DE Jimmy Wilkerson started each of the first 15 games at left defensive end for Tampa Bay and accounted for six sacks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rousing comeback win at New Orleans on Sunday brought a lot of hope and momentum to the franchise as the 2009 season nears its conclusion, but it came at a cost.
Running back Earnest Graham and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson were placed on injured reserve on Monday after sustaining season-ending injuries in the Buccaneers' 20-17 overtime win over the previously 13-1 Saints. Wilkerson sustained a torn ACL in his left knee on Tampa Bay's first defensive play of the game and Graham tore a ligament in a toe on his right foot on the game's final drive in overtime.
Those are obviously significant losses for the Buccaneers, lessened somewhat by the fact that only one game remains on the schedule. Wilkerson has started every game at left defensive end and ranks second on the team with six sacks, just a half-sack behind team leader Stylez G. White. Graham's raw numbers aren't overwhelming (66 rushing yards, 14 catches for 109 yards) but he has been a key figure on offense due to his ability to take on so many roles. Since fullback B.J. Askew went on the reserve/non-football injury list in Week Seven, Graham has taken over as the team's starter at fullback.
"Special teams, tailback, one-back, third-down protector – all those types of things he's able to do for us," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, who just last week lauded the sixth-year back for his selfless and critical contributions to the team.
"I don't know if I can say any more positive things about Earnest that haven't been said. We talked about him earlier being unselfish, we talked about him earlier giving his carries away when he was a tailback to Cadillac and D-Ward in that first game. We talked about him moving to fullback when B.J. Askew went down. I'm talking about him splitting reps at fullback with [Chris] Pressley when asked to. I'm talking about him asking to go back on special teams and be a wingback, a personal protector, a kickoff guy, a punt return player, a kickoff return player, a lead blocker. Whatever you ask him to do. I think he was coaching the running back room the other day. He's just one of those guys. I don't know if you come across or get a chance to coach many guys like that, and we're fortunate to have him."
Pressley, the rookie fullback who was signed as a free agent seven weeks into the season, will likely see an uptick in his snaps in the season finale next Sunday against Atlanta. Pressley has slowly taken on a larger role in the offense as he has learned additional portions of the playbook.
"He's really just gradually picked up the offense," said Morris. "First he started with a small package, then he started getting additional packages … and now he's about to pick up the whole offense. He's a smart kid that works hard and has really given us a lot of punch, really given us a lot of effort, really given us a two-headed monster there at fullback."
The Bucs have been using a heavy rotation along the defensive line throughout the season, so there are a number of players who will help fill the void left by Wilkerson's move to IR. Third-year player Tim Crowder got the starts earlier this season when starting right end Stylez G. White was unavailable and likely would be first in line to step in for Wilkerson. The Bucs have also given increased playing time to rookie defensive end Kyle Moore in recent weeks and used fellow rookie Michael Bennett frequently in the first half of the season. Even first-year defensive tackle Dre Moore got some action on the end earlier in the season.
Graham and Wilkerson become the 14th and 15th players on Tampa Bay's current injured reserve list. The Bucs also have one player, defensive end Maurice Evans, on practice squad injured reserve; one, Askew, on reserve/non-football-injury; and one, guard Arron Sears, on reserve/non-football illness.
The Buccaneers did not immediately fill the two open roster spots created by the Graham and Wilkerson moves but will likely have at least one new player on the 53-man roster on Monday and the other before practice begins on Wednesday.