The Bucs are exploring ways to get the ball to WR Michael Clayton more often
Of all the superb numbers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense put up under the direction of rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in New Orleans, the best one may have been this:
That's the number of different Buccaneers who advanced the ball on offense on Sunday. If you consider that rookie receiver Maurice Stovall actually caught a touchdown pass that was subsequently erased by penalty, the only "skill-position" players who were on the active list and didn't at some point get the pigskin in their hands were wide receiver Mark Jones, tight end Doug Jolley and running back Earnest Graham, none of whom got any significant playing time on offense.
It is probably no coincidence that the final offensive tally of 406 yards was easily the Bucs' best of the young season. Spreading the ball around didn't take chances away from the team's biggest playmakers; rather, it produced longer drives and thus more plays and more opportunities for everyone. Cadillac Williams still carried 20 times for 111 yards and Joey Galloway still caught four passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, but Michael Pittman, Alex Smith, Ike Hilliard, Anthony Becht, Mike Alstott, Michael Clayton and even Gradkowski himself pitched in with some big chain-movers.
"We felt we got a lot of guys involved in New Orleans," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after practice on Thursday. "We'd like to get more and more guys involved, you bet."
Some of that added variety came as the result of trickier play-calling. Clayton caught only one pass for seven yards (another diving catch was also erased by a penalty) but he turned in a big 27-yard gain on a reverse in the second quarter. So far, Clayton's reception totals look more like those produced in his injury-plagued second season than his record-setting rookie campaign, but that may change soon. Gruden acknowledged that the team is looking for ways to get Clayton more involved in the offense.
"He looks good," said Gruden. "We had a couple pretty good looks in Atlanta and we weren't able to get him the ball, but good things happen to those who wait, I'm told. We'll try to get him some looks down there in the red zone.
"I think he's close to being back to the Mike Clayton that we drafted and we remember. He's working his tail off. I'm really pleased with the progress he's made and it's a credit to him."
On the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that briefly put the Bucs ahead in New Orleans, a 34-yard Cadillac Williams run put the ball at the four. Counting the Stovall catch that was nullified, the Bucs ran four goal-to-go plays from that point and each one was to a different player. Runs by Alstott and Williams failed to get the ball in the end zone but a middle-release pass to Smith got the job done. That sort of play-calling has helped the Bucs completely turn around their red zone fortunes.
Tampa Bay had four trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line during its first two games and didn't convert a single one of them into a touchdown. Against the Panthers and Saints, however, six of the team's seven red zone incursions continued on to the end zone.
"We're just pleased that when we've been in the red zone, we've scored touchdowns," said Gruden. "The big thing is, we get the ball in the end zone when we're in the red zone."
Wade Added to Injury Report
The Buccaneers' official injury report for Sunday's game against Cincinnati swelled to 11 players after Thursday's practice. Starting center John Wade suffered a mild ankle injury during the workout and didn't finish the practice, but the Bucs are optimistic he'll be able to play.
"He tweaked his ankle today; we think he'll be alright," said Gruden. "We think he'll play."
Otherwise, the Bucs' injury report was unchanged. Cornerback Juran Bolden (hip) returned to practice after missing Wednesday's session, but Stovall (back), cornerback Brian Kelly (foot) and defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder) were all held out once again.
Tight end Dave Moore, who hasn't played since suffering a rib injury in the season opener, appears to be on the path to returning this weekend against the Bengals. Though he is still considered questionable for the game, he practiced on both Wednesday and Thursday.
"I think Dave will be okay," said Gruden. "I think he's going to find a way to be able to go, yes."
Moore would re-assume the long-snapping duties that have been performed by Andrew Economos over the last three games. On Wednesday, Economos was placed on injured reserve. If Moore is not cleared to play, tight end Doug Jolley would snap for punts and placekicks.
The Bengals' injury report did not change on Thursday. Most notably, starting center Rich Braham will miss his third straight game due to a knee injury. He has already been ruled out and will likely be replaced by second-year man Eric Ghiaciuc, a fourth-round draft pick in 2005. Reserve receiver Tab Perry, the primary kickoff return man, is also out of Sunday's game with a hip injury.
Three other Bengals are considered questionable for the game, including starting strong safety and former Buccaneer Dexter Jackson. Jackson is trying to return from an ankle injury that has cost him the last two games but was one of five Bengals who didn't practice on Thursday. The other four were Braham, Perry, defensive tackle Sam Adams (knee) and linebacker Rashad Jeanty (foot).
Additional Thoughts from Coach Gruden
Gruden touched on several other subjects after Thursday's practice.
On if Davin Joseph looked good in practice: "Yeah, he looks good. He'll start the game for us and we're excited to have him in the lineup. It's been a long four or five weeks without him. I've missed him. He's a good friend."
On starting two rookies next to each other on the line: "Well, hopefully, they play like we expect them to. We realize we're a pretty young offensive team. We'll have three rookie starters in this game and Cincinnati poses a lot of challenges with their personnel, with their scheme. They're coming off their bye week and they're an outstanding football team offensively. They have a tall order in front of them and we'll see where they are right away, that's for sure."
On Chad Johnson's celebrations: "You know, I don't see all the celebrations. I guess some of them become controversial around the league, but I like the guys who are enthusiastic, personally. I like the guys who are great players, the guys who love to play and complete. He clearly loves to do that. I don't get into the celebrations other than I like to see a guy get excited when he scores. But I have a lot of respect for him. I did coming out of Oregon State, and he's really turned into a great, great player."
On if newly-acquired defensive back Derrick Strait can play safety: "No, he's going to be a corner for us. I think he was moved to safety more in an emergency role for the Jets. He's a guy who had some pretty good marks coming out of Oklahoma and we'll see where he is."
On if the Bengals' offensive line is flying under the radar: "They've got some really good players there. Paul Alexander's a really good line coach. He's a veteran guy, been there awhile. They've got a great tackle – [Willie] Anderson's a great player. They've got two great tackles. They've got really good personnel on offense and they've been together in this system for some time now. Obviously, that's paying real dividends for them."
On if the Bengals' offensive line causes a dilemma for the defense: "Yeah. They've got a big back who they're going to run. They're going to hand him the ball and they're going to hand it to him repeatedly. If you get too active up around the line of scrimmage they've got some guys who can hurt you. They operate out of the no-huddle scheme and Carson Palmer makes sure he keeps them in good situations. He's not afraid to audible and he'll use the entire clock to make sure they're in good operating procedures."
On if there is a throw Carson Palmer can't make: "I don't think so. He's really something throwing the ball. [That's an] unbelievable story, the injury that he came back from. That's a catastrophic injury and for what he's done, I'm really just glad to see it. That gives us a lot of hope, a lot of people hope, that you can accomplish an unbelievable amount of recovery. It's a great story and I'm just excited to have him back in the game. He's clearly one of the best if not the best in football."