WR Ike Hilliard has started the Bucs' first two games but is questionable to play Sunday due to a practice-field ankle sprain
Last Sunday, during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home opener at Raymond James Stadium, temperatures on the field reached well into triple digits.
Though it can't really be proved, such conditions might have been an advantage for the Buccaneers, who train all summer in similar weather, against the visiting New Orleans Saints, who play their home games in a dome. Tampa Bay ran up a 28-0 lead on the Saints and coasted to a 31-14 victory.
The Bucs are right back at home this weekend, awaiting a visit from the St. Louis Rams, another group of dome denizens. The forecast for Sunday calls for a high of 89 degrees and humidity in the 75% range, which could make it feel like 95-100 degrees on the turf.
So the Bucs are rooting for the advantage of another chokingly hot afternoon on Sunday, right? Sure, and they're all getting root canals on the way to the stadium, too.
Even if one grants that steamy conditions are an advantage for the Buccaneers, you'd have a tough time finding somebody on either sideline who's really looking forward to such an afternoon, any more than they'd look forward to a trip to the dentist.
"I've never really rooted for 'steaming hot,'" said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden with a laugh. "I don't really believe the weather's going to determine the outcome of the game. If you're mentally weak it will affect you; if you're mentally tough, it won't. I think in the NFL, these guys are all mentally tough. I'd like it to be as comfortable as possible, personally, for all the fans and all the people that attend the ballgame."
Even the well-conditioned Bucs can have problems with the heat and humidity. For example, third-year running back Cadillac Williams dealt impressively with his bruised ribs against New Orleans, lasting through 24 rugged carries, but he missed about 10 minutes of the second half due to cramps. On such days, roster depth is a significant issue. Tampa Bay tried to keep pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, for instance, by rotating much more freely on the defensive line and giving more snaps to the lesser-known likes of Greg White and Greg Peterson.
That in turn makes the injury report more of a focus, and fortunately for the Buccaneers they seem to be headed in the right direction in terms of overall roster health.
On Friday, NFL teams were required to submit a more detailed injury report, finally making their designations on the out-doubtful-questionable-probable spectrum. The Bucs listed only three players, and none are doubtful or out. All three – defensive end/linebacker Patrick Chukwurah (knee), wide receiver Ike Hilliard (ankle) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) – are considered questionable.
That designation has generally been interpreted as a 50/50 chance the player will suit up for the game, but in this case the Buccaneers seem optimistic about the game day fortunes of at least one of those players. Kelly missed last week's game after suffering a groin injury in Seattle in the opener, but he has practiced without limitations the last two days.
Earlier in the week, Kelly said his go or no-go status on game day would be a "four-quarter decision," meaning he wouldn't be asked to return unless he was expected to make it through the whole game without re-injuring himself. Gruden said it appears as if Kelly is at that point.
"Yeah, I think he is," said the coach. "We've tested him. He had a great run yesterday, played a whole game, basically. He took about 60 snaps and had 30 or 40 today. He's played a long time, he knows his body well and our training staff does a good job.
"What we need definitely is a healthy Brian Kelly, because he and [Phillip] Buchanon and [Ronde] Barber give us our top three corners. We would like to have those guys together for a game."
Like Kelly, Chukwurah practiced without limitations on Friday, but no indication was given of his chances to play on Sunday, beyond the questionable designation. Hilliard did not practice on Friday – hasn't, in fact, since he hurt his ankle on the practice field on Wednesday – but could be back in time to face the Rams.
"We're hoping he'll be ready to go but right now we'll have to say he's questionable," said Gruden.
The Rams' Friday injury report made it clear that the two St. Louis players who didn't practice all week – cornerback Tye Hill and guard Richie Incognito – are probably not going to play on Sunday, either. Hill, in fact, has been ruled out with a back injury; Incognito is considered doubtful due to his ankle ailment.
Rams LB Pisa Tinoisamoa missed last weekend's game against San Francisco due to an ankle injury. He is considered questionable for the game in Tampa, but he did practice fully on Friday.
Practice Squad Flip
The Buccaneers repurposed one of their eight practice squad spots this week, re-signing C/G Enoka Lucas and releasing wide receiver Michael Spurlock.
The 6-4, 299-pound Lucas first joined the Buccaneers just before training camp as a waiver claim from the Houston Texans. He had entered the NFL earlier in the spring as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon. Lucas was then waived prior to the start of the regular season and signed to Tampa Bay's practice squad.
The Bucs' signing of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter two days later started a chain of moves that led to Lucas' release. To make room for Trotter on the 53-man roster, the team released wide receiver Taye Biddle, who had been claimed off waivers from the Carolina Panthers on the same day Lucas had gone on the practice squad. After Biddle cleared waivers, the Bucs sought to add him to their practice squad, and they released Lucas in order to make room on September 6.
Two weeks later, Lucas returns, taking Spurlock's spot. Spurlock, a first-year player out of Mississippi who originally came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Arizona in 2006, had been added to Tampa Bay's practice squad on the same day Trotter came to town.
Each team is allowed to carry up to eight players on a practice squad throughout the season. These players are not eligible to play in games unless they are first signed to the 53-man roster. They also retain their free agent status to some degree. That is, they may sign with another team at any time as long as they are being signed to the new team's active roster.
Additional Thoughts from Coach Gruden
Gruden touched on several other topics relating to Saturday's game after practice on Friday.
On if this is a good time to get Kelly back: "Yeah it is, it is. Kelly's experience and his play-making is something we've missed here. It's a credit to Sammy [Davis] and Raheem Morris and our secondary for the job they did last week. What we need definitely is a healthy Brian Kelly, because he and [Phillip] Buchanon and [Ronde] Barber give us our top three corners. We would like to have those guys together for a game."
On why Rams RB Steven Jackson is off to a slower start than usual: "Well, they've lost some players in their line. I'm not being disrespectful to them – when you have new components in there it's a different deal. They had that guy over there, Orlando Pace, who is as good as there is in the world. Right now he's not playing. No matter what you say, change at left tackle, change in the offensive line – I could write a book about that – it's not easy. And Carolina, to be honest with you, is not a team that you really want to make a living saying you're going to run the ball repeatedly at them. They're a hard team to run against. And in case nobody's noticed, the 49ers' scheme and defensive personnel is a heck of a lot different than it's been in some time. They're a tough team. They've had two tough games to open up with and they've had some change at some key positions, but Jackson is just inches away from breaking a couple runs. You can see that on tape."
On the Bucs' pass rush: "We haven't had a pass rush here that's rivaled one of the top pass rushes in the league for the last few years. We've had some individual guys do well, but our pass rush has got to improve dramatically for us to be a great defensive team. It's easier said than done, so we'll see what happens. The Rams are a team that likes to throw it. They mix in Steven Jackson and that's a tough combination."
On the Bucs' current defense wanting an identity of its own: "They've got to earn that. Identity is formed over years, not just one week. I believe that we've got to earn what we deserve. Forget about being the best defense of all time; I've heard that thrown around here. I just want to win a football game and I want to be a better defense than we were last week. If we can do that and we can do it consistently over a period of time, people will recognize us again. Until then, we've got a long way to go."