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Rock represents challenges ahead

Bucs fans, welcome to the Rock.

Since the start of training camp the Bucs have repeated the slogan "Pound That Rock" as a private statement of motivation among players and coaches. But Thursday, as the team prepared for the final stretch of the season, there arrived a new symbol to go with the slogan.

When players arrived in the morning, they discovered a large rock on top of an equipment case in the middle of the locker room.

"That symbolizes our season, it symbolizes our theme," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "It even symbolizes what's going on with so many guys personally, having to play through injuries and things like that. That's the best symbol we could have."

Coach Jon Gruden said the rock, which is more than 200 pounds and about 2 feet wide by 1 foot tall, will have special meaning through the rest of the season.

"That's a special rock," said Gruden, who equates the team's fortunes with trying to break a rock open. "I had to look in a lot of places here in Tampa, but we found the rock to represent our theme. It's a very magical rock."

The mystery is how the rock got into the locker room, and the Bucs aren't providing a straight answer.

"We had (defensive tackle Anthony) McFarland go out late last night," Gruden said, smiling. "Anthony brought us that rock."

McFarland is out with a broken forearm.

"I guess that's the rock we have to pound, and it looks like we still have to keep pounding it," running back Michael Pittman said. "I guess we're going to have to break it by the end of the season."

INJURY UPDATE: Cornerback Ronde Barber wore a smaller, more flexible cast on his left thumb and practiced for the second straight day. Barber is listed as probable for Sunday's game.

"He doesn't want to talk about it, but he must be feeling pretty good," Gruden said. "

Right tackle Kenyatta Walker (left ankle sprain) returned to practice but still had some soreness.

"I wouldn't say he was full speed, but he did some good things and we're encouraged about it," Gruden said. "We're taking him down to the Auto Zone tonight and hooking him up to some jumper cables. Hook him up and try to get juiced up and ready to go."

Linebacker Nate Webster sat out practice with a stomach flu and receiver Keyshawn Johnson has a rib bruise. Both are expected to play Sunday.

A TELLING STRETCH: The Bucs beat division rival Carolina on Sunday but have three pivotal games ahead, with Green Bay next in line. Several players said the importance of this stretch can't be underestimated.

"We said we needed a good start because we're traditionally a November-December ballclub. Now we've got ourselves a good start (at 8-2), so let's see what we can do with it," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "The next few weeks are going to determine what type of ballclub we've got. I like our chances."

Defensive end Simeon Rice said it's crucial the Bucs don't focus on the media coverage they're getting.

"I think that's where our mind-set is right now. To excel, not to stop, look and listen where you're at right now," Rice said. "Not to read the press; not cutting into ESPN to see what they're saying about you. But to remember where you are and where you're trying to go."

MARQUISE SIGHTING: Third-round pick Marquise Walker, the Bucs' first selection in the 2002 draft, has been out of the public eye since being placed on injured reserve Oct. 1 after he had surgery on his right thumb.

Walker, who has been working out at One Buc Place and attending team meetings, said he has had to adjust to not playing.

"It's been tough," said Walker, who played in college at Michigan. "At first, I thought it was cool. I was getting paid and had nothing to do. But now it's frustrating. I want to be out there."

_ ROGER MILLS, DARRELL FRY

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