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Injured Bucs Welcome Respite

TAMPA - He's been through worse. Each of the past two years, for example, Bucs coach Jon Gruden spent the bye week working in new quarterbacks.
/ Source: wfla.com

TAMPA - He's been through worse. Each of the past two years, for example, Bucs coach Jon Gruden spent the bye week working in new quarterbacks.

Still, this season has been pretty bad. Just how bad wasn't really known until Monday when Gruden revealed that the team's run of injuries has even robbed his team of its ability to practice properly.

Wednesday and Thursday workouts, which are usually run at full speed in pads, have been reduced to walk-throughs the past two weeks, Gruden said.

"It hasn't been normal," Gruden said. "We've done what we need to do to prepare our team to play, but what we want to do is get back to a normal schedule following this bye week."

To do that, the Bucs need healthy bodies. To have healthy bodies, the Bucs need to take a break. It will come this week, when their schedule will resemble a lot of their most recent practices - abnormal.

The Bucs will practice Wednesday, but it will be more of a mental test than a physical one, Gruden said. And if the players pass that test, they'll likely get the rest of the week off.

"One of the big reasons [for the schedule] is we have a number of guys who are not [able] to practice," Gruden said. "We really don't have enough players, to be honest with you, to service a full-fledged practice.

"Therefore, we're going to use this as a time to get some players well and get them some extra treatment. So we can come back [next] Monday, our bonus day, and take advantage of it."

The Bucs hope to have several of their injured regulars back next week, including running back Michael Pittman, receiver Michael Clayton and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah.

Add them to the players who returned against Arizona on Sunday and the Bucs could field their healthiest lineup in weeks when they return to action Nov. 18 at Atlanta.

Preparations for that game already have begun. When the team returns to work, Gruden's emphasis clearly will be on the ability of the offense to finish what it starts.

In their past three games, the Bucs have moved the ball inside their opponent's 20-yard line nine times, but have only four touchdowns. Three of those nine red-zone opportunities have resulted in field goals, but two have resulted in nothing. There are some long drives the past few weeks that have netted the same result.

"We've had three 18-, 19-, 20-play drives - two in Detroit, one [against Arizona] - and we got no points," Gruden said. "We fumbled a snap on first-and-goal at the 1 and we had a penalty and a missed field goal at Detroit.

"Then we missed a wide open play [Sunday in which tight end Alex Smith] dropped the football [in the end zone], and we missed a short-range [26-yard] field goal.

"For us to win and beat good teams and move on, we're going to have to make those plays. I'm really pleased with the drives we've mounted and some of the results we've been getting. But there is nothing like going the whole day working throughout the week and not getting paid. We have to cash in on our hard work, and some of this playmaking that I'm talking about are routine plays. They're inexcusable."

The inefficient red-zone play already has cost the Bucs a game or two. It could wind up costing them a playoff berth as well, because it's beginning to look like the Bucs will have to win their division in order to advance.

Even at 5-4, the Bucs still trail the leaders in the race for the second NFC wild card berth by a game and a half. By the time they get back to work in two weeks, that deficit could be two games.

Winning the NFC South, which the Bucs currently lead, seems to be the best way to win a playoff berth. Even that won't be easy, especially with the slow-starting Saints on the rise. New Orleans has won four straight to move within a half-game of the Bucs. With St. Louis up next, a Saints' victory would give them a share of first place with the Bucs. The Panthers could join them at 5-4 if they defeat the Falcons on Sunday in Charlotte, creating a three-way tie with seven weeks to play.

Gruden hopes a healthier Bucs team will be a better, more efficient Bucs team. And if they can get in some proper practices, he believes they can continue to set the pace in their division.

"There are some real surprises going on in pro football during the first half of the season and that means there will probably be some in the second half of this season," Gruden said. "We'd like to be one of those surprise teams. But all you can control is what you can control, and that's preparing and practicing and getting ready to play your best."

Reporter Roy Cummings can be reached at (813) 259-7979 or rcummings@tampatrib.com.