DT Anthony McFarland has had a very strong season on the Bucs' interior line, but the team hopes it has the depth to weather his temporary absence
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe they have good depth along their defensive line. That belief is about to be tested.
Starting defensive tackle Anthony McFarland is not likely to play against the New England Patriots this coming weekend due to a hamstring injury suffered early in Sunday's 20-10 win at Carolina. In his absence, the Bucs will lean on a group of players to keep the front line of their second-ranked defense solid.
Head Coach Jon Gruden referred to McFarland as "doubtful" for the Patriots game, although official injury reports are not released until Wednesday. Gruden has seen the results of the MRI examinations that were taken on McFarland's left leg, and he knows how unpredictable hamstring injuries can be.
"We'll see how he responds to treatment," said Gruden. "Some guys respond differently than others. So we'll cross our fingers."
In the meantime, the Bucs will prepare such players as Ellis Wyms, Anthony Bryant, Jon Bradley, Chris Hovan and Dewayne White for additional playing time. McFarland plays the "under tackle" position in the Bucs' 4-3 front, while Hovan starts at nose tackle. Most of the Bucs' tackles are versatile enough to play at both positions, including Hovan, who was a starting under tackle for the Minnesota Vikings for several seasons.
Wyms saw the most time at under tackle on Sunday after McFarland's injury and the fifth-year player contributed two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Wyms is a particularly versatile player and he has seen a lot of snaps at both end and tackle for the Bucs over the last four seasons. However, if he gets the call for McFarland on Sunday, it will be his first career NFL start.
"I don't know what we're going to do yet," said Gruden when asked if Wyms would start. "Most likely he will. He deserves to play; he's a good player. We'll probably get Anthony Bryant, our draft choice, up to give us some depth at nose. And Hovan's a guy who could play the other position, and Dewayne White in some isolated situations."
With Bradley and the rookie Bryant providing nose tackle depth, Hovan might seem like a candidate to slide back to his original position, but the Buccaneers have been extremely pleased with how well Hovan has played on the nose. His last two games might have been his best two of the season, particularly against the run, and the Bucs don't want to lose that presence in the middle of their line. However, they know that Hovan is at least an option at McFarland's spot if there are further developments along the line.
"We're not going to move him," said Gruden of Hovan. "But when you get an injury you've got to start to address contingency plans, and we'll do that."
The Bucs' usual defensive line rotation sees White spelling ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires and Wyms giving breathers to McFarland and Hovan. Bradley has been active for the last 10 games but has rarely seen more than a few snaps during a game. He played more extensively on Sunday after McFarland's injury and was praised for his efforts.
Bryant, the massive (6-3, 336) sixth-round pick out of Alabama, is built for the nose and could get another look if McFarland is out. Bryant was active for the first three games but has been on the game-day inactive list for nine of the last 10 and hasn't played a snap since September.
White is also an intriguing option to take some snaps at tackle. When injuries decimated the Bucs' defensive tackle position last season, White was pressed into duty on the inside, though he had never played that position before. He responded with 5.5 sacks, playing primarily on obvious passing downs to take advantage of his quickness. White took a few snaps on the inside against Carolina on Sunday and had a sack that was erased by a teammate's penalty.
However the Bucs make up for the McFarland's temporary absence, it's likely to be a group effort.
McFarland's hamstring strain was the only new injury from the Carolina game reported by Gruden on Monday morning. There were only three players on the Bucs' injury report going into that contest, and two of them – kicker Matt Bryant and safety Will Allen – were able to play, and play well.
The third was second-year linebacker Marquis Cooper, who has missed the last two games with a chest strain. Cooper began last week's preparations with optimism that he would play in Carolina, but went downhill as the practices progressed. After sitting out another Sunday, he appears to have shown marked improvement. Gruden said that Cooper is expected to play against the Patriots.
First is Best
In the days leading up to Sunday's big showdown in Charlotte, Gruden presented his players with a collection of statistics intended to emphasize certain significant points.
Among them was the importance of scoring first and the importance of winning the turnover battle.
The Bucs then went to Bank of America Stadium and scored the game's first 13 points in a 20-10 decision over the Panthers. They also produced the game's only takeaway. All of which served to further illustrated Gruden's contentions.
Tampa Bay has been nearly unbeatable when scoring first this season, compiling a 7-1 record in the eight games in which they've drawn first blood. Those are the types of numbers the team has been putting up ever since Gruden's arrival in 2002; in his four seasons at the helm, the Bucs have gone 24-4 when denting the scoreboard first.
"There's some pretty impressive statistics about if you score first, you've got a chance to win the game," said Gruden. "So we try to start better, start faster, and start by scoring. I don't know if that was the determining factor yesterday. I heard their fans turn on them pretty quick in the ball game."
Obviously, the Bucs have been very good at holding leads this season. They are 5-1 when leading at the end of the first quarter, 7-1 when leading at halftime and 7-0 when taking an advantage into the final period. The only halftime lead the Bucs have blown this season was in New York, when the Jets came back from a 9-7 deficit to win 14-12.
We discussed the turnover numbers last week, but the Bucs added to them again in Carolina with Ronde Barber's interception and the offense's error-free day. Tampa Bay is now 6-1 this season with a positive turnover ratio, and 25-5 under those circumstances over the last four years.
The Schedule Ahead
The Buccaneers have had to alter their weekly schedule a bit in order to prepare for their game on Saturday in Foxboro. This will be the first game of the season not played on Sunday for Tampa Bay.
Players generally report to team headquarters on Monday for meetings and a light workout on the field. However, this particular Monday became a day off in the altered schedule, with only players who needed treatment from the training staff required to come by. The Bucs will practice on Tuesday, which is usually their day off, emulating a normal Wednesday schedule as much as possible.
Accordingly, that will make Thursday like a Wednesday (those two days are virtually identical on a normal schedule anyway) and Thursday like a Friday, which includes a shorter review practice and fewer meetings. The team will travel to the Northeast on Friday.