Will Gholston suffered a neck injury that left him prone on the field in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Nine game at New Orleans, and there is no way to write that sentence without it sounding scary. Gholston was immobilized and transported to a nearby hospital in New Orleans for neurological tests.
Fortunately, those tests went well and Gholston was quickly back on his feet. In fact, the fifth-year defensive end was able to fly back to Tampa on the team plane that evening. However, he missed the next two weeks of practice and games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
Gholston returned to practice this week as the Buccaneers began preparations for their trip to Atlanta to play the Falcons, but he was limited in the first workout on Wednesday. On Thursday, as the team held a morning workout to accommodate players' Thanksgiving plans, Gholston improved to full participation in practice. That's certainly something for which the Buccaneers can be thankful.
Actually, Thursday's official injury report was stuffed with good news for Thanksgiving. In addition to Gholston, cornerback Robert McClain (hamstring), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (shoulder/back) and offensive tackle Donovan Smith (knee) all improved to full participation in practice. McCoy is the team's sack leader, McClain is tied for the team lead in interceptions and Smith is the starting left tackle.
Much as the Buccaneers' cornerback group has taken turns missing time due to injuries – currently, Vernon Hargreaves is sidelined with a hamstring injury – the team could have some lineup shuffling at defensive end this week. Gholston's improvement brings hope he'll return to action on Sunday, but starting defensive end Robert Ayers has not practiced this week due to a concussion. The Buccaneers have two players in the league concussion protocol at the moment, as guard Evan Smith was also injured on Sunday in Miami.
If Ayers can't play on Sunday, the Bucs would be without their second-leading source of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. McCoy leads the Buccaneers (and is tied for the NFL lead) with 20 quarterback hits and Ayers is second on the team with 13. The return of Gholston, however, would augur well for Tampa Bay's run defense, as he is considered the Bucs' best run-stopping end.
- The Bucs' morning practice on Thursday was the typical concession that teams make on Thanksgiving before a Sunday game.
Tampa Bay usually practices for roughly two hours in the afternoon on both Wednesday and Thursday, ending around 3:00 p.m. They still used the field for the same amount of time but moved it into the morning to get players home for their holiday gatherings. Practice ended at approximately 12:30 and the players had no other team commitments after that. There is room on the schedule Friday to take care of anything left undone on a shorter Thursday.
"[It was] like every other Thanksgiving day practice – the players can't wait to get home and get to their families and get into their turkey, ham, whatever else they eat," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It was typical for Thanksgiving Day. I think most fans could understand that guys are a little bit – they have family in town – guys are a little bit disheveled on Thanksgiving Day. It's just part of the process. We'll make up for it tomorrow."
- Since the start of the 2016 season, Mike Smith's first as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay has ranked second in the NFL takeaways (48), fifth in interceptions (26) and first in opponent fumble recoveries (22).
A look back at all of the matchups between the Buccaneers and the Falcons.
"That's something if you said over the last two seasons, 'What have we done consistently as a defense?' I would say that is the thing we have done the most consistently. Our guys have a really good understanding of the importance of it and attacking the football. They come in bunches. It becomes a contagious thing."
The Bucs forced a season-high five turnovers in their win over Miami, and it was rookie safety Justin Evans who started the spread of the contagion. His diving goal-line interception in the first quarter turned back an almost certain Dolphins score and set up a Buccaneer field goal drive.
On the play, Evans was lined up directly over the Dolphins' leading receiver, Jarvis Landry, in the slot on the left side of the offense. Landry ran a quick square-in across the goal line but tripped as he started to cut horizontally. Evans made an impressively athletic play to dive and pluck the ball out of the air with both arms extended above his head, then held on as he hit the ground. Evans probably also made an unwise decision to get up and run the ball out of the end zone, getting only to the 15, but a penalty on the Dolphins took it out to the 25 anyway.
The Buccaneers have been touting Evans' athletic talents since they drafted him in the second round out of Texas A&M in April, and it certainly showed up on that play.
"His athleticism is off the charts," said Smith. "That interception that he made in the game – there [are] not many guys that can make that play. I'd like for him to stay in the end zone, but hey, if he would have run it back for a touchdown we would've said it was a great play. Those are all learning moments for him. He's had a number of them this year. He's had a number of big plays. I think long term he is going to be a guy that is going to make a lot of plays. Once he gets the feel of the NFL game and the pacing of it and the pace of the season, he is going to be a really good player because not only can he run – he's got great hands and he is not afraid to mix it up and put his face in there. He is a physical player, as well."
Evans' coverage ability in one-on-one situations allows Smith to be a little more flexible with his play-calling without necessarily having to substitute.
"We're facing more three and four-wide receiver sets and when you're doing that, the box safety is kind of disappearing from our game," said Smith. "There is not a true strong safety in most games – maybe in certain downs and distances you're going to play with a strong safety. You've got to have them interchangeable and they're going to have to line up and be able to cover wide receivers. Justin has the athleticism to do that."