S Dexter Jackson has practiced this week but is still questionable for Sunday's game due to his hamstring ailment
At 6-3 through 10 weeks of the 2005 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already guaranteed an improvement on last year's 5-11 finish. That is an accomplishment, but it will be only a minor one if the rest of the season doesn't follow suit. There wouldn't be much rejoicing at season's end over a 6-10 mark, or even a .500 record.
"We won five games last year, so at least we showed some improvement," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "But we have a long way to go to get where we want to go. We're seeing some signs of life and exciting things to come for this team."
The Buccaneers are legitimate playoff contenders again, as legitimate as the four other NFC teams at 6-3 – Dallas, New York, Chicago and Atlanta – and are just a game off the overall conference lead, shared by the 7-2 Panthers and Seahawks. Washington lurks just behind at 5-4 and even such 4-5 teams as Philadelphia, Detroit, Minnesota and St. Louis are just a hot streak away from being in the thick of it again.
But only six teams can make the NFC's postseason field, so every weekend up to the first of January is now a proving ground. Somebody will fall off the pace and there are certainly many analysts who expect it to be the Buccaneers. Internally, the team feels differently, but knows that must be proven on the field.
"We're better than we played last year," said Gruden. "We've earned the right to win the six games we've won. It wasn't a fluke. We feel like if we'd have played a little bit better and done the right things, we could have more than six wins right now. We've gotten what we deserve and that'll be the case for the final seven weeks, too, regardless of who's playing."
So far, so good. The Bucs passed their first test of the second-half stretch run by getting by Washington and will once again face an opponent with the exact same record and just as much to win or lose. This game, however, is on the road and it's against a division opponent, and is thus both a greater challenge and a greater opportunity. A win would improve the Bucs at 7-3, push Atlanta to third in the South and put Tampa Bay into control of its own playoff destiny.
"I'm realistic," said Gruden. "We have a lot to prove. We have to show we can go on the road and win a divisional game against a quality opponent."
The Bucs have re-established themselves as playoff contenders in 2005 while also making great headway on its parallel goal of strengthening a depleted roster for the long haul. Gruden noted on Thursday how much of the team's improvement has been a result of young players excelling in prominent roles.
"We're seeing some signs of life and exciting things to come for this team and the emergence of some young players," he said. "I don't care what anybody tells me, we have the best young tight end in football here. We have a great young running back, we have a left guard who's started every game. [We have] Anthony Davis in his first year starting at left tackle, Chris Simms, [Michael] Clayton. We're playing as many young guys as anybody in football and I'm excited about what Ryan Nece has done, Will Allen. We have some young guys who have come in here and played well."
Wide receiver Michael Clayton practiced on Thursday, as did defensive end Greg Spires in a much more limited manner, but both will remain under the "questionable" heading on the Buccaneers' official injury report. Clayton and Spires are two of the team's tougher players, and there is little doubt that they could play through their knee and shoulder injuries, respectively, on Sunday against Chicago.
The more salient issue, however, is how well they could play. If their injuries prevent them from performing better than the next player on the depth chart, then the Bucs would be compelled to make some changes to the starting lineup on Sunday.
"Both guys are improving," said Gruden. "Clayton practiced today and Spires was very limited, although he's getting better. It's not so much can they play, it's how are they going to play if they can play? I'm relying on our trainer to give me his feedback on that and we'll go from there."
Clayton didn't practice last week and missed the Washington game due to a deep knee bruise sustained against Carolina. He returned to field work on Wednesday, though, and seemed confident that he would be cleared by the weekend. Spires suffered his shoulder injury against the Redskins and didn't participate in Wednesday's practice. His work on Thursday indicates an improvement, but his evaluation for Sunday will likely be a week-long process.
"If I can play, I'm going to play," said Spires. "I'm going to prepare myself as if I'm going to play. It's just rest, rehab and strengthening it up a little."
The Bucs' situation at safety is still up in the air, as well. Second-year man Will Allen missed practice again and is not likely to play against the Falcons, as evidenced by his "doubtful" status on the injury report. Though Allen wasn't a starter at the beginning of the season, he has opened seven of the Bucs' nine games this season, compensating for injuries to opening-day starters Jermaine Phillips and Dexter Jackson.
The current problem is that Jackson is also hurt. The veteran safety has missed the last three games due to a fairly severe hamstring pull and is only now rounding back into shape. He has practiced this week but is still considered questionable.
"He's been inactive for some time and had, really, two full-speed practices," said Gruden of the former Super Bowl MVP. "We'll see how it goes."
The Bucs would likely turn to undrafted free agent Kalvin Pearson at free safety if both Allen and Jackson are out. He played most of the second half against Washington after Allen injured his knee and the Bucs believe their second-ranked defense can continue to excel with Pearson on the field.
"If that's what we have to do, we'll be more than comfortable because that's the best we have," said Gruden. "We're going to play our best players and we expect them to play at a high level."
Atlanta's injury report got a little bit worse on Thursday, with two players being downgraded from probable to questionable.
As of Wednesday, defensive end Brady Smith (toe) was the only player among the nine on Atlanta's injury report who was considered questionable or worse. However, he is now joined by defensive tackle Chad Lavalais (foot) and tackle Todd Weiner (elbow), both of whom were downgraded on Thursday.
Smith, Lavalais and Weiner are all starters. None of the three practiced on Thursday.
Third-year wide receiver Edell Shepherd opened some eyes with his three-catch, 37-yard, one-touchdown performance against Washington and might be in line for more playing time because of it. Shepherd could be a candidate for increased action on special teams, too.
Shepherd got in some kickoff return work at practice on Thursday and will be one option for that job on Sunday in Atlanta. He handled the first two kickoff returns of his NFL career last Sunday against Washington, assuming that role from cornerback Torrie Cox in the second half.
Shepherd was back for the Redskins' last three kickoffs and ran two of them back for a total of 40 yards. His first return was a strong one, a quick-hitter upfield that picked up 26 yards to the Bucs' 30. Looking for a spark in the return game, the Bucs could opt to give Shepherd another look.
Cox, who finished fourth in the NFL last season with a kickoff return average of 26.2 yards per runback, has struggled to duplicate those numbers in 2005. he has handled 24 of the team's 33 kickoff returns but has averaged just 19.3 yards per return so far. The Bucs have also given punt returner Mark Jones a few cracks at the job, but Jones has averaged just 19.0 yards on five returns.
The Buccaneers rank last in the NFL in average kickoff drive start. On average after a kickoff, Tampa Bay starts its drives at its own 23-yard line. The NFL average is the 27-yard line and the league leader in that category, Buffalo, starts at its own 32. That's an area that Gruden is eager to improve.
"A lot of things are going to have to happen: Better blocking, better returns, better performing," he said. "And we've got to coach better. We've got to do all of that better."