Tampa Bay's defense was missing a few key starters on Wednesday, though that could change by the end of the week
Dexter Jackson stepped off the milk carton after 20 months and back onto the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field on Wednesday. Unfortunately, several of the Bucs' key defenders were still missing when the preparations began for Sunday's game against San Francisco.
Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and safeties Jermaine Phillips and Dwight Smith, all starters, haven't beeen gone long enough to call for a search party, and in fact McFarland and Smith could return to practice before the week is up. Still, the Bucs were a bit shorthanded on Wednesday even with Jackson's return.
McFarland did not play last Sunday in Atlanta and is questionable on the Bucs' first official injury report of the week. A triceps injury suffered against Kansas City on November 7 continues to bother McFarland and threaten the team's depth at a key position.
"We'll just continue to see where he is," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We'll give him some more medical tests here in the next day or so and we'll list him as questionable for this game. But we're concerned about him.
"He was given an MRI after the Kansas City game. He has a tendon injury. Whether or not he can play through that remains to be seen. But he's got enough pain in there right now where he can't go, and for that reason he's not going."
There's no wait-and-see approach needed with Phillips; he will not play on Sunday against the 49ers. His injury, in fact, was the main impetus for the Bucs' comeback pitch to Jackson. Phillips suffered a right forearm fracture against the Chiefs then worsened the injury playing in Atlanta on Sunday. He had surgery on Wednesday and Gruden reported that the procedure was a success.
"They tell me it went well," said Gruden. "His season is not necessarily over but we'll see how it goes the first four to six to 10 days after he gets out of the surgery."
Smith's injury is the newest of the three, a knee sprain sustained in Atlanta. He is listed as probable on the injury report, but he did very little in practice on Wednesday. Gruden hopes to get his starting strong safety back in the field by Thursday or Friday.
Meanwhile, Jackson provides depth, though he said on Wednesday morning that he does not expect to start.
"I'm glad to have Dexter back," said Gruden. "The last time I saw him, things were going pretty good around here. We need his help, given Jermaine Phillips's injury and Dwight Smith is hurting a little bit. We hope we can get [Jackson] ready to play this week."
The offense sought to make it even on the practice field by working with a few limited players as well. Most notably, starting quarterback Brian Griese, perhaps the team's top performer of the last month, was "very, very limited" on Wednesday due to a sore right (throwing) shoulder. Gruden said there is no deeper reason for concern about Griese's shoulder, but noted that the quarterback is pretty banged up from absorbing seven sacks on Sunday in Atlanta.
"He was very, very limited," said the coach. "He's still sore from the game. Hopefully he gets his mobility back and can get out there and throw tomorrow.
"Sometimes quarterbacks, when they get hit in a game, take a couple of days to return to the practice field, and he's no different. He took way too many hits and his body's sore. But he is getting better and hopefully he'll be out there tomorrow."
Fullback Mike Alstott was on the practice field, but he had to wear a brace on his right knee that Gruden described as "cumbersome." Alstott suffered a ligament sprain in that knee against Chicago on October 24 and has missed the last two games. He is listed as questionable on the injury report and a return against the 49ers would be a few weeks quicker than originally expected.
Still, Gruden thinks Alstott could be good to go by Sunday.
"Hopefully he can get rid of that [brace]," said Gruden. "It's a little squeaky, man. I think he has a chance to be ready to go in this game."
Practice Squad Moves
In addition to Tuesday's signing of Jackson, the Bucs have turned over a quarter of their eight-man practice squad. Signed Wednesday: safety Kentrell Curry and running back Sultan McCullough. Released: defensive end Charles Alston and kicker Jay Taylor.
Curry, a former backfield mate of Jermaine Phillips at Georgia, was considered one of the nation's top safety prospects heading into the 2003 season, before a knee injury limited him to only one game. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Browns signed Curry as an undrafted free agent in April and he made it until the final cut before the regular season before being waived.
The 6-1, 202-pound Curry was a key member of the first Bulldogs team to win the SEC Championship in 20 years in 2002. As a junior that year, he started all 14 games and contributed 69 tackles, four interceptions and a forced fumble. He played a good portion of that season with a broken wrist. Curry hails from Toccoa, Georgia.
McCullough, the former USC star, spent his rookie year on Washington's active roster but inactive for most of the season after being signed as an undrafted free agent. He appeared in one late-season game, rushing once for nine yards and catching three passes for 13 yards. A tough inside runner, McCullough made another good impression in the preseason this year. He led the team with 212 rushing yards on 61 carries and also caught nine passes for 52 yards, but was released in the final cut-down then signed to the Redskins' practice squad. He remained with that crew until being released on October 27, then joined the Carolina practice squad for a week.
The 6-0, 197-pound McCullough finished his USC career as the Trojans' eighth-leading rusher, and was the first back to lead the team in rushing yards in three consecutive seasons since Charles White from 1977-79. His final collegiate numbers include 2,800 rushing yards and 11 100-yard games. McCullough is a native of Pasadena, California.
As is often the case with in-season practice squad additions, they appear to be aimed at positions on the active roster that have been thinned by injuries or other personnel moves. Curry will provide practice reps and a possible future prospect at safety, where the Bucs are working on the field without starters Jermaine Phillips and Dwight Smith. At running back, McCullough will help because the team released Jamel White to clear room for the signing of safety Dexter Jackson.
Alston spent four weeks (including the bye week) on the Bucs' practice squad after being signed on October 20. Taylor was on the practice squad for just one week, as he was signed last Wednesday when the Bucs were concerned about Martin Gramatica's strained hip.
Pro Bowl Voting in Full Swing
Linebacker Derrick Brooks has been to seven Pro Bowls, a franchise record he currently shares with defensive tackle Warren Sapp. With Sapp now a Raider, Brooks could take that record for his own with one more all-star appearance, and it appears as if he is well on his way to doing so.
Pro Bowl voting is underway – online at NFL.com and at stadiums around the league – and the NFL has released its first update on the leading votegetters at each position. Not surprisingly, Brooks is the NFC's top choice among outside linebackers through Monday.
Brooks, in fact, is second among all NFC defensive players with 82,694 votes. Only Chicago inside linebacker Brian Urlacher, with 91,707, has had more ballots cast in his direction.
As usual, the voting has been stronger for offensive players, and nine of the top 10 votegetters overall in the NFL so are are quarterbacks, running backs or receivers (Philadelphia kicker David Akers, interestingly, is the 10th-highest votegetter). Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper leads all players with 325,383 votes through Sunday.
The top votegetter among all defensive players is New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, with 123,067.
Last year, the Bucs sent four players to the Pro Bowl, with Brooks joined by Sapp, DE Simeon Rice and WR Keenan McCardell. The Bucs have had at least four players elected to the Pro Bowl every year since 1997.
To cast your vote for the 2005 Pro Bowl, please click here.
The AFC and NFC All-Star squads are made up of the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. Each group's vote counts one-third towards determining the 43-man rosters that represent the American Football Conference and National Football Conference in the Pro Bowl. NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on December 20-21.
The NFL is the only sports league that combines voting by fans, coaches and players to determine its all-star teams. It was the first professional sports league to offer online all-star voting in 1995.