Wide receiver give and take: Keyshawn Johnson (19) and Karl Williams returned to practice Thursday but Reidel Anthony sat out with a hip strain
Minutes after Wednesday afternoon's Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice, Head Coach Tony Dungy marveled at the near perfect health of his roster heading into the first game of December. If wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Karl Williams could return from minor injuries to practice on Thursday, and if a short-lived flu bug could finish its circuit of the Bucs' locker room, his team might be at full strength for the last two practices of the week.
Not so fast, coach.
At the same time this assessment was being shared with the media, two Tampa Bay players previously not on the injury report were receiving treatment in the in training room for new ailments sustained during Wednesday's practice. On Thursday morning, a new injury report was released that showed those two Bucs, wide receiver Reidel Anthony and running back Aaron Stecker, as questionable for Sunday's game.
The setback could be temporary if, as Dungy hoped on Thursday, Anthony and Stecker return to practice on Friday. But a hamstring pull suffered by Stecker early in Wednesday's session and a hip flexor strained by Anthony on nearly the last play of practice kept them off the field on Thursday. As the 'questionable' tag is designed to indicate, Anthony and Stecker probably have a 50-50 chance of playing in Cincinnati, with Anthony's injury slightly less severe.
"We sat them out today, but hopefully they'll be back tomorrow," said Dungy of the two newly-injured players. "Other than that, I think we're in pretty good shape."
That's partly because Johnson and Williams did, indeed, come back to practice Thursday. Williams still did not run every single drill, but he has still made quicker-than-expected progress after suffering a painful hip pointer two Sunday's ago versus Chicago. "Karl Williams did some things and hopefully he'll continue to get better," said Dungy. "If he doesn't have a setback, he should be ready to go. We were thinking the worst after the Chicago game, but we're hopeful he'll be able to go this weekend."
Reflecting this confidence in Williams' recovery, he was upgraded on the injury report from questionable to probable.
The Bucs once again ran quickly through their two-hour practice without pads on, a concession to the loss of one recovery day due to a Monday night game. The team finished roughly 10 minutes early, but Dungy was pleased with the team's tempo and intensity. Though this week's slate of practices has been scaled down in terms of contact, the game it is leading up to is expected to be a very physical affair.
"It's going to be a different type of game (than Monday night's)," said Dungy. "It's a different type of attack that Cincinnati has then St. Louis. We have to be ready for a physical, hard-hitting, inside-running game – that type of battle. I think our guys are getting prepared for that. I think we'll be ready. There's a lot riding on it. The games get bigger as you go along into December, so there's no reason for us not to be ready."
The question is, will Jon Kitna be ready?
Kitna is in his first season as the Bengals' starting quarterback after spending five seasons in Seattle, the last two-and-a-half as a starter. He had several strong games in the first half of the season but has thrown just one touchdown against five interceptions in Cincy's last three games.
Still, Kitna has passed for 632 yards in those three games, none of which has been close to his toughest day as a starter, which happened to occur against the Buccaneers' defense on November 28, 1999 in Seattle.
Kitna led an 8-2 Seattle team on a five-game winning streak into that contest, and he had thrown 11 touchdowns versus four interceptions in the previous five games. The Bucs' defense, however, picked Kitna off five times, allowed no touchdowns and only 19 completions in 44 attempts and keyed a 16-3 win by the visitors. Though Kitna followed with a 7-5 touchdown-interception ratio over the last five games, his team still dropped rapidly to 9-7 then out of the playoffs in the first round.
Now the Bucs are traveling to Kitna's new home and they're a team on an interception roll, having picked of 18 passes this year and at least one in 14 straight games. How will the Bengals' new starter react to the visit?
"I think you take it as a challenge," said Dungy. "He had a disappointing game against us the last time we played, and I'm sure he wants to have a big one this time. I think he'll look at it as a challenge."
As usual, regardless of personnel, the Bucs are turning their attention first to the opponent's running back, in this case Corey Dillon. Because Cincinnati is capable of putting up very big rushing days, the team does not expect the same type of game it had against Kitna in '99.
"It's a different system," said Dungy. "This is much more of a run-oriented system than they had in Seattle. Different style, more play-action passes. Hopefully, we can have the same kind of success we had against him, but it is a different system."
Running back Warrick Dunn actually has significantly more yards receiving this season than on the ground, having caught 45 passes for 410 yards and run 98 times for 296 yards. He has been particularly prolific as a passcatcher in the Bucs' last four games, snaring 27 balls for 274 yards and a touchdown in that span.
That big month has put Dunn on the verge of making several big moves in the Bucs' record book. Though he is not likely to catch James Wilder's team record for receptions by a running back (85 in 1984), Dunn might eclipse Wilder's mark for receiving yards by a back, set that same year at 685. Dunn is currently on pace for 656.
In addition, he has surged within three catches of the team's all-time receptions leaders, including all players, not just running backs. Though six of the top 15 passcatchers in team history are currently on the roster (Dunn, Mike Alstott, Dave Moore, Johnson, Jacquez Green and Anthony), Dunn is closing in on an exclusive group. Nobody has moved into the team's top five on that list since Mark Carrier left in 1992.
With 236 career catches, Dunn needs just four more to pass WR Gerald Carter (239) and move into fifth place alone. After that, it will probably take another season to catch TE Jimmie Giles (279) and WR Kevin House (286). Carrier's in second place at 321 and Wilder's career mark of 430 is still quite a ways off.