NFL teams are limited to 46 active players on game day. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have trouble getting to that number on Monday night against the Carolina Panthers.
The Buccaneers released their last official injury report of Week Five on Saturday, and it included seven players who are considered either out or doubtful: running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims; defensive linemen Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald; tight end Luke Stocker; and wide receiver Cecil Shorts. If all seven are sidelined Monday, as is likely, the Buccaneers will have only 46 players to suit up, period, including third quarterback Ryan Griffin.
Further complicating matters is a list of five more players who are questionable to suit up, including another defensive lineman, rookie pass-rusher Noah Spence. The other four question marks as the Bucs prepare to head to Charlotte are tight end Brandon Myers, center Evan Smith, cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Keith Tandy.
Of course, as Head Coach Dirk Koetter says often, nobody is going to feel sorry for the Buccaneers, and it's worth noting that the Panthers also have a lengthy injury list headed by reigning league MVP Cam Newton. Depending upon the outcome with the questionable players, the Buccaneers may not even have 46 healthy players to field on Monday but they will have a full lineup and expectations as high as ever.
"Injuries, again, are a rough part of this game," said Koetter. "They're no fun, especially for the injured players. But the rules are the rules. They're the same for everybody. We're going to be ready. The guys that are out there, they're going to play their tails off."
Since none of the Buccaneers' injured players are apparently hurt badly enough to warrant a trip to injured reserve – and the upcoming bye week could significantly shrink that list – there were only limited options to tweak the roster leading up to Monday's game. The one move the team did make was bringing in defensive tackle John Hughes, who played in 53 games over the last five years in Cleveland and was briefly with New England earlier this season. With possibly only six defensive linemen active on Monday night, Hughes should see immediate action.
"John's got a lot of play time in the NFL," said Koetter. "He started a lot of games in Cleveland as an inside guy. He's been with a couple teams. He's a powerful guy, sturdy in the middle. With our depth situation, he's going to be able to step right into it."
Two of those six linemen are undrafted rookies DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward. The Buccaneers originally kept 10 defensive linemen on their 53-man roster (end Jacquies Smith has since landed on injured reserve) and probably meant to give Lambert and Ward more time to develop before they saw significant playing time. Both, in fact, were inactive for the season opener and Ward was also inactive for game two. But the rash of injuries up front has pressed both into service, with Lambert playing 129 snaps over the last three weeks and Ward 42 in the most recent two games.
"Hats off to those guys," said Koetter. "First of all, both guys were longshots to make an NFL team. They came here and kept their mouths shut, did what they were supposed to do, learned, and all of a sudden they find themselves making the roster and here they are, playing a lot of snaps and playing a big role and playing on Monday Night Football."
Ward and Lambert have also helped out with their versatility, joining veteran William Gholston as linemen who have filled in wherever needed, inside and outside, as players have been sidelined around them.
"There are some guys, just by body type, that are limited, but anybody that's close [can play inside and outside]," said Koetter. "We do the same thing with our offensive line and our defensive line. When you only have 53, and 46 on game day, you've got to cross-train. You wish some of those guys had more experience. Like Channing Ward, here he comes in as a rookie and he's had to play inside and outside; same thing with DaVonte Lambert. DaVonte Lambert has had to play inside and outside, so from a technique standpoint, that's put him in difficult situations, but you've got to do what you've got to do."
Against Denver last Sunday, when the team was briefly down to just five healthy D-Linemen, starting strongside linebacker Daryl Smith put his hand in the dirt for a handful of snaps at weakside end. He could help out in that capacity again on Monday night, if needed.
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"He's done it before, Daryl's done that before throughout his career in Jacksonville and Baltimore," said Koetter. "He's a versatile player. When you're tight on your numbers, you have to ask guys to fill in different roles. That's just the way it is in the NFL. It's not college, you don't dress 110 guys."
It might have served both the Buccaneers and the Panthers well if their bye had come in Week Five, but there's only one off week each season and it doesn't come on demand. The other 16 weeks present 16 opportunities to chase a division title, and the Bucs are going to make the most of this one.
"There are 16 chances to compete," said Koetter. "I think these guys are fired up all the time. The fact that it's Monday Night Football and it's the only game on, these guys are fired up about playing. It's a division game on the road and we're a long ways from this division being over. Atlanta's got a nice two-game lead right now but in this division those kinds of leads have vanished in two weeks' time. I think our guys will show up and be ready to compete."