On Wednesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy incurred a mild neck strain while lifting weights and was subsequently held out of that afternoon's practice.
The Buccaneers were surely relieved when McCoy returned to the field without issue on Thursday and participated fully in the week's last two practices, and not just because the rookie defender is coming off two of his best games yet. The bigger issue is that the team is suddenly facing a shortage of depth behind McCoy and fellow defensive tackle starter Roy Miller.
On Monday, promising rookie Brian Price was shut down for the season, as he headed for surgery on his pelvis and the injured reserve list. Then, on Friday, the Buccaneers' released their official injury report for this weekend's game and revealed that veteran defensive tackle Ryan Sims will not play due to a knee ailment suffered last Sunday in Arizona.
McCoy and Miller are tough and willing, and are likely to play a good percentage of the team's defensive snaps Sunday against Atlanta. Still, the Buccaneers would prefer to have at least one more defensive tackle to rotate into the game, and to provide insurance against another injury.
Enter Al Woods. Or perhaps Alex Magee. Or even Doug Worthington, currently on the practice squad. And don't forget Michael Bennett, Kyle Moore and Tim Crowder, all listed as defensive ends on the Bucs' depth chart but all with some experience playing on the inside.
In other words, the Bucs have options to provide that much-needed DT depth. Now it's a matter of deciding which option, or options, is best.
"We brought in a couple guys this week," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. We've got a practice squad guy in big Worthington and we got big Al Woods in here. We had to go let those guys practice and we'll probably get a heavy dose or partial dose of one of those men."
Magee, Woods and Worthington are all recent additions to the team's 61 available players (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad). Magee, who came over from the Chiefs at the NFL's trading deadline a little over two weeks ago, is also primarily a defensive end but has the ability to move to tackle. Woods, a fourth-round pick by the New Orleans Saints this past April, was plucked off Pittsburgh's practice squad on Wednesday, the same day Worthington joined the Bucs' practice squad.
Obviously, those three players are getting a crash course on their assignments in the Bucs' defense. If one or more of them has demonstrated on the practice field that they can hold their own, the opportunity to earn playing time could arrive very quickly. Obviously, Tampa Bay's coaching staff has shown no hesitation in letting young and inexperienced players take on important roles on game day. Alternately, the team could decide that one of its versatile ends is a better choice given the much greater amount of time they've had to practice in the system.
"Last week we went and got Alex Magee, who has played down in the trenches a little bit for Kansas City," said Morris. "He hasn't done it as much for us. This week we put him in there a little bit to see if he could handle it, see if he could hold up. So I have to make a decision between Woods and some of those guys when we get there. Or I've got to activate Worthington fast."
Whoever helps out McCoy and Miller will be facing a difficult challenge. Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL with 137.4 rushing yards per game and lead back Michael Turner has shaken off his 2009 injury woes and recaptured the form that made him an All-Pro in 2008. The Buccaneers are coming off one of their better performances in terms of rush defense, having held Arizona to an even 100 yards but it would be surprising if the Falcons didn't test that defense repeatedly with Turner and dangerous reserve Jason Snelling.
On the other side of the trenches, the Buccaneers will also go with a shuffled offensive line, though it will be the same five men that started last week in Arizona. Two injured starters, center Jeff Faine (quad) and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee), took part in practice to start the week on Wednesday but were then held out the next two days and have already been deemed as out for Sunday's contest. It will be the fourth straight game that Faine has missed, and Trueblood's second weekend off in a row.
Thus, third-year man Jeremy Zuttah will continue to start at center, where he has been impressive in Faine's stead. Zuttah is expected to eventually move into the starting left guard spot, following the release of former starter Keydrick Vincent, but for the time being rookie Ted Larsen will make his third consecutive start. In Trueblood's place, first-year man James Lee will try to build on his solid debut of a week ago.
"We'll have that same corps of guys and we'll go out there and let them get better," said Morris. "It was fun to see Larsen get better in his second week and it will be fun to go watch James Lee in his second week as well."
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, the two remaining starters from opening day – left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph – have continued to play at a high level and have communicated well with the younger fill-ins. Though he wasn't a starter to begin the season, Zuttah is closer in terms of experience to those two than Larsen and Lee, having started all 16 games at left guard last year, and he appears to be taking his game to a new level now that he's back in the mix.
"Last year really was his first time as a full-time starter," said Morris. "He went out there and you wanted to get him better. In order to get people better in our business, you create competition. You go out and get a guy like Keydrick who's been competitive in this league for a long time, a big-time hammer, a big body who can come in and probably give you a different type of help. And that's what happened. That started to make Zuttah better. You've got to give Zuttah credit for staying in the fight. You created a nice environment at a competitive level…and then Faine got hurt. Then you move Zuttah in there and he's been the starting center. You knew he could do those things because he's very sharp. He's smart, he's been around the system, he's played both positions now and now he's become sort of a leader on that offensive line. I'm just liking where his development is going, and it will make him a better player from here through the rest of his career."
The Bucs ruled out a fourth player on Friday, as well, as fullback Earnest Graham will be sidelined for the second time in the last three games with a hamstring injury. After sitting out the Week Seven win over St. Louis, Graham returned to the lineup last weekend in Arizona, though his injury still needed management. The Bucs hope another dose of rest will get Graham closer to overcoming the problem for good.
"Last week he sucked it up and went for us," said Morris. "This week, he won't be able to do it. I wouldn't necessarily call it a setback; you've just got to find a way to get that thing better as fast as you can. They can bother you for a season if you let them, so we're going to try to fix it now if we can."
Of the remaining five players on Tampa Bay's Friday injury report, only wide receiver Sammie Stroughter is considered questionable for the game. He is dealing with foot soreness and did not participate in any of this week's three practices. The four Buccaneers listed as probable are McCoy, Moore (shoulder), wide receiver Preston Parker (knee) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee).
Atlanta's injury report includes one player who has already been ruled out in reserve tight end Justin Peelle (groin). Peelle has just three receptions in 2010 but has started four of Atlanta's seven games alongside Tony Gonzalez in two-TE sets.
Two other Falcons are considered questionable for the game: running back Ovie Mughelli (hamstring) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee). Mughelli is Atlanta's starting fullback and the only player listed at that position on the team's depth chart. Weatherspoon, the Falcons' first-round draft pick in 2010, started the first three games of the season at outside linebacker but has missed three of the last four outings with his knee ailment. Mughelli returned to practice in a limited fashion on Friday after sitting out the first two days of work; Weatherspoon did not practice this week.
Four other Falcons are listed on the team's injury report as probable: defensive end John Abraham (ankle), linebacker Curtis Lofton (knee), cornerback Dunta Robinson (head/knee) and running back Antone Smith (shoulder). All but Smith are starters.