At 5-3, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the thick of the NFC playoff race at the season's midpoint, perhaps in defiance of most outside expectations. Now the second half begins, with heated rival Carolina first on the docket, and the Buccaneers will seek to prove that they're in the race to stay.
The Bucs are chasing the 7-2 Atlanta Falcons and 6-3 New Orleans Saints in the immensely competitive NFC South, and are coming off a narrow loss in Atlanta a week ago. Tampa Bay rallied impressively in that game but came up short in the end; still, they could look back on the first eight games as a whole and get a measure of satisfaction.
"We mainly focused on the first half of the season," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, revealing what he discussed with his young team as this week began. "We fought through a lot through that first half and we were able to be resilient and go 5-3. We had some fourth-quarter comebacks from our quarterback. We saw our young team getting better and learning lessons every week. We're really prepared to start this second half of the season with our most important game on deck, that being the Carolina Panthers today."
The Bucs aren't just young, they're the youngest team in the NFL, just narrowly ahead of the Panthers. That's one of the main reasons, of course, that outside expectations weren't high for Tampa Bay in 2010. Obviously, the team's coaching staff and players expected more, and that same youth may now work in their favor, as everyone has fully bought in.
Morris saw that this week on the practice field.
"We really had an inspired week of practice," he said. "The guys came out and practiced hard. They're getting ready to tackle the second half of the season. We've got a young football team. They're young, excited guys ready to go into the second half."
Perhaps no unit on the Bucs' depth chart typifies the team's youthful promise as much as the wide receivers. Last week, the Bucs got both of their offensive touchdowns from rookie wideouts Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, and third-year receiver Micheal Spurlock added the third score on a kickoff return. The Buccaneers face the league's fifth-ranked pass defense this week but still believe their young receivers can be productive.
"They're really becoming the strength of our football team," said Morris. "They drive the bus every day. They're young, they're dynamic, they play with a lot of speed, lot of passion, lot of energy and we're really excited about what they've been able to do this season and how much better they're getting every week. They were a question mark, but not anymore. Going into the second half of the season they've got to keep building on their momentum."
That crew will be down one member, however, as second-year player Sammie Stroughter will miss his second consecutive game due to a foot injury. Stroughter is an accomplished player in the slot position and is one of the team's top third-down threats, but the receiving corps is deep enough to make up for his absence. With his help, of course.
"Sammie's been great," said Morris. "He was down last week and he'll be down again this week but he's been helping out Preston Parker and some of the guys who are going to play his position. He's been helping Arrelious, bringing those guys on. We've got nothing but love for that whole crew and how they work together, how unselfish they've been."
Stroughter is one of five Buccaneers who will miss today's game due to injury, joining fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring), linebacker Quincy Black (ankle), defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) and defensive tackle Ryan Sims (knee). The new injury in that group is Black, the team's starting strongside linebacker who rolled his ankle last week in Atlanta. His absence will mean the first career start for rookie Dekoda Watson, and Lorig will once again take over for Graham at fullback. If those two are actually in the game for the first snaps on offense and defense, respectively, the Buccaneers will, incredibly, start all three players they drafted in the seventh round in April.
Other young players could be in more prominent roles today, as well. With Sims and Moore out, the Buccaneers may turn to defensive tackle Al Woods and defensive end Alex Magee for a handful of snaps. Woods, signed off Pittsburgh's practice squad less than two weeks ago, played in Atlanta and graded out well; Magee has yet to play since coming over from Kansas City in a deadline-deal trade in October.
We're missing some of our D-linemen, and we'll have some other guys that have to step up. We had Al Woods step up last week and we see a little bit of Alex Magee this week. We're excited about looking at those guys and getting them out there playing with us.
The Bucs do welcome back two offensive linemen who have missed time due to injuries: C Jeff Faine and T Jeremy Trueblood. Faine will step back into the starting center role but Trueblood will be eased back into right tackle, with James Lee instead making his third start in a row. Jeremy Zuttah, who has started the last four games at center and is expected to contend for the starting left guard spot with Faine's return, will be in a reserve role today with Ted Larsen getting another start at left guard.
In addition to the injured players listed above, the Buccaneers have also deactivated CB Myron Lewis, T Will Barker and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Panthers have some significant injuries, as well. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen will make his fourth start of the season after Matt Moore was placed on injured reserve on Monday. In addition, Carolina is without three of their top running backs: Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Tyrell Sutton. Mike Goodson will get the start and will be backed up by two players signed this week, Josh Vaughan and Andre Brown.
Even without the dangerous duo of Stewart and Williams, the Panthers are likely to emphasize the run, in part to take the pressure off their rookie passer.
"They're going to come in and here and run the football," said Morris. "That's their fundamental core belief. That's what they do and that's what they do well. We've got to go out there and bow up, be able to stand up to their run. They're very well-coached and we've got to prepare for that. It really doesn't matter who they play. They have a tough-guy mentality and they'll come in here ready to go."
Carolina has declared these eight players inactive: Stewart, Sutton, Williams, CB C.J. Wilson, LB Abdul Hodge, DE Greg Hardy, WR Devin Thomas and designated third quarterback Armanti Edwards. Though Edwards is listed as a wide receiver on the Panthers' roster, he did play quarterback in college at Appalachian State. Stewart, Sutton, William and Hardy are out due to injury.
The Bucs and Panthers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.