As injuries have caused a significant amount of shuffling at the running back and wide receiver positions in 2016, the offensive line has been a welcome constant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The same five-man crew started each of the first eight games of the season, the first time that has happened for Tampa Bay since 2008.
Unfortunately, that streak is about to come to an end. In fact, the Buccaneers may have two new starters on their offensive front this Sunday when they take on the Chicago Bears.
Kevin Pamphile, who has started the first eight games at left guard and drawn strong reviews from the Buccaneers' coaching staff, remains in the NFL's concussion protocol and has already been ruled out for the game. In addition, starting center Joe Hawley is listed as "doubtful" for the game on Friday's injury report.
"Teams that can keep the same five are usually the most successful, and this will be our first test of that this season," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
Hawley sustained a knee injury in Tampa Bay's last game, which was played on Thursday night of last week. That gave the veteran linemen a little extra time to get ready for the Bears game, but he has suffered a series of injuries to his legs in recent game and, even though he's played through them they may have started to add up.
"In Joe's case it's a little bit of an accumulation of things," said Koetter. "Joe's always been able to bounce back and make it back, but he has been limited this week. Joe's played a lot of games; we'll just have to see. We're still 48 hours away, 48 hours away from kickoff. We'll have to just see how that goes. If not, Evan Smith is more than capable to step in there at center and we'll see how it goes."
Indeed, in Smith the Buccaneers have a seasoned veteran who started 17 games at center over the past two years, plus another three at guard. In fact, Smith would likely be the choice to replace Pamphile if Hawley can suit up for Sunday's game. If not, the only other interior lineman listed on the Bucs' depth chart is rookie Caleb Benenoch, a fifth-round draft pick who has been inactive for each of the first eight games.
If Benenoch is pressed into service, the Buccaneers will expect their inexperienced linemen to get acclimated to the game quickly.
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"I think any player, not just Caleb but any player that's out there, whenever their opportunity comes up it's just getting over the excitement and the nerves and [saying], 'Hey this is my first NFL game and I'm not standing on the sideline watching,'" said Koetter. "He didn't play a lot in the preseason, so just getting over [that]. These guys have all played a lot of football and Caleb, coming out of UCLA, played at a high level, played against good teams. The NFL, and the whole game-day routine, seeing the guys you're playing against on the other side, being able to handle the calls, just getting over the nerves at the start of the game – I think after that it settles into football."
The Buccaneers have an open spot on their 53-man roster, which they are almost certain to fill before Sunday's game. Koetter said the decision likely hinges on Hawley's progress. One option if the Buccaneers need to shore up the interior line for Sunday is to promote first-year man Ben Gottschalk from the practice squad.
"There are a couple different ways we could go on that," said Koetter. "Really the guy we haven't replaced is [defensive end] Howard Jones. It's all going to come down to the health of that O-Line. Kevin Pamphile is going to be out this game; he's still in the concussion protocol. So it will all come down to the health of Joe Hawley."
As for the running back corps behind that remixed offensive line, it remains a week-to-week work in progress. Veteran Mike James and rookies Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough – a trio with a combined 457 career NFL rushing yards – are ready to go but the jury is still out on injured starter Doug Martin. Martin, who hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in Week Two, is questionable on the injury report and certain to have a serious pregame evaluation on the Raymond James Stadium field.
"Doug will go right up to the [deadline]," said Koetter. "Doug did more every day this week, he increased a little bit more. Officially, as we stand here right now, officially he's still not cleared. But there's still a chance. Again, the 48 hours – we'll see what happens there."
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The news is much clearer – and completely positive – on the other two in the Bucs' version of "The Big Three," quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans. Winston and Evans were both on the injury report this week due to knee and concussion concerns, respectively, but neither was limited at all in practice. Evans finished the concussion protocol on Thursday and both players were removed from the injury report on Friday.
Evans was evaluated for a concussion after taking a very hard hit late in last Thursday's game. He said he understood why the team took the precaution of administering the concussion protocol but was never concerned that he actually had one.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Thursday, November 10th.
"I feel good," said Evans. "I felt fine after that hit. I didn't have a concussion. I appreciate [the caution], but I know my body and I didn't have a concussion."
The Buccaneers certainly appreciate having Evans in the lineup, as he has been the team's most consistent offensive weapon by far. He leads the league in touchdown catches and is the only player to rank in the top five in that category plus receptions and receiving yardage. Evans had a career-high 11 catches for 150 yards and two scores against the Falcons, but even if he doesn't duplicate those numbers against Chicago his presence will make a significant difference. The Buccaneers have started moving Evans around the formation since the loss of Vincent Jackson to injured reserve in an effort to reduce his double-teams, but opposing defenses still find ways to give him extra attention.
"They don't know where I'm at so they can't just key on one side of the field," he said. "And I like when I get doubled because that opens things up for my teammates. We'll live with that."