TAMPA, Fla. – Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David said he’s confident he’ll be able to play Sunday against Cincinnati.

David, who missed last Sunday's game with Chicago with a hamstring injury, took part in Friday’s practice. David said sitting out last week was difficult.

“It’s very hard sitting out the first time since ever," David said. “It’s real tough for me. Being a competitor, I want to go out there and compete with my teammates. It was tough."

Coach Lovie Smith said David's status could be a game-time decision, but he was encouraged by the return to practice. Smith said getting David back would be a big boost for the defense.

“Quite a bit," Smith said. “Best outside linebacker in ball out there running around and getting close to full speed. That’s a good thing."

The Bucs have some other injury concerns. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith continued to be held out of practice with flu-like symptoms. If Dietrich-Smith isn’t able to play Sunday, Garrett Gilkey likely would fill his role.

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (hamstring) didn’t practice. If McDonald can’t play, Akeem Spence likely would replace him. Backup tight ends Luke Stocker (concussion) and Brandon Myers (calf) were held out of practice and it’s unlikely they’ll play. The team elevated Cameron Brate from the practice squad and said D.J. Williams and Brate are the likely backups for Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Safety Dashon Goldson also was experiencing flu-like symptoms and was held out of practice.

Although they've been doing everything possible to knock themselves out of the NFC South race, the Bucs somehow are still in it.

But that’s only because the rest of the NFC South is so bad. I don’t see the Bucs gaining any ground this week. They’re overmatched by a Cincinnati team that’s in first place in the AFC North.

I see the Bengals literally running over the Bucs. That’s because the Bengals rank No. 7 in the league in rushing offense. The Bucs are tied for No. 19 in run defense. This one looks like a mismatch.

My prediction: Bengals 27, Bucs 13
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: CBS

At 7-3-1, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North. Barely.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore each are 7-4. The Bengals are in the thick of a playoff race in what might be the league's toughest division.

On Sunday, the Bengals will play another playoff contender. Seriously, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in the shockingly weak NFC South. The Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the win column.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s matchup:

Harvey: Pat, this is so weird to me: The Bucs, with two wins, still are technically in the NFC South playoff hunt because the division is so bad. I know recently you said that the team needed to start thinking about next year, but what do you sense the players’ approach is about still possibly trying to sneak into the postseason?

Yasinskas: Even the Bucs are amazed that they technically still are in the division race. Coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win and aren't planning to look at young players to get ready for next season. I think that really is the only approach Smith can take. His team is only two games off the division lead, so the Bucs might as well play to win.

The Bengals lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head-coaching jobs in the offseason, but it doesn't seem as if they've missed a beat. How have they adapted to the changes?

Harvey: Well, Pat, I wouldn't quite say the haven't "missed a beat." You and the Buccaneers just happen to be getting ready to see them at the right time. Three weeks ago at home on a Thursday night against the Browns, the offense and the defense looked as if they had just been handed Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's new schemes about an hour before kickoff. They didn't run much in that game; they didn't pass well; and they didn't stop the run at all. In fact, until two weeks ago, the Bengals had allowed seven straight 100-yard rushing performances by opposing offenses. They ranked 31st in rush defense coming out of the 24-3 loss to the Browns. They have since turned it around with two 75-yards-and-under performances to rank 27th. Still not great, but progress.

Overall, though, the Bengals have adapted well to the changes at coordinator. Through the first three games, they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball and were 3-0. Injuries later handcuffed them, with key players Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andre Smith among those occasionally hurt. Now that they’re healthier, the Bengals have shown at New Orleans and Houston the past two weeks that they have a full grasp of Jackson's and Guenther's systems.

It's clear Josh McCown wears his heart on his sleeve. And although there were no tears after his homecoming loss in Chicago on Sunday, how much could that loss in particular weigh on him entering this week?

Yasinskas: Knowing McCown, he'll use what happened in Chicago as a motivating factor. The Chicago game was extra important to McCown because of his past there, but he wound up playing perhaps his worst game of the year. But I can't see McCown pouting about it. He's a pro's pro, and he'll be trying hard to bounce back from a bad game.

The Bengals have been running the ball especially well. Why have they been so successful on the ground?

Harvey: They are, in a word, "stubborn." That was the word Jackson used earlier this season after his backs carried the ball 12 times in a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis (another game neither side showed up for). He indicated then that, although the score eventually dictated the Bengals needed to pass to get back into that game, he still thought, in retrospect, that he abandoned the run way too soon. What we've seen in three of the past four games is a stubbornness when it comes to running the ball.

Since their 12-carry day at Indy, the Bengals have averaged 31.8 rushes per game. Whether down by a few or ahead in a close contest, the Bengals have made more of a concerted effort to keep feeding their backs. And those backs, namely rookie Jeremy Hill, have rewarded them. When Bernard missed three straight games recently, Hill rushed for 361 yards in his place, going for more than 150 yards in two games. Now both backs are healthy again, and there is clearly a renewed focus on running the ball. In Sunday's win at Houston, they rushed 43 times.

I see Michael Johnson's production is down in Tampa Bay this year. He hasn't much looked like a defensive end worth $9 million a year. What has led to his poor play, and is there still confidence that he could be the team's future defensive cornerstone?

Yasinskas: Johnson's lack of production is a bit misleading. He has been injured virtually all season. He played through an ankle injury early on and is playing with a broken hand right now. That has limited his playing time. But Johnson is getting close to being fully healthy, and the Bucs remain optimistic about his future.

Speaking of Johnson, who has taken his place at defensive end, and how has that worked out for the Bengals?

Harvey: Johnson's replacement, so to speak, has been Carlos Dunlap, a fifth-year player who helped Johnson bookend the defensive line the past four seasons. Dunlap was already a solid player, but he has emerged as the line's star now that Johnson is gone. It isn't just on the field that Dunlap has replicated his former teammate -- he's closing in on potential career highs in tackles (48 currently) and sacks (5.5 currently) -- he has done it off the field, too. In Cincinnati, the Carlos Dunlap Foundation has become the most recognized of the team's player charities, and he has taken a more active role in working with underprivileged children and treating them to experiences such as a Cincinnati Reds game. As you well know, Pat, Johnson remains quite active in the community in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.

Dunlap isn't doing it all himself, though. Wallace Gilberry also has had an impactful year in the Bengals’ pass rush, as has the Bengals' most-tenured player, veteran Robert Geathers, who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.

TAMPA, Fla. -- In a 2-9 season, it’s hard to pick out bright spots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But there has been one area where the Bucs have been trending up for the last month or so: defense. Since Week 8, the defense, which was ranked last in the league at one point, has been dramatically better.

Since Week 8, the Tampa Bay defense ranks fourth in the league in yards allowed. In that same span, the Bucs have recorded 14 sacks, which is tied for fifth in the NFL. In that time frame, Gerald McCoy has 5.5 sacks and Jacquies Smith has four sacks.

The surge by the defense could be a sign of better things to come. But it’s really not a surprise that it took some time for the unit to fully grasp the Tampa 2 defense. McCoy said he talked to former Tampa Bay greats Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks soon after Lovie Smith was hired to coach the Bucs, and they told him not to expect the defense to be great right away.

“Guys that have been in this defense, they just know it takes time," McCoy said.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier agreed the defense takes time to master.

“Part of it is guys having a better understanding," Frazier said. “We’ve been together longer now. They’ve heard these terms a lot more."

Frazier also said some of the defensive improvement can be traced to personnel moves. He pointed to Jacquies Smith and safety Major Wright, who have moved into starting roles.

Frazier also singled out a few other players. He sang the praises of middle linebacker Mason Foster.

“I think he has a better command of the middle linebacker position in this system and what’s required," Frazier said. “You really are the quarterback of the defense in this system. If you don’t have a good grasp of what other people’s roles are, then you are not going to be what we need at the middle linebacker position. He’s become more aware of his responsibilities and the fact that he can’t have tunnel vision and just think about (middle linebacker). He has to be aware of what’s happening with the people in front of him and even the people behind him. He’s grown in that area, and I think it’s helped us improve."

Frazier also said second-year cornerback Johnthan Banks has helped the defense improve.

“He kind of mirrors the improvement of our defense," Frazier said. “You look at the way he has come along, I think it coincides with the rest of our defense. You can see the growth. He’s making more plays. He’s playing with more confidence."

McCoy said the defense’s attitude has changed and the unit has become more consistent.

“The true measure of a man’s mental toughness is consistency," McCoy said. “You want to work to be consistent. The greatest anything is consistent, whether it’s a restaurant, a person’s stats, your momma’s cooking. If it’s great, it’s consistent. I think we’re working to be more consistent and our attitude has changed."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Demar Dotson doesn't get quoted a lot, which is unfortunate.

It probably has a lot to do with the anonymous nature of the offensive line. But Dotson is one of the most straight-forward players in Tampa Bay's locker room. That was the case Wednesday when Dotson was asked about the Bucs being winless at home.

"It's disgusting to think about," Dotson said.

The Bucs are 0-5 at Raymond James Stadium this season. Their only two victories have come on the road. Dotson said Tampa Bay's fans deserve a better product than they've seen so far this season.

"That is tough," Dotson said. "I know that the fans are ready to see a win and we need one for ourselves."

Dotson said the best way for the Bucs to break the streak is to stop beating themselves.

"It's not that we don't have good enough guys," Dotson said. "I think it's more what we're doing to ourselves. Stop shooting ourselves in the foot. It takes each person digging down and making a mindset change."

Bucs embrace backfield-by-committee approach

November, 26, 2014
Nov 26

ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas says tailback Doug Martin will likely continue to split snaps with Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims, and might even become expendable in the offseason.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Doug Martin knows the critics are out there.

They say he has lost it and he's not the same running back who rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012. So what does the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running back say about all that?

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsBucs RB Doug Martin is averaging 2.8 yards per carry, far below his 2012 season average of 4.6.
"I don't say anything," Martin said. "That's something you've got to ignore. That's just outside noise. You've just got to ignore that and keep playing the game and having confidence in my game. It's just something that you've got to brush off."

But Martin hasn't been able to brush off defenders very often this season and that has fueled the critics. Martin is averaging just 2.8 yards a carry and has 193 rushing yards and one touchdown.

Injuries have been a factor. Martin missed two games with a knee injury and three games with an ankle injury.

"You don't want to make excuses, but injuries do kind of slow you down," Martin said.

But Martin is healthy now and his production hasn't picked up. In Sunday's loss to Chicago, Martin had 11 carries for 27 yards. He also was used in a rotation with Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey.

"As a running back you do want a rhythm," Martin said. "But we have Charles, Bobby and myself in the backfield and each guy brings something different to the table."

Coach Lovie Smith has said the run blocking by the offensive line hasn't been as good as he would like. That's a big part of the reason the Bucs rank No. 29 in the league in rushing offense.

But much of the blame from the outside is falling on Martin. From the inside, the belief is Martin still has what it takes to be an elite back.

"I think so," quarterback Josh McCown said. "Everything's been so up and down with injuries and stuff like that. There's been an inconsistency of just time for him. It's not anybody's fault. It's just where it's been. I still absolutely think he's capable of doing those things because it still flashes. I think it's more of us as a whole, as a group, continuing to improve in that area."

Martin said he is every bit as good as he was as a rookie.

"I do believe so," Martin said. "I'm very confident in my ability."

But the only way to silence the critics is to start churning out yards like he did in 2012.

Buccaneers shake up return game

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have given up on return man Marcus Thigpen.

The team waived Thigpen on Tuesday and made a couple moves at tight end, where injuries are a concern. Thigpen had struggled since taking over the job from Trindon Holliday.

The Bucs didn’t add a return man in their roster moves, so it appears likely they’ll turn to in-house candidates. Receiver Louis Murphy and running back Bobby Rainey can do punt returns. Those two also could be candidates along with running back Mike James for kickoff returns.

The moves at tight end came after all three tight ends were injured in Sunday’s loss to Chicago. The Bucs promoted tight end Cameron Brate from the practice squad and signed tight end D.J. Williams.

It’s unclear how serious the injuries are to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker, but the moves indicate the Bucs expect at least some of their tight ends to be out for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

The Bucs also made some moves on their practice squad, signing linebacker Denicos Allen, tight end Taylor Sloat and fullback Evan Rodriguez while releasing tight end Ted Bolser and cornerback Quinton Pointer.

QB snapshot: Josh McCown

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Josh McCown and how he played in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 21-13 loss to Chicago in Week 12:

McCown had what probably was his worst outing of the season. He looked off all day, completing just 25 of 48 passes for 341 yards.

But don’t let the yardage total fool you. McCown was not efficient. He was intercepted twice and lost a fumble. His turnovers cost the Bucs dearly.

Rain and wet conditions may have played a factor in McCown’s dismal day. But he’s a 13-year veteran who has played in all sorts of weather, so the elements aren’t a valid excuse.

All of that came a week after McCown had his best game of the season in a victory against Washington. McCown has to play the way he did against Washington in order for the Bucs to have a chance against the Bengals on Sunday.

The 2014 rookie receiver class might be the best ever; 23 pass-catchers could have 1,000-yard seasons.
TAMPA, Fla. -- His team is 2-9, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith continues to point to the NFC South standings.

He did it again Monday and he can do it again today. With New Orleans losing to Baltimore on Monday night, the Saints and Atlanta are 4-7. Carolina is 3-7-1.

"We're two games out of first place," Smith said Monday afternoon. "We are still in the playoff hunt. So there's no looking at younger players -- it's who gives us our best chance to win, period. So it's pretty easy for us right now. Forget the record right now; everyone in the NFC South is disappointed and has let games get away and feel like they're a pretty good football team -- we're right in the mix of that. So it's full steam ahead for Cincinnati [this week's opponent] for us."

Smith is right. The Bucs still are in the NFC South hunt. They have five games left to play, including contests with New Orleans and Carolina. The Bucs are facing an uphill battle, but the other three NFC South teams are struggling, so anything is possible.

The Bucs should play to win as long as they remain in contention. But Smith already is taking long looks at some younger players. He gave defensive end Jacquies Smith a start Sunday and has been playing rookie running back Charles Sims extensively.

Moves like that aren't geared toward next season. Guys like Smith and Sims are playing a lot because they've shown they give the Bucs the best chance to win now.
Happy early Thanksgiving!

Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for ESPN NFL Nation TV's Spreecast as episode No. 33 gives a Turkey Day preview, revisits Odell Beckham Jr.'s insane three-fingered catch, and discusses several teams' futures given the varying quarterback situations they have inherited this season.

Host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and co-host Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears reporter), John Keim (Washington Redskins reporter) and Phil Sheridan (Philadelphia Eagles reporter).

Plus, Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers reporter) and Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) will debate in this week's "Main Event" about Sunday's big game at Lambeau Field that will feature MVP candidates Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.