Zack Pianalto joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a waiver claim just before the start of the 2011 regular season and has appeared in one NFL game to date.
Collin Franklin first came to Tampa midway through the Bucs' 2011 training camp, ended up on the practice squad and then was signed to the active roster when Pianalto sprained an ankle in that one game played. Franklin, too, has appeared in one NFL game.
The Buccaneers may find themselves needing both rookie tight ends on Sunday if Luke Stocker – the tight end the Bucs drafted back in April and have used extensively through the first month of the season – is unable to play. That looks like a very real possibility, as Stocker has not practiced this week after sustaining a knee injury in Monday night's win over the Indianapolis Colts.
On Thursday, Head Coach Raheem Morris referred to Stocker as "week-to-week," which would seem to indicate there's a good chance the rookie won't be available this week.
"We'll have to see what's going on with him," said Morris on Thursday. "We had practice without him but he's a tough kid. I look forward to him getting back pretty soon."
Stocker has started each of the Bucs' first four games, not in place of veteran Kellen Winslow but rather on the field with him in a two-tight end, one-back formation. That the offense has opened every game with that package is an indication of how frequently it is used and how comfortable the team is with that set of plays. Adjusting to Stocker's possible absence would probably be done in a variety of ways, including the use of either Pianalto or Franklin in the same role and a deeper dip into other sections of the playbook.
"We have Zach Pianalto on our football team, Collin Franklin on our football team and if Kellen's got to take a little bit of a heavier load, he has to take a little bit heavier of a load," said Morris. "So we just get ready to go out there and run our plays and give the ball to LeGarrette Blount and put a little more weight on what [fullback Erik] Lorig means to us and a little bit of Earnest Graham and some of those other guys. We'll lean heavier on our tackles and get those guys going heavier in their double teams and make it happen."
Obviously, Pianalto and Franklin are relative unknowns to Buccaneer fans, but the Bucs have actually been able to get a pretty lengthy look at both rookies on the practice field and they've liked what they've seen. Considering the Bucs let go of more known commodities in Ryan Purvis and Nathan Overbay, plus seventh-round pick Daniel Hardy, in order to hold on to Pianalto and Franklin, it's clear that they see something in each player's future.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson sought the advice of Morris, General Manager Mark Dominik and Tight Ends Coach Alfredo Roberts after learning of Stocker's prognosis, and all four agreed that it was time to find out what the two young tight ends can do.
"We said, 'Well, we signed these guys so let's find out if they can play.' They have an opportunity this week to show us they can play and that they belong on this team, so we'll get a chance this Sunday to see."
Pianalto set a record for tight ends at North Carolina with 94 career receptions, while Franklin had 54 catches in his senior season alone at Iowa State. It remains to be seen if either player can be as proficient as a blocker as Stocker has already proved to be, but it's clear that both of them can run routes and catch the football.
"I would classify both of them as having very good hands to be honest with you," said Olson. "Pianalto made some really nice catches here a couple weeks ago [in practice] and Franklin made a fantastic catch at today's practice. So, they've both shown the ability to catch the football but we'll get a chance to see them in the running game this weekend."
Stocker was one of eight Buccaneers who did not practice on Thursday as the injury report grew by more than a third to a total of 11 men. That report includes Pianalto, who is still working through his ankle ailment but has practiced fully on both days so far, and Winslow, who is routinely given days off. Also, defensive end Tim Crowder (knee) returned to practice after missing Wednesday's walk-through.
The other six Bucs who were held out on Thursday were linebacker Quincy Black (ankle), linebacker Zac Diles (hamstring), safety Devin Holland (back), tackle James Lee (knee), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) and cornerback Aqib Talib (knee).
Lee and Stroughter have each missed the last three games and don't appear ready to return. The others are all new additions to the report; in fact, Black, Talib and Winslow all practiced on Wednesday before sitting one out and finding their way onto the report on Thursday. Running back Earnest Graham was also added to the list after being limited on Thursday due to a hamstring strain.
The 49ers began their practice week on Wednesday with five players who did not practice: cornerback Tramaine Brock (hand), wide receiver Braylon Edwards (knee), fullback Moran Norris (fibula), DT Isaac Sopoaga (infection) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer (toe). Brock, Edwards and Norris have already been ruled out for Sunday's game.
In addition, wide receiver Michael Crabtree (feet), running back Frank Gore (ankle), guard Mike Iupati (neck) and tackle Adam Snyder (hamstring) were all limited in San Francisco's first practice.
Crabtree, Gore, Iupati, Norris, Snyder and Sopoaga are all listed as starters on the 49ers' depth chart.
Another TE Threat
Though he's on the aforementioned injury report with fellow tight ends Pianalto and Stocker, Winslow is likely to play on Sunday in San Francisco. The Bucs won't put out the formal injury report with game-status designations until Friday, but Winslow has yet to miss a game since joining the team in 2009, and he has developed a preparation program that works well for him. Winslow led the team in receiving in 2009 and 2010 and is currently second on the team with 17 catches for 163 yards.
The 49ers' receiving chart is also topped by one of the NFL's more prolific pass-catching tight ends, sixth-year veteran Vernon Davis. Davis, who had 56 catches and scored seven times a year ago, is on pace for 76 grabs this year, with 19 through the first four games.
In other words, here we go again. The Buccaneers have already found themselves pitted against some of the league's top tight ends during the first month of the season, including Atlanta's Hall of Fame-bound Tony Gonzalez, Indy's pass-catching machine Dallas Clark and Detroit's rising star Brandon Pettigrew. Those three plus Minnesota's lead tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe, combined for just 12 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown against Tampa Bay in Weeks 1-4.
Davis brings his own set of challenges. In fact, in one way, he might be the most dangerous tight end the Bucs have faced yet in 2011, according to Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake.
"He's more explosive," said Lake. "He's probably the fastest of all the tight ends. He has really good hands, has great size. If you want to give one knock on him right now, he's nowhere near the route-runner that Tony Gonzalez is. Tony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark, they know how to run the route, set the corner up, set the safety up, whoever's covering them. But just in terms of his raw talent, size, speed, hands, he's probably one of the best in the NFL."
When the Buccaneers were a more predominantly Cover Two defensive team (read about how that's changed here), they often were stung by opposing tight ends. This year's defense has shown an ability to keep that from happening, in part to the veteran savvy of cornerback Ronde Barber. Barber spent much of Week Three shadowing Gonzalez, and the Falcons tight end had just two catches for 18 yards and a touchdown. His 10-yard touchdown actually came against a Cover Two defense in which Barber did not have tight end responsibility.
The preparation the Bucs have done for Gonzalez and the like should carry over this week against Davis.
"We've had to game-plan against good tight ends the last few weeks," said Lake. "So there are always going to be some repeat coverages that we played against those guys that will happen this week. That definitely helps us."
The Buccaneers are tied with the New York Jets for third in the NFL in kickoff return average, with a mark of 31.0. One of the two teams ahead of them is the 49ers.
The Bucs are also fourth in the NFL in net punting average with their new prized kicking weapon, Michael Koenen. The 49ers and cannon-legged Andy Lee are first.
San Francisco does not best Tampa Bay in every special teams category; the Bucs, for instance, are first in the league in kickoff return average against while the 49ers are 7th. Tampa Bay is also ranked higher in punt return average against, and the two teams are tied for 10th with identical opponent net punting marks of 37.5.
The point is, both teams have successfully emphasized that third phase of the game and turned it into a strength, sometimes a game-deciding strength. The Bucs' for instance, believe the field position advantage Koenen has given them with both his punts and kickoffs have been critical in their three wins of a touchdown or less. Those Tampa Bay special teams units will have their hands full this Sunday with their 49er counterparts.
"I feel like it's going to be a heavy weight fight with those guys," said Morris. "Our special teams have been really good. Their special teams have been good. Its two young teams going out there competing; that's always the case when you've got young teams. We have to stand up to the challenge. We have to rise. I look forward to that because we have a lot of good guys on our special teams that can make big plays at any given time and we want those guys to go out there and make those plays."
The 49ers have definitely seen special teams make a difference in at least one of their victories. In a Week One win over Seattle, return man Ted Ginn ran a kickoff back for a touchdown in the fourth quarter and, less than a minute later, took a punt back for another score, breaking open a close game.
"Ginn has been dangerous since entering the league," said Morris. "He's one of those guys that's actually getting better as a wide receiver. That's the first thing I noticed when I turned in the tape. I see him running more routes, not just vertical routes anymore. He has the ability to get across the middle and do different things. He has been asked to do different things so he has responded. But he's still doing a nice job with the return game. He's still doing a nice job with his vertical routes. He will especially be one of those guys that puts up a challenge for us."