The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense had four sacks in the first half of its Week Four game against Denver but has since not added to that total in the last six quarters of play. Not coincidentally, that drought began when McCoy left that Denver game just before halftime with a calf injury.
McCoy will return to action on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium, which should help the Buccaneers' defensive front chase the opposing quarterback out of the comfort of the pocket more often. However, this particular opposing quarterback might be even more dangerous when he's on the run.
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That quarterback is Colin Kaepernick, who last weekend in Buffalo made his first start since November of 2015, replacing Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick completed 13 of 29 passes for 187 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in blustery conditions and also ran eight times for 66 yards. He was eight-for-11 in the first half, including a 53-yard touchdown pass to WR Torrey Smith. It's the big plays, both through the air and on the ground, that the Buccaneers want to remove from Kaepernick's game on Sunday, and they know those big plays often come from improvisation.
"He's a very, very dangerous player," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who faced Kaepernick and the 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship game when Koetter was with the Atlanta Falcons. "He's been to the top of this league before. Although, having missed some time he may not be in top form, his athleticism jumps off the tape at you. This guy can run, he's got an extremely strong arm, and they put him in position to run read-option and then he's an excellent scrambler. When he's in scramble mode, he has the arm to throw it way down the field and he has the legs to throw it for a huge run."
The 49ers run at a higher tempo than any other offense in the league under new Head Coach Chip Kelly, but they also run the ball more than almost any team. Only the Dallas Cowboys run on a higher percentage of their plays, and no one keeps it on the ground more often in the first halves of games than San Francisco. That approach became a little more complicated for the Niners when lead back Carlos Hyde (429 yards, six touchdowns) was ruled out for Sunday's game with a shoulder injury, but putting Kaepernick back in the mix opens up some new possibilities for Kelly.
"You've got to stop Kaepernick," said Koetter. "It looks like Hyde will be out, but they've got other good backs behind him. Kaepernick, we wouldn't be surprised if he was featured a little bit more in their run game."
As noted above, the Bucs have one more weapon to stop that Niners rushing attack with the return of McCoy, a four-time Pro Bowler. The Buccaneers were allowing an average of 3.46 yards per run before McCoy suffered his injury against the Broncos but have given up 4.02 per tote since. Fellow aching linemen Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald were not cleared to play on Sunday, but McCoy's presence should make a big difference on a makeshift front.
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"Gerald is going to be able to make it, and that's a huge plus in the center of our D-Line," said Koetter. "Will Gholston's been playing well, Akeem Spence has been playing well, Noah Spence has come back. He came back off that shoulder injury and toughed it out on Monday night. He's had a really good week of practice. And then were back to the rookies, [DaVonte] Lambert and [Channing] Ward – those guys are going to be in there. And John Hughes, who we picked up just before the Carolina game, will be in the rotation. The whole key there, even though we're not at full strength, is getting Gerald back. Gerald will make his own share of plays, and when he's not making plays he almost always draws a double team."
The Buccaneers got a few players back on offense, too, and the return of tight end Luke Stocker should help in their own rushing attack. Tailback Doug Martin remains out, however, after suffering a setback in his recovery from a Week Two hamstring injury. That means Tampa Bay will again rely on Jacquizz Rodgers, the former Falcon who was just signed off the wire in Week Two. Rodgers rushed for a career-best 103 yards in the win over the Panthers and has the full confidence of Koetter and the Bucs' coaches.
"Jacquizz is a mature young guy," said Koetter. "Our familiarity with him from our days in Atlanta, we knew what kind of a guy he was. You don't know if a guy's going to be in game-shape or not, but he pretty much proved that Monday night, that he is in game-shape. He's been fine. He's been accepted very well by the players – of course, when you go out and play like he does, that speeds that process. He's a good guy, he's an easy-going guy, he's easy to fit into the locker room. So that's been a smooth transition."
Wide receiver Cecil Shorts, another early-season addition, is also getting back on the field for the first time since a Week Two hamstring injury. His return comes at an opportune time given that starting wide receiver Vincent Jackson was lost to injured reserve earlier in the week. Shorts will be part of the equation for replacing Jackson's contributions, as will be, potentially, a more versatile role for lead receiver Mike Evans.
"What it means is that we might move Mike Evans around a little bit more," said Koetter. "Instead of always playing him at the split end we'll probably put him in more positions, and then the rest of the guys are going to have to pick up the slack. Cecil Shorts is a veteran in this league. He's come back and had a good week of practice. Adam Humphries and Russell Shepard are two guys who know what they're doing and can play all the spots, so those guys will fill in. And we're going to bring Freddie Martino up from our practice squad and Freddie's going to round out the receiving corps. We'll have five guys up for this game and we're confident those guys can get the job done."
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In addition to Ayers, Martin and McDonald, the Buccaneers declared the following players inactive: QB Ryan Griffin, CB Johnthan Banks, T Leonard Wester and G Caleb Benenoch. DaVonte Lambert and Akeem Spence will fill in for Ayers and McDonald, respectively, on the D-Line, while Rodgers will once again start in place of Martin. Shorts will start opposite Evans if the Buccaneers open in a two-WR set.
The 49ers' inactives are Hyde, QB Christian Ponder, WR Keshawn Martin, CB Marcus Cromartie, OL John Theus, TE Je'Ron Hamm and DT Glenn Dorsey.
The Bucs have had a significant amount of roster upheaval in recent weeks, but last weekend's bye has certainly helped the team adapt to the situation and prepare to attack the next part of the season.
"I'm very happy with the way we practiced, with our energy this week, with our hustle, our tempo," said Koetter. "I'm excited to see how we come out and play on Sunday."The Buccaneers take on the 49ers in Week Seven on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The game will be broadcast locally by Fox and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.