WR Michael Clayton may be sore, but that's not going to keep him out of the Bucs' offensive game plan
Cadillac Williams sat on Sunday, but Michael Clayton played on.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' breakout rookies of the last two years, two critical cogs in the team's attack, went into Week Five hurting. Williams, the explosive first-year back who had fueled a complete turnaround in the Bucs' ground game, was placed on the inactive list due to foot and hamstring ailments.
Clayton, who has a sore shoulder at the top of a constellation of aches and pains around his body, played and started, as Williams undoubtedly would have liked to do.
Different situations, different approaches.
Since Clayton knows only one way to play, he could still be seen throwing his sore body around the Meadowlands, selling out completely on downfield blocks for the running game. At the end of the game, however, there was something missing from his usual results.
That would be a catch. For the first time in 21 games as a professional, Clayton did not record a single reception. Truth be told, he had little opportunity. Ike Hilliard, another fine receiver who is first off the bench behind Clayton and Joey Galloway, caught five passes against the Jets and had several more thrown his way. Considering that Hilliard had exactly five receptions through the Bucs' first four games, it's safe to say that some of the passes that would usually go to Clayton were instead directed to the former Giant.
"It's got a lot to do with play design," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Clayton's goose egg. "I take credit for some of that. We have to call his number more. He's got to play to another level."
Williams' rest may have helped the rookie back, as he has been upgraded to probable for Sunday's game against Miami. Naturally, that led some to wonder if the Bucs might take the same approach with Clayton and ease back on the second-year receiver for now in the hopes of returning him to his 2004 rookie form. Gruden, however, is choosing the opposite course of action.
"I haven't given any thought to resting him," said the coach. "We've given much thought this morning about doubling his workload this week. We need him, obviously, to be a big part of this offense. We realize he's got some soreness but we feel like he'll improve and be ready to go for the Dolphins."
That's a plan that is sure to please Clayton, who is nothing if not a gamer. Given that he had hoped to improve on his eye-opening rookie numbers (80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns), Clayton is almost certainly disappointed in his 17-196-0 line through five games. But he hasn't complained, and he has remained a noticeable force in the running game, even on Sunday in New York. Plus, his six catches for 84 yards against Buffalo in Week Two indicate that he will produce at his usual level when feeling right.
The Bucs hope Clayton will be feeling right soon. In the meantime, he'll be working through his aches and pains, rather than resting them.
"He is a sore man," said Gruden. "He does have legitimate symptoms of injury. He's fought through them before and he'll fight through them again. It's our job to get him going in this offense and we have to do a much better job, as a staff, and he has to work with us on that."
Defense Consistently Tough
The Buccaneers enter Week Six ranked first in the NFL in overall defense by a healthy margin. The Bucs have allowed an average of 218.6 yards per game to their first five opponents; second on the list is Chicago, which has allowed 262.0 yards per game.
While the defense has set a somewhat ridiculous pace through the first five weeks, it's not surprising to see Tampa Bay at or near the top of that chart. The Bucs have been ranked in the top 10 on the NFL's defensive list for eight straight years and are well on their way to a ninth. They held the top spot as recently as 2002 and have been in the top five in six of those eight seasons.
But this year's defense has already done something that none of the previous eight were able to accomplish. By holding the Jets to 212 yards of offense on Sunday, the Bucs have now held five straight opponents to 260 yards or less. That's the first time this defense, under coordinator Monte Kiffin, has been that stingy five games in a row.
Of course, 260 yards is an admittedly arbitrary number, used because it's the highest total Tampa Bay has allowed this year (to Green Bay in Week Three). Still, even if one uses the dividing line that commonly describes a good defensive performance, 300 yards, this is still a noteworthy run for the Bucs. The 2002 Super Bowl Championship team, with its number-one defense, had two five-game runs of allowing fewer than 300 yards, but the '03 and '04 teams that struggled with inconsistency had none.
Of course, that one statistic doesn't tell the whole story on defense, and Gruden would probably argue that most statistics are misleading or meaningless. These numbers certainly indicate that the defense has been difficult to move, but the Bucs think they can do even better by mixing in more big plays.
"The defense is playing well," said Gruden. "We need turnovers from our defense. And we need to score some points on offense. You are going to have to score some points in this league to win. We can't always count on defense to post shutouts."