LB Ryan Nece will make his first start of the season at strongside linebacker, but he has 35 career starts at that spot with Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back at full strength…almost.
Starting strongside linebacker Cato June has been ruled out for today's game due to a foot injury suffered a week ago, and that's a significant loss for the Buccaneers. Still, the team is more focused on who is going to be in action for its NFC Wild Card game this afternoon against the New York Giants.
For a time, the Bucs were one of the league's hottest teams in the second half, winning five of six games beginning in Week Nine, a run that culminated in a dismantling of Atlanta for the NFC South title in Week 15. After that, with no additional gains to be had, the Bucs spent two weeks trying to reduce their lengthy injury list as much as possible.
The results were a mixed bag. On one hand, June and wide receiver Maurice Stovall were lost to injuries despite the Bucs' caution. On the other hand, a core group of players on both sides of the ball are almost certainly feeling refreshed, recharged and ready to lead the Bucs deep into the postseason.
Chief among that group is quarterback Jeff Garcia, perhaps the Bucs' MVP in 2007.
Garcia missed two early-December games due to a back injury, returned to lead the Bucs to that dominating win over Atlanta, then mostly watched from the sideline during the last two weeks. There will be no rest for Garcia today; he'll be at the center of everything Tampa Bay tries to do.
"Jeff Garcia allows you to have an imagination and stretch the boundaries a little bit," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, musing about what the Bucs may be able to accomplish on offense this January. "He gives us a chance to win every Sunday; he makes four or five or six plays in every game that the average guy wouldn't even think of trying.
"You have to be impressed with what Jeff did this season. So many guys went down around him – receivers, tight ends, running backs, fullbacks – and he still kept producing. I'll say it again – he gives us a chance."
The defense will miss June, but the Bucs' offense has to enjoy having access to the full gamut: Garcia, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, running back Earnest Graham and fullback B.J. Askew. All of those key offensive components have dealt with injuries in the second half of the season but are hopefully as healthy as they can be heading into the playoffs.
Graham, Galloway and Hilliard are obviously important to the Bucs' attack, as the statistics show, but Askew, too, has had an impact that can't be ignored.
"We have missed B.J. Askew – we have sorely missed him," said Gruden. "This guy is a fullback. He is a real physical presence in our two-back sets. He gives us pop in the hole. B.J. came in as a free agent this season and has made a sudden impact on our team."
Askew has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, an ailment he fought for much of the second half of the season. Rookie guard Arron Sears is also dealing with an ankle injury, but one of a more recent variety. He was hurt in the regular-season finale and he practiced only sparingly during the week leading up to today's game. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, he has been cleared to play in today's game.
Sixth-year man Ryan Nece will take over at strongside linebacker for June, and that is the only change in the Bucs' starting lineup. Tampa Bay declared the following eight players inactive: June, WR Chad Lucas, WR Brian Clark, CB Sammy Davis, S Donte Nicholson, RB Kenneth Darby, G Dan Buenning and designated third quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
The Giants have several lineup changes as the result of injuries, too. Three New York starters who were injured in the team's season finale against the New England Patriots – CB Sam Madison, C Shaun O'Hara and WLB Kawika Mitchell – will not open the game today. Madison and O'Hara, in fact, are among the Giants' eight inactive players for the game.
Mitchell is active but will be replaced on the weak side by second-year man Gerris Wilkinson. Corey Webster will take over at right cornerback for Madison and Grey Ruegamer draws the start at center with O'Hara down.
In addition to Madison and O'Hara, the following Giants have been deactivated: RB Danny Ware, DB Geoffrey Pope, DT Manny Wright, WR Sinorice Moss, TE Jerome Collins and designated third quarterback Jared Lorenzen.
The playoffs begin today at 1:00 p.m. Buccaneers.com will provide updates of the action at halftime and immediately after the conclusion of the game.