The Tampa Bay Buccaneers face a significant challenge when they head to Lambeau Field on Sunday, but at least one part of the day will be easy: choosing the list of game-day inactives.
The official injury report put out by the Buccaneers on Friday took most of the mystery out of that process, as six players have already been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. Teams can only carry 46 active players on game day, which usually means naming seven players inactive 90 minutes before kickoff.
The six Buccaneers ruled out on Friday were defensive end Robert Ayers, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, running back Doug Martin, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, safety Josh Robinson and safety T.J. Ward. Ayers, Martin and Ward all remain in the NFL's concussion protocol and only Ayers practiced on Friday, on a limited basis. Hargreaves and Robinson have hamstring issues and McDonald is suffering from a back injury.
Ayers and Hargreaves were already out the previous game in Atlanta and Robinson has missed time due to his hamstring injury, though he played in the Falcons game. Martin, McDonald and Ward are all new injury concerns stemming from last Sunday's game. And, of course, starting offensive linemen Demar Dotson and Ali Marpet were placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.
Dotson and Marpet had started the first 11 games at right tackle and center. In fact, Tampa Bay's offensive line had featured the same five starters every week with the exception of Week Three, when left guard Kevin Pamphile was one of several Bucs to be hit with the flu. Pamphile still played in that game but Smith got the start, and the two have been splitting reps at left guard all season. That was true in every game until last Sunday, when Smith sat out due to a concussion.
Smith practiced this week and was cleared from the concussion protocol on Friday, which means he is ready to step in as a starter against Green Bay. That makes this weekend a more meaningful homecoming for Smith, who made it in the league as an undrafted free agent with the Packers in 2009. He would go on to play four of the next five seasons in Green Bay and start 25 games before signing as an unrestricted free agent in Tampa in 2014.
"Yeah, I'm sure this is a special game for Evan in a lot of ways," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He's getting the start. He is going to play, hopefully, the whole game. He is going back to a place where he played out his first contract and as you said, it is unusual in these times that a guy makes it to the end of his second contract, but that's where he is at. Evan has been a solid and versatile player. He has done a good job in his role. At this time of year for several players, their roles are changing. He is one of those guys and I think Evan will do fine. He will be up to the challenge."
There are a number of ways that the Buccaneers could arrange their front five with Dotson and Marpet out, thanks to the versatility of such players as Smith, Pamphile and Caleb Benenoch. Smith has started at all three interior-line spots for the Buccaneers during his four seasons in Tampa. Pamphile has started at left guard and right tackle. Benenoch has just one NFL start, at left guard in 2016, but he's capable of playing either guard or tackle.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Packers.
The Buccaneers have four more players who are considered questionable to play on Sunday after being limited in practice at the end of the week: tight end Cameron Brate, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tackle Leonard Wester and quarterback Jameis Winston. Brate was just added to the report on Thursday with a hip ailment but the injury does not appear to be serious.
"Cam will be fine," said Koetter. "He was just limited. Limited is not out. Limited is just limited for practice."
Winston's return from a shoulder injury has been the week's most prominent health development, particularly when Koetter confirmed on Wednesday that the third-year quarterback would be returning to the starting lineup in Green Bay, barring a setback. Winston went on to participate fully in all three of the week's practice, gradually shaking off the rust from three weeks of rest.
"He has played a lot of football; he didn't forget how," said Koetter. "There is definitely something [to be said] for the timing and that was a steady progression this week. He'll be ready for Sunday."