The Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on Sunday is their 13th contest of 2010. Amazingly, they will be employing their seventh different offensive line combination of the season.
Given that cohesiveness and stability are often considered major factors in an line's effectiveness, that could be a fairly disturbing statistic. But the 2010 Buccaneers have weathered one lineup adjustment after another – mostly on the offensive front and in the defensive secondary – and maintained their winning ways. Thanks to the impressive play of such former reserves as Ted Larsen, Jeremy Zuttah, Cody Grimm and Corey Lynch, the front line hasn't just survived but thrived, as evidenced by the team's ever-improving running game.
The latest player to take his place in the Bucs' O-Line carousel is Derek Hardman, an undrafted rookie out of Eastern Kentucky who will make his first career start on Sunday at right guard. That position will get its third different starter of the year; Jeremy Zuttah took over last week after a season-ending injury to Davin Joseph but will now move to center as Jeff Faine has joined Joseph on injured reserve. Zuttah also started four games at center earlier in the season when Faine was recovering from a quad injury and performed well in that role.
At this point, four of the five starters up front are different than the lineup the Buccaneers took into opening day, with James Lee now at right tackle and Ted Larsen at left guard. Lee, Larsen, Zuttah and the rest have helped the Buccaneers rise to 11th in the NFL in rushing offense, and only five teams have been more successful on the ground than Tampa Bay over the last seven weeks.
"New guys, more guys having to step up and do what they've got to do," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Zuttah has done it a couple times for us. We have all these guys ready to go out there and play for us, and play well. We believe in all of these guys. Hardman has a chance to go out there and prove himself. Here we go, line it up."
The Bucs believe they can sustain their offensive success even with another formerly little-known reserve in a key role.
"You've got to give their coach a lot of credit," said Morris. "[Offensive Line Coach] Pete Mangurian has done a wonderful job with these guys, making them integral parts of our offense, helping them move around and have flexibility on the line. Greg Olson, our offensive coordinator, and our coaches, I give those guys a lot of credit for being able to put in game plans and do what needs to be done with the guys that we have. We look forward to watching these young guys. They're exciting, they're young, they're fresh, they want to play and they have an opportunity."
Hardman finished the Buccaneers' Week 13 game against Atlanta after Faine went down. Tampa Bay's offense didn't miss a beat, but the Falcons were able to rally for 10 points in the fourth quarter for a 24-14 victory. That loss put the NFC South division title almost out of reach for the Buccaneers, but they are still very much in the thick of the playoff race. The Bucs, the NFL's youngest team, has been adept at rebounding from defeat this year, in part because they have quickly put their more disappointing afternoons behind them.
"With those types of games, you just come out of them and you have to move on, and move on quickly," said Morris. "It was a divisional game that we lost. We lost to those guys twice this year and for my team that has to leave a lasting impression. It has to give us a goal, to get back to seeing those guys again. If you want to win this division and you want to win long-term, you have to find a way to beat teams like that."
Morris was pleased with his team's attitude and energy in practice during the week leading up to the trip to FedExField. He sensed an urgency among his players to get to the next game and get the Race to 10 back on track. With the Atlanta game firmly in the rear view mirror, the Bucs focused on another stiff challenge Sunday against the Redskins.
"You've got to start with their coach, who has won a lot of games in this league and we have a lot of respect for," said Morris. "And then you go to their quarterback – Donovan McNabb has been absolutely a pain in our neck for a long time. He knows that, we know that and we've got to go out there and give our best effort and give us a chance to win this game. We have to move the ball on this defense that has a lot of key veterans. London Fletcher is another guy who's legendary in this game.
"We've played them a lot. We enjoy playing them. They're always tough, hard-fought games. They always bring a certain presence to the game."
Discounting the five starters the Buccaneers have placed on injured reserve over the last two weeks, the team comes into Sunday's game mostly healthy. The only real concerns heading into the weekend were LB Quincy Black and DE Tim Crowder, and both looked good enough in pregame warm-ups to get clearance to play.
Thus, the Bucs have no lineup changes beyond those caused by their recent injured-reserve moves. E.J. Biggers will start at left cornerback in place of Aqib Talib, and Corey Lynch will get his second start at free safety in place of Cody Grimm. Tampa Bay's eight inactives are CB Larry Asante, CB D.J. Johnson, FB Erik Lorig, G Brandon Carter, T Will Barker, WR Dezmon Briscoe, DT Frank Okam and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Redskins do have some changes to their starting secondary, necessitated by the ongoing injury issues of CB Carlos Rogers and S LaRon Landry. Rogers will miss his third game in the last four weeks and will be replaced by former Buccaneer Phillip Buchanon at right cornerback. Landry is out for the fourth Sunday in a row and will be replaced by Reed Doughty at strong safety.
In addition to Rogers and Landry, the Redskins deactivated WR Terrence Austin, RB Andre Brown, G Derrick Dockery, OL Eric Cook, DL Jeremy Jarmon and designated third quarterback John Beck.
The Bucs and Redskins kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.