Head Coach Jon Gruden had a lengthy list of injury issues to recite on Monday morning
The receivers felt his bite early in the season, the running backs couldn't keep him away in the weeks that followed and the defensive tackles are still trying to get rid of him. Now it appears as if the injury bug has a new target position on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart: Safeties.
Tampa Bay may have to face the San Francisco 49ers and their 11th-ranked passing attack next Sunday without either of its starting safeties, Jermaine Phillips and Dwight Smith. Phillips, in fact, has already been ruled out of the game due to a right forearm fracture that he first suffered against Kansas City then aggravated at Atlanta on Sunday. Smith will likely start the week of practice as questionable on the injury report thanks to a sprained right knee.
"It seems each week we lose a key member of our football team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who read from a long list of injuries on Monday morning. "Phillips now, [Mike] Alstott recently, [Anthony] McFarland; we've had a number of players go down. It does take its toll."
The Bucs may have to press both of their reserve safeties into duty. Fourth-year man John Howell is listed as Phillips's backup at free safety and rookie Will Allen, a fourth-round draft pick, is the primary strong safety reserve behind Smith.
"That will be an area that we look into here, not only today but in the next few days," said Gruden. "Obviously, with Dwight Smith's situation, we'll consider both aspects of the safeties' injury situations. But Howell and Will Allen are two guys who can play and will play if needed. We'll see what happens."
Phillips sustained his arm fracture midway through the Bucs win over the Chiefs on November 7 but returned in time to make a game-clinching interception after having the arm padded. He played against the Falcons in a cast and finished the game, but apparently suffered some specific contact that worsened the injury.
"He finished the game, but at some point during the game he took another hit," said Gruden. "The wise thing to do at this stage is to keep him out of this game and get some further testing done."
Obviously, then, either Howell or Allen will be in the lineup, if not both. During training camp and the preseason games, the two reserves 'cross-trained' at free and strong safety so that both would be available to fill in at either spot, if need be.
And Howell, of course, has started games for Tampa Bay in the past. He has opened one game at each position, as a matter of fact, filling in for strong safety John Lynch for one contest in 2002 and for free safety Dexter Jackson for one game in 2001.
Allen, of course, has yet to start a game but has taken a handful of snaps with the defense during the regular season. A top-notch contributor on special teams during his rookie season, Allen is also a promising prospect on defense.
"We think he has gotten better," said Gruden. "He's showing strides. Obviously, he needs an opportunity to show where he is. But he's a rangy young guy who has sideline-to-sideline speed and good instinctiveness. We believe he is a contact player. If opportunity knocks for him this week it will be a good test for him. Obviously, the 49ers do have a very good passing game and another dangerous tight end in Eric Johnson."
Though 1-8, San Francisco has thrown for 219.3 yards per game, most successfully when expected starter Tim Rattay has been healthy enough to play. Johnson has enjoyed a breakout season in his fourth year; after spending 2003 on injured reserve, Johnson has come on to lead all NFC players in receptions with 57, already a career high. After facing Tony Gonzalez and Alge Crumpler in successive weeks, the Bucs' secondary will once again be tested by a prolific pass-catcher at the tight end position, regardless of who's on the field.
"We've got to tighten the details up because Eric Johnson, I do believe, leads the NFC in receptions, period," said Gruden. "He's not going to let up this week. Given the fact that we do have another safety man out, I am sure that is an area they will try to exploit."
Before Sunday's game in Atlanta, Buccaneer fullback Mike Alstott could be seen running sprints from end zone to end zone on the Georgia Dome turf. It was somewhat of a surprising sight, given that a knee injury suffered against Chicago on October 24 was expected to keep him out for a month or more.
An even better surprise: Alstott is a good bet to play this Sunday against the 49ers after missing just two contests with his sprained right medial collateral ligament. Of course, Alstott has proven to be a rapid healer in the past; facing basically the same injury to his left knee in the second half of the 2000 season, Alstott returned after missing only three games.
"We'll let him run around on the practice field on Wednesday, but we are optimistic that he will play in this game," said Gruden.
More Injury Updates
Starting quarterback Brian Griese, unwilling recipient of seven sacks in Atlanta, has a right shoulder sprain but is likely to be listed as probable on the first official injury report on Wednesday. That is Griese's throwing shoulder, but the injury is obviously not nearly as severe as the one that has kept former starter Chris Simms out of action for over a month.
The rest of the Bucs' injury news on Monday morning was a mixed bag.
The team is concerned with starting left tackle Derrick Deese and reserve fullback Greg Comella, both thought of as questionable for next Sunday's game. However, it is encouraged over the progress of kicker Martin Gramatica, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and wide receiver Joey Galloway.
Deese sustained a left foot sprain against the Falcons while Comella came down with a lower back strain. Deese is backed up by first-year man Anthony Davis, though both veteran right tackles, Kenyatta Walker and Todd Steussie, have extensive left tackle experience. Comella has played primarily on special teams in recent weeks, with Jameel Cook taking the lead role at fullback during Alstott's absence.
The trio of Gramatica, McFarland and Galloway were all questionable on last week's injury report, but Gruden characterized all three as probable this week. Gramatica, who was only called on for two extra point tries but did boot all three of his kickoffs into the end zone, 'feels better' according to Gruden. The veteran kicker had been suffering from a right hip strain.
McFarland sat out Sunday's game in Atlanta but has a good shot at returning against the 49ers, which is good news for a beleaguered Buccaneer front.
"We're going to upgrade him to probable," said Gruden. "We'll see how he feels obviously as he begins banging into people during the week of practice."
Galloway has played each of the past two weeks after coming back from a groin injury that cost him six games. However, he has not started nor played a majority of the snaps in either game. Against Atlanta, Galloway had one catch for four yards but did upgrade the punt return game with two runbacks for 24 yards. Said Gruden: "He seems to be improving, which is encouraging."
Gruden also indicated that defensive end Simeon Rice has tendonitis in his left knee but is expected to play against San Francisco. Also, center John Wade, out for the season with a right knee injury, had surgery on Friday to repair the damage he suffered against Kansas City. Gruden termed the surgery successful.