When Jeremy Trueblood stepped back in at right tackle last Sunday for the injured James Lee, that gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their eighth different starting offensive line combination of the season. That stands in stark contrast to the Buccaneers' Week 17 opponents, as the same five linemen have started every game this season for the New Orleans Saints.
Both teams have gotten good results from their front line, however, whether it be the work of five men or nine. Tampa Bay ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game, fifth in yards per rush and 12th in sacks allowed per pass play. The Saints have the sixth-ranked offense overall, are second in the league in passing yards and have allowed the fourth fewest sacks overall.
The Buccaneers, then, will not be especially concerned if their OL lineup is shaken up once again in 2010. That could happen if Lee reclaims the right tackle job after sitting out last week's contest with a sprained ankle. The result would not be a ninth new combination – the Donald Penn/Ted Larsen/Jeremy Zuttah/Derek Hardman/Lee grouping was in place in Weeks 14 and 15 – but it would mark the sixth change of the season.
"Competition brings the best out in those guys," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've got great play from the offensive line this year. When those guys go quiet, go through the season without getting mentioned, that's a good thing. Those guys have been chugging along, working together, different pieces, different parts, all going in there and doing their jobs."
The competition is extending right into Week 17, as Lee and Trueblood have been splitting first-team reps in practice in order to determine which one would get the call on Sunday in the Superdome. Trueblood opened the first six games of the season but saw his run of 67 straight starts end with a knee injury suffered against St. Louis. Lee performed well enough upon replacing Trueblood to retain the job even when the veteran returned to full health. Trueblood stepped back in last week and helped the Buccaneers rack up a season-high 439 yards of offense.
"James Lee went out first, and then Trueblood went out second, and they competed again today," said Morris of the first-team reps on Thursday. "I've got to watch the tape and evaluate it; that's something we talk about usually on Fridays. We'll go upstairs, look at the tape, evaluate and let these guys keep competing."
The Bucs will definitely have one new starter on offense, as rookie wide receiver Arrelious Benn has been lost to injured reserve. In that case, however, the solution is less about which player takes the opening snap and more about how the rest of the receiving corps can combine to replace Benn's production.
In fact, Morris isn't sure there's much point in identifying a specific starter to take Benn's place.
"It all depends on the personnel group we go out there with," he said. "Once we do the first 15, you could see a combination of Dezmon Briscoe, Maurice Stovall and Preston Parker. It could anything of that nature depending on the play and the personnel grouping."
Morris did not mention second-year man Sammie Stroughter in that above analysis, but only because he is already established as a possible option at the flanker spot. In fact, Stroughter began the season as the starter at that position and moved back into the top spot on the printed depth chart this week when Benn went to I.R. Other than Benn and fellow rookie Mike Williams, the only receivers to start games for the Buccaneers this season are Stroughter (four times) and Micheal Spurlock (once, in a three-receiver set in Week Two).
What is probably more telling is the receiving table from last week's boxscore. After Benn went down, Spurlock, Parker, Stovall and Briscoe all stepped up to make an impact (Stroughter was out with a hamstring strain). Stovall caught three passes including the game's final touchdown, Briscoe made his first two NFL receptions and Spurlock and Parker grabbed one pass each.
"I've got a lot of confidence in starting Maurice, I've got a lot of confidence in starting Dezmon, I have confidence in starting Preston Parker," said Morris. "I've got confidence in Spurlock…I've got confidence in all those guys. I don't think it's as big a deal as it used to be."
Caddy Closing In on 50
Running back Cadillac Williams' performance in 2009 was one of the best stories of the year for the Buccaneers.
A question mark during the '09 offseason due to a second major knee injury suffered in the 2008 season finale, Williams could have been a bit player behind tailbacks Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward. Instead, he seized his starting job back, rushed for 823 yards and, for the first time in his NFL career, played in every game. He was one of the leading candidates for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.
This year, Williams has ceded the primary rushing role to rookie sensation LeGarrette Blount, but in a way his 2010 story is every bit as inspiring as last year's tale.
Since the seventh game of the season, Blount has logged 161 carries to Williams' 44, and a good portion of the latter's runs have been draw plays on third down. Despite that shift in the rushing workload, Williams has been anything but marginalized in Tampa Bay's offense. In fact, he has been one of the team's most important contributors.
Though it isn't reflected in his stat line, Williams has drawn rave reviews for his crucial work in the team's protection schemes on obvious passing downs. He is by far the team's most trusted back in that role. Meanwhile, he has emerged as a bigger part of the passing attack than ever before. With 46 receptions he has set a new career high by a comfortable margin (it was previously 30 in 2006) and he trails only Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow on the team's receiving chart. If he catches four more passes in New Orleans on Sunday, Williams would become the first Buccaneer back with a 50-reception season since Michael Pittman had 75 in 2003.
"I'm very pleased with the role that he's in and what he's doing for us, whether it's protection or catching the ball on checkdowns," said Morris. "He's been marvelous – catching screens for us, making plays. He's done a great job in this role and he looks as fresh as he's ever looked at this point in the season."
It has come as a surprise to no one that Williams has not only accepted his new role but embraced it. He has been the consummate team player throughout his career and now he's finding new ways to help his team win.
"He's made a bunch of dynamic plays on third down in particular, screen balls and catching the ball on checkdowns and making people miss and splitting people and really being a punishing runner after he catches it," said Morris. "Even popping some of the counters and draws that we run on third down, too…he's doing a marvelous job in his role right now and it's helping out everybody – Blount, Free, everybody."
Lee and Stroughter comprise half of the Buccaneers' relatively short injury report this week, and both were able to practice without limits on Thursday. The same was true of tight end Kellen Winslow, who participated fully in the team's most strenuous practice of the week.
The Bucs have been without fullback Earnest Graham all week, however. Graham sustained a neck injury on a hard hit at the end of a play against Seattle on Sunday and did not return to the game. He has been held out of both practices so far and has already been ruled out for Sunday's game in Seattle. He is described as week-to-week, should the Buccaneers' season extend into the playoffs.
New Orleans' injury report is longer and more fluid than the Buccaneers' list. There were 12 Saints on it to start the week, though it was shortened by one when wide receiver Courtney Roby (head) was placed on injured reserve on Thursday. Of the remaining 11, five did not participate in practice on either Wednesday or Thursday.
Those five included two players who are listed as starters on the Saints' depth chart: wide receiver Marques Colston (knee) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (groin). Also in that group are defensive end Anthony Hargrove (knee), tight end David Thomas (knee) and linebacker Anthony Waters.
There was some good news for the Saints on Thursday, as running backs Reggie Bush (chest) and Christopher Ivory (hamstring) participated fully in practice after being limited on Wednesday. Pierre Thomas does not appear on the injury report at all, meaning the Saints could have all three backs active in the same game for just the second time all season.