was play hard for 60 minutes. And it's worth noting that the Panthers had 299 rushing yards in another close affair in Charlotte in December of last year. Still, Tampa Bay defenders seem invigorated by the new approach and they hope they can carry some momentum into the Carolinas this weekend.
"Raheem has a great game plan in mind that he introduced us to this morning," said safety Sabby Piscitelli. "We are excited. Raheem is taking it personally, even starting back from last year. Those two running backs, they have had great games, both of them. That's something that we take personally. We have to step up now, look in the mirror, bring the fight to them and be able to make plays."
There appears to be a good chance that the Panthers will turn to their second-string quarterback, Matt Moore, to run the offense on Sunday due to the fractured finger Jake Delhomme suffered on his throwing hand last weekend. That decision has not been announced by the Panthers as of yet, but Delhomme did not practice on Wednesday. Given how well Williams and Stewart have fared against the Buccaneers, however, that eventual choice is not likely to alter the game plan much.
"Great running team, two great running backs – same thing they've been doing the last two years," said linebacker Barrett Ruud. "They run the ball, and even with Jake out, they're focusing on moving the chains. They're going to run the ball with Jake or without him, and that's to be expected."
The Bucs' near-perfect roster health lasted all of one week.
Tampa Bay went into its Week 12 matchup in Atlanta with all 53 men on the active roster ready to go. They left the Georgia Dome with a limp.
Or a couple. As the week of preparations began for the Panthers on Wednesday, seven Buccaneers were either sidelined or limited by injuries for the afternoon practice. In addition, running back Cadillac Williams was rested on Wednesday not due to injury but as a coach's decision.
"We were healthy last week, and that's what happens when you play a physical, tough game," said Morris. "You've just got to go out there and play. Atlanta got a lot of guys hurt, as well. Those are tough, physical games that you want to play and those are the ones you want to be in. We've just got to learn how to win them."
Starting wide receiver Michael Clayton was unable to participate in the week's first practice due to the knee injury he suffered on the first play of the game in Atlanta. The following six players, all of whom are either starters or players who contribute heavily in the rotation on offense or defense, were limited on Wednesday: defensive end Michael Bennett (toe), defensive tackle Roy Miller (ankle), tackle Donald Penn (knee), cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring), defensive end Stylez G. White (hand) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). Earlier this week, cornerback Torrie Cox (hip) and punter Dirk Johnson (hamstring) were placed on injured reserve due to mishaps suffered against the Falcons.
Talib has dealt with a strained hamstring for much of the season's second half but he aggravated the injury in the fourth quarter in Atlanta and was unable to finish the game. Winslow has also played through his knee ailment for several weeks in a row. Bennett, Miller, Penn and White, however, all sustained new injuries in Atlanta.
Given the above list of players, the Bucs could be battling depth issues in particular at wide receiver, cornerback and defensive line. Morris isn't going to wait around for sympathy from the Panthers, however.
"Injuries are all gray matter in my opinion," he said. "Just go out there and play. Nobody cares who's hurt; you've got to put the next person in and go play. It doesn't matter who's out there. You want them all to get healthy, you want them all to come back, but you've got to line up with who you've got. You've got to go out there and play and be your very best selves."
Of course, the Panthers have their own injuries to worry about; their Wednesday list was two players longer than the Bucs' report and included eight men who were held out of practice.
In addition to Delhomme, the Panthers also sat Stewart (Achilles) and Williams (ankle), though neither Carolina runner has missed a game this season and Williams has four 100-yard games in his last six outings. Also sidelined on Wednesday were fullback Brad Hoover (ankle), wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett (ankle), defensive end Charles Johnson (pectoral), cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (concussion) and defensive tackle Tank Tyler (knee).
Linebacker Na'il Diggs (ribs) and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (knee) were limited on Wednesday. Among the above players, Delhomme, Diggs, Hoover, Muhammad and Williams are listed as starters on Carolina's depth chart.
Official game status designations – questionable, probable, etc. – won't be added to the injury report until after the final full-speed practice of the week on Friday. By then, both teams hope to have more favorable health situations..
Practice Squad Additions
The Buccaneers have signed two new players to their practice squad: cornerback Jamar Love and defensive end Joshua Leonard, both rookies who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents this spring.
One open spot on that eight-man crew already existed after Tuesday's promotion of cornerback Brandon Anderson to the active roster. The other was created Wednesday by the release of wide receiver Darnell Jenkins.
Love was signed by New England following the 2009 draft and went to training camp with the Patriots in August. He was actually released on July 29 but then re-signed on August 2, eventually making it to the final roster cut-downs on September 5. He was later signed by the Dallas Cowboys to their practice squad on November 10, then released three days ago.
The 6-0, 191-pound Love played four seasons at Arkansas, appearing in 42 games with nine starts. After playing on special teams as a freshman in 2005, he contributed 77 tackles, 15 passes defensed and three sacks over the next three seasons. As a senior, he started a career-high six games and recorded 39 tackles and eight passes defensed.
The Buccaneers continue to look for new talent at the cornerback position, as they have all season. Since the regular season began, the Buccaneers have added seven cornerbacks to their active or practice squad rosters at some point: Anderson, Kyle Arrington, Marcus Hamilton, Marcus McCauley, Mike Mickens and Derrick Roberson. Anderson and Roberson, who were signed in Week Two, have now both promoted to the active roster. Anderson's promotion this week came on the heels of cornerback Torrie Cox's season-ending hip injury.
Leonard played two seasons at Hawaii after transferring from Sierra College in Rockland California. He was signed by the Houston Texas on May 1 before being released at the end of the preseason on September 5.
In his two campaigns at Hawaii, Leonard played in all 27 games, starting 12 as a senior in 2008. He totaled 44 tackles and four sacks in that span and also blocked a field goal attempt against Washington as a junior. His most productive campaign came last fall, when he recorded 36 tackles, 2.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery.