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Jon Gruden recently said the Buccaneers have gotten very good at having a Plan B.
Well, they need one now.
The Tampa Bay head coach announced Monday that running back Carnell Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout will have season-ending surgeries this week.
The news had a ripple effect on the franchise, as backs Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham, along with backup tackle Donald Penn, must prepare for bigger roles entering Sunday's contest against Indianapolis. It could also prove to be a major storm cloud over what has been an unexpected 3-1 start for the Buccaneers.
"That's a big blow," Gruden said. "They're great guys and we'll have some people that need to step up now."
The injury could prove to be devastating to Tampa Bay's sudden emergence as contenders for the NFC South title. They have a one-game lead on the division, but now must shore up two of the most important positions on the football field.
"Well you lose a lot of skill," Gruden said. "Watching Philadelphia yesterday, they were without their starting left tackle and their running back (and lost). It's not an easy thing to overcome. Experience and production at those positions are something that every offense relies on."
The news on Williams wasn't a surprise, especially given how the injury happened on Sunday against Carolina. Williams' right leg bent back on itself, appearing to hyperextend the knee.
Williams had to be removed from the field by a cart, surrounding by the entire Buccaneers team. After the game reports out of Carolina pegged the injury as a torn patella tendon, but Gruden did not confirm that on Monday.
For the time being, Pittman and Graham will combine to carry the ground attack, which has gained more than 180 yards each of the last two weeks.
"Michael Pittman has helped us win a couple of division titles," Gruden said. "Earnest Graham has showed he's capable of running in this league."
The prognosis on Petitgout was a mild surprise, considering he was said to have a sprained right knee during the game broadcast. But the injury is obviously much more severe. A pair of crutches was sitting next to Petitgout's locker on Monday.
Petitgout injured his knee in the second quarter, as a Carolina player fell into the knee. Petitgout walked off under his own power.
Donald Penn, the second-year tackle that replaced Petitgout after his injury on Sunday, will likely start on Sunday against Indianapolis, according to Gruden.
"We're confident in Donald Penn," Gruden said. "We're confident that he can go and that he will do a good job for us."
Penn will get a big wake-up call on Sunday as he'll square off with Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney, a former Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.
Penn's mind is already racing.
"It's a big matchup," Penn said. "He's a great player. I've been thinking about that ever since the game ended. It's my first game (start). He's a great player. I'm going to see where I'm at. It's going to be a big test for me."
Gruden did focus on other things besides injuries, including his defense's performance on Sunday. The Buccaneers limited the Panthers to just over 250 yards in total offense and limited wide receiver Steve Smith to five catches for 32 yards. When the new defensive rankings are finalized on Tuesday, the Bucs are likely to be a Top 5 unit in total defense.
"That's one of the things we're very proud of," Gruden said. "Steve (Smith) is a phenomenal talent and they're very creative in using him. I thought (Bucs defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin did a great job of putting together a plan and our players executed tremendously. We got a pretty good pass rush at times and when he did get the ball we were able to get him down or knock him out of bounds. It was a collaborative effort. He had really smoked us the last four games."
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.