Buccaneers: Offensive line troubles

Cadillac Williams, a 23-yard day.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to figure out just what went wrong on Saturday against the Patriots. New England shut out a good Tampa Bay team that looked anything but good enough to make it to the postseason. Chris Simms was sacked 7 times, and Carnell Williams was completely shut down. The problems may only get worse for the Bucs as they may have lost their best lineman.

The Bucs could have more problems protecting QB Chris Simms.

Starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker, arguably the team's best blocker, suffered a right knee sprain in the Bucs' 28-0 loss at New England.

Walker was scheduled to have an MRI exam Sunday, but his status is unknown for Tampa Bay's game against the Atlanta Falcons on Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, Simms emerged from the melee with only a sore body and sprained thumb on his left hand - his throwing hand.

"I think he's okay," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He was able to throw the ball. I'm sure he's a bit sore today. He took a lot of hits yesterday. We think he'll be ready to go for this game."

Gruden said Simms took too many hits against the Patriots, who held the Bucs to a season-low 138 total yards in handing Tampa Bay its first shutout loss since 1999.

The defeat dropped the Bucs (9-5) one game behind NFC South leader Carolina (10-4), which beat New Orleans 24-10 Sunday.

"It can make a veteran quarterback (skittish)," Gruden said of watching Simms under siege. "It can make me skittish on the sideline. He took too many hits. Obviously, we got into the kind of game we didn't want to get into. Unfortunately, we were unable to pass protect better yesterday.

"Yes, they were surprising. They didn't go real deep in their playbook to create any awkward or new blitzes that we haven't seen. We just got whipped in some particular instances. We paid for that yesterday. We're disappointed. We think we can do much better than that, but you don't get do-overs in this business. Hopefully, we can show some resolve and come back much better next week."

It wasn't just protecting Simms where the offensive line failed miserably Saturday. Rookie Cadillac Williams was held to 23 yards on 14 carries.

"I think the longest run we had yesterday was a 4-yard gain," Gruden said. "That's not going to help you really get a lot sustained. We got destroyed on a third-and-1 play in the first half, a play that is a trademark play for us. We didn't knock people off the ball yesterday like we had in previous weeks. It's a credit to New England and certainly something that we've got to raise our hand and say, "Hey, we didn't do a good enough job."

If Walker is unable to play this week, he would be replaced by veteran Todd Steussie. Continuity is one thing the Bucs have had going for them this season. The Bucs have started the same five offensive linemen every game this year.

Walker said he was uncertain why the Bucs' offense took a step backward Saturday.

"I don't know until I look at the film," Walker said following Saturday's game. "I definitely cannot talk about the running backs and what went on. I can say if you get in third-and-long with a team like that, that likes to confuse you and blitz a lot, you just can't do that."

Because of the pressure on Simms, the Bucs were unable to take many shots in the passing game down the field.

"We planned to," quarterback Chris Simms said. "They played some real soft zone coverage. That makes it tough to throw the ball downfield. And they rushed the passer pretty good, too. That makes it tough to sit in the pocket and let something develop down the field."

Simms went 21-of-34 passing for 155 yards and fumbled twice, losing one that set up a Patriots touchdown. He also continued to be victimized by dropped passes.

"We have dropped some passes," Gruden said. "Not only Joey (Galloway), we've dropped several passes the last five or six games. I think we've had 13 or 14 drops. When you attempt a forward pass, there's only one good thing that can happen, and that's a completion. Sacks, incomplete passes and interceptions are negatives. We've got to do a much better job as a football team, as an offensive football team, catching the ball. I think all of our skill people respect that and understand that."

NOTES

--The Bucs are in pretty good shape for the playoffs. In fact, wins over Atlanta and New Orleans, coupled with a loss by Carolina to either Dallas or Atlanta, would give Tampa Bay its second NFC South title in four years.

"We're going to lean on our veteran football players who have been down this road before," Gruden said. "And we're going to try to fill up some our younger players' tanks with a little bit more fuel and try to round our team into as good of shape as we can for this upcoming game. Atlanta will come in here with a very talented roster and they are the defending (NFC) South champions."

--Defensive end Simeon Rice recorded his 10th sack of the season against the Patriots. In eight of his 10 NFL seasons, Rice has reached double-digit sack totals, including five straight years.

"It's hard to come out and perform like that for a long time," Rice said. "But at this point, with a victory, it would've been really big."

--Running back Cadillac Williams fell well short of the 76 yards he needed to reach 1,000 yards for his rookie season. He was held to 23 yards on 14 carries against the Patriots.

"It seemed like those guys were everywhere," Williams said.

PLAYER NOTES

--DT Anthony McFarland has a sprained knee and is doubtful for Saturday's game against the Falcons.
--TE Anthony Becht sprained his right ankle against the Patriots and is wearing a protective cast. His status is unknown for Saturday's game against the Falcons.
--RT Kenyatta Walker suffered a knee sprain against the Patriots and his status is unknown for Saturday's game against Atlanta.
--QB Chris Simms has a sprained thumb on his left hand - his throwing hand - but is expected to play Saturday against the Falcons.

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