When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field to battle the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte, they will do so without the services of at least seven players who started for them just six days earlier.
A rash of Monday Night Football injuries has forced the Buccaneers into a significant late-season shuffling of both their 53-man roster and their starting lineup. For instance, with standout rookie tight end O.J. Howard now on injured reserve on wide receiver DeSean Jackson sidelined by an ankle injury, the Bucs will look to some other pass-catchers to pick up the slack. That actually happened on Monday night, when Adam Humphries, Alan Cross, Chris Godwin, Antony Auclair and Freddie Martino combined for 109 receiving yards and a touchdown in a narrow loss to Atlanta.
"That's why you are always trying to develop guys on your roster," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who will try to lead Tampa Bay to its first division win of the year. "Now, Adam Humphries has been solid; when he gets his opportunities he's going to make his plays. But Antony Auclair, Alan Cross at tight end, Chris Godwin has been a steady riser all year, guys like Freddie Martino and we've got Bobo Wilson waiting in the wings – those guys are waiting for their opportunity and when they get it, they have to show."
All of those pass-catchers benefited from the best performance 23-year-old quarterback Jameis Winston has put together all season. Winston has put together a late-season surge since returning from a shoulder injury and he'll try to continue that against a very stingy Carolina defense. To do so, he'll need the same level of decision-making and accuracy he showed against the Falcons.
"I though the thing that Jameis did the best in [that] game is he threw the right types of passes that the particular play and the situation called for," said Koetter. "If he needed to throw it over the top, like the one he did to Mike [Evans], he threw it over the top. He had multiple touch passes – the one to Alan Cross in front of our sideline had exactly the right amount of touch. So [it was] the right ball at the right time, and he made great decisions with the football."
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving team facilities for their matchup against the Panthers
Winston and his Carolina counterpart, 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton, have been two of the hottest quarterbacks in the league over the last three weeks. Both players have triple-digit passer ratings and seven touchdowns in that span, and Newton has also rushed for a combined 179 yards in those three games. Newton had a relatively quiet day during Carolina's 17-3 win at Tampa Bay in Week Eight, throwing for 154 yards and one touchdown and rushing for 44 more yards, but he and the Panthers' offense have taken off in the season's second half. Since Week 10, Carolina is averaging a league-best 32.6 points per contest.
"The main thing is that Cam Newton is definitely back to playing at the level he played at two years ago when he was MVP of our league," said Koetter. "Maybe because he was coming off that shoulder [issue] early in the year, maybe they weren't quite as aggressive with their play-calling as far as using him on a designed run or a QB read-option type play. They've turned him loose and he's such a weapon. Compared to playing most offenses it's like they're playing with an extra guy because you've got to defend the quarterback in the run game."
The Buccaneers will at least have two of their key defenders back in the lineup as they try to slow Newton down. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, the Buccaneers' most productive defenders in 2017, sat out the Monday night game with injuries but have been cleared to play in Charlotte. That will help to offset the losses of safety Justin Evans and linebacker Adarius Glanton to injured reserve and the unavailability on Sunday of injured starters Robert Ayers and Ryan Smith.
The Buccaneers will be back to their usual defensive tackle rotation of McCoy, Chris Baker and Clinton McDonald for the first time in nearly a month, which should help against Carolina's powerful rushing attack.
"Clinton's one of the most respected guys in our locker room," said Koetter. "Clinton doesn't say much, but I promise you, when he speaks everybody's listening, including me. He's just a solid, solid, solid person. He's one of the guys that everybody looks up to. He goes out there every week and tries to do his job. Last week, he'd been out for a couple weeks and we'd missed him, so it was great to have him back out there."
The Bucs' seven inactive players for Sunday's game are Ayers, Jackson, Smith, quarterback Ryan Griffin, defensive end Patrick O'Connor, guard Adam Gettis and linebacker Nigel Harris. Gettis and Harris were just added to the roster this week. Three others who were also signed after the Bucs placed five men on injured reserve are active for the game: safety Isaiah Johnson, cornerback David Rivers and defensive lineman Channing Ward.
Rookie Chris Godwin will start in place of Jackson; rookie Antony Auclair will take Howard's spot in the lineup; T.J. Ward steps in at safety for Evans; Will Clarke moves up to the starting 11 with Ayers out; Robert McClain takes over for Smith.
The Panthers are without suspended linebacker Thomas Davis but do get linebacker Shaq Thompson back from a two-day absence. David Mayo will start in place of Davis. Carolina's inactives are quarterback Garrett Gilbert, wide receiver Russell Shepard, cornerback LaDarius Gunter, fullback Alex Armah, guard Trai Turner, center Greg Van Roten and defensive end Zach Moore. Shepard and Turner are out due to injury.
The Buccaneers and Panthers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.