In the two games in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been without outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul have combined to play all but 17 of a possible 280 snaps at the two OLB spots. That's admirable and impressive…and not really the plan.
After both Nassib and Nelson went down with first-half injuries in Seattle in Week Nine, the Buccaneers signed veteran Sam Acho and promoted rookie Kahzin Daniels from the practice squad, giving themselves options if Barrett or Pierre-Paul were injured or in need of a rest and also restoring some depth to special teams. Obviously, from among that group the coaching staff prefers to have Barrett and Pierre-Paul on the field, but a deeper rotation would be an even better option.
That may be possible again in Week 12. Nassib practiced fully on Friday, and though he's labeled as "questionable" on Friday's injury report, Head Coach Bruce Arians seems optimistic that the fourth-year veteran will be in action on Sunday in Atlanta. Part of that questionable status may be a holdover from last week, when Nassib also seemed to be nearing a return before tweaking the groin injury he had sustained in Seattle.
"He got better a little bit each day," said Arians. "He did more today and we should be able to use him Sunday."
In addition, Pierre-Paul began the week of practice on the sideline with a knee injury but was back to full participation by Friday and was not given a game-status designation on the injury report.
"Huge," said Arians of the possibility of having most of his OLB rotation back and not having to lean on just two players. "That's not what we want to do. We want fresh bodies out there, and Carl is probably our best run-stopper at outside linebacker. It'd be great to have Anthony, but we don't have Anthony. But, Sam [Acho's] done a good job, so we'll keep rotating those guys."
It's not an enormous sample, but the Buccaneers' pass rush did seem to suffer a bit when it's outside linebacker rotation was cut in half, starting with the second half of the game in Seattle. Tampa Bay's defense was getting to the quarterback at a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 6.1% before that point – 8.5 games into the season – but that dropped to 3.7% since.
Of course, the Buccaneers didn't have this exact OLB rotation for the entire season. Pierre-Paul missed the first six games of the season while on the reserve/non-football injury list due to a neck injury suffered in an offseason car accident. Pierre-Paul was activated from that list as soon as he was able to return and stepped right into the mix, which is rather remarkable given his lack of time to prepare. He's already logged 246 snaps in four games since and has contributed 1.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and three tackles for loss.
"I don't know of anybody else that could do what he's done," said Arians. "He's finally getting into shape and ready to roll, and [I] expect good things out of it. You didn't know how much you missed him until you got it back."
"Don't jinx me, c'mon man!"
That was Arians' response on Friday before a reporter even finished asking a question about the hot streak that rookie placekicker Matt Gay has been riding over the last seven games.
Given the superstitious nature of many people in the sports industry (present company included), Arians was probably only half-joking, even though he laughed after that comment. Still, like a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, it's hard not to appreciate a player in a zone, and sometimes that involves reciting the numbers.
So…deep breath…here they are: Since misfiring on a 34-yard field goal attempt, a potential game-winner at the end of regulation against the Giants in Week Three, Gay has made 33 of his 34 kick attempts. That's 13 of 14 on field goals and 20 of 20 on extra points, which are now the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal. Overall, he's 20 of 23 on field goals and 25 of 27 on extra points in his rookie campaign, and he has the most successful field goals of 40 or more yards (12) in the entire league. Gay's one miss over the last seven games was from 50 yards out, but he's made all four of his tries that were longer than that, from 52, 54, 55 and 58 yards.
"I said that that kick…against the Giants would not define his career," said Arians. "He's a talented kid, he's overcome it and he's been very consistent. I think he leads the league in kicks over [40 yards], so it's a huge weapon for us."
Mike Evans needs only seven more receiving yards on Sunday to get to 1,000 for the sixth time in his first six NFL seasons. The only player who has done that is Randy Moss.
Obviously, that accomplishment is going to draw Evans a lot of deserved attention this weekend. What may have escaped notice, however, is that third-year wideout Chris Godwin is within striking distance of his first 1,000-yard season. Godwin ranks third in the NFL with 887 yards, right behind Evans on that chart, which means he would need 113 against the Falcons to reach that milestone.
That's not far-fetched at all, given that 113 yards is only about 24 over his per-game average this season, and that he's already topped that mark in four different games. Godwin had a streak earlier this season in which he had 125 or more receiving yards in three consecutive games.
If Evans and Godwin both hit the mark on Sunday, it will mark just the second time in team history that the Bucs have had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. Evans was also a part of the first one, when he had 1,051 as a rookie in 2014 to complement Vincent Jackson's 1,002. With six games to go, it seems likely that the Evans-Godwin duo will not only join that pair but also finish with far more combined yards.