Next men up? We're looking at you, linebackers and defensive tackles.
Continuing a late-season trend that no one would have predicted, or welcomed for that matter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost two starters to season-ending injuries during their 17-16 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday. The latest unlucky Buccaneers were defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who tore his right biceps in the first quarter, and linebacker Quincy Black, who fractured his right forearm in the third period.
Head Coach Raheem Morris indicated after the game that he believed both McCoy and Black were finished for the season, then confirmed during his Monday press conference that the two would soon be placed on injured reserve. McCoy will have surgery to repair his injury, and the Bucs will have two more spots on the 53-man active roster to fill.
Amazingly, that marks the third straight game in which Tampa Bay has lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Free safety Cody Grimm (leg) and guard Davin Joseph (foot) were hurt at Baltimore in Week 12; center Jeff Faine (triceps) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) followed them to injured reserve after the Week 13 Atlanta contest.
Add defensive end Kyle Moore, who was placed on injured reserve in Week 12 for a previous injury, and the I.R. list has claimed seven Buccaneer starters in the past three weeks, or just under one third of the entire lineup.
Morris had the same response to the Bucs' latest bit of misfortune as he had in the previous two weeks: Injuries can be overcome. The next man in line has to step up and play as well as the player he is replacing.
"This week we lost McCoy and Quincy Black, two more starters, and the next man has to go in there and fill in and play well, play well enough to win," said Morris. "We were able to do that for half a game with Quincy and we were able to do that for three quarters of a game with McCoy yesterday. We have another opportunity to go out there and do it again."
So far, the Buccaneers have been able to follow through on that concept, remaining in the thick of the NFC playoff race with an 8-5 record. Corey Lynch, E.J. Biggers, Jeremy Zuttah and Derek Hardman have played well in place of injured starters, and now at least two new men will be stepping into more prominent roles.
Actually, the Buccaneers' answer to the losses of McCoy and Black could involve something of a committee approach. When Black missed two games in November with an unrelated injury, Morris used both veteran Adam Hayward and rookie Dekoda Watson in his place at strongside linebacker. On Sunday in Washington, it was Hayward that got the call after Black's injury.
At defensive tackle, defensive end Michael Bennett saw significant playing time after McCoy's injury. The specific position the Bucs need to fill is the three-technique tackle spot, and one possible solution would be to move Roy Miller over from nose tackle. Rookie Al Woods, who also played quite a bit more than originally intended on Sunday, is thought of mostly as a nose tackle. Whoever starts, the Bucs plan to use Bennett more at the three-technique spot down the stretch. He previously practiced at that position as a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks before joining the Buccaneers last September.
"Michael Bennett has matured," said Morris. "He [was] a guy who had a bunch of talent that you could see with the naked eye. He made some mistakes, but then he started to correct them and clean up. But he also made some splash plays on those mistakes. And the other thing he's done, as far as maturing and becoming a better football player, is he's learned more positions. Rather than a guy you've got to put somewhere and protect, he's becoming a valuable asset with some of the things he's able to do, like stand up, drop and cover."
At the moment, the only other defensive tackle on the depth chart is Frank Okam, the former Houston Texan who was signed as a free agent in November but has yet to be active for a game. That is likely to change with McCoy unavailable. There are three defensive linemen on the Buccaneers' practice squad, which has proven to be a rich source of fill-in talent this year: Doug Worthington, George Johnson and E.J. Wilson. Johnson and Wilson are defensive ends but the Buccaneers have used versatile ends on the interior line in the past, as they did on Sunday with Bennett and as starting left end Tim Crowder has done on occasion.
As was the case with the four players the Bucs lost in the last two weeks, McCoy and Black exit at a time when both players were performing extremely well. McCoy's second-half surge had led to three sacks and a much-improved Buccaneers rush defense prior to the Redskins game. Black's impact was quite visible at FedExField, where he led the team with 11 tackles despite the injury and added his second sack of the season.