DT Chris Hovan did return to the game in Atlanta after suffering an ankle injury, but he starts the Carolina week as questionable
Cornerback Brian Kelly, thought to be on the mend from his injured foot on Monday, debuted on the official injury report as "questionable" on Wednesday. It wasn't Kelly's downgrade in status that came as the biggest surprise, however, but the sheer amount of company he had in that category on the report.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense could be significantly depleted for Sunday's critical game against the Carolina Panthers, if the week's first injury report is any indication. Kelly, the team's starting left cornerback for the last five seasons, already missed the meeting with the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday due to a turf toe injury that that is reacting as unpredictably as that ailment often does. Now, he's joined on the report by starting outside linebacker Ryan Nece and the team's first-string duo of defensive tackles, Chris Hovan and Anthony McFarland.
Nece has a knee injury, Hovan hurt his ankle in Atlanta and McFarland has an ailing hip, and all three are considered questionable for the Panther game. Of the four sore defenders, only Hovan participated in any of the full-team portions of Wednesday's practice.
One of the Buccaneers' main concerns is a defense that has allowed 326.5 yards per game through the first two weekends, numbers far above the norm for a group that has finished in the top 10 in the league rankings for nine straight seasons. Of course, even the best of those nine previous defenses has had a bad stretch here and there; the 2005 crew, for instance, gave up an average of 373.0 yards per game over a three-week stretch in midseason. However, four of the next six opponents were held to 281 yards or less and the Bucs still finished with the league's top-ranked unit.
Tampa Bay's proud defense expects to do the same this year, sooner rather than later, but that task could be made harder by this rash of injuries.
"We've got a lot of guys hurt," said Gruden. "Brian Kelly may not play. Some of these men, I don't know what their status is. You can 't rely on last year. The stock market was pretty good a few years ago. You can't give a damn about last year; I don't give a damn about last week. We've just got to buckle down. We all know that and North Carolina's going to do the same thing. That's why it's going to be a great ballgame Sunday."
Kelly was not on the practice field Wednesday, even to watch the proceedings, as he was undergoing further examinations on his injured foot. As of the middle of the week, the Bucs weren't sure what to expect in terms of Kelly's availability. Last week, the veteran cornerback was probable most of the week but reported to the Georgia Dome in worse condition than expected.
"We're still getting information," said Gruden. "We haven't seen him yet today. He's coming back with the information from the doctor that looked at his foot. Because of that, I've listed him as questionable. We're optimistic but we're also realistic, so we're downgrading him to questionable for the game."
Juran Bolden, another experienced veteran, took over the left cornerback position against Atlanta, with fourth-year man Torrie Cox assuming Bolden's nickel back duties. If the Bucs' quartet of injured starters is unavailable for Sunday's game, the team will have to rely on a number of younger players, potentially including Ellis Wyms, Julian Jenkins, Dewayne White, Wesly Mallard, Barrett Ruud, Jamie Winborn and/or Antoine Cash.
"You've got to assume these guys can play," said Gruden of the team's defensive reserves. "That's why they're on the football team. We don't keep these guys here to eat chips and play pinball in this facility. We brought them in here to stuff the run and make plays. If they can't do that, then we're going to have to find guys who will."
The Bucs' injury report also includes two other players who have already been ruled out for the game: guard Davin Joseph and tight end Dave Moore. Joseph, the nominal starter at right guard, hasn't practiced since suffering a knee injury on the practice field prior to the season opener. Moore missed last Sunday's game after suffering a rib injury against Baltimore in Week One.
Despite the absences, the Bucs started out the week with a sharp practice on Wednesday. If nothing else, that's a start toward rebounding from the 0-2 start.
"Progress on a practice field is one thing," said Gruden. "Progress in a game is another. We expect progress, we need to make progress. That goes without saying. The guys practiced good today. We've got a number of players that I mentioned that did not practice because of injury, but I think we're off to a good start."
It should be noted that Carolina has a rather lengthy injury report as well. There are eight Panthers on the first list of the week, including seven who are considered questionable or worse and five who are listed as starters on the depth chart.
The name that jumps out from that list, of course, is that of Steve Smith, a league MVP candidate last year who has yet to play this season due to hamstring issues. His return would certainly be an enormous boost for a Panthers attack that is also uncharacteristically off its numbers, averaging just 243.0 yards per game.
"They've had some injuries, there's no question," said Gruden. "When you lose a guy like Steve Smith you lose arguably the most explosive player in football. They've added a great receiver in Keyshawn. They have a number of very good players, they really do. It's hard to replace a guy who has the instant play-making skills of a Steve Smith, but like I said earlier they've got a lot of talented players. They're a veteran team, they know how to win and their back's against the wall just like ours is."
Linebacker Dan Morgan did not play in Carolina's Week Two loss at Minnesota after suffering an opening-day concussion against Atlanta. He has been ruled out for this Sunday's game in Tampa, too. In addition, starting strong safety Shaun Williams, the team's leading tackler (24) through two games, is considered doubtful with a foot injury. The two other starters on the list are center Justin Hartwig (questionable, groin) and cornerback Ken Lucas (questionable, neck). Drew Carter, who has started at receiver during Smith's absence, is on the list as well, marked as questionable with a hand injury.
Hartwig, Lucas, Morgan, Smith and Williams were all held out of the team portions of Wednesday's Panther practice.
The Falcons signed 46-year-old kicker Morten Andersen on Tuesday in response to Michael Koenen's two-for-eight start on field goals in his quest to handle the placekicking and punting jobs simultaneously. Koenen missed all four of his tries against the Buccaneers, but he may have had more help in putting up that oh-fer than was originally realized.
Of Koenen's four tries last Sunday, one was considered a blocked attempt, as DE Dewayne White quite obviously impeded a 30-yard try in the fourth quarter. However, film review has indicated that Koenen's other 30-yard try, booted five minutes into the second quarter, was also blocked, this time by safety Jermaine Phillips. The Elias Sports Bureau, official stats-keepers for the NFL, have changed the record of Sunday's game to reflect Phillips' block.
Thus, the Bucs have blocked two field goals in one game for the first time in three seasons. The last such occurrence came in San Francisco on October 19, 2003. On that afternoon, during a 24-7 loss to the 49ers, DT Warren Sapp and CB Ronde Barber each denied a field goal attempt by Owen Pochman.
Not Today's Problem
What would 0-3 – the record either Carolina or Tampa Bay will possess by Monday, barring an improbable tie – mean to a team's postseason hopes in 2006?
The Bucs don't plan to find out.
The "must-win" question popped up for the first time at team headquarters this week during the locker-room media session, much earlier than anyone would have hoped. The Bucs didn't take the bait, but there's no denying the magnitude of this game. WR Ike Hilliard admitted that 0-3 would be a deep hole for any team but said that concept isn't occupying his mind this week.
"I'm not even talking about it," he said. "We're looking forward to going out there and winning this football game. I think first we need it as a team, as a staff and as an overall organization and we owe it to our fans to go out and get a win. We're not even thinking about 0-3.
"[It would be] way deep, but we don't expect to be there. We're hopefully fine-tuning some things now where we had some success last week in the passing game. We'll get Caddy going now and hopefully we'll have a little more success in the passing game also, and we'll find a way to get a win."