A final determination of how the Bucs' will arrange their defensive line will probably have to wait until Sunday
Chidi Ahanotu has played more games as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer than every player currently on the Bucs' roster except Derrick Brooks.
Of course, the last one was almost four years ago. Ahanotu just returned to the Bucs this week after playing for four other teams, and it appears as if he will step right into the defensive-line rotation in some capacity. How much he plays Sunday in Atlanta, in his 114th Buccaneer game, will probably depend upon the status of Anthony McFarland.
And the full answer to that question will probably not be available until early Sunday afternoon.
McFarland, the Buccaneers starting under tackle, injured his right triceps on Sunday against Kansas City and is questionable on the team's injury report. He did not practice Thursday and Head Coach Jon Gruden made it clear that nothing has changed in terms of the likelihood of McFarland's availability.
"We'll give McFarland time to heal; I think he's earned that right," said Gruden. "If he can come around by Sunday he'll play; if he doesn't, we'll have to address that at that time."
In the meantime, the Bucs' defensive tackle options include starting nose tackle Chartric Darby, Ahanotu, surging end-tackle swingman Dewayne White, recently promoted rookie tackle Jon Bradley and rookie end Josh Savage.
"We're working guys in," said Gruden. "We're going to try to continue to do that for the next day and a half and we probably really won't know finally until the game starts, until we've got to turn in the inactives."
If Ahanotu is called on for any significant amount of snaps, Gruden thinks he can handle the challenge. Ahanotu played the first five games of this season with the Miami Dolphins and appears to still be in playing shape.
"I can't speak for him but I think he's doing a good job," said the coach. "He's a good football player. He's been inactive for a little while, but he's got some movement. He's a tough guy. We're pleased so far."
One of the Bucs' four 'questionable' players did move up to probable on the injury report. Quarterback Chris Simms, who is in the final stages of recovery from a muscle injury to his left (throwing shoulder) apparently looks fine on the practice field and is at least an option to be active on Sunday for the first time since he started the game at New Orleans on October 10.
As for the other three 'questionable' players – McFarland, wide receiver Joey Galloway and kicker Martin Gramatica – Gruden reiterated that nothing has changed in their collective status.
"We've got some guys who are questionable who are fighting through at this stage," said Gruden. "But there is no update; hopefully the next couple of days will help sort it out."
Gramatica did kick a bit in practice on Thursday after taking Wednesday off due to his right hip strain. The team will wait to add the evidence of Friday and Saturday before determining if the veteran kicker can perform on Sunday in Atlanta.
There was one additional alteration to the Bucs' injury report on Thursday, as starting left guard Matt Stinchcomb was added to the list as probable. He is fighting shoulder and hamstring ailments.
The Falcons made several changes to their injury report on Thursday as well, all denoting improved conditions. The list started with five players and is now down to two, as cornerback Aaron Beasley (foot), defensive tackle Rod Coleman (knee) and safety Cory Hall (foot) were all removed. In addition, tight end Eric Beverly (shoulder) was upgraded from questionable to probable. The only other player on Atlanta's report is wide receiver Brian Finneran, who is questionable with a pectoral injury.
O'Dwyer Making Progress
Veteran guard Matt O'Dwyer, who was definitely a strong candidate for a starting spot on the Bucs' offensive line before sustaining a chest injury during the summer, has begun practicing this week.
O'Dwyer, who hurt himself in a weight-lifting session, has spent the first half of the season on the reserve/non-football-injury list. Now that he has begun practicing, the team has three weeks to determine whether to add him to the active roster or place him on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
"He's getting his first contact in some time," said Gruden. "I think he's showing good signs. He's further along than I expected, and that's a good sign."
Gruden has not yet decided if O'Dwyer will play in Sunday's game in Atlanta. For that to happen, the Bucs would have to clear out a space on the active roster.
"I'll let this week play out," said Gruden. "We'll be fair and give him an opportunity to practice this week and see how he feels after back-to-back-to-back days of football, which he hasn't had. A lot remains to be determined."
Even with his defense practically in permanent residence in the top 10 of the league rankings, Gruden doesn't put too much stock in that particular barometer of performance. There are other measurements that he considers more meaningful, such as points allowed, turnovers and, of course, wins.
Thus, the Falcons' 29th-place spot in the same rankings doesn't convince Gruden that his team is going up against a sub par defense this weekend. It's clear that Atlanta has made significant strides in that category after finishing dead last in 2003.
At the midway point of last season, the Falcons were surrendering 30.4 points per game; that number is way down at the same point in 2004, to 21.3 points per game. One can find similar improvements for Atlanta in yards allowed per game (418.3 to 361.4), rushing yards allowed per game (147.0 to 98.3), yards per play allowed (6.4 to 5.5) and turnovers forced (11 to 16).
"Defensively, we know Ed Donatell and Jim Mora are going to have a unique blitz package," said Gruden. "It's going to be a tough game on the road, in a loud souped-up dome."