This is not the sort of math the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to be doing in Week 14.
With four weeks left in a tight NFC playoff race, the Buccaneers still hope to be calculating tiebreakers at some point, but first they must deal with two more shots to their starting lineup.
On Monday, the team announced that center Jeff Faine and cornerback Aqib Talib have been placed on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the season. Both starters were hurt in Sunday's 28-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Faine suffering a torn triceps in his right arm and Talib incurring a torn flexor tendon in his right hip.
The Bucs did not immediately fill the two resulting openings on the 53-man roster.
The unwelcome math: Two games played in the last nine days, two starters lost to injury in each one, four new holes in the starting lineup just as the postseason stretch run kicks into gear. In the team's 17-10 loss at Baltimore in Week 12, starting right guard Davin Joseph sustained a broken foot and starting free safety Cody Grimm suffered ankle and lower leg fractures. Joseph and Grimm landed on I.R. last Tuesday, as did a fifth starter, left defensive end Kyle Moore, who had already missed four games with a shoulder injury.
The Bucs' most recent season-ending injuries attacked the same two spots on the depth chart as those of a week before – the offensive line and the secondary. The O-Line loses its veteran anchor in the middle and just as it completes a four-game hot streak in which it blocked for 150.0 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry and allowed only one sack per game. The defensive backfield loses its leading interceptor, as Talib's six interceptions actually tied him for second in the entire NFL, just one behind the league leader, Philadelphia's Asante Samuel.
Against Atlanta, the Buccaneers replaced Joseph and Grimm with Jeremy Zuttah and Corey Lynch, respectively, and were pleased with the results. Zuttah helped the rushing attack gain 151 yards and 5.2 yards per carry while allowing only one sack of quarterback Josh Freeman, and Lynch set up a second-half touchdown with his first interception as a Buccaneer. Head Coach Raheem Morris is confident his young team will find a way to overcome the latest lineup setbacks, too.
"It was a tough stretch there, the last two games, our first two-game losing streak of the season," he said. "But these guys are young, they're infectious, they love to come play this game and I look forward to see these guys get ready for this week. It's another important game, another road game and we'll be ready to play."
The Buccaneers now have 10 players on injured reserve, including promising rookie defensive tackle Brian Price, the team's second-round pick. Rounding out that list are linebacker Jon Alston, tackle Demar Dotson, defensive end Brandon Gilbeaux and running back Kareem Huggins.
As such, the team has seen 39 different players draw at least one start this season, with Lynch being the most recent addition to the list. That number will likely grow on Sunday in Washington, though cornerback E.J. Biggers, Talib's likely replacement at left cornerback, has already started two games this season.
Talib's injury occurred early in the second quarter of Sunday's contest, and the in-game adjustment to his absence was likely a good indication of what the team will do going forward. Biggers, previously the nickel back, would assumedly move into the starting lineup and rookie cornerback Myron Lewis would take on more nickel responsibilities. The Bucs also have third-year cornerback Elbert Mack, who has seen significant action in the nickel packages during his time with the team.
Faine's injury occurred in the fourth quarter, so there were fewer snaps for the offense to cover. Still, Zuttah slid from his new starting right guard to center, where he had started four earlier games during another Faine absence, and rookie Derek Hardman came in at right guard. As offensive line reserves, the Buccaneers also have rookie guard Brandon Carter, just promoted from the practice squad last week, and tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Will Barker, the latter also a rookie.
Left tackle Donald Penn is the only member of the Buccaneers' opening-day starting five up front who is currently still in the lineup. Rookie Ted Larsen, an early-September waiver claim, has started at left guard since Game Six, replacing the since-released Keydrick Vincent. James Lee took over for an injured Trueblood at right tackle in Game Seven and has held onto that job even as the former starter has returned to health from his knee injury. Joseph and Faine, the right guard and center to start the season, are now on injured reserve.
Still, the team has adapted well to each new difficulty, and the Bucs' rushing and pass-protection numbers have actually improved during the second half of the season.
"I've been really encouraged by how the guys have responded, how they've played, with these guys moving around to different positions, playing different spots," said Morris. "Zuttah's played two different spots on the offensive line and had the ability to play three or four. Those guys bounce around and keep playing tough. They come in and out of the lineup. We finished the game yesterday with Hardman out there and he played well. They're just playing solid football and you've got to be pleased with that. You've got to be pleased that your depth looks better and better every week."