With John Wade sidelined by an ankle injury, first-year C Scott Jackson filled in on the starting O-line
For the record, Derrick Brooks is "probable" on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' official injury report, and also for the record, that is basically irrelevant information.
He could just as well be listed as "abducted by aliens" for all it matters to Brooks. The 11th-year veteran doesn't know what the injury report states and doesn't care; he says he will be on the field Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Brooks, who is resting a mildly strained hamstring, watched Wednesday's practice from the sideline. As he left the field, he was asked if he was going to play in the game. His answer?
Brooks actually landed on the Bucs' injury report at the end of last week. He was given Friday's practice off but still played on Sunday in San Francisco. Near halftime, he tweaked the hamstring, but he gutted out the rest of the game as the Bucs' defense allowed only 208 yards of total offense in a 15-10 loss.
Now he's starting this week the way he finished the last one, but the end result on the weekend should be the same. Brooks hopes to get back onto the practice field some time in the next two days, but he is not at all worried about game day.
"It's better today than it was yesterday," said Brooks, who has never missed a game in his NFL career. "There's daily improvement and hopefully everything will be right by Sunday."
The Bucs actually had four players sit out the first practice of Carolina week, all four of them starters or part-time starters, and they cover most of the possibilities on the official injury report.
Dexter Jackson, the starter at free safety, is doubtful with his own hamstring injury, meaning it's likely he'll miss his second straight game and third overall. If so, second-year man Will Allen will continue to start in his place.
Running back Michael Pittman, who started several games for Carnell Williams during Williams' absence and started with the rookie back last Sunday in San Francisco, is questionable with a shoulder injury. The ailment has bothered him off and on this season, most notably before the Miami Dolphins game. Pittman managed to play in that game and even ripped off a season-high 127 rushing yards.
"He's had recurring shoulder injuries," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Pittman. "We hope that he's ready to go tomorrow, or certainly if not tomorrow then by game time."
Center John Wade has an ankle sprain but, like Brooks, is listed as probable on the injury report. Unless he is subsequently downgraded, it's likely that Wade will play against the Panthers, but the Bucs' starting line had to practice without him on Wednesday. Last year, when Wade missed the last eight games with a knee injury, Sean Mahan took over as the starter at center. However, Mahan is now the starting right guard and Gruden did not want to hamper Mahan's preparations for that job by sliding him back to center this week.
"Well, it's hard to do that given the fact that Mahan better get ready to play right guard in this game," said Gruden. "So we wanted him to take the majority of his reps there. Scott Jackson, who's on our active roster, filled in at center and if need be he'll be the center on Sunday."
Jackson, a first-year player, has never started or played in an NFL regular-season game and has been inactive for two of the Bucs' three contests since his promotion from the practice squad. However, he had an impressive preseason and the coaching staff has confidence in him.
Mahan, Jackson and the rest have a lot to prepare for this week, given Carolina's strong and aggressive defense. Of course, exotic blitz packages are becoming more and more common in the NFL these days, but that doesn't make the particular scheme Carolina employs any easier to unravel. Gruden continues at the number and variety of blitzes the Bucs are seeing each week, and he acknowledges that the presence of a young, unproven quarterback like Chris Simms is only an accelerant on that particular fire.
"Yeah, it's hard [to prepare]," said Gruden. "It's very amusing sometimes to see some of these blitzes. It's really exciting to go out there and have that challenge put against you. It's an area that we take a lot of pride in, our blitz control and our presentation offensively. We've got to take it to another level. We've got to clearly play better than we did last week."
Big Game Hunting
If the NFL season ended today – yes, we know it doesn't end today, but humor us – all three co-leaders of the NFC South would make the playoffs. But while the 5-2 Buccaneers and 5-2 Panthers would be saddled with the fifth and sixth conference seeds, the 5-2 Falcons would get the second seed and a first-round bye.
How? Call it another demonstration of the importance of intra-division games.
It is, yes, an irrelevant exercise, breaking down the playoff tiebreakers eight weeks into the season. Still, if you choose to – and we chose to – you find that Atlanta's one conference win, over New Orleans in Week Six, is what gives them the current edge over Tampa Bay and Carolina. The Panthers are 0-1 in division play, having lost to New Orleans in Week One, and the Bucs have yet to play an NFC South opponent.
That's how much power division games hold, and the Bucs are about to play four of them in the next six weeks, beginning with the Panthers visit on Sunday. Given that the three first-place teams in the division appear to be fairly evenly-matched, with fourth-place New Orleans lurking dangerously, and given that there is a discernable home field advantage in the NFL, then home division games are particularly critical.
Buccaneer players certainly realize this.
"We're getting into the division and that's the meat of the schedule, the meat of the season," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "You definitely want to defend your home, and you especially want to defend your home when you've got a division team coming in here. So it's going to be a big game for us."
The game is also a first-place battle, and then some. That is, the winner will not only go a full game up on the loser, but may also need the victory to keep pace with the Falcons, who will be playing simultaneously at Miami. Two weeks later, the Bucs will go to Atlanta, followed shortly thereafter with back-to-back trips to New Orleans (Baton Rouge) and Carolina. The season also ends with home games against the Falcons and Saints.
I think everybody on our team knows we've got a tough part of the schedule coming up," said Simms. "We just want to buckle down and get ready for these games."
Gruden wants to make the most of the team's advantage at Raymond James Stadium, getting the crowd into the game early and heavily.
"They're going to factor," he said. "We've got to give them a reason to get excited, and I know they're going to be behind our team. I think that goes without saying. But we've got to play great, we've got to start fast and obviously we've got to keep the momentum going that we can build."