Kenyatta Walker has worked very hard on his game with coach Bill Muir, and the results have shown
Things have rarely stayed the same for Kenyatta Walker since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took him with the 14th pick of the 2001 draft.
As a rookie, he started 16 games at left tackle for a playoff team. In 2002, he switched from left tackle to right tackle. He started the season banged up and in the doghouse of a new coaching staff, and ended it as a Super Bowl champion. In 2003 and 2004, Walker was a lightning rod for criticism due to a string of ill-timed penalties. In 2005, he has been a pillar of strength on a rebuilt line, and a growing favorite among fans thanks to his penchant for game-saving tackles after turnovers.
And now, even in the midst of probably his most stable season yet, Walker is at the center of a significant change, one that is no making of his own. Thanks to Zach Thomas' unfortunate roll into Brian Griese's knee two weeks ago, Walker has gone from blocking in front of the right-handed Griese to protecting the blind side of the left-handed Chris Simms.
In a way, he has reassumed some of the responsibilities of his old position at left tackle. His first full-game test of the season behind Simms will be blocking whoever is coming out of San Francisco's two most dangerous defensive players, left end Bryant Young and left outside linebacker Julian Peterson.
That's a tall order.
"He's got a tall order every week, if you ask me, particularly protecting the blind side of a left-handed quarterback," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "He becomes very, very important, obviously."
Maybe at some point in his career, that reality would have caused the Bucs' staff some concern. Fortunately, Walker has engineered a serious rise in the team's confidence in him. He's done so the old-fashioned way.
"He's worked hard," explained Gruden. "It's a credit to [Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach] Bill Muir and Kenyatta both. They've collaborated. They've worked together. I think Bill's pushed him and Kenyatta's responded, and it's helped not only our football team but Kenyatta Walker. I can see it in his eyes and I can see it in his play."
Statistically, offensive lineman can only be evaluated indirectly, and even then it's sometimes difficult to divvy up the credit correctly among the five starters. Still, the Bucs have done impressive things up front, and Walker is a major part of that. The team is fifth in the league in rushing offense, a major improvement over recent years, and it has allowed a reasonable total of 14 sacks through six games. Moreover, if the offensive line was the team's biggest question mark coming into 2005, then the Bucs' 5-1 record at this juncture is a validation of how that unit has played.
The best part about it for the Buccaneers is that the front five is now quite young, with room to improve. Walker is in just his fifth season and is only 26 years old. Starting right guard Dan Buenning is a rookie. Left tackle Anthony Davis is a 25-year-old second-year player. Right guard Sean Mahan is also 25, in his third season.
"[Walker] has played pretty good for us," said Gruden. "He's still a young player, that's the thing you've got to remember. He's been thrust into a role, played both tackle positions in back-to-back years in different offenses. He's had some growing pains that have been well-documented, but I think he's become a real solid NFL tackle and I think he's got a real big upside if he continues to stay healthy and work hard."
Complicating matters for Walker and his mates is this week is not only the presence of Peterson, Young and outside linebacker/defensive end Andre Carter but the unpredictable way they will be deployed. Heavy-blitzing teams are not much of a rarity in the NFL this year, but each team has its own style. The 49ers' style has produce 16 sacks and is difficult to describe. They are often very aggressive, and that's the approach the Bucs are expecting on Sunday.
"We expect them to blitz," said Gruden. "They have some really strange blitzes, unbelievable blitzes, to be honest with you. They blitzed tremendously against St. Louis early, blitzed Philadelphia. They have that in their package, so we're preparing for it and hopefully we're ready for it."
The Buccaneers' official injury report on Thursday was unchanged from Wednesday, and that's a positive development, in a way.
Most significantly, rookie running back Cadillac Williams remained at the "questionable" designation. While this status generally leaves a player's status up in the air until game day, the Bucs have been openly optimistic about Williams' availability against the 49ers. They still felt that way on Thursday, meaning the rookie's sore left foot had responded well to his first full practice in weeks on Wednesday.
"I thought he practiced good," said Gruden. "I thought he ran and showed some explosive change today. We're optimistic that he'll play in the game."
There's no point in changing Williams' status until it becomes clear that his foot will hold up under the week's worth of practice. That still remains to be seen, as the injury to his arch has been slow to heal.
"This is the first live action we've seen from him in some time, so we're going to just kind of keep him as questionable but let everybody know that we are optimistic," said Gruden. "We are encouraged by what we see."
Safety Dexter Jackson has been ruled out for the game due to a hamstring injury. Safety Jermaine Phillips remains probable with a thumb injury.
The 49ers have not been as lucky. Their official injury report is much longer than the Bucs' list, and it got worse on Thursday.
San Francisco's list is a full nine players long, with six designated as questionable or worse. Cornerback Ahmed Plummer (ankle) and linebacker Saleem Rasheed (knee) have already been ruled out, and wide receiver Otis Amey (ankle) and tackle Jonas Jennings (shoulder) were downgraded to doubtful on Thursday. Wide receiver Arnaz Battle (knee) and quarterback Alex Smith (knee) are considered questionable. None of those six practiced on Thursday.
That is a significant list. Plummer was the starter at left cornerback before undergoing ankle surgery and missing the last three games. Jennings was the 49ers' starting left tackle before he also missed the last three games. Battle is listed as a starter at wide receiver, along with Brandon Lloyd, who was added to the report as probable on Thursday due to back and hip ailments. Battle's primary backup is Amey, and Amey is also the team's top punt returner. And, of course, Smith is the first-round rookie to whom the Niners gave the starting quarterback job two weeks ago.
Each team will submit one more injury report on Friday, with changes made on Saturday only if necessary.