Last November, Quincy Black suffered the first of two injuries that would make him scarce during the second half of the season, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers responded by plugging both Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward in at strongside linebacker. In San Francisco in Week 11, took turns making the strategy work during a 21-0 shutout of the 49ers, as Watson contributed three tackles and a pass defensed and Hayward added three stops and a fumble recovery.
The Bucs are headed back to San Francisco for the second time in 11 months this weekend, and it's possible that they will once again be without Black's services. The fifth-year linebacker missed Monday night's game against Indianapolis with an ankle injury, and it doesn't appear as if he has made a significant amount of progress in the days since. In fact, after practicing on Wednesday he has been held out the last two days. On Friday, after he was idle during the team's 90-minute getaway workout, Black was designated as "questionable" for the game on the Buccaneers' injury report.
"Quincy's struggling a little bit," conceded Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He didn't go today, so he'll be questionable and we'll see where he is."
The Bucs would respond with the same two replacement players, but not necessarily in the same time-share fashion. This year, Watson has emerged as the clear backup on the strongside, as well as a frequent contributor as a stand-up pass-rusher in the team's three-down-linemen Redskin package. Meanwhile, the jack-of-all-trades Hayward has been trained as the second-string middle linebacker behind Mason Foster, though he can play at any of the three LB spots.
Watson had a strong preseason with 2.5 sacks and has already played extensively this year due to Black's ankle issue. He has grown considerably as a player since last year's trip to San Francisco, but even his play last year was enough to make the Bucs' coaching staff feel comfortable inserting him into the starting 11.
"Last year gave me confidence in Dekoda," said Morris. "He got to play at a high speed and a high level. He's a better game player than he is in practice. He's fun to watch. Obviously, Dekoda will go if Quincy can't."
Meanwhile, with fellow reserve linebacker Zac Diles considered "doubtful" to play Sunday due to a hamstring injury, the Bucs will need Hayward's versatile skills more than ever. He may be the only healthy reserve on Sunday, which means he could be asked to step in at one of three spots if any more injuries are sustained during the game.
"Adam can play anywhere," said Morris. "He's Mr. Utility. He's kind of the like the Earnest Graham of 'backers. He's playing all over the place for us, so we feel good about it. And we play a lot of dime with Ronde and Biggers and all those guys on the field. You know me – the more DBs, the merrier."
The Bucs certainly would not like to see their linebacker depth thinned anymore during the game considering they are going up against one of the league's most effective runners in Frank Gore. In their last matchup with a potential 1,000-yard back, in the home game against Atlanta two weeks ago, the Bucs held Michael Turner and the Falcons' ground game to just 30 yards. However, Gore is a different sort of threat than was Turner.
"Frank has more shiftiness," said Morris. "Turner's a bowling ball – he bounces off and there's nothing 'wiggly' about it. He just bounces off and keeps coming. He has amazing contact balance. This guy Frank Gore is a little bit different, he has a little more shiftiness, he's elusive, he's got great vision. He comes downhill. He has more than one way to get around you, whether it's with speed or with power. He's a good football player."
Behind Gore, who has 275 rushing yards, eight catches and two touchdowns this season, the 49ers also have emerging young running back Kendall Hunter. Hunter has just 20 carries for 68 yards so far this season, but he has also turned in a 44-yard reception and a 43-yard kickoff return.
"Kendall Hunter is fast, he's explosive, dynamic," said Morris. "He's the ultimate scat-back but he can also carry the ball between the tackles. He's one of those guys and I'm sure he'll be a factor in the return game as well. He's an issue. He's very fast when he catches the ball out of the backfield. He's speedy. Those are the elements that he brings to the party."
The Bucs may need some new faces to step up against Hunter and Ted Ginn in the return game on Sunday, as their injuries are robbing them of a few of their key special teamers. In addition to Diles, rookie kick-coverage ace Devin Holland is out with a back ailment, while wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) will miss his fourth straight game. Two other Bucs have already been ruled out for the game as well: tackle James Lee (knee) and tight end Luke Stocker (knee).
The Bucs' final injury report of the week was actually quite lengthy, but the five other players listed all practiced fully on Friday and are considered probable to play. That group includes defensive end Michael Bennett (groin), defensive end Tim Crowder (knee), running back Earnest Graham (hamstring), tight end Zack Pianalto (calf) and cornerback Aqib Talib (knee). Bennett was added to the injury report on Friday but was able to practice.