T Kenyatta Walker's ability to play through injuries helped the Bucs start the same five offensive linemen in every game this season
The perfect New Year's toast for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: "To good health!"
In that regard, the Buccaneers started the new year off right with a 27-13 victory over New Orleans on Sunday that failed to produce any new injuries of note. Thus, Tampa Bay is likely to have a fairly short injury report as they begin the week of preparation for Saturday's playoff game against the Washington Redskins.
In fact, Head Coach Jon Gruden mentioned only two players during his Monday morning press briefing and both were men who had missed the season finale on Sunday.
Starting wide receiver Michael Clayton, who sustained a turf toe injury against Atlanta on Christmas Eve, will still be sidelined as the playoffs begin. The Bucs' training staff has already ruled Clayton out for the Washington game, and turf toe injuries are often notoriously slow to heal.
On the other hand, Gruden expects to have starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips back in the lineup on Saturday. Phillips had to sit out the regular-season capper due to a knee strain suffered against Atlanta; he was replaced in the starting lineup by second-year man Will Allen, who ended the Saints' first drive with an interception at the Bucs' 12.
Allen has started eight games this season as the Bucs' safety position has had to rotate frequently due to injuries. Various ailments have cost Phillips and Allen three games apiece and starting free safety Dexter Jackson five games at different points during the season. If Phillips can indeed return for the opening of the playoffs, the Bucs will be thrilled to have all three safeties available against Washington's 11th-ranked offense.
The Bucs' injury report could still be a bit longer when it is first officially released on Wednesday, but it is almost sure to be better than last week when, in addition to Clayton and Phillips, four other players were also questionable to play. Tackle Kenyatta Walker (ankle), tight end Anthony Becht (ankle), wide receiver Mark Jones (foot) and center Scott Jackson (appendix) were all question marks heading into Sunday's game, but Walker, Becht and Jones all found their way into the lineup. Jackson was inactive, but that wasn't necessarily due to injury; the first-year reserve has yet to appear in a game this season.
Walker has overcome nagging ailments two weeks in a row. He was questionable prior to the Atlanta game with a shoulder injury, then he added the twisted ankle in the second half against the Falcons. The fifth-year veteran didn't practice at all last week, but he was able to gut it out on Sunday, thus keeping intact a record-breaking streak for the Bucs' offensive line.
Because Walker was able to make his 16th start, Tampa Bay started the same five offensive linemen in every game this season. That marks the first such occurrence for the O-Line in 30 years of Buccaneer football.
On one hand, that's a bit of a novelty stat. The 2000 line, for instance, nearly accomplished the same thing until left tackle Pete Pierson was replaced by George Hegamin in Game 15.
On the other hand, it is a very real testament to the grit with which the Bucs' front five – Walker and Anthony Davis at tackle, Dan Buenning and Sean Mahan at guard and John Wade at center – have performed this season. To say that all five have been healthy all season would be a stretch. Walker and Davis, in particular, have played through some painful injuries, and no offensive linemen is going to make it through 16 games in the NFL without getting battered and bruised.
"We've had some guys really – to use the old slogan – suck it up, man," said Gruden. "Guys have been hurt and questionable, shoulders and ankles and feet. John Wade came back from a really catastrophic [knee] injury. We've got a tough-guy element going in that room that I'm really proud of. But we're very pleased that we were able to keep the same five together for one full season."
Of course, in addition to health, Wade and company had to maintain a high level of play in order to warrant 16 starts each. The front line helped produce 10 100-yard rushing games by the offense this season, the most by a Buccaneer team since 2000; not surprisingly, Tampa Bay went 9-1 in those games. In addition, the blockers allowed two or fewer sacks in nine games this season, and the Bucs were undefeated in those contests.
And, of course, running Cadillac Williams, who wisely deflected credit to his O-Line all year, set a team rookie record with 1,178 yards, becoming Tampa Bay's first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 2000. The offensive linemen took pride in giving Williams room to surpass that mark in his first NFL campaign.
"Finally, [we] have a 1,000 yard running back, which we haven't had since I don't know when," said Walker. "That's probably one of the biggest accomplishments for me. This is my first year with a 1,000-yard running back in the five years I've been here."
Walker has been around for a playoff run before, though, so he's got that edge on fellow starters Davis, Mahan and the rookie Buenning. A rookie first-rounder in 2001, Walker started all 16 games at left tackle that season as the Bucs won a Wild Card spot before bowing out in Philadelphia in the opening round.
The following season, Gruden's first at the helm, Walker started 13 games at right tackle, plus three more in the playoffs, as the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay's offensive line took some heat that season before it all came together in a masterful postseason performance. The Bucs allowed only one sack in three playoff games and rushed for four touchdowns and an average of 107 yards per game.
Walker and his linemates felt redeemed after that hot playoff run. Qualifying for the postseason again this year is a similar experience for him.
"We've been through our ups and downs this year," said Walker. "It hasn't been pretty. We definitely can improve, but from 5-11 to 11-5 in this great division [is great]. It's just amazing. That's why you play football games. It's a good feeling. This is a great feeling to get some redemption."
Pittman Earns Another Shot
Running back Michael Pittman only touched the ball seven times in the win over New Orleans, but he did so much with those seven opportunities that he's likely to get some more on Saturday against Washington.
Specifically, Pittman is expected to return kickoffs again after a sparkling debut in that role on Sunday. Pittman had some previous experience as a kick returner, taking back 12 kickoffs during his four seasons in Arizona, but he had not previously been put in that position with the Buccaneers.
On Sunday against New Orleans, Pittman averaged 28.3 yards on his three kickoff returns, including a 37-yarder that ranked as the longest by a Buccaneer this season. Gruden said that performance will probably earn him the job again on Saturday.
"I think so," said the coach. "We've been up and down a little bit at that position [kickoff return man] this year. Given the fact that Clayton is out, we're really pushing Edell Shepherd to not only be the third receiver but be the next guy to go if [Joey] Galloway gets tired or something happens, or go in and play for Ike Hilliard. So [Shepherd]'s got a lot on his plate, and yeah, I think there's a good chance Pittman will be back there."
Pittman's return style proved to be straightforward and effective. He hit the first seam he saw and took it directly upfield, giving Tampa Bay drive starts of the 30, the 43 and the 26. That's been a problem area this year for the Buccaneers, who rank 29th out of 32 teams in average drive start after kickoffs.
"North and south, no nonsense," said Gruden of Pittman's pleasing return style. "He was a good addition back there. I think he averaged 27 or 28 yards per return. He runs hard and he helped us out."
Pittman's other four touches in the game were a 64-yard run that set up a Buccaneer touchdown and three receptions for 35 yards. He finished the season with 6.2 yards per carry (70-436), the best single-season average ever by a Buccaneer player who gained at least 400 yards. Pittman's three receptions also moved him past former tight end Ron Hall into ninth place on the team's all-time list, with 211.
Said Gruden, simply: "He's a good football player."