When the season began, it could not have been predicted that so much of the Bucs' hopes for winning Sunday at Carolina could hinge on a player most had never heard coming into the year.
But Tampa Bay's hard luck has made RG Jamon Meredith an important part of an offensive line hit hard by injuries. (Only LT Donald Penn plays the same position as in the opener.)
That's why the sight of Meredith on the field Friday, two days after spraining his left ankle during practice, was a promising sign. Coach Greg Schiano said the former tackle now at the position formerly occupied by Davin Joseph could play against the Panthers if his improvement continues. Meredith is listed as questionable on the final injury report.
"(He was) better than we anticipated he'd look," Schiano said, "so now it's really the next 48 hours to see how well he responds."
The Bucs would turn to Roger Allen or Cody Wallace if Meredith can't play, Schiano said. The journeymen have played a combined five games.
WRIGHT UPDATE: CB Eric Wright (Achilles) returned after missing Thursday because of a personal matter. Schiano said the injury that kept Wright out of most of Sunday's game against the Chargers should allow him to play: "Unless he has a setback, he'll be ready to roll."
NOT CLUTCH: The Panthers are 2-7, but five losses came by six points or fewer. That includes 16-10 to the Bucs in the season opener.
"We just have to be able to finish games," rookie LB Luke Kuechly said. "We've played well throughout most of the game. Then we get to ... the fourth quarter, and we're just not able to step over the line and finish a team."
The Panthers host a Bucs team that will look different offensively than in the opener. The Bucs are averaging 37 points over their past five games and have been much more aggressive.
"They're clicking right now," Kuechly said. "They're running the ball extremely well. Once you can run the ball well, your offense can open up. ... The offensive line has been playing well. They're getting a lot of chunk plays. I think they're one of the top teams in the league right now as far as yards per play.
"(RB) Doug Martin's been playing great. (QB) Josh Freeman's been playing great and is able to get the ball down the field to some of the wide receivers."
And how do the Panthers plan to stop that?
"You have to be able to stop the run," Kuechly said. "You have to make a team one-dimensional."
ANOTHER SHOT: KR/WR Arrelious Benn (shoulder) practiced all week and is probable. But if the team opts not to use him as a kick returner, it will again turn to first-year player LeQuan Lewis, Schiano said. "I'm not sure change is the answer," he said. "Sometimes as a coach, you want him to have a second chance." Lewis struggled in his debut last week, mishandling one kick that the Bucs recovered.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.