Mike Williams had a very light week of practice, but it proved to be the right mix of preparation and recovery. Despite a foot injury that made him questionable on Friday's injury report, Williams has been cleared to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
That's good news for the Buccaneers, who will try to run their intradivision record in the NFC South to 2-0 with a win over the defending division champs. Though the season has yet to hit the halfway point, Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium appears to be a critical one, or at least a fantastic opportunity for the emerging Buccaneers. At 3-1, Tampa Bay is a half-game ahead of the 3-2 Saints and a half-game behind the 4-1 Atlanta Falcons in the top-heavy South.
"It's really exciting to get a chance to play this talented of a team at our place, at our home, with our fans here going absolutely nuts," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris.
Williams' presence should feed that excitement, as the fourth-rounder out of Syracuse has proven to be one of the NFL's most dynamic newcomers in 2010. He leads the Buccaneers and all rookie wideouts with 19 receptions for 238 yards and three touchdowns and has scored in each of Tampa Bay's three victories. He has emerged as the favorite target of second-year QB Josh Freeman, particularly in crunch time. Last week, Williams' leaping catch over a Cincinnati defender provided the game-tying points in the final minutes of a 24-21 Buc win.
"That was a big-time win up there, with big-time implications for us and how we're developing our team," said Morris. "Now it's time for us to move on and get ready for our next big test, the New Orleans Saints."
The Bucs passed their last test against the Saints, recording what was, at least in regards to the team's respective records, one of the greatest upsets in league history. Last December, Tampa Bay pulled out a 20-17 overtime victory over the eventual Super Bowl champs in the Super Dome, beginning a stretch of five wins in seven starts for Freeman. In three of those five wins, the Buccaneers have overcome a fourth-quarter deficit, and Freeman's late-game poise has been one of the key factors.
"There's no question, he's becoming a great closer for us," said Morris. "That's been his theme since he took over as a starter and we're really fired up about his ability to do those things and help us out in the fourth quarter. How he plays in that quarter is very important for him, not all-important but one of the more important things."
In that Week 16 win in New Orleans, the Buccaneers' defense – full of youth like its offensive backfield – held the Saints well below their season averages for points and yards. This season, injuries and circumstance have conspired to do the same to the NFL's number-one attack in 2009, as the Saints are averaging roughly 12 fewer points and 60 fewer yards per game in 2010.
The primary injuries have been to running backs Reggie Bush (fibula) and Pierre Thomas (ankle), who will once again sit out the game on Sunday. But the Saints still have QB Drew Brees running the show and a deep complement of weapons at his disposal. The Buccaneers expect nothing less than a vintage effort from the Saints' attack, on both sides of the ball. It's worth noting that New Orleans still ranks among the NFL's top 10 in both offense and defense.
"They're a dynamic offense," said Morris. "They go out and they make dynamic plays. They do their thing. They're going to go out there and execute and they're going to remain the same no matter what. They have a system in place that's run around the quarterback and they do a great job of executing. They'll get better and better every week – you just watch.
"They've got a great [defensive] coordinator, they've got a great head coach and they do great things on defense as far as being an opportunistic defense. Last year, they were able to take the ball away from people a lot and we've got to go out there and keep the ball in our possession, and we've got to try to get the ball back for our offense."
The Buccaneers will be missing a starter on defense as they try to contain Brees and company. Kyle Moore, the second-year starter at left defensive end, was questionable like Williams heading into the weekend but did not make enough progress with his shoulder injury to stay active on Sunday. Tim Crowder will start in Moore's place, with Michael Bennett providing relief.
In addition, as the Bucs have known since early in the week, the offense will be without starting center Jeff Faine, who suffered a quad injury in Cincinnati. Jeremy Zuttah, who opened 21 games at left or right guard in 2008-09, will make his first start at center in Faine's place.
The Saints are missing several other key pieces as well. In addition to Bush and Thomas, CBs Randall Gay (head) and Tracy Porter (knee) were ruled out on Friday. LB Scott Shanle, who was actually listed as probable on Friday's injury report, apparently saw his hamstring injury worsen over the weekend and is also inactive. New Orleans will slide rookie Patrick Robinson into the starting right cornerback spot for Porter and give the nod in the backfield to RB Ladell Betts. With Shanle out, usual strongside LB starter Jo-Lunn Dunbar will move to the weak side and veteran Danny Clark will step in at Dunbar's spot.
The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: Faine, Moore, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Kregg Lumpkin, CB Elbert Mack, FB Chris Pressley, WR Maurice Stovall and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Faine, Moore and Mack were out due to injury. Rookie CB Myron Lewis will be among the 45 active players with Mack out.
The Saints, who signed former Seattle RB Julius Jones earlier in the week, deactivated the following eight players: Gay, Porter, Thomas, Bush, Shanle, T Charles Brown, TE Tory Humphrey and DE Junior Galette.
The Buccaneers and Saints kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Morris hopes the momentum the team has built over the first quarter of the season – and which was evident on the practice field this week – will carry over into an important divisional matchup. "We had a great week of practice, a lot of lively attitudes, lively bodies," he said. "Whenever you get an emotional win for your team, playing your very best selves, it's always a good thing. We're just ready to go out and do it again."
Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.