Bucs’ Bowles weighs options to play starters in Week 18

The fact that the Bucs won the NFC South division with one week left in the 2022 regular season, they are in a precarious situation heading into the final game of the regular season. Tampa Bay is ranked No. 4 in the playoffs and cannot move up or down based on the outcome of Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

Will some of the Bucs’ top starters, without really much to play for, get a game off to keep them sane for the postseason? Head coach Todd Bowles is weighing all his options.

Bucs HC Todd Bowles – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“Right now I plan to play them,” Bowles said Monday. “We’ll see as the week goes on, but we can get better at a lot of things we need to work on, and we don’t have to go off the gas.”

Tampa Bay is coming off one of their best offensive performances of the season where they scored 30 points. The Bucs haven’t scored in high volume this season, so the importance of building on that performance is probably a little higher than usual.

Then again – if something happened to one of their best players, like an injury to quarterback Tom Brady, it would derail the Bucs’ playoff chances before they even made it to the game. It’s a thin line to balance, but Bowles said if you worry about getting hurt, you’re going to get hurt.

“I mean, it’s football. You can’t play 16 games and then worry about the 17th,” said Bowles. “You can’t play three preseason games and 16 games and practice every day and say you’re going to get injured in the 17th game. You can get injured the first week, you can get injured in training camp. If you’re worried about that, you’re probably going to get hurt anyway.

“We signed up to play football and coach football, that’s what we’re going to do. Everyone who loves football, who loves to play, will play the game. Injuries are going to happen. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in week 17, the playoff game or the preseason. You just have to coach it and you have to play it. If you’re worried about injuries, you probably don’t have to play this sport.”

The main players of Bucs are struggling with injuries

Last week’s matchup with the Panthers was essentially a playoff game. If the Bucs won, they captured the division. If the Panthers won, they would be playing a game with one to go. As a result, Tampa Bay saw players who had been out return to the lineup. Defensive tackle Vita Vea (calf) and cornerback Jamel Dean (toe) returned to action as two examples.

But if the division title is secured, would players dealing with more serious injuries go for a game like this?

Offensive tackle is another topic of discussion. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs is struggling with a high ankle sprain, while left tackle Donovan Smith has just returned from a foot injury. It sounds like it would be best if they rested, but with a 53-man roster, Bowles and the coaches can only place a limited number of guys, especially in a position thin on the depth chart.

Bucs Rt Tristan Wirfs, C Robert Hainsey, Lt Donovan Smith and Qb Tom Brady

Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs, C Robert Hainsey, LT Donovan Smith and QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today

“Well, we don’t have many to begin with,” Bowles said. “It’s not like a training camp when you have 80 men, 90 men. We are limited to begin with, but some guys need some work on things. As the week progresses we will progress and make those decisions, but right now everyone needs to plan to play.

Quarterback Tom Brady has already come out and said he wants to play. The scenario was also brought to Bowles from the starters who started the game and were drawn at the halfway point. He’s open to the idea, but it sounds like the overall decision could change over the course of the week.

“It’s possible,” Bowles said. “Like I said, it’s early in the week. We haven’t made any decisions yet. We haven’t spoken to each other about it, we haven’t talked about it, everything is on the table. We talk about it and we go from there.”

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