The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have a 53-man roster, and a 46-man limit on game days like everyone else, but they've gotten contributions from more players than that.
In fact, with four games still to play, Tampa Bay has already had 63 different players take part in a game during the regular season. That does not include any players who were active for a game but did not get any action in, as was the case with rookie offensive tackle Leonard Wester in Week Five.
WATCH: THURSDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
Only four teams have used more players this year than the Buccaneers, and just barely. Chicago and Buffalo have both fielded 65 men while Carolina and Miami have utilized 64. Tampa Bay is one of six teams that have used 63. Good roster health is often a hallmark of teams doing well in the standings, so it's not particularly surprising that the squad that has used the fewest players this year (54) is the 11-1 Dallas Cowboys.
As is the case with every team in every season, the 53-man roster that results from the league-wide "final cuts" after the preseason is anything but final. As needs arise, often due to injuries, the roster is tweaked throughout the season. So far, 16 different players who were not on the Bucs' 53-man roster for the Week One game at Atlanta have appeared in games this year. Some of those, like Cecil Shorts or Jacquizz Rodgers, were players who had been released by other teams, but many were men who had been to training camp with the team this summer.
In many cases, those eventual additions to the active roster are players who have had time to develop their talents and learn the Bucs' playbook while on the practice squad. Rookie cornerback Javien Elliott, who played a majority of last Sunday's game as the nickel back after a recent promotion, is the latest example. This ongoing developmental process is a crucial part of a team making it through a long and grueling season and still being in position to win games in the final month.
"I think we've done – on both sides of the ball and on special teams – I think we've done a good job of continuing to develop players and that's how we believe you have to do it in this league because injuries are going to be there, year-in and year-out," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You just don't know when are where they're going to come, so you better develop your guys. And even guys that are here for a short time in training camp or in OTAs, look how many guys we've brought back because of the time invested in them and what we think about them."
The Buccaneers have used 29 different players on offense this year, which is tied for the sixth-highest total in the league. A fine example is wide receiver Freddie Martino, who had a good showing in training camp but started the season on the practice squad. He got promoted in Week Three but was waived three weeks later before returning after missing just one game. When Shorts and Adam Humphries were both sidelined by injuries early in the San Diego game, Martino stepped up with four crucial catches for 56 yards in by far his largest sample of playing time yet.
VIEW: THURSDAY'S INJURY REPORT
As injuries have taken down a variety of offensive players for varying lengths of time, the one constant has been quarterback Jameis Winston. Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken says Winston's leadership has helped the offense stay productive despite a shifting cast.
"The competitive spirit, his will to want to get better, bringing people with him [helps]," said Monken. "I think just the way he is brings people with him. And as he develops our young players keep developing around him, which we have done a better job with."
- Humphries, who must clear the NFL's concussion protocol before returning to game action, took a step in that direction on Thursday by practicing in a limited fashion. He had been held out of the first practice of the week entirely.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
There were no other changes to the Bucs' injury report on Thursday.
Starting right tackle Demar Dotson is also in the concussion protocol after last Sunday's win in San Diego, but he has not yet practiced. He is the second starting offensive linemen to be forced to deal with a concussion; left guard Kevin Pamphile missed the Bucs' Week 10 and 11 wins over Chicago and Kansas City while also in the protocol. If Dotson is out on Sunday, veteran tackle Gosder Cherilus, who opened 13 games at right tackle last season, would make his first start of the season.
"[I have] extreme confidence in 'Gos,' extreme," said Koetter. "One of the best vets on our team, played a lot of ball for us. True pro, always prepared, whatever his role is. If it works out that Dot can't go, Gos will step in there and he'll do a great job."
Pamphile's experience is a note of caution when it comes to Humphries and the idea that he would be ready to go by Sunday. After missing an entire week of practice, Pamphile returned to take part in the Wednesday and Thursday workouts before the Bucs' trip to Kansas City. However, he then did not practice that Friday and was forced to miss a second game.
READ: SAINTS SCOUTING REPORT
Despite a slightly longer injury report than a week ago, the Buccaneers are in relatively good shape heading down the playoff-race stretch drive. Koetter characterized the overall health of the roster as improving and spoke optimistically about the eventual return of starting safety Chris Conte, who has not practiced since suffering a chest injury against Seattle in Week 12.
"He's progressing good," said Koetter of Conte. "He's got a smile on his face. He's missing football and we're missing him. Keith Tandy stepped up, did a fantastic job last week. Again, for the most part, we're a team that's getting healthier here at the end of the year. We've got guys coming back, they're all going to be on different schedules, but we're getting healthier."
The Saints submitted a nine-man injury report on Wednesday, including three men who did not participate in practice: tight end Josh Hill (fibula), linebacker Craig Robertson (shoulder) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (foot). Robertson and Thomas are the Saints' leading tackler and pass-catcher, respectively, and both remained out on Thursday.
In fact, the Saints' list of sidelined players doubled on Thursday, as starting left tackle Terron Armstead (knee/quad), starting center Max Unger (foot) and starting running back Mark Ingram (toe/knee) all went from limited on Wednesday to no participation on Day Two.
Armstead, who missed last week's game against Detroit with knee and quad injuries, has been sidelined for three of the last four Saints outings. In each case, New Orleans elevated veteran Senio Kelemete to the starting five, though the team has alternated between putting him at left guard and moving Andrus Peat out to tackle and just putting Kelemete in at left tackle. Neither Ingram nor Unger has missed a game yet in 2016.
- After the Buccaneers and Saints play on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium they'll have a rematch in the Superdome on Dec. 24. Koetter has resisted discussing the challenges of playing the same team twice in a three-week span because that runs counter to the approach of focusing only on the task at hand this week.
"I'm not going to worry about it until the third week," said Koetter. "We play the Saints this week in a game that's real important for both sides, so I'm not a guy that worries about what's going to happen in three weeks, that's just not the way I look at it.
"We've got to just try to stay focused on what we need to do. We've been playing complementary football, we don't need to try to change that all of a sudden. Your teams that you go against every week have different strength and weaknesses, different ways they're going to attack us and we have to figure out the best ways to attack them and sell it to the players during the week and then try to get it done on Sunday."
With the Buccaneers and Falcons locked atop the NFC South with matching 7-5 records with four weeks to go, that second Tampa Bay-New Orleans game in Week 16 is probably going to be critical to the division race. If the Buccaneers don't take care of the business at hand, however, they may find themselves in more of a three-way race.
"They set it up this way on purpose, it makes it exciting within the division, the fact that New Orleans has us twice, plus Atlanta once," said Koetter. "We have New Orleans twice, plus Carolina once. This division is tight right now. New Orleans is sitting there two games out, but they can still win the division. That's why they did it this way, so at the end of the year, nobody's got room to rest guys or tank. They're in it, you've got a chance to win the division. When we all start off at the first of the year back in training camp, that's what you want, that's the easiest way into the tournament, win your division."