In dealing with another crippling injury, the surging running game of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faces a stark challenge during the 2nd half of the season. Disappointing news was announced on Tuesday, October 30, that powerful left guard Carl Nicks was placed on Injured Reserve with a torn plantar plate in his left toe.
The season-ending injury is one that the 350 pound behemoth has battled for much of the campaign. Nicks managed not to miss any time, but following last week's 36-17 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings, it became apparent that surgery was required to prevent long-term damage to the All-Pro offensive lineman.
In fact, teammate Ronde Barber, who has seen nearly everything in 17 years of NFL play, described the gruesome nature of the knuckle on Nicks' left big toe as swelling to "about the size of two golf balls."
The setback is another blow to an offensive line that has succeeded despite challenges from day one. Nicks was lured away from the New Orleans Saints in the off-season with a hefty 5 year, $47.5 million free agent contract. The 5th year Nebraska product is 2 time Pro Bowl selection and has been instrumental in both pass protection and run blocking throughout his career.
As the 2011 Buccaneers struggled greatly in those critical facets, the addition of Nicks paid immediate dividends. Anchoring the left side of Tampa Bay's line, Josh Freeman has benefited from improved protection. Not only has the quarterback tossed for 3 touchdowns in 3 consecutive games, but Freeman has been sacked just 11 times through 7 games. While this number would be unacceptable for Peyton Manning, it is definite progress from the past 2 seasons.
More importantly, Freeman has not lost a fumble in 2012, after surrendering the ball 10 times in his first 3 seasons.
Yet, the bulky guard's real value was displayed through gains in the running game. Schiano arrived intent on traditional power rushing and Nicks fits that scheme perfectly. Through 7 games, rookie Doug Martin has racked up 543 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground. That is 11th best in the league and 5th among backs playing 1 less game due to the NFL's bye week.
Once again, while these numbers might be humbling for stalwarts like Adrian Peterson, they represent monumental gains for the Bucs, who ranked 3rd worst in rushing one year ago.
Additionally, it appeared Schiano's system was just beginning to click. During the 3 games in October, not only did the Bucs win 2 contests, but they shockingly led the NFL in points per game (34) and yards per game (472).
Longtime fans know such accolades on offense rarely follow this team.
It will be challenging to continue that success without Nicks, but the club has already lost starting right guard Davin Joseph to a season-ending knee injury during the pre-season. The loss of Joseph certainly stung, but the team has endured admirably with Jamon Meredith eventually earning the spot.
Expected to play in place of Nicks is Pinellas County native Ted Larsen, who was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2010. Larsen originally was inserted in place of Joseph and started 14 games for the Bucs from 2010-2011.
Another option for Schiano includes veteran Jeremy Trueblood, who has competed at right tackle for the Bucs since 2006. Trueblood lost his starting job earlier this year to Demar Dotson and would be lined up at a position he has not played in the NFL.
Finally, the Bucs activated Roger Allen from the practice squad on Tuesday, who joins reserve Cody Wallace in provided depth to the offensive line.
Optimists may hope that the Bucs can overcome this injury with a "next man up" mentality that has worked for many clubs. Schiano's scheme certainly involves a team effort and history has shown that every player in the NFL is replaceable.
Yet, the loss of Carl Nicks should not be minimized -- it is a substantial blow.
With the continuing absence of Joseph, Tampa Bay's line does not resemble GM Mark Dominik's hopes for the unit. However, in playing at a conservatively listed 350 pounds, Nicks is also the type of player vulnerable to injuries.
Fans must hope Nicks heals properly, since his long-term potential is a concern, given the size of his contract. Small toe injuries sadly tend to linger and have hampered the careers of even the mightiest of football players.
Yahoo! Sports, TBO.com, Espn.com.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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