With the Bucs' offense starting to gain confidence, WR Michael Clayton wants to run back into the picture as soon as possible
Chris Simms threw for a career-high 279 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday, not one of them to Michael Clayton.
Clayton is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' usual starting flanker, a spot he has held down since early in his 2004 rookie season. He is also one of the team's toughest and most physical players, but last weekend he sat out a game for the first time in his career, resting a deep knee bruise that had restricted his mobility all week.
The Bucs' passing game still clicked against the Washington Redskins thanks to some fine work at the flanker spot by veteran Ike Hilliard and young up-and-comer Edell Shepherd. Hilliard and Shepherd might once again fill critical roles this coming Sunday in Atlanta, but this time Clayton doesn't want to miss out on all the fun.
With Simms looking sharper each week and the offensive line giving him time to throw, the Bucs' offensive players feel like they are at the beginning of a wave. Clayton wants to be along for the ride.
"We're very excited," said the Bucs' second-leading receiver. "Our confidence level is high now. We feel like we're tough to stop. The preparation that we do day by day is going to put us in a mindset to where we feel like we're fully prepared for the game. Going into the game, we feel really strong."
This week, Clayton is part of that preparation. He missed every practice last week – the longest inactive period of his NFL career – but was on the field with the offense on Wednesday as work began on the Falcons. He said after the hot two-hour practice that he intends to play on Sunday.
That said, Clayton debuted as questionable on the Bucs' official injury report.
The Bucs actually have four players listed as questionable or worse on that report, all of them starters. The main problem appears to be at safety. Dexter Jackson, who opened the season as the starting free safety but has missed the last three games and four overall with hamstring trouble, was able to practice to some extent on Wednesday. Will Allen, who has replaced Jackson and also started two earlier games at strong safety when Jermaine Phillips was out, did not practice and is considered doubtful for the Atlanta game.
Head Coach Jon Gruden said that Jackson, first-year man Kalvin Pearson and rookie Donte Nicholson all took practice reps with the first team in Allen's absence. With Jackson and Nicholson inactive last Sunday against Washington, Pearson played the remainder of the game after Allen was hurt early in the third quarter.
Starting left defensive end Greg Spires also went down in the second half of that Washington game due to a shoulder injury. He is questionable on the injury report and was held out of Wednesday's practice. Gruden said Spires' snaps were absorbed by Dewayne White and Ellis Wyms. White is the usual third man in the Bucs' defensive end rotation and played most of the second half after Spires' injury. Wyms has long been an end-tackle swingman for the Bucs' defensive line, though he has played more on the interior line this season. He may also be called on for some snaps at end if Spires cannot play in Atlanta.
Running back Michael Pittman rounds out the Bucs' five-man injury report, but he's considered probable to play. He has been battling a shoulder injury for weeks but has not yet missed a game and he was able to practice without difficulty on Wednesday.
Atlanta's injury report is longer than the Bucs' but probably less troublesome. Of the nine players on the list, only one is questionable or worse: defensive end Brady Smith, who is recovering from a toe injury. The rest of the report includes five starters – strong safety Keion Carpenter (illness), nose tackle Chad Lavalais (foot), right guard Kynan Forney (ankle), right tackle Todd Weiner (elbow) and wide receiver Michael Jenkins (ankle) – but all are thought to be probable for the game.
The Bucs had a strong week of practice leading up to last weekend's victory against the Redskins. The former doesn't always produce the latter, but it's certainly a good sign, as was the team's good workout on Wednesday. Particularly sharp was Simms, who has improved through each of his three weeks as a starter and is obviously gaining comfort in the Bucs' offense.
"I thought he did great [in practice]," said Gruden. "He's the hardest-working guy, arguably, that there is at that position, at least that I've been around. He's in here Monday, he's in here Tuesday, he's going to be in here late tonight. He loves it, and that's one of the things we like about him the most. He was solid today. He was advanced; [Quarterbacks Coach] Paul Hackett did a nice job getting him ready yesterday and the day before for the challenge of Wednesday practice and I thought he responded pretty good. There are plenty of things he can clean up and he knows that."
If Clayton can make it back into the lineup on Sunday, that will just give Simms another big-play weapon. Simms' first career touchdown pass, in fact, was a short pass to Clayton in last year's season finale in Arizona that the receiver turned into a 78-yard score with a long open-field run. Ideally, his return would allow the Bucs' offense to take yet another step forward on Sunday in Atlanta.
"We would like to continue to build momentum and get better," said Gruden. "That's a goal we have here, is building an offense that can sustain itself through good times and bad for years to come. We've got a long way to go, a long way to go."