Adrian Clayborn, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting right defensive end and 2011 sack leader as a rookie first-rounder, left Sunday's contest at Dallas in the third quarter with a leg injury. He did not return before game's end.
Clayborn's status had not been officially revealed as of Monday morning – Head Coach Greg Schiano's usual day-after-game press conference was scheduled for 4:45 p.m. – but his teammates along the defensive line are preparing for the possibility of his absence.
If Clayborn misses any significant amount of time, it will be a tough loss for the team. Defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are currently leading the way with three sacks apiece in 2012, so the pass-rush as a whole has been more varied and productive this year, but it's more than the 7.5 QB takedowns Clayborn had last year that will be missed.
"Adrian was always our energy, not by just talking but how he played," said McCoy. "He was always a high-motor guy, all over the field, making splash plays. You always need that on a defense. We're going to miss that, but somebody has to step up and fill that void."
The Bucs will look to young linemen Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and George Johnson to step up and, depending upon the length of Clayborn's absence and the recovery pace of his fellow 2011 draft pick, Da'Quan Bowers could eventually help fill a gap.
"I was pretty shook up about that," said Bennett of Clayborn's misfortune on Sunday. "Adrian is one of my closest friends on the team and I feel bad because there's a lot of stuff and he's hurting. We're going to really need him down the stretch. The guys that are here have to step up. Da'Quan's coming back in a couple weeks and we've got Te'o and George. Those guys are ready to play, step up and make some big plays for us."
Added McCoy: "This team always has the 'next man up' mentality. The last two years I went down and somebody had to step up or they had to bring somebody in. If you're going to be a Buccaneer, there has to be a next-man-up mentality. You hate to lose your number-one guy, and we're going to pray for him, wish him all the best but we've still got 13 more to play."
Te'o-Nesheim, a former third-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles who joined the Buccaneers late last season, actually started Sunday's game at defensive tackle in a passing-down alignment. He was Clayborn's immediate replacement at right end after the injury and is likely in for a bump in playing time. He hopes to approach Clayborn's level of effort and contribution as that next man up.
"[Clayborn] rushes his butt off every play and works really hard," said Te'0-Nesheim. "You can't replace that kind of guy. You just hope to try to play to his level. We'll see what happens, but getting to play is always everybody's goal. I just hope to make the best of it. I feel comfortable. We all kind of got to learn the system at the same time. I think we have a pretty good feel for it."
Bennett said he would prefer to remain at left end if Clayborn is out for some length of time and the team is looking for a solution at right end. He thinks both Te'o-Nesheim and Johnson are ready to take advantage of an opportunity to contribute.
"Daniel's a very impressive player," said Bennett. "He's a third-round pick and he just needs an opportunity. Every time he gets an opportunity he makes a couple plays. That's what we need. George, he's a guy that really works hard and just wants to get a chance. When he gets a chance, I believe he's going to capitalize on the opportunity. He's one of those guys that really studies the film. He's learning to play at this level and he's learning that it takes a little more effort to keep going and grinding and stuff."