TAMPA — Crunch time took on a new meaning for Vernon Hargreaves in the fourth quarter Sunday at New Orleans.
Trying to protect a 24-point lead, the Bucs defensive back extended an arm to swat away a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara on third down. Hargreaves landed awkwardly, and trainers took him immediately to the locker room to examine his left shoulder.
Wednesday, Hargreaves visited orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who confirmed the worst: The shoulder would probably require surgery and his season appears to be over. The Bucs placed the former Gators and Wharton High standout on injured reserve.
"That hurt because Vern is my boy outside of football,'' cornerback Ryan Smith said. "Just seeing him go down, seeing anybody go down, it's not something you want to see. We got to pray for Vern. He'll be coming back strong, and we've just got to keep moving forward.''
Hargreaves, who missed seven games with a hamstring strain last season, eventually will see his shoulder heal. But the Bucs are about to have some severe growing pains at defensive back.
Starter Brent Grimes missed the first game with a groin strain and did not practice Wednesday. That means rookies Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart are going to have to perform like veterans, starting with Sunday's game against the Eagles.
"Vern had really done a nice job all through training camp, all through preseason," coach Dirk Koetter said. "He made a beautiful play on the play he got injured on.
" I feel horrible for Vern because he didn't do anything to deserve this, but that's NFL football right now. … Every team is going to have (injuries) every week. It just means the next guy has to come up and be ready to go.
"In this case, we had to make a couple roster moves. We'll be getting Brent Grimes back soon, and the rookies, they'll be playing a bigger role.''
By losing Hargreaves, the Bucs essentially have to replace two players. He played right cornerback in the base 4-3 defense. But when the Bucs went to the sub package against three and four receivers, Hargreaves would move to the slot nickel defensive back position and Davis would take his spot outside.
A second-round draft pick out of Auburn, Davis had a difficult debut with the rest of the Bucs' secondary, which allowed Saints quarterback Drew Brees to pass for 439 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay's 48-40 win. It included a 28-yard score to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with Davis biting on an out-and-up route.
"It was a learning lesson going against a Hall of Fame quarterback,'' Davis said. "It's part of the game, though. We play in a tough division where there's a lot of good quarterbacks, so it's something that I'll be seeing often, and I think it's kind of good that I got to see it early because it kind of established whoever I'm going to be playing against. It gave me a good wake-up call.''
Alarm bells certainly rang for defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who knows the Bucs aren't going to win many games giving up 40 points.
But Smith always professes confidence in his replacements for Hargreaves and Grimes. Maybe it's because he's had enough practice doing it.
"Those young guys that we drafted in April, we knew that they were going to have to come in and contribute,'' Smith said. "Didn't think it would be Week 1 and Week 2. They're guys who have a good understanding of what needs to be done in the secondary.''
What may need to be done is to either play Stewart at nickel or move safety Justin Evans closer to the line of scrimmage and play rookie Jordan Whitehead at safety.
"We're going to have to have guys who are going to be cross-trained in the secondary," Smith said. "Our safeties at some point in time are going to be asked to play corner, and our corners are going to be asked to play safety. Both of them are going to have to play in the nickel spot.''
Then Smith decided to play a little defense for his rookies.
"I will state I thought our young guys, for the situation they were put into, handled it pretty well,'' he said.