According to Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, the team's bye week couldn't have come at a better time. The Buccaneers should be a fairly healthy team when they play their tenth game of the regular season in just under two weeks.
Although they'll likely be limited in practice during the next two weeks, Gruden expects left guard Kerry Jenkins (fractured orbital) and wide receivers Keenan McCardell (fractured scapula) and Joe Jurevicius (sprained ankle/knee), who were all held out of last Sunday's game against Minnesota, to be ready to play against Carolina on Nov. 17.
"Kerry Jenkins, Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius are still rehabbing from their injuries and we do list them as probable for the Carolina game, although their status on the practice field will be questionable this week," Gruden said Monday. "We are excited about their return."
But the Bucs added another name to its injury list on Monday. Bucs starting center Jeff Christy was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery Monday. Christy has had discomfort in his knee since training camp, but by having surgery Monday, Christy is expected to be ready to play when the Bucs take the field against the Panthers.
"Jeff Christy is going to have his right knee scoped today," said Gruden. "It's an old injury and he will be probable for the Carolina game. He has had some problems with this off-and-on since the beginning of training camp, so we are going to use this bye week to clean that up."
Tampa Bay is 7-2 heading into its bye week. Gruden emphasized the importance of defeating Minnesota as they prepared for the Vikings and his players obviously listened as they routed the Vikings, 38-24. Gruden said it was important for the Bucs to be able to sit on a win for two weeks rather than a loss.
"It is always a great feeling to win," Gruden said about going into the bye week. "It's a different feeling today because there is not an urgency, from the standpoint that we do not have a game next week, but we still have a lot of work to do. I'm proud of our team, but we do realize that there is still work to be done."
Although the players will get some time off, the Bucs will still conduct two practices this week before giving the players the weekend off.
"We are going to have two practice dates, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday, then we will give our players Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off to get mentally and physically rejuvenated," said Gruden. "I think that is very important and I think the bye week is a good time to do that. We'll have a bonus practice on Monday, so we're going to do a little extra work. We are going to try to clean up some things, not only on offense and defense, but in the kicking game during that period. We are going to try to isolate some players, like Shaun King, Travis Stephens, some of our young players, Charles Lee, new players, Tutan Reyes, get them some work and try to look at a few things structurally that we need to improve on."
The recent string of injuries along with the fact that Tampa Bay has played more than half of its schedule suggests the Bucs' bye week came at the perfect time in the season.
"I think to have it at the midpoint of the season is a good thing because you have played eight or nine games and you have some sore bodies, and you get an opportunity to freshen up a little bit and at the same time we have to be careful coming off a bye that you don't slip," said Gruden. "I have seen teams come off a bye and not play very well. We have a schedule that I'm certainly comfortable with and we are going to try and sell it to our team, our coaches and come off the bye playing extremely strong football."
Despite being the first team in the league to win seven games this season, Gruden said the Bucs have a lot of work to do in order to improve on what they've accomplished over the first half of the season.
"I've been accused of having to be miserable to be happy my whole life, so I can't say that I'm overly giddy about anything," Gruden said of the team's 7-2 start. "We have so much work to do and we have worked so hard to obtain a pretty good record and put ourselves in position to maybe do something. And to me, it becomes the greatest responsibility of all, how you handle success and how you can close this season out. I think it will be exciting to witness and I think it's a challenge for us all."
Gruden was 4-0 in games played after the bye week with Oakland. The Bucs produced a 2-4 record between 1996-2001 in games played after its bye week.
ANOTHER SERVING OF RICE:
Tampa Bay right defensive end Simeon Rice recorded two sacks against Minnesota on Sunday, which gave him 7.5 sacks on the season and tied him with defensive tackle Warren Sapp for most sacks on the team. With seven games remaining, the Bucs are hoping Rice can top his sack total of 11 from last season.
"He's very effective," Gruden said or Rice. "He has 7.5 sacks right now. The inside pressure we are bringing with (Warren) Sapp is giving him some good looks on the outside. And he is a real good pass rusher and he is a great finisher. He has some long arms, he closes on people quickly and I really think that this guy is on the cusp of being something unique. At times you see it, you know what his firepower is, and I am really excited about the future with Simeon Rice and what he brings to the Buccaneer defense."
STECKER TO SEE MORE ACTION?:
Will Tampa Bay's running attack ever get on track this season? The Bucs' ground game is averaging just 95 yards per game and the team hasn't settled on a back to carry the running game this season.
Bucs running Michael Pittman, who was supposed to be the team's feature back this season, rushed just three times for 19 yards against the Vikings and has rushed 117 times for 413 yards (3.5 avg.) and has yet to score a touchdown through nine games this season.
Bucs fullback Mike Alstott has rushed 86 times for 281 yards (3.3 avg.)and he has scored five touchdowns. While Alstott is the only Bucs back to rush for over 100 yards this season, he carried the ball 26 times Sunday for just 55 yards (2.1 avg.).
Despite the lack of production, the Bucs aren't going to give up on its running game. Gruden said having a healthy offensive line should help the Bucs' running game get back on track.
"Hopefully, a healthy Jeff Christy and a healthy Kerry Jenkins can assist us in that area," Gruden said of Tampa Bay's rushing woes. "We have to do a better job double-teaming. We need to do a better job using disciplined footwork. We can practice, practice, and practice, but when you play the game you have to be more disciplined with the courses in our footwork and technique. I know it sounds elementary but it's facts. Sometimes we get into the game and a six-inch step becomes a 12-inch step, we get spread out, we get split. We have some things that need to be cleaned up and I don't know how long we can practice, we need to start seeing some of these quickly."
Bucs running back Aaron Stecker, who has rushed just 17 times for 122 yards (7.2 avg.), caught Gruden's eye on Sunday when he gained 59 yards on his only carry of the game against the Vikings. The Bucs would like to get Stecker more involved in the offense, but the team has found it difficult to get all three backs enough touches in each game.
"It's been hard," Gruden said of the team's effort to distribute the carries. "We want to give our guys. Mike (Alstott) and Mike (Pittman), those two guys, we feel like are good players, they practice well, and we think if given some real good consistent looks, they will be playmakers for us. Before you discriminate and say, ‘let's go with this guy or this guy' we want to stay with our man. And that's a big reason why and you can't deny the fact that Stecker just makes plays. We need to be more creative, or maybe more willing to get him the ball more earlier. He's always involved (in the game plan). He's part of our ‘Badger Back' combination. He comes into the game and has some specific things that are on the table for him every week. Yesterday, we didn't get to a lot of them, we did in Carolina a little bit more, but he is a good player. But he is a good player that maybe we will look to use creatively down the stretch."
Gruden said the team would use the bye week to work on getting Stecker, who is in the last year of his contract, more involved in the team's offense.
"He's a different size and (has) a different type of lateral quickness," said Gruden. "He's a sure-handed guy that we can utilize in the passing game as well. We will make an attempt to do that. We try to utilize all of our backs and we will take a good look at that in the next 10 days."
While Tampa Bay's wealth of capable running backs is perceived as a weakness by many, Gruden views it as a strength.
"Our backs are kind of like a committee," said Gruden. "We are going to utilize the whole committee throughout the season and hopefully at different times and places when we will emphasize one more than the other. I thought yesterday our big back combination, Alstott and (Jameel) Cook, could get us some hidden yardage, some physical inside yardage and set up the play-action pass, which was very good for us yesterday. Although the running game did not net a whole lot of yardage, it did indeed add a lot of sting to our play-action passing game. We want to get (Michael) Pittman going again, I thought he ran hard in his three carries. I thought Aaron Stecker, all he does is make plays, and why he's not carrying the ball more is a good question."
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