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Injuries might force Bucs to shuffle offensive line vs. Saints

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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were without starting right tackle Demar Dotson and backup Gosder Cherilus during Thursday's practice -- not a good sign with one practice remaining before the team heads to New Orleans to take on the Saints.

Saturday's game is must-win if the Bucs want to keep their playoff hopes alive, and though Dotson, who is now in his third week in the NFL concussion protocol, did practice Tuesday and Wednesday this week on a limited basis, his absence Thursday suggests he still might not be available.

"I’m not sure about that," head coach Dirk Koetter said after practice. "The coaches are out of it. The protocol is all dictated through the steps, and I’m not sure where that’s at."

NFL players must complete a five-step Return to Participation Protocol before they can be cleared to play again. There is no timeline for it, and players can take steps back if their symptoms return. Dotson returning to practice this week meant he moved from Step Three: "Continued Aerobic Exercise and Introduction of Strength Training" to Step Four: "Football Specific Activities," which permits non-contact practicing.

Step Five means "Full Football Activity/Clearance" and must be authorized by the team's physician and then confirmed by an Independent Neurological Consultant. The Bucs have a final walk-through on Friday before they head to New Orleans, so it is possible that he can receive clearance then.

Cherilus served as a replacement for Dotson against the Saints two weeks ago and against the Cowboys, before suffering a groin injury while blocking on a screen pass to Charles Sims in the fourth quarter in Dallas. Prior to his injury, though, he struggled to contain David Irving, who sacked quarterback Jameis Winston twice. Cherlius' backup, rookie Leonard Wester, also struggled against Irving. Winston was sacked three times and hit six times in the fourth quarter alone. Protection wasn't the only issue against Dallas. The Bucs finished with a season-low 52 rushing yards.

Against the Saints two weeks ago, Winston was sacked twice and hit six times, and the Saints recorded 8 tackles for a loss. If the Bucs want to keep Nick Fairley and Cameron Jordan out of their backfield, they might want to consider shuffling their offensive line.

They could move left guard Kevin Pamphile, who was the team's backup tackle last season, to right tackle, and insert backup center/guard Evan Smith at left guard. This would allow Wester, who has limited experience, to go back to being the team's jumbo tackle, which they deploy for extra protection.

Smith suffered a Grade-2 MCL sprain to his knee in Week 10, but returned to practice in Week 14. He was active the past two games, playing on special teams, suggesting he is healthy.

"There’s a lot of things in consideration," Koetter said, when asked about that particular scenario. "I can’t tell you, but we’re going to show up and be ready to play, I will tell you that."