The importance of Ike Hilliard in Tampa Bay's offense found the spotlight last Sunday in Houston.
Hilliard left the game in the second quarter with what the team called a shoulder injury after a helmet-to-helmet hit with Texans safety Will Demps. The Buccaneers' third-down conversion rate left with him.
The Buccaneers converted only 3-of-13 third-down opportunities against the Texans. Hilliard is tied for 18th in the NFL among receivers on third down with 18 receptions and 210 yards (an 11.7-yard average).
Hilliard has 33 catches for first downs this year, second on the team to Joey Galloway with 36.
So as Hilliard's status for Sunday's game with Atlanta remains in doubt, his impact on the offense must be assessed.
And that's more difficult to measure than by simple numbers.
"(It's) beyond explanation," Bucs quarterback Luke McCown said.
Hilliard, 31, was on few radars when training camp began as the media expected the No. 2 receiver battle to come down to two young receivers, Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton. The attention paid to the two young receivers became so obvious that head coach Jon Gruden started lobbying for the media to pay attention to the soft-spoken Hilliard.
Everyone finally did once Hilliard claimed the starting job opposite Galloway and became the team's most reliable third-down target.
Entering Sunday's game Hilliard has a team-leading 58 receptions for 663 yards and a touchdown.
But it's more than just catches with Hilliard, McCown said, who benefited greatly from Hilliard's reliability during his short tenure as the starter.
"It's easy because he understands — and it's a little strange — but he understands the way we see things as quarterbacks from the wide receiver position," McCown said. "While he's running a route he sees holes and things that some guys, especially young wide receivers, might not know or see, that we see from where we're standing in the pocket. Ike feels that and sees those things and is able to really maneuver himself into those places."
So what if Hilliard isn't there? McCown said that as he looked back on the game there were situations where Hilliard would have come in handy. Galloway said after the game that losing Hilliard meant losing an entire package of plays meant for the 11-year pro.
Gruden didn't say it, but his words on Monday alluded to a coach that may have felt a bit hamstrung without Hilliard.
"He's excellent, obviously, inside. He's a guy we've gone to in some key situations on third down and it's hard to practice a lot of our offense for everybody," Gruden said. "There is a little package for Ike and we've worked on it for a long time. Unfortunately, Mark Jones and Paris Warren are a couple of guys we've been grooming to run similar types of routes as receivers (and) are no longer with us."
No Hilliard, no package. And, maybe, no third downs.
Now, the Bucs have had worse games in terms of converting third downs. The Bucs went 1-of-12 on third down against Washington three weeks ago.
But the elimination of Hilliard from the offense played a key role last Sunday, and that's obvious. It's no surprise that the play that injured Hilliard was a third-down catch. Hilliard already had the first down and was seeking more yardage when he and Demps' helmets collided. He fumbled and the Texans recovered.
At that point the Bucs were 2-of-5 on third down. The Bucs didn't convert another third down until late in the fourth quarter.
That illustrates Hilliard's importance — and the lack of a reliable receiver to take his place.
"There are some things that Ike does that we lean on and we'll have to train someone else here in a hurry if he can't go," Gruden said.
The likely candidates are Clayton and Stovall, who each caught a third-down pass for a first down on Sunday. But the pair have a combined 20 catches this season.
Clayton actually started on Sunday in Hilliard's place, an example of Gruden's matchup madness. Now Clayton may be on the spot.
"I just have to prepare like I'm going to be a starter and see what happens," Clayton said.
Hilliard wasn't in the locker room on Wednesday, but he did practice. If Hilliard can't play on Sunday, there will be a gap in the lineup.
But at least one Buc figures he'll play.
"He takes hits and he comes in here on Monday walking like an old man, but somehow he keeps going," Galloway said.
For the sake of the Bucs' third-down conversion rate, Hilliard better.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.