First-year LB Ben Moffitt, a former South Florida star, was added to the Bucs' practice squad on Wednesday
When the Carolina Panthers pay a visit to Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, they may find the setting a bit too comfortable, at least for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' liking.
That's because the home field advantage the Bucs usually enjoy seems to evaporate whenever the Panthers come to town, at least in recent history.
Carolina has won five straight contests in Raymond James Stadium, the second-longest home losing streak in Bucs' history. Only a six-game skid at home against the Chicago Bears from 1983-1989 was longer, and that run came as part of a franchise-record 12-game losing streak against any one team. In contrast, the Bucs have countered with wins in Charlotte in three of the past six years.
As hard as it may be to explain the Bucs' recent home struggles against their division rivals from Carolina, Head Coach Jon Gruden said it comes down to one simple unifying fact.
"I think there has been a common thread — they're pretty good," Gruden said. "There have been some impact plays in this game that have obviously decided the outcome. We've missed some kicks, a turnover here and a turnover there has hurt us and I've got to do a better job."
Snapping such a streak won't come easy this time around, as the first-place Panthers come to town seeking to protect their division lead and extend their current 4-1 record.
Gruden said the key component to Carolina's early success in 2008 — and perhaps the Panthers' recent run against the Bucs — has been the play of veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme. The scrappy passer is back in a groove after spending most of last season on injured reserve. As hard as Delhomme has been on the Buccaneers, Gruden is glad that the rival quarterback is back on the field.
"I'm happy for him," Gruden said. "I think he's a great guy. I love competing with him. He's beaten us three or four times. If you want to know the common thread, Delhomme's been a problem for us in the last seconds of this series, and so has [kicker John] Kasay. I don't like Jake this week, and I don't like Kasay either. But they're great competitors and clutch performers. You can ask San Diego. He made an unbelievable play to beat them out there."
Delhomme's problem in 2007 was an elbow injury, and the Panthers limped to a 7-9 record without him. Now, a healthy Delhomme has returned to an already-talented offensive group that was bolstered even more in the 2008 NFL Draft, and the Panthers are rolling.
"DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — Stewart, he's a No. 1 draft choice for a reason," Gruden said of the Carolina running backs. "They weren't the only team that liked him. They're talented guys and completely different. Powerful, big, fast elusive Stewart and DeAngelo is very thick and quick. He's got tremendous lateral ability.
"They've improved themselves. [Jordan] Gross is a good tackle, we know that. They've added [Jeff] Otah, a first-rounder out of Pitt, they traded up to get him, and [Jake] Delhomme is back. With Steve Smith and [Muhsin] Muhammad, they have all the components in place right now to be pretty good and they're feeling confident."
Regardless of the recent streak of dominance the Panthers have held in Raymond James Stadium, the matchup between these two bitter division rivals on Sunday will be an intense one, Gruden said.
It always is.
"There's a lot of respect," said Gruden. "These games have gone down to the wire. These have been hard-fought football games [between] two teams that are very similar, in my opinion anyway. Two-back teams, for the most part, that like to run the ball. Both teams play an aggressive style of defense. Both teams have very good kickers. This is a very physical game."
Containing the Panthers' explosive offense will be a point of focus Sunday, and the man in the middle of the Bucs' defense is doing his best to get out on the field and do his part.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud sustained a knee injury in Denver, but Gruden said his young defensive star is working his hardest to return.
"Barrett did not practice today, but knowing Barrett, he'll find a way," Gruden said. "You'd like to see your middle linebacker flying around feeling good, but that's pro football. We do have some injuries right now to key guys and that's the way it is. It's a great opportunity for somebody to step up, but I've got confidence that Barrett will find a way to the field. This is a big game for us."
Gruden also touched on veteran wideout Joey Galloway's status. A nagging foot injury has kept Galloway out for the majority of the season to date, but Gruden was unable to provide any concrete updates.
"I sympathize with him," Gruden said. "He had a difficult injury that lingered [in training camp], and he recovered from that. He's got another injury that has lingered, and he's recovering from that. But he missed the last three or four games of last season and basically the entire training camp and I have concerns. We miss him, I can be honest with you. But at the same time, our receivers are playing pretty darn good and we'll do the best we can until he gets back."
Even though the ailment has kept Galloway out for an extended period of time, Gruden stressed that it was a minor injury and that hopes were still high for a return to action in the near future.
"I don't know what the foot doctor's official title is [for Galloway's injury], but I do know that he is running," Gruden said. "It's not serious. He is going to recover from it, it's just a matter of when that is."
The time frame for Galloway's return is still murky, but one thing Gruden said is crystal clear is that his playmaking wide receiver is doing everything in his power to return, much like Ruud.
"If he could play, he would play," Gruden said. "But he's not ready to go. It's not that he's not tough, it's not that he doesn't want to go or he's not trying. He just can't let it go. He can't run. He can't run right now and he's still not back from it. It kills me, it bothers me, but that's the way it is."
Amongst the talk of injuries and preparations for Sunday's game, the Buccaneers also announced a handful of roster moves on Wednesday.
Tight end Daniel Fells, who had spent the first five weeks of the 2008 season on the Bucs' practice squad, has been signed to the St. Louis Rams' active roster.
The 6-4, 252-pound Fells joined the Bucs this offseason after spending the entire 2007 season on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad. He initially joined the league with Atlanta as an undrafted free agent in 2006 and spent the entire season on the Falcons' active roster, but was inactive for every game.
Practice squad players may be signed by another team at any time, provided that the new team is signing the player to their active roster.
Filling Fells' spot on the practice squad is a local product, former USF linebacker Ben Moffitt. The 6-2, 245-pound Moffitt signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent in April, but was released in August as part of the Texans' roster cuts.
In his senior season at USF in 2007, Moffitt was named an All-Big East First Team selection. He was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the country's top college linebacker, and was a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy. He was second on the USF defense with 104 tackles and added 12 tackles for a loss.
In addition, the Bucs announced that safety Donte Nicholson and linebacker Antoine Cash have been released from the injured reserve list. Both Nicholson (knee) and Cash (neck) were injured in the preseason, then added to the injured reserve list after clearing waivers when the Bucs announced their roster cuts in August.