Demar Dotson has missed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last three games due to a concussion but he seems poised to return to action just in time to help out in a very critical matchup.
On Thursday, Head Coach Dirk Koetter confirmed that Dotson has finally been cleared from the NFL's concussion protocol, a necessary step before he could return to game action. Dotson has practiced without limits the last two days, which he did not do the previous two weeks while attempting to overcome his injury. That progression has produced optimism that he will be able to step back in at right tackle, where he started the first 12 games of the season.
"It's huge," said Koetter of Dotson's potential availability. "Dot's an excellent run-blocker and it means we don't have to scramble our line around at right tackle. Of course it's big, he's been out for three games and we've missed him."
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Thursday, December 29th.
The Buccaneers started veteran Gosder Cherilus at right tackle in Weeks 14 and 15 but he suffered groin and ankle injuries in his second start and was unable to suit up on Saturday in New Orleans. As a result, the team chose to move left guard Kevin Pamphile out to tackle, a position he played in college, and insert steady veteran Evan Smith at guard. If Dotson can play in Sunday's season finale against Carolina, Pamphile will be able to move back to the interior line, where has drawn praise from the Bucs' coaching staff for his play all season.
And if Dotson is indeed back in the lineup Sunday, it's not a moment too soon. The Panthers' defense leads the NFL with 44 sacks and puts one of its top pass-rushers, Charles Johnson, at left end where he can take on the opponent's right tackle. Johnson has just 4.0 sacks so far this season but he also has 14 quarterback hits, and he has 67.5 sacks in his career. A foot injury could keep Johnson on the sideline Sunday, but if so the Panthers will plug in Kony Ealy, who had a star turn in last year's playoffs and who also has 4.0 sacks this year.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked twice in Tampa Bay's 17-14 win at Carolina in Week Five, but 1.5 of those takedowns belonged to defensive backs. Both teams were missing a handful of key players in that contest, and the Bucs were hit particularly hard in the offensive backfield. Still, Jacquizz Rodgers, in his first start for the team, ran for 101 yards, which greatly helped the offense convert six of 15 third downs, as compared to one of eight for the Panthers' offense. The injury bug had not touched the offensive line, and Dotson and company made a big difference in a game that was decided on a last-second field goal.
Carolina's defense has since dropped to the bottom of the league in terms of passing yards allowed, but they can still make big plays with their front seven.
"The thing we've got to realize is that they had to totally rebuild their secondary but their front guys are relatively the same," said Koetter. "The scary thing to me, as I look at the tape, is on third down they give you a lot of tough looks. They're a zone-pressure team on third down and they are the first or second-leading team in the league as far as creating sacks. We were fortunate in the first game to stay ahead of the chains in the first game and we didn't get in many third-and-longs. That is a good way to attack these guys but that's easier said than done."
- While Dotson got in another full practice on Thursday, Cherilus was once again limited. Defensive end William Gholston did not practice for the second straight day to an elbow injury. Rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was added to theinjury reporton Thursday due to an abdomen injury.
Gholston was hurt in Week 15 and did not play last Saturday in New Orleans. He's obviously a significant question mark for the season finale, and that's bad news for Tampa Bay's run defense.
Pictures of the Panthers' starting offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.
"What Will is, he's a big, run-stopping defensive end," said Koetter. "He's not the flashiest pass-rusher, but he's going to get some sacks by just working hard and being where he's supposed to be and the quarterback maybe get flushed to him. But Will's biggest value is as a strongside defensive end who anchors your 'C' gap against the run and we definitely missed Will last week. New Orleans took advantage of his absence and I thought last year, just from me watching from the other side, I was impressed by how hard and how consistent Will's played and he's definitely again lived up to it this year. We've missed him and unfortunately he's got that elbow situation right now that's keeping him out."
Carolina's injury report was mostly unchanged on Thursday, with only defensive end Mario Addison progressing from limited to full participation in practice. Five players remained out, including Johnson, tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart. Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday that Olsen, the Panthers' leading receiver, is on track to play on Sunday.
- As noted above, the injury reports for both teams were a lot longer when the Bucs and Panthers first met in Week Five. Most significantly for Carolina, the league's reigning MVP, quarterback Cam Newton, was unable to suit up, meaning Derek Anderson got the start. Newton is on the Panthers' injury report against this week with a right shoulder ailment but he is expected to start on Sunday.
As such, the Buccaneers' defense is preparing for one of the league's most unique talents this week. Newton hasn't run as often this year – he's almost certain to finish with his lowest rushing total in six NFL seasons and he has "only" scored five times on the ground – but that does little to lessen the threat of him taking off on Sunday in the minds of Buccaneer defenders.
"Is Cam still the same guy? Yeah, he is," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "He didn't have the season he had last year. He won MVP last year, so if he doesn't win MVP this year, then that means he didn't have the same season, you know? But, he's still Cam, man. In my opinion, he's still the best escape artist because of his size, speed, his agility, he can make all the throws and if you let him get on a roll, he will kill you."
Newton's mobility doesn't always manifest itself in rushing yards. He can extend plays and throw downfield, and Carolina ranks eighth in the league in gains of 10 or more yards. Sometimes those big gains happen after the opposing pass-rushers are certain they're about to get a sack.
"The thing about Cam is how big he is," said Koetter. "Jameis [Winston] is a big man; Cam dwarfs Jameis. Cam is a big, big man and a tremendous athlete. He can sit there in the pocket. It's hard to knock him down, even if you get there. He has a great arm, really throws the deep ball well and if you don't do a great job of keeping him in the pocket, he's capable of beating you with his legs, either on scramble runs or designed runs. Now, they haven't been doing quite as many designed runs, but ask any defensive coach or player in the league and a quarterback who can beat you both ways is one of the most difficult things to face."