Injuries to Michael Clayton and Mark Jones could make WR Ike Hilliard a very busy man on Sunday
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to limp into their regular-season finale, at least they're going to do it literally and not figuratively this year.
Tampa Bay's season-enders in 2003 and 2004 were meaningless games, in relation to extending the season into January. The Bucs had been eliminated from the playoff race by the final weekend in the two seasons that followed their Super Bowl championship in 2002.
This year, the Bucs' last regularly-scheduled game is quite meaningful indeed. A win over the visiting New Orleans Saints on Sunday gives Tampa Bay its second NFC South crown in four years and locks down the third seed in the NFC playoff field. Beating the Saints would deliver the title regardless of Carolina's fortunes in Atlanta because it would complete the Bucs' outstanding 5-1 record in the division.
But to get that near-sweep of the South, the Bucs are going to have to overcome a long list of injuries to beat the only division opponent that has won its last three games at Raymond James Stadium. The team's first official injury report of the week was long enough that Head Coach Jon Gruden didn't try to do it from memory, instead running down the various ailments on a sheet provided by the training department.
Here's how Gruden summarized the Bucs' health status after Wednesday's two-hour afternoon practice: "Mike Clayton is out of the game with a toe [injury]. Anthony Becht has got an ankle [injury]. He practiced a little bit; he's questionable for the game. Scott Jackson, who had an appendectomy last week, did practice a little bit. He's questionable. Mark Jones was very limited. He has a foot injury; he's questionable. Jermaine Phillips didn't do much today; he's questionable with a knee [injury]. Kenyatta Walker didn't do anything today; he's questionable with an ankle [injury]. And Anthony McFarland did not practice today with his hamstring [injury] but he's probable for the game."
Okay, deep breath. Even though that list includes five starters and the primary punt returner, it did include some positive developments, particularly since Gruden had essentially pegged Clayton, Phillips and Walker as serious question marks on Monday. Clayton, obviously, is not going to play, but Phillips and Walker could still recover in time. In fact, Phillips' official designation of "questionable" is a bit of an upgrade from Monday's unofficial guess of "doubtful."
Said Gruden of Phillips, the starting strong safety: "He's a little bit better, yes."
Becht's participation in at least part of practice is encouraging, too, particularly considering that he was a question mark with the same injury last week but was able to gut it out. McFarland did the same thing with his hamstring injury, impressing Gruden on Saturday, and his status of "probable" is an upgrade from last week.
Jones' inclusion on the report is the most significant piece of new information on Wednesday. The second-year receiver has fielded every punt for the Buccaneers this season and is averaging a healthy 9.6 yards per return on 49 tries. Jones' 28-yard return near the end of overtime on Saturday gave Tampa Bay a chance to win it five plays later on kicker Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal. He has also had two long returns called back over the last two weeks and was one diving punter away from breaking a 91-yarder at Carolina in Week 13.
Gruden said that Ike Hilliard would most likely return punts against New Orleans if Jones is unable to play.
The Bucs have neither been particularly fortunate or unfortunate in terms of injuries this season. On one hand, they've lost their starting quarterback (Brian Griese) to injured reserve after six games, and they saw their starting strongside linebacker (Jeff Gooch) hit IR at the end of the preseason. The Bucs have played long stretches without running back Cadillac Williams and safeties Phillips and Dexter Jackson, and they've seen ailments and the recoveries from injuries limit the effectiveness of Clayton.
On the other hand, 13 different players have started all 15 games for the Buccaneers, including all five players on the offensive line, at least so far. And while Griese and Gooch haven't been able to contribute, Chris Simms and Ryan Nece have stepped in wonderfully and stayed healthy themselves. Injuries are simply a fact of life in the NFL, particularly in late December.
"We've got injuries that have mounted a little bit," said Gruden. "But that's the way it goes."
For evidence, check out the Saints' first official injury report of the week, also released on Wednesday. New Orleans' list includes only five players, but four are starters and all are considered questionable or worse.
Among the hurting Saints are two members of the starting offensive line, including Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, who has an elbow injury. He and rookie right tackle Jammal Brown (knee) sat out the team portion of Wednesday's practice in San Antonio.
Defensive end Darren Howard, who hasn't played since the last Bucs-Saints game on December 4 due to a knee injury and has already been ruled out for Sunday's rematch. Starting left cornerback Mike McKenzie has a groin injury that held him out of Wednesday's practice and has made him questionable for this weekend's contest.
Just as the Bucs plan to overcome whatever injuries impact the starting lineup on Sunday, they expect the Saints to field a strong team and to play hard, regardless of their 3-12 record. The Bucs can not afford a lack of focus on this game, nor do they expect that to occur.
"New Orleans is a very good, talented team," said Gruden. "Their won-lost record isn't what I think they expected it to be but they've given us some really difficult tasks in recent years and we have a lot of respect for them. We just played them a month ago, we beat them 10-3 and we had to intercept the ball on the one-yard line to do it. If there's a letdown this week then we'll pay for it. I don't expect that to happen.
"It's a big game. It's the last regular season game and I think everybody realizes what happens if you win and what happens if you lose."