TAMPA — Bucs tight end John Gilmore has two compelling reasons to look forward to Sunday's game in Chicago.
First, he's coming off a memorable home debut with Tampa Bay, having scored the team's opening touchdown on a 5-yard reception in a 24-9 win over Atlanta and catching another pass for 36 yards.
Second, the 6-foot-5, 257-pound veteran gets to face the team he played for the past six seasons — in roles mostly limited to special teams and backing up fellow tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen.
In only two games with the Bucs, Gilmore, 28, has nearly surpassed his total number of catches from last year. He had just three for 14 yards, officially making him part of a tight end unit that set a Bears record for receptions (86 for 950 yards).
"My role there was very limited," he said. "I just played in certain situations, and that's what they paid me to do. Obviously here my role is expanded a little bit. And I'm excited about it. It's early in the season, and I'm just trying to check 'em off one game at a time."
Gilmore, whose primary role remains as a blocker, feels especially good about his new tight end unit: fourth-year player Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens, who returned to the team Wednesday after serving a two-game substance-abuse suspension.
Tampa Bay's tight ends have a chance to help boost the passing game in Chicago, with speedy wideout Joey Galloway nursing a foot injury and the wide receivers as a whole still trying to find their footing.
"Even when they're healthy, we kind of go in there with that mind-set," Gilmore said. "We feel like we're a pretty good group of tight ends. We can line up in different positions — I guess we're the blue-collar guys. Whatever you need us to do, we're here to do it."
Gilmore has already demonstrated his versatility with Tampa Bay, signing with the club as a free agent in March after 86 games with the Bears, making 10 starts and appearing in four postseason games, including Super Bowl XLI.
The return of the 6-7, 260-pound Stevens gives quarterback Brian Griese an additional option in the mix, including downfield. Last year, Stevens played in 15 games for the Bucs, with 18 catches for 189 yards and four touchdowns. He played five previous seasons with Seattle, his best coming in 2005 with 45 receptions for 554 yards and five scores.
"It's good to be back and part of the team," said Stevens, 28. "I've obviously been limited the last two weeks. I've been staying in shape and I'm ready to go."
Stevens sees the game in Chicago as a chance for the tight ends to make a statement. "It all depends on how the flow of the game goes and how (coach Jon Gruden) sees it all happening. But it's definitely an opportunity for the tight ends to go in there and be playmakers."
Smith, drafted in the third round in 2005, has established himself as a part of the passing game since his rookie season, though his output has dropped from 41 catches to 35 in 2006 and 32 in 2007. The 6-4, 258-pounder hasn't developed into the star player the Bucs envisioned, but he has been solid both as a receiver and blocker — amassing 112 career catches for 1,041 passes and eight touchdowns.
"We feel good as a unit," said Smith, 26. "We did a lot of work in the offseason, and they utilized a lot during training camp in different packages. I just want to continue to get better every game — and hopefully stretch it downfield a little bit."
Tight ends coach Bob Casullo likes what he has seen from his crew. "I've said all along, to play tight end here you have to be versatile, because there's a lot of multiplicity in the offense," he said. "Jerramy was here all of last year and so was Alex. And John has done a tremendous job of picking up the offense. So we have three guys who are interchangeable parts, so Jon can utilize them in different ways — we can have one on the field, two on the field, even three on the field."
Casullo is particularly pleased with new addition Gilmore. "John's a better athlete than people give him credit for," he said. "He's a very good blocking tight end, and that's always been his forte. His hidden talent, I guess, is his ability to run and catch the football. He's been a real good find for us."
Now Gilmore would love to show the Bears just what they lost.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.