The biggest offensive play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their near-comeback in Atlanta last Sunday was Mike Williams' 58-yard touchdown catch. That reduced the Falcons' halftime lead to 17-14 and put them in a position to make a run in the second half.
It probably wouldn't have happened, however, if not for Kellen Winslow's more statistically mundane 13-yard grab four plays earlier. Facing a third-and-six at the Buccaneers' 14-yard line quarterback Josh Freeman kept the drive alive by throwing a dart down the middle seam to Winslow, who caught the ball in traffic and held on to move the chains.
Winslow had just three catches for 31 yards in that Falcons game, coming on the heels of a one-catch, five-yard outing in the Bucs win at Arizona the weekend before. Four catches for 36 yards over two games – that's less than one might normally expect Winslow to have in a single outing. In 68 career games, he has caught 329 passes for 3,680 yards, an average of roughly five receptions and 54 yards per game.
Is the veteran tight end being squeezed out of the Bucs' game plan with the emergence of so many young receivers? Not a chance.
Winslow's two-game statistical dip is nothing more than a confluence of circumstances, and it should be noted that it comes on the heels of a three-game stretch in which he racked up 18 catches for 162 yards, or six for 54 per game. In Arizona, the Cardinals' specifically looked to take Winslow out of the picture, double-teaming him and bumping him on the line of scrimmage constantly. In Atlanta, the Bucs had a season-low 50 plays and just 22 passes, on which Winslow was the target for four of them.
And, most tellingly, there was that third-down seam pass when the Bucs desperately needed to keep a drive going.
Winslow caught 77 passes for 884 yards in 2009, his first year as a Buccaneer, rewriting the franchise record book for tight ends. His quarterback over the last nine games was Freeman, then a rookie, and in each one of those games Winslow caught at least four passes. Freeman clearly has enormous confidence in his tight end to make plays in critical situations.
"There is no doubt, especially on third down," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "I'm not sure where he is now but I know he was leading the league in third down [receptions] there for awhile. When you see Kellen Winslow out there on third down he's definitely a threat. He's always a problem. He creates all kinds of matchup problems – too fast for linebackers, too big for DBs, and great hands and great elements that he has."
Breakout star Mike Williams leads the Buccaneers in receiving and could be the first rookie to do so for an entire season since Warrick Dunn in 1997 (and Williams' 36 grabs have already almost matched Dunn's 39 from that season). On the other hand, Winslow is just three catches behind Williams, at 33, and it would be no surprise if he ends up as the team's top pass-catcher in 2010, repeating his feat from '09.
There is simply no reason to expect Winslow to be less productive in the second half of 2010 than he was down the stretch last year, after Freeman took over. That could start with a big game this Sunday against Carolina.
"We've got to get him going," said Morris. "He's one of the big-time playmakers for us on this team. Maybe this is the week he gets going again. We've got to get him out there going and get him going fast because he's a big part of our offense. He's one of those guys that you've got to get involved and get involved early. You want him to be a part of the offense the whole time because he's opened up so many other things for other people."
Graham, Moore and Sims Ruled Out
The Buccaneers and Panthers released their final injury report of the week on Friday, with game-status designations included, and a combined seven players have already been ruled out for Sunday's contest.
Three of those seven are Buccaneers: fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring), defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) and defensive tackle Ryan Sims (knee). All three are working to overcome injuries that have cost them at least one other game in recent weeks but will need at least one more week to be ready.
Four Panthers will be down for Sunday's game, and as was mentioned yesterday, the problems are concentrated heavily on Carolina's backfield. Days after losing starting quarterback Matt Moore to injured reserve, the Panthers released an injury report that ruled out running backs Jonathan Stewart (concussion), DeAngelo Williams (foot) and Tyrell Sutton (ankle). Defensive end Greg Hardy (concussion) also will not play.
Stewart, Williams and Sutton have accounted for 610 of the Panthers' 726 rushing yards so far, and Stewart and Williams are coming off a 2009 season in which they became the first tandem in NFL history to each crack 1,100 yards. Second-year man Mike Goodson is likely to get the start in Carolina's thinned-out backfield, and his backups would be two players signed this week, Josh Vaughan and Andre Brown.
Last week, recently-signed rookie defensive tackle Al Woods found his way into the Bucs' interior-line rotation in Sims' absence. The same thing could happen this week on the outside with Alex Magee, the former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end who came over in a deadline deal in October, with Moore sitting out for the second time in the last five weeks.
On the other line, however, the Bucs may have more hands on deck than they've had in weeks as center Jeff Faine (quad) and tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) are both listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. In the absence of those two starters, the Bucs have been using second-year player James Lee at right tackle, versatile veteran Jeremy Zuttah at center and surprising rookie Ted Larsen at left guard. Who comprises the front five this Sunday could come down to how good Faine and Trueblood look in pregame warmups.
Faine participated fully in all three practices this week and Trueblood was in the mix for two of three, including Friday's workout. Morris believes that Faine may be close to returning to action, though the coach has been vocal about how well Zuttah and Larsen have played in his absence.
"The whole thing I was worried about [with Faine] was the conditioning and where he was going to be, and he did a nice job this week," said Morris. "He's locked in. He's a serious young man when it comes to playing this game. With everything else, he's got a nice smile on his face. He had a pretty nice smile on his face today so I said, 'Hey man, if you're telling me you're good, you're good.' Still, we've got to list him as questionable, get him out to the game and get him out there and let him play."
The other question mark for the Buccaneers on Sunday will be starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black, who did improve his chances of suiting up against the Panthers by practicing on Friday. Black had been limited on Wednesday and held out on Thursday due to the ankle injury he suffered in Atlanta, but he took a step in the right direction as the week came to an end. Still, the Buccaneers took a long look this week at reserve linebackers Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward, both of whom would be in line for more playing time if Black is out.
"Watson and Adam Hayward are going to play a little bit if necessary, if something happens to Quincy," stressed Morris. "Both of those guys had a nice week of practice. I don't want to lose what both of those guys give us on special teams by playing one of them primarily and losing a guy on special teams. I prefer to mix them both in there, get what we get out of both of them on defense and then also be able to use both those guys on special teams as well, because they give us great value. That's our leading tackler on special teams in Hayward and Dekoda's one of our young uprising stars as a rookie on special teams, so I'd like to use both those guys."
Help Getting to Hawaii
Tampa Bay's host of high-flying rookies has given the team's fans plenty of opportunities to cast votes on NFL.com. One Buc newcomer or another has been up for the league's Rookie of the Week Award in seven of the season's nine weeks so far.
But you don't have to wait until the next Mike Williams explosion or Cody Grimm interception to exercise your rights in the NFL polls. There is, after all, always time to fill out another Pro Bowl ballot.
Each season, the NFL selects its all-stars through a unique three-pronged balloting system. Fans, coaches and players each produce one composite ballot with their votes, and those three results are combined to produce the final AFC and NFC rosters. Fans who wish to get involved in their third of the process can do so at any time on NFL.com.
Click here to go to the Pro Bowl page on NFL.com and open up a ballot.
Of course, it would be particularly wonderful if you headed to that Pro Bowl center in order to vote for some of your favorite Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was shut out of the all-star game last year for the first time since 1995, but a new generation of stars could soon be duplicating the annual Hawaii trips made by the likes of Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.
Several Buccaneers are among the league leaders in NFL statistical tables, including cornerback Aqib Talib (interceptions), wide receiver Mike Williams (receiving yards) and quarterback Josh Freeman (fourth-quarter passer rating). Others have put together outstanding half seasons not necessarily reflected in the statistics. You can vote for them all.
The Buccaneers' current roster, while the youngest in the NFL, does include three players who have already played in at least one Pro Bowl: Ronde Barber, Davin Joseph and Kellen Winslow. Perhaps they're ready for a return trip, and perhaps they can take some new teammates with them this time.