Lynch likely will sit out vs. Cowboys
Still smarting from last week's uninspiring loss at San Francisco, and wounded by suggestions they may be yet the latest Super Bowl one-year wonder, the Tampa Bay Bucs will have to compensate for a secondary decimated by injury to get back on track Sunday against the upstart Dallas Cowboys.
No small feat, injured strong safety John Lynch allowed, since not even the Bucs coaches are certain who will line up, and where, versus the NFL's fourth-ranked passing attack.
"We're going to have to rely on a lot of young guys, and some of them haven't played all that much, but trust that they will make plays," said Lynch, who probably will sit out the game because of a pinched nerve in his neck. "Some of it's going to be physical, but even more of it might come down the mental stuff, because guys might be in new positions."
The loss of Lynch would leave Tampa Bay without two of the four defensive backfield starters with which it opened the season, since left cornerback Brian Kelly was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, victimized by a torn pectoral muscle. Kelly attempted to play with the injury, but was ineffective, and will face surgery.
How secondary coach Mike Tomlin aligns the Bucs' pass defense unit, particularly if Lynch does not play, is still undecided. Tampa Bay coaches were still working on some permutations Saturday, but it appears they have narrowed the possible combinations now to two possible lineups.
The most facile fix would be keep the two remaining starters, right corner Ronde Barber and free safety Dwight Smith, at their normal spots and insert Tim Wansley at the left cornerback slot and John Howell at free safety. But Wansley, a second-year veteran, was torched by Indianapolis three weeks ago. While the staff has publicly stated confidence in the youngster, there remain concerns about his lack of size, a key element against bigger Dallas wide receivers.
A second possibility would have Barber moving from right to left cornerback and Smith going from free safety to the right corner. Jermaine Smith would then replace Smith at free safety and Howell would supplant Lynch at strong safety. Either Wansley or Corey Ivy might then play the "nickel" position.
Such a reshuffling would leave Tampa Bay without a single secondary starter lined up at his customary position.
"There definitely could be some of that domino-effect stuff," Smith acknowledged. "We just have to prepare for every combination. The way we start might not necessarily be the way we finish, you know? There could be changes during the game, or whatever, and we have to react to it, if that happens. Right now, we're kind of beat up, that's for sure."
Whether the achy secondary becomes a breaky one as well remains to be seen, but the Bucs figure to be severely tested by a Dallas attack that loves to throw the deep ball and won't hesitate to take some shots, even when the Bucs are in the famed "cover two" look. Beyond the subplot surrounding the arrival of Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells, who twice jilted the Bucs when it appeared he was poised to become the Tampa Bay coach, the matchup of the Bucs secondary and the Dallas wide receivers is the marquee element of this compelling contest.
Parcells and his staff have done a masterful job this season in transforming quarterback Quincy Carter into a playmaker, and a large part of that is his accuracy with the deep pass. All three Dallas wide receivers are averaging more than 14.5 yards per catch and two of them are averaging 20-plus yards per reception.
"They're dangerous, especially when [Carter] gets outside the pocket, and the coverage starts to break down a little bit," said Wansley. "I mean, they're going to throw deep at least five or six times, because that's what they do."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.