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Bucs Beat

Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Bucs again seek new spark in return game

TAMPA -- Bobby Rainey is never short on confidence, so when you ask him if he's prepared to take over as the Bucs' return specialist, well, of course he is.

"Whenever my number's called, I'm going to be ready," said Rainey, who has handled returns in practice this week after the Bucs released returner Marcus Thigpen on Monday "Shoot, that doesn't change my approach. It gives me an opportunity to showcase what I can do back there on punt return if my number is called."

The return game has been a position of change this season for the Bucs -- rookie Solomon Patton handled punts and kickoffs for the first six games, then was replaced by Trindon Holliday, who lasted only one game before he was cut after a hamstring injury. Thigpen had the job for four games, including a 53-yard punt return, but after a second muffed kick in as many weeks, he was let go as well.

Lovie Smith, always hesitant to share depth-chart insights and surrender any tiny strategic advantage to his opponents, hasn't named a starter on returns -- another backup running back, Mike James, has been the top backup on kickoff returns this season. …

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Give up 204 yards and lose? First time for Lovie Smith

The recent improvement of the Bucs defense was obvious in Sunday's loss to the Bears, when Tampa Bay held Chicago to just 204 yards of total offense, its lowest total allowed in nearly four years, since Seattle mustered only 174 in a 38-15 Bucs win in December 2010.

But to give up 204 yards and still lose? That was a first for Lovie Smith as a head coach -- he had gone 12-0 all-time when his teams allowed so few yards in a game.

In the NFL this season, teams giving up 215 yards are less are 18-2, with 14 of those wins by 14 points or more and only one other game beside the Bucs -- the 49ers gave up just 193 yards in a 13-10 loss to St. Louis.

Since 2005, the Bucs had lost only other game when holding a team to 204 or less -- in 2008, the Cowboys got 172 total yards in a 13-9 win against Tampa Bay. The lowest yardage ever allowed by the Bucs in a loss? That would be 107 yards -- matching the Bucs' second-lowest allowed in any game, period -- as the Giants won 17-13 in 1999 on the strength of two defensive touchdowns. …

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David back at practice, while other Bucs injuries linger

Bucs linebacker Lavonte David practiced for the first time in two weeks Friday, an encouraging step as he works to return from the hamstring injury that sidelined him from Sunday's loss at Chicago.

"I'm feeling good. I feel real confident about Sunday," David said. "When Sunday gets here, we'll see how it goes, see what the verdict is. (It's been) very hard, sitting out for the first time since ever. Me being a competitor, I want to go out there and compete with my teammates. ... All signs are pointing up."

David's return would be a huge boost for the Bucs defense, as he hadn't missed a game in his three-year NFL career before Sunday and is still tied for the NFL lead with 116 combined tackles.

"Best outside linebacker in ball out there running around, getting closer to being full speed, that's a good thing," coach Lovie Smith said. "Hamstrings you have to be careful with. You can feel a lot better and stop having pain but you're not quite there yet. 'Vonte's close and that is definitely a big boost for our defense."

Several other key players did not practice Friday, putting their status for Sunday's home game against Cincinnati in jeopardy. …

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Bengals' Hill among strong LSU rookie class

Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, who faces the Bucs in town this weekend, was thinking what many NFL fans were thinking this week when he tweeted about the impact he and his fellow former LSU players have made as rookies this season:

"I'm still trying to figure out how we lost any games last year in college," he wrote.

Indeed, how exactly did LSU lose three games and finish its season here in Tampa with a win against Iowa in the Outback Bowl? All over the league, there are breakout rookies making Les Miles look like an underachiever. Hill faces the Bucs with 643 rushing yards and six touchdowns -- in the last four games, he's averaged 112 rushing yards, this after totaling 195 in the first seven games of the season.

He's not alone of course -- two of the league's most impressive rookie receivers are the former Tigers in the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. (609 yards, 5 TDs, this catch) and the Dolphins' Jarvis Landry (450 yards, 5 TDs). RB Alfred Blue, a sixth-rounder, has 436 yards for the Texans, and another sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger, has thrown for 1,103 yards and seven TDs since stepping in as the Titans' starting quarterback. …

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Bucs' Collins still inspired by late Bengals teammate Henry

Happy Thanksgiving to you, and Thursday's Times has a feature on Bucs tackle Anthony Collins, who has an emotional reunion Sunday with a Bengals team he played for in his first six NFL seasons. It's a reminder, too, of the impact that former Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died at age 26 in 2009, continues to have on Collins. Here's the full story.

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Bucs are hamstrung with leg injuries

Hamstring injuries have hamstrung the Bucs this season, particularly on defense.

Nose tackle Clinton McDonald, the only starter on defense not to miss a game this year, has not practiced this week due to a hamstring injury. The same ailment forced linebacker Lavonte David to miss the first game of his career last Sunday at Chicago and he missed a second day of workouts Wednesday.

All told, at least a half dozen players have missed games or significant practice time with hamstring injuries since end of Oct., a list that includes cornerback Alterraun Verner.

“It’s pretty normal for us,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. “We ask guys to run a lot more and Lavonte hadn’t missed a rep. These lower leg injuries pop up and hopefully it’s a short period of time and get them back in.

"(David) is definitely getting better and has a chance. We take our time with hamstrings. But he is doing some things on a limited basis. Not necessary practice, but just kind of getting back into it.’’

Bucs players and coaches decided to practice Tuesday and Wednesday so they could be off with families for Thanksgiving. …

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Lavonte David, Clinton McDonald still sidelined

Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, who missed Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, did not practice for the second straight day this week, with defensive tackle Clinton McDonald also held out of Wednesday's practice at One Buc Place.

Rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was back practicing after sitting out Tuesday with back problems that took him out of much of Sunday's loss at Chicago. Two other tight ends -- Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker -- remained out, with new arrivals Cameron Brate and D.J. Williams taking their place in drills.

Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who sat out Tuesday's drills, was not seen at Wednesday's practice, though his absence may be more illness-related than injury-related.

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David, TEs sidelined as Bucs practice at Trop

Afternoon rains sent the Bucs indoors to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for Tuesday's practice, where linebacker Lavonte David did not practice as he continues to be sidelined by a hamstring injury.

David, who missed the first game of his three-year career Sunday, was the most notable name held out, but the team's top three tight ends were also sidelined -- rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins (back) and Brandon Myers (calf) watched and Luke Stocker was not seen in attendance. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard Logan Mankins and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald were also held out.

We'll have more on the Bucs and their injuries when Lovie Smith speaks to the media around 5 p.m. ...

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Fourth try: Bucs release returner Marcus Thigpen

The revolving door at return specialist continues to spin for the Bucs, who released Marcus Thigpen on Tuesday after he muffed a punt return for the second week in a row in Sunday's loss at Chicago.

Thigpen, who had handled punts and kickoffs for the past four games, had a 53-yard punt return against the Falcons, the team's longest since 2009, but muffed a punt that was recovered by the Redskins last week, then recovered his own muff on a kick Sunday. Of the 14 kickoffs he handled in four games, just one was brought out past the 21-yard line, and even that just to the 27.

The Bucs did not sign a returner in getting back to 53 players Tuesday, suggesting their next option could be in-house -- running back Bobby Rainey has been the backup for punt returns all season, while running back Mike James has been the No. 2 for kickoffs. Both would be in lesser roles offensively, with starter Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims healthy and leading the rotation in the backfield.

Thigpen was the Bucs' third returner this season, after rookie Solomon Patton handled the first six games, then former Broncos star Trindon Holliday played one game before being released with a hamstring injury.

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Amid injuries, Bucs add tight ends Brate, Williams

With injuries to all three tight ends in Sunday's loss at Chicago, the Bucs have made a flurry of moves at the position, promoting rookie Cameron Brate from the practice squad, signing former Packers and Patriots tight end D.J. Williams and adding Evan Rodriguez and Taylor Sloat to the practice squad.

Rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins said his back, which tightened up Sunday, limiting him to 20 snaps, is already improving, and Brandon Myers said the calf injury that limited him to 17 plays is feeling better as well. Myers was no longer wearing a walking boot Tuesday in the locker room.

To meet the newcomers: Brate is a Harvard grad who has been on the practice squad since final preseason cuts,

"You never know when your day is going to come as a practice-squad guy. You don't want to see the guys ahead of you go down," Brate said. "You have to be ready whenever that happens. I'm super-excited for this week and the opportunity."

Williams, a Packers fifth-round draft pick out of Arkansas in 2011, was with Bucs director of player personnel Jon Robinson in New England, and among the Patriots' final cuts this preseason. …

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Bucs Smith says re-tooling of the O-line has not worked

A priority in the off-season for the Bucs was re-tooling their offensive line as they said goodbye to mainstays such as left tackle Donald Penn, guard Davin Joseph and center Jeremy Zuttah in one fashion or another.

They essentially were replaced by three veterans -- tackle Anthony Collins, guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

But following a 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday, coach Lovie Smith said that the changes on the offensive line haven't worked as well as they planned.

"I think that's safe to say. We haven't played as well on the offensive line as we hoped,'' Smith said. "We thought we needed to re-tool it starting off and we had a few injuries. But we haven't played as well as we need to. Everything starts up front, as we talk about what we're doing offensively, I'll always start of talking about what we can do with our offensive line.''

The Bucs have only rushed for at least 100 yards just once in their last nine games after accompishing the feat in each of the first two games. On Sunday, the Bucs rushed for only 66 yards on 22 carries and their longest run from scrimmage was 10 yards. …

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Notes: Smith not pleased with Thigpen, return game

After return specialist Marcus Thigpen muffed a punt return for the second week in a row -- recovering the loose ball himself this time -- Lovie Smith stopped short of saying he would continue as the team's returner.

"It's been a quick turnaround. Each week we analyze what gives us the best opportunity to win," Smith said. "We haven't been pleased ... I think three games now we've put balls on the ground. It's not a good thing. We haven't been able to get much production from our punting return game or our kickoff return game and we need to do that."

Thigpen had a 53-yard punt return earlier this season, but in four games of kickoff returns, he's only once brought a kickoff out farther than the 21-yard line, and that was only the 27. The Bucs are already on their third returner of the season, having waived rookie Solomon Patton, then cut Trindon Holliday after only one game due to a hamstring injury. …

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Bucs coach Smith says re-tooling of O-line hasn't worked

A priority in the off-season for the Bucs was re-tooling their offensive line as they said goodbye to mainstays such as left tackle Donald Penn, guard Davin Joseph and center Jeremy Zuttah in one fashion or another.

They essentially were replaced by three veterans -- tackle Anthony Collins, guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

But following a 21-13 loss to the Chicago Bears Sunday, coach Lovie Smith said that the changes on the offensive line haven't worked as well as they planned.

"I think that's safe to say. We haven't played as well on the offensive line as we hoped,'' Smith said. "We thought we needed to re-tool it starting off and we had a few injuries. But we haven't played as well as we need to. Everything starts up front, as we talk about what we're doing offensively, I'll always start of talking about what we can do with our offensive line.''

The Bucs have only rushed for at least 100 yards just once in their last nine games after accompishing the feat in each of the first two games. On Sunday, the Bucs rushed for only 66 yards on 22 carries and their longest run from scrimmage was 10 yards. …

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Fullback Jorvorskie Lane done for season with broken leg

Jorvorskie Lane, who will undergo surgery Tuesday, is the only fullback on the Bucs' roster. [AP photo]

Jorvorskie Lane, who will undergo surgery Tuesday, is the only fullback on the Bucs' roster. [AP photo]

Bucs fullback Jorvorskie Lane, carted off the field early in Sunday's loss at Chicago, broke a bone in his lower right leg and is done for the season, his manager Mike Brand said Monday afternoon.

Lane, who will undergo surgery Tuesday, is the only fullback on the Bucs' roster. Tight end Luke Stocker filled in as a blocking back for much of Sunday's game, but all three Bucs tight ends went down with injuries at different points Sunday, so the team is likely needing to bring in another player this week.

Tampa Bay has two tight ends on the practice squad in rookies Cameron Brate and Ted Bolser, and former FSU fullback Lonnie Pryor, who was on the team's practice squad last month during Lane's two-game suspension, could also return.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith acknowledged that losing Lane and the tight ends played a role in the team running the ball less in the second half -- the Bucs rushed for just 66 yards while rotating starter Doug Martin, rookie Charles Sims and backup Bobby Rainey in the backfield. …

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Even on short fields, Bucs defense needed to make stops

Matt Forte scores on a 13-yard run in the third quarter.

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Matt Forte scores on a 13-yard run in the third quarter.

CHICAGO -- The Bucs defense could point to the length of the Bears' three touchdown drives -- just 47, 13 and 15 yards -- but Sunday's 21-13 loss was a reminder that they need to respond no matter where the opposing offense gets the ball.

"Like our coach said: Those three touchdowns, if we would have made them kick field goals all three times, it's 10-9. That's something we've got to fix," cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "I think everything's showing improvement. It's not enough to get improvement. You want to get wins."

Coaches call it "sudden change" -- a defense must respond to adversity in a hurry, or else you see Matt Forte get his longest run of the game, 13 yards, for a 13-yard touchdown after Josh McCown lost a fumble Chicago recovered deep in Bucs territory.

"We can't control what happens on the other side of the ball, but we have to ball out in any situation and hold their offense," linebacker Danny Lansanah said. …

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