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Bucs’ sprawling supporting cast has rescued this 2021 sequel

The injury-depleted reigning world champs have subsisted on depth down the stretch.
Bucs second-year tailback Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who totaled 17 offensive snaps in the season's first 14 weeks, has run for 183 yards on 42 carries with three touchdowns in the last four games.
Bucs second-year tailback Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who totaled 17 offensive snaps in the season's first 14 weeks, has run for 183 yards on 42 carries with three touchdowns in the last four games. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 22|Updated Jan. 22

TAMPA — Six months ago, the prevalent Bucs story line barely crept beneath the roster’s surface. With good reason.

Every Super Bowl 55 starter was re-signed or retained, an unprecedented feat in the salary-cap era. Not since the 1976 Raiders had a title team kept the entire first string of its championship ensemble intact.

But like any solid sequel, which generally preserves its core characters, this year’s narrative has taken a fresh twist as the months have passed. If the 2021 season concludes — like its predecessor — with tequila-fueled revelry along the Hillsborough River, posterity likely will tab the 22 returning starters as co-stars.

The 22 behind them will have played roles equally as vital.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries in the past, but we end up 8-8,” coach Bruce Arians said. “To be 14-4 with everything that’s gone on is just a credit to the coaching staff but more so to the players and (general manager) Jason Licht and everybody having this roster.”

In this injury-besieged season, “next man up” evolved from worn mantra to way of life weeks ago. Yet the Bucs have won eight of their last nine, replacing damaged parts with surprisingly effective spares.

Bucs linebacker Anthony Nelson blocks a pass from Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts last Sunday.
Bucs linebacker Anthony Nelson blocks a pass from Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts last Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

For every Brady, there has been a Breshad (as in Perriman). For every Gronk there has been a Grayson (as in Cyril). While Jason Pierre-Paul nurses a bad shoulder, Anthony Nelson provides a shot in the arm. Playoff Lenny (Fournette) is spelled by Wild Card Ke’Shawn (Vaughn).

They enter Sunday’s NFC division playoff against the Rams with 12 players who have made at least 10 receptions this season, most of the eight teams still alive in the postseason. Forty-five Bucs have logged at least 200 snaps over the course of the year, tied with the Packers for the most of the four remaining NFC teams.

“I said it when we first got this team together — our depth is crazy,” receiver Mike Evans said.

“I look at some of the (position) rooms like, ‘If this guy goes down, we’ve got this guy,’ going through all the ultimatums. Our depth has definitely helped us get to this point.”

Consider the stretch run, a veritable showcase of understudies.

With Fournette absent in the 32-6 romp of Carolina on Dec. 26, Vaughn and fourth-year tailback Ronald Jones combined for 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns. A week later in New Jersey, Grayson — who entered 2021 with one career catch — had six catches for 81 yards, snagging a 33-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady with 15 seconds to play in a 28-24 triumph against the Jets.

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With Pierre-Paul and fellow edge rusher Shaquil Barrett (knee) sidelined, Nelson — who averaged 15.1 defensive snaps in the first 14 games — has averaged 44.3 over the last four, collecting three sacks in that span. And in last week’s wild card win against the Eagles, Vaughn and free-agent signee Giovani Bernard combined for 97 rushing yards and two TDs.

“We try to prepare everybody,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.

“I try to prepare everybody that’s on this offensive side of the ball with the awareness that there is a chance that they’re going to play. So you approach it like that from the beginning. You approach it like that in (organized team activities). I have true confidence in everybody that’s on this team.”

Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson catches a touchdown during an Oct. 31 game against the Saints.
Bucs receiver Cyril Grayson catches a touchdown during an Oct. 31 game against the Saints. [ TYLER KAUFMAN | Associated Press (2021) ]

The list of those with a hand in creating the depth might be as expansive as the roster itself.

Arians is quick to credit Licht and vice president of player personnel John Spytek for the roster construction. Though some salary burden has been nudged to upcoming years, cap extraordinaire Mike Greenberg has remained atop his game.

Greenberg navigated the cap to allow the team to re-sign prominent free agents (Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown, etc.) while preserving space for key backups (guard Aaron Stinnie) and free agents from elsewhere (Giovani Bernard). Arians’ staff also has been lauded for getting reserves and practice-squad guys (i.e. Grayson) game-ready on the fly.

And Arians himself has remained an astute talent assessor. Case in point: Vaughn, to whom he stayed committed when others might have deemed him a squandered third-round pick after he logged 17 offensive snaps in the season’s first 14 weeks.

Vaughn has 42 carries for 183 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games.

“You put that Bucs helmet on, there’s a level of expectation,” Arians said. “You can’t be the guy you’re replacing, you just have to be the best guy that you can be. And these guys have all stepped in when they had these opportunities and done it.”

Today, the Bucs are better — and deeper — for it.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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