TAMPA, Fla. -- During a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice last week, head coach Lovie Smith looked on the sideline and saw his entire starting defensive line from opening day.
Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (hand) and Clinton McDonald (pectoral, injured reserve) and defensive ends Jacquies Smith (hamstring) and George Johnson (calf) weren't taking a break from action. They were injured and would miss Sunday's critical matchup against division-foe Atlanta.
Instead of bemoaning the fact, Smith told the guys replacing the foursome that he didn't expect a drop-off in production. Against the Falcons, defensive tackles Henry Melton and Akeem Spence and ends William Gholston and Howard Jones stood strong in a 23-19 victory.
Melton and Spence clogged up the middle and led a Bucs defense that allowed just 64 yards rushing on 18 attempts, 48 yards less than the Falcons' season average. Gholston and Jones were able to lead a defensive charge that sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan three times. Ryan threw for just 269 yards, his fifth-lowest output of the season.
"It has to be that mentality," Smith said of the next-man-up mindset. "Guys go down for whatever reason throughout the course [of the season]. You're constantly developing your full roster, not just the ones you start with or your starters early on. The guys you keep, they have to have potential to play with you some day."
Gholston, who generally plays on first and second downs, recorded two sacks for his first multi-sack game of his career. He showed his worth early this year by moving into the starting lineup in the fourth game. Melton, a former Pro Bowl player for Dallas, made his first start with Tampa Bay against Atlanta and finished with three tackles.
Smith expects his injured starters to return in the next couple of weeks, but until then he is confident his backups can continue to get the job done.
"For the guys filling in now, their role has changed," Smith said. "Now we need you to do this until the Gerald's and Jack Smith's come back. They're not out with season-ending injuries or something like that.
"In the meantime, you're putting on a Tampa Bay Bucs uniform and there's a certain type of play we need to get. Howard Jones, we still need you to get back there and sack the quarterback. Will Gholston, you might have to sack the quarterback a few more times than what you normally do. Guys realize that."