Over the last 10 days, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have promoted five players from their practice squad to the active roster. That represents close to a tenth of the 53 players available to Head Coach Lovie Smith on Sunday for the regular-season finale, but that doesn't mean there will be drastic changes to the team's lineup in Charlotte on Sunday.
"Lavonte David's not going to go down or anything like that," said Smith, after linebacker Darius Eubanks got his promotion Friday, on the heels of similar moves with wide receiver Evan Spencer, running back Mike James, safety Kimario McFadden and tight end Tevin Westbrook. "For the most part, the guys that have been playing that you've grown accustomed to [seeing] will be the ones that will be playing this week. Nothing newsworthy really coming from that."
The Buccaneers don't plan to run a wildly altered team out onto the Bank of America turf on Sunday because the game remains very important to them. The Bucs have a Carolina hurdle it needs to clear, and that is forefront on their minds as they try to get a jump start on the 2016 season in their 2015 finale.
"I know they're three-time champions so, yes, this is the team that we need to be able to beat," said Smith. "We're going to have to beat them before we can do what we want to do, it's as simple as that. In 2016 we're going to need to beat the Carolina Panthers, yes. What better time to start it than now? They're a good football team. They have potentially the MVP on their football team, potentially the player of the year on the defensive side of the ball. So it's a good measuring stick for our football team."
Those two potential award-winners in Carolina are quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Josh Norman, and they are among 10 Panthers selected for the Pro Bowl this year. That type of recognition is the result of being a consistent winner, and Carolina won all of its 2015 games until last Sunday in Atlanta. That removed what could have been a piece of motivation for the Panthers in Week 17, but they have plenty of other reasons to put forth their best effort Sunday. So do the Buccaneers, but there is never really a lack of motivation when the Bucs and Panthers get together.
"It has to affect you a little bit when you're going for an undefeated season and that's gone," said Smith. But they're still trying to get home field advantage so they have a lot at stake. And of course we have a lot at stake. I assume it's going to be two division opponents fighting it out like you normally see when division opponents play."
- Tampa Bay's officially injury report was shortened by one player on Friday, but not for a particularly encouraging reason. Safety Chris Conte, one of the steadier performers in a frequently-shuffled secondary in 2015, was sent to injured reserve due to his knee ailment.
"[That's] disappointing; Chris has done some good things for us this year," said Smith. "We needed all of our horses this week but that's how it goes with injuries. Other guys will have to step up, which we've had to do throughout."
The removal of Conte from the roster actually gave the Bucs a very clean injury report heading into the season's final weekend. The other six players on the list were all deemed probable to play against the Panthers, including starting left guard Logan Mankins and starting cornerback Sterling Moore.
It's the playoff-bound Panthers who had the more troublesome injury report on Friday, though their upcoming postseason bye week should cure many of their ills. For now, Carolina heads into its regular-season finale with four players considered either doubtful or out.
Both players already ruled out are running backs, as Jonathan Stewart will miss his third straight game with a foot injury and Fozzy Whittaker will be sidelined with an ankle ailment. There are currently only two other tailbacks on the Panthers' roster, both rookies – Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher – although Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert occasionally carries the ball, as well.
It is likely that Carolina will also be without wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. and safety Kurt Coleman, as both players are considered doubtful for the game. Ginn is the Panthers' top deep threat and leading touchdown scorer, with 10, while Coleman has a team-high seven interceptions.
- Mike Evans, the Buccaneers' second-year wide receiver, has played 29 NFL games so far, three of them against the Carolina Panthers. He has averaged 27.3 receiving yards in those three meetings with the Panthers, and 79.8 yards per game in every other outing.
If that doesn't provide Evans with a little extra incentive on Sunday, then facing off against Norman should do the trick. Norman may not shadow the Bucs' top receiver the entire day, but the two will certainly face off on a significant number of snaps.
"I'm excited for it, but I don't know if I'll see him or not," said Evans of Norman, who had two interceptions and a touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week Four. "The first game, he didn't match me so this game, I hope he does. It'll be a fun game for me, our last game this year. They play a lot of Cover-3 zone, but they play a little bit of man [coverage] so maybe I'll see him."
Obviously, Evans is aware of the breakout season that Norman has had in 2015. Like everyone else, Evans also saw the emotionally-charged confrontations between Norman and New York Giants' wide receiver Odell Beckham two weeks ago, which resulted in a one-game suspension for Beckham. Evans has no plans to follow Beckham's model on Sunday.
"I'm a passionate player and I'm a physical guy, but I've got to be smart," he said. "You've got to think about your teammates and things like that, so that'll keep me level-headed. Thinking about my teammates and not hurting those guys."