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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unsung players answer the call for Bucs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The most impactful messages are usually concise and to the point, and Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano appeared to nail both criteria with the little idiom he came up with a couple weeks ago:

“It’s not about who we don’t have, it’s about who we do have.’’

For days prior to last week’s game against the Lions, Schiano threw that catchphrase out every chance he got — in team meetings, before practices, even while passing a player in the hallway.

It has come to define Tampa Bay’s recent rise from the ashes.

The Bucs have won three straight to ease the sting of an 0-8 start, and they’ve done so without several of the players they were counting on to make them a playoff contender.

At Detroit, for example, they were without Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson (suspension), Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin (shoulder surgery) and middle linebacker Mason Foster (concussion), just to name a few.

But it’s not about them, is it?

No, for three weeks now, it has been more about the unknown roster fillers the Bucs do have — such as running back Bobby Rainey, safety Kelcie McCray and safety Keith Tandy. And again, that’s just to name a few.

You can’t tell the story of the Bucs’ three-game rebound without chronicling the contributions players such as quarterback Mike Glennon, tight end Tim Wright and cornerback Johnthan Banks have made. Those three rookies began the season as either backups to more established starters or sub-package reserves. But in recent weeks, each has become not only a starter but also a key contributor.

Glennon, who started the season as the backup to the eventually exiled Josh Freeman, has arguably made the biggest contribution, righting an offense on the brink of keeling over when he took the helm nine weeks ago.

After a slow start in which he threw a pair of game-changing interceptions against the Cardinals, Glennon has emerged as not only the NFL’s top rookie quarterback, but also one of the league’s top quarterbacks, period.

He enters today’s game against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium ranked ninth in passer rating (91.6) and a 13-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio that belies his experience level.

“He could be a big part of what they do in Tampa for a long time to come,’’ Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Glennon, who has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions since that wobbly beginning.

“He’s got great poise in the pocket, a good arm and he makes good decisions. He throws a nice ball, doesn’t seem to panic, and his teammates feel that swagger, that confidence, and it permeates through the rest of the offense.’’

The emergence of Wright has allowed the Bucs to overcome the losses Luke Stocker (hip) and Tom Crabtree (biceps). A receiver until Schiano moved him during offseason workouts last summer, Wright has 34 receptions for 366 yards and two touchdowns, second among NFL rookie tight ends to the Redskins’ Jordan Reed (45-499-3) and second on the Bucs to Vincent Jackson (58-888-5).

“Holy cow,’’ Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said of Wright’s contribution. “This is a guy who had never done it before at tight end, and it’s been a process with him, but he’s shown the willingness and the intelligence to get it done.

“And now, he’s really developed into a guy that we feel very excited about in the pass game and that is doing enough good things in the run game to where you can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s a pass,’ anymore because it’s not.”

That run game is where you’ll find the rebound within the rebound. The Bucs averaged just 83 rushing yards through their first seven games. In their past four, however, they averaged 138 yards. That includes the measly 22 yards at Detroit last week.

Again, the addition of a player from the bottom of the depth chart, journeyman left guard Jamon Meredith, fueled the rise. The Bucs plugged Meredith, a converted tackle, into the lineup after three others failed to adequately fill in for Pro Bowler Carl Nicks (MRSA).

“Jamon is a real tough, hungry guy, and he’s made some good plays for us,’’ Sullivan said. “If Jamon and those other four guys can just continue to work the way they have, we’re going to be successful here.’’

The running backs, at least one of which Bucs teammates had never heard of, certainly have played a role, too. Many thought the Bucs were done when Martin injured his left shoulder on Oct. 20. But the little-known Rainey, claimed off waivers from Cleveland a month ago, fueled the Bucs’ first two victories, running for 45 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Miami and for 163 yards and two touchdowns against Atlanta.

“We have great coaches here and they’ve been working hard with these guys since they got here,’’ said Foster, who is expected to play today. “They’ve done a great job getting those young guys ready, and when their name has been called those guys have stepped up and made plays for us.’’

Few have stepped up as big as Tandy, McCray and Banks did when the Bucs posted their third straight victory with a 24-21 upset of the Lions at Ford Field.

Tandy, a second-year converted cornerback who started in place of Goldson, had an interception. McCray, claimed off waivers from the Dolphins earlier in the year, had a fumble recovery. And Banks, who covered wideout Calvin Johnson when cornerback Darrelle Revis left the game with a groin strain, had the game-sealing interception after McCray knocked the ball out of Johnson’s hands.

“I knew I was going to play more because (Goldson) wasn’t playing,’’ McCray said. “So I knew I had an opportunity to get more snaps and I just wanted to go in there and make the best of it.

“One of my coaches told me three weeks ago, ‘Whenever your number is called, you have to be ready.’ And that’s the approach I took. I just practiced every day like I was going to be the guy and it worked out for me.”

It’s the approach everyone from Glennon to Banks has taken. And Schiano believes the combination of his staff’s trust in those players and the players’ belief in themselves is the reason so many have stepped up from the bottom of the roster to make such an impact.

“I think guys understand that it’s a blessing to be in this league and they’re trying to take advantage of their opportunity,’’ Schiano said. “We always talk about how one guy’s misfortune is another guy’s opportunity and they’ve jumped on that.

“The other thing we often say around here is that, ‘There is no such thing as a missed opportunity in the National Football League.’ Someone is always there to take advantage of it, so let it be you that takes advantage. And that’s what these guys have done.’’

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