DE Dewayne White will get his first start of the season at end after proving too productive to keep off the field
Want one good reason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 15 shuffling of the starting defensive line, as revealed on Wednesday by Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli? How about 26?
That would be running back Deuce McAllister, number 26 for the New Orleans Saints, who will visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Slowing McAllister will at the center of the Bucs' plan to contain the resurgent Saints offense, and attempting to get as many productive defensive linemen on the field as possible is part of that plan. That, and simply the opportunity earned by Dewayne White through his steady production, help explain why White will start at left defensive end and Greg Spires will start at under tackle.
McAllister is a powerful runner between the tackles and the Saints have several strong interior linemen, including center LeCharles Bentley. In the last five Bucs-Saints games, while the production of the Saints' quarterback, receivers and tight ends has gone up and down, McAllister has recorded three 100-yard games and one 99-yard game. Last Sunday in the Saints' 27-13 win over Dallas, McAllister carried the ball 30 times and scored two touchdowns.
"It's a challenge," said Bucs' Head Coach Jon Gruden of stopping the Saints in the middle. "It's very much a challenge, especially given the fact that the Saints have other guys who are capable players, big-play players. [Joe] Horn and [Donte'] Stallworth are coming around, Boo Williams can hurt you. They don't just have a one-dimensional attack. They're capable of throwing it, and [Deuce] McAllister is a force. He's a reckless runner, he's going to be powerful inside, and if he gets a crack he can separate and go the distance. So it's a challenge, that's for sure."
The Bucs have been depleted in the middle by injuries, losing defensive tackles Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory to injured reserve. Nose tackle Chartric Darby has started all year, but the Bucs have used converted ends Chidi Ahanotu and White at the under tackle spot, with Ahanotu starting and White coming in on passing downs.
Beyond what it says on the depth chart, the Bucs have already been shuffling their players quite a bit. White, who has 5.5 sacks in the last seven games, has rushed from both the inside and the end spots and will continue to fill the role. He will just get more snaps on the outside with Spires working in the middle, and Ahanotu will also go back to his more natural position.
"We've been shaking it up for awhile," said Gruden. "We could keep shaking. We're going to roll guys in and out; we've got to start some guys in some places. Obviously, Spires we want to look at as an under tackle and Dewayne White deserves a chance to start at end. So we'll see what that brings. We're excited about it."
The Bucs' pass rush has been outstanding, as the team leads the league in sacks per pass play. Now, the team will have its three top sack men – Simeon Rice (9.0), White (5.5) and Spires (5.5) on the field at the same time more often. The Bucs' run defense has not been as beatable as a 22nd spot in the rankings would suggest – a number of big plays have really hurt some otherwise strong outings – but they have given up 100-yard games to McAllister, Tyrone Wheatley, Nick Goings, Clinton Portis and, most recently, LaDainian Tomlinson.
Spires, one of the team's strongest players and the team's leader in tackles among defensive linemen, could help the team be stronger up the middle, and the new rotation may keep all of the pass rushers fresher and more involved. And that's a goal worth pursuing at any point in the season.
Of the seven players on the Buccaneers official injury report, only tight end Ken Dilger was held out of practice completely, though several others were limited.
Dilger is expected to play through his sore ribs on Sunday though, stabilizing a group of tight ends that just went through a significant amount of change. Nate Lawrie and Billy Baber are new to the roster, but holdover Dave Moore could be first in line for some more snaps in two-TE sets.
"We might do that," said Gruden. "We've got injuries, obviously. Dave Moore's a guy who knows our stuff and has played in the league. We think he's a pretty good player, so we'll likely give him some opportunities as a tight end and see what happens."
Moore, who previously played in Tampa from 1992-2001 before spending two years in Buffalo, is actually the 13th-leading receiver in franchise history. Of his 180 catches as a Buccaneer, 24 have gone for touchdowns. This season, he has played primarily as the deep-snapper, and he has recently been fighting through an ankle sprain.
The Bucs' injury report did not change on Thursday, which means Jermaine Phillips remains the only player on the list who is considered questionable or worse. Actually, Gruden qualified Phillips as "questionable at best" on Wednesday and did not make a prediction as to whether his starting free safety, who is recovering from surgery to repair a forearm fracture, would be available for the Saints game.
"It's good to have him out there; it's a credit to him and his toughness," said Gruden. "We'll gather more information tonight, see how he feels tomorrow and go from there."
One of the Bucs' reserve safeties, Dexter Jackson, was also inactive last weekend due to a hamstring strain. However, Jackson is not on the injury report and Gruden sounded optimistic on Thursday that he would be able to suit up on Sunday.
"I think so," said Gruden. "He's moving around, made some explosive changes in direction today, which you have to do at that position, obviously, and on special teams. We'll let him sleep on it, fire his guns a few more times tomorrow and see if he's ready."
Defensive end Simeon Rice (hamstring), safety Dwight Smith (knee), safety John Howell (ankle) and tackle Kenyatta Walker (leg) round out the Bucs' injury report. The Bucs are hopeful that all four will be ready to go by Sunday.
"We had some guys who were somewhat limited but everybody did practice in some capacity," said Gruden. "Guys are rounding into better health and hopefully that helps us on Sunday."
Clayton Leads Voting
Wide receiver Michael Clayton, who had nine receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown in San Diego on Sunday, maintained a slim lead in the Rookie of the Week voting on NFL.com through Thursday afternoon.
(Voting ended Thursday evening but results have not yet been posted.)
By 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Clayton had accumulated 32% of the votes cast while Detroit running back Kevin Jones was just behind at 31%. The award has been dominated by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has won in eight of the first 13 weeks. Clayton has been nominated on three other occasions but has yet to take the award.
Perhaps that's just as well, because Clayton hardly feels as if he meets the qualifications for the prize. That is, the man with 70 receptions for 988 yards and four touchdowns hardly thinks of himself as a rookie.
"To be honest, I never did feel like a rookie," said Clayton. "I've got the title, but my mentality is, if you come in and feel like a rookie, you'll play like a rookie. It's only a mindset. People talk about a brick wall and stuff like that, but if you put that in the back of your head there is no wall.
"You'll succeed in a lot more things when you stay positive. I learned that from my dad. I've been that way my whole life and I will never change who I am and what I do and how I think because it's been great for me and helped me be successful."