When Lovie Smith arrived back in Tampa in 2014, he knew his defense had two cornerstone pieces already in place in three-technique defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and weakside linebacker Lavonte David. There were plenty of other recognizable veterans on that 2013 defense, from Darrelle Revis to Dashon Goldson to Adrian Clayborn, and high draft picks such as Mark Barron and Johnthan Banks.
The Buccaneers' starting left end at the conclusion of the '13 season was the same as the team's starting left end right now, but that's not because the position was occupied by an established star. In fact, Smith and his newly-assembled staff didn't necessarily see that starter as a long-term piece in their defense.
Projected starters for the Falcons as listed on team depth chart.
"When we first got here he was a guy we knew a little bit about him; [he was] probably on the outside looking in," said Smith of then-rookie William Gholston, a fifth-round draft pick in 2013 who had only assumed his starting position in Week 15. "Now he is one of the guys we're counting on each week playing multiple positions, starting at defensive end position, can play inside and has been kind of a rock as far as staying away from injuries. Again, he's the kind of guy that we're counting on right now."
Gholston did not retain his starting position throughout Smith's first season at the helm, as he was replaced for most of the second half of the season by Jacquies Smith. Over the last six weeks of that campaign, Gholston played about 25 snaps a game. He didn't open the 2015 season as the starter, either; that job went to offseason trade acquisition George Johnson. But Gholston moved back into the lineup in Week Four and has quietly been one of the team's steadiest producers on defense.
Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier admits that the level of Gholston's play has been a very pleasant surprise, given the coaches' initial evaluation.
"I was talking to Joe Cullen, our D-line coach, about Will last night," said Frazier. "I just think back to a year ago when we first got here and we were looking at him, going through the bags and we were like, 'Man, this guy is going to take some work to get to where we want him to be.' But he's a hard-working guy who has a lot of ability and he puts in the time. I don't think anybody has come as far as he has in as short a period of time. He's playing extremely well for us. He's the kind of guy you like to keep on the field as much as possible. [He's] not the kind of edge rusher per se but he finds a way when we put him inside or at the left end position. He has a lot of value. He has really helped our team, our defense for sure."
According to Pro Football Focus, Gholston is the Bucs' edge rusher with the most quarterback pressures this season (20), though that position has seen a lot of shuffling due to injuries. Gholston has also been an unsung star in the team's strong pass defense, which ranks 12th in the league and just held the Indianapolis Colts to 27 yards on 26 carries. Frazier identified Gholston as one of the standouts in that effort in Indy, noting that he handled the tight end particularly well against a team that likes to run to the tight end's side. When Frazier says Gholston has a lot of value, he means that combination of input, some of which doesn't show up strongly on the stat sheet. Lovie Smith agrees.
"Will will never be classified as a speed pass rusher on the outside, but he can be a very good six-technique – got to be able to [match up] with the tight end," said Smith. "That guy is valuable, a guy that can play on tight ends first and second downs, could play inside at three-technique, under tackle on passing downs. As far as untapped potential he has a lot of it. He's a green player. [He went] from a guy on the outside looking in to a guy now that we are counting on in year two.
"[He has] good size, height, plays hard. He's everything we want him to be."
- The Buccaneers'official injury reportswelled to 12 players on Thursday but in some respects took on a more favorable feel.The addition of starting center Joe Hawley to the report with a neck injury pushed it to an even dozen, but three players who had been held out on Wednesday got back into the mix on Thursday in a limited fashion: tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee), wide receiver Vincent Jackson (knee) and tight end Luke Stocker (back). In addition, safety Keith Tandy, who missed the Bucs' last game with a concussion, went from limited participation to full-go on Thursday.
Guard Ali Marpet participated fully for the second straight day and might be on the verge of returning to the lineup after missing three games with an ankle injury.
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, December 2nd, at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
"He's doing more and more," said Smith of Marpet. "Yesterday he looked pretty good. He looked better today. He's been out a while. He's a tough guy and all that. We need everybody of course right now so hopefully he'll be able to [play]."
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers' sack leader, missed his second straight practice with a hand injury and also revealed that he had a procedure on the hand after Sunday's game in Indianapolis.
"I had an injury the first half of the game, got it looked at, kept playing – it was necessary to keep playing," said McCoy. "I had it looked at after the game, had a small procedure and hoping to be out there on Sunday."
The Falcons added tight end Tony Moeaki to their official injury report on Thursday; he was limited in practice due to a hamstring ailment. However, running back Devonta Freeman, who missed Atlanta's last game due to a concussion, was upgraded to full participation and appears set to return to action on Sunday. Kicker Matt Bryant did not practice for a second straight day due to a quad injury; the Falcons signed Shayne Graham last week to fill in for Bryant against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Falcons official website also reported that starting right guard Chris Chester remained out on Thursday with a shoulder injury.