The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay without their playmaking rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., who was sidelined by an ankle injury. Second-year man Mike Edwards stepped in next to the other starting safety, Jordan Whitehead, who forced two fumbles and delivered a string of crushing hits before having to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Veteran safety Andrew Adams then stepped in.
For nearly the entire second half, the Buccaneers' defense had to hold off an attempted rally by the Packers and presumptive league MVP Aaron Rodgers, and they had to do it without their two starting safeties. They succeeded, as the Bucs won, 31-26, and punched their ticket to Super Bowl LV. Edwards and Adams kept the back end of the defense strong and, in fact, it was Adams who broke up Rodgers' last pass of the season at the goal line to prevent a potential game-tying touchdown.
It's fair to say that good fortune in the injury department is a trait shared by many teams that make deep playoff runs, and the 2020 Buccaneers are no exception. During the regular season, the Bucs had six players who started all 16 games on offense and 10 who started at least 13; all of those players are good to go for Super Bowl LV. The exception is second tight end O.J. Howard, who was lost to an Achilles tendon injury in Week Four.
On defense, the Bucs had five players start all 16 games and eight start at least 14. Defensive lineman Will Gholston and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting made 12 starts each but didn't miss any due to injuries; that was a matter of specific opening-game packages plus some shuffling of the depth chart between Murphy-Bunting and cornerback Jamel Dean. The only long-term loss on that side of the ball was defensive lineman Vita Vea, who suffered a fractured ankle in Week Five but who is now, incredibly, back in the lineup for the Super Bowl.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Super Bowl practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
So, the Bucs have had a good season on the health front (not even including their nearly complete success in beating the pandemic), but that doesn't mean they haven't needed to plumb the depth chart from time to time. Rakeem "Nacho" Nunez-Roches, a free agent who re-signed with the team last March, filled in well for the long stretch that Vea was out and remains a big part of the D-Line rotation. Kevin Minter stepped up when Devin White was trapped on the COVID list for two weeks at the end of the season. Leonard Fournette morphed into 'Playoff Lenny' when Ronald Jones was sidelined for a bit. And even though right guard Alex Cappa started every game during the regular season, he was lost to a fractured ankle in the Wild Card round, leading to the ascension of third-year guard Aaron Stinnie.
If good injury fortune is a common theme among playoff teams, so is a roster with good depth at a majority of positions, and it's clear the Buccaneers have that. Head Coach Bruce Arians is appreciative of the roster that General Manager Jason Licht has built and fleshed out over a series of moves both planned early in the offseason and reactionary when needs arose.
"Yeah, this is a heck of a roster," said Arians. "There is no doubt about it. RoJo goes down, we have Leonard, we have 'Shady' (LeSean McCoy) and Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had a good role there for a while. I think at all of the places, I love our depth. Aaron Stinnie has stepped up. We had a lot of trust in him. It goes on and on and on. Nacho has done a great job in Vita's place and getting Steve McLendon was huge for us down the stretch, especially in stopping the run. Jason Licht has done a great, great job of putting depth throughout this whole roster. Even on our practice squad, we've got some practice squad guys that could really start for us."
The expanded 16-man practice squads and the rules allowing some players to be elevated from it to be available on game days has helped with that effort to be prepared for injuries at every position. Since the loss of reserve interior lineman A.Q. Shipley in November, for instance, the Buccaneers have relied largely on veteran guard Ted Larsen to provide depth at guard and tackle on game days. Larsen is actually on the practice squad but has been elevated multiple times, and there's a good chance that will happen again for the Super Bowl. The Bucs have also used that option to shore up the cornerback position on occasion with Herb Miller.
Building an NFL roster is an ongoing, never-ceasing process that is motion 52 weeks a year. Every team is trying to upgrade at every spot on the depth chart whenever possible. Sometimes moves that were made months or even seasons ago prove to be important at critical moments. For instance, the Buccaneers claimed Stinnie on November 11 of the 2019 season after he was waived by the Tennessee Titans, replacing undrafted rookie lineman Nate Trewyn. Stinnie only got into eight games over the next season and a half, with a total of just 32 offensive snaps, and had never started an NFL game by the end of the 2020 regular season.
But when Cappa went down Stinnie proved he was ready for the moment. The Buccaneers have allowed only two sacks of Tom Brady in his two starts, neither of which was credited to him. That's another part of building good depth – preparing that depth to be ready at any time.
"I think with that it's just guys are coming to work every day preparing like they are going to be the starter," said center Ryan Jensen, who earlier in the season very capably started two games at left guard while Ali Marpet was out. "Unfortunately, when Cap got hurt, Aaron came in and stepped up huge. That's all based on preparation and being ready for that opportunity. I feel like as an offensive line as a whole, we have attacked every day with that same kind of attitude and preparation. For Stinnie to be able to come in and play the way he is playing is a testament of how hard he works and how hard this line works on a daily basis."
On the other side of the line, Vea is back and now the Buccaneers have an extremely deep interior-line rotation on defense with him, Nunez-Roches, McLendon, Will Gholston and Ndamukong Suh. If Winfield and Whitehead return for the Super Bowl the safety rotation will be just as deep. The midseason addition of Antonio Brown allows the Bucs to flood the field with dynamic receivers and weather the absence of any of them. The offensive backfield has enough proven performers that the Bucs might not be able to keep all of them active on Sunday. The summer trade for Rob Gronkowski has blunted the impact of Howard's injury. The Bucs have star power with Brady and Mike Evans and Lavonte David and Devin White, but they also have the kind of depth a team needs to make it 20 games into a season.
If there was one statistic that illustrated the Bucs' depth in 2020 it was run defense. After leading the NFL in that category in 2019, largely on the strength of Suh and Vea in the middle of the line, the Bucs were once again atop that category through the first five weeks of the 2020 season. Vea wouldn't play another down over the last 11 regular-season games, but the Bucs still finished with the NFL's best run defense for the second year in a row. Nunez-Roches stepped up to become the starting nose tackle and the Bucs didn't miss a beat.
"It was simple – man went down and you've just got to do your job," said Nunez-Roches. "Everybody's got to be in a spot on our defense. If you just do that and hold it down and execute, you don't really have to worry about too much, and that's what we did. Everybody's doing their job when they're supposed to. … At any given moment, it's just when your number's called you do your job, and I feel like everybody on defense is ready to play on every down at every time."