After a week in which Tampa Bay defensive coaches devoted considerable time to shuffling their secondary to address issues of injury and immaturity, ESPN.com has learned the defending Super Bowl champions may yet have the starting quartet intact for Sunday's road matchup against the Washington Redskins.
Injured starting cornerback Brian Kelly, who was expected to be sidelined an extended period by a torn pectoral muscle, participated in the Bucs' walk-through on Saturday and is cautiously optimistic he can start against the Redskins. The Bucs might need all the help they can get attempting to defend Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who is second in the NFL in passing yards.
Kelly, 27, will go through the pregame warmups and determine whether he can tolerate the pain that accompanies the torn muscle.
"Basically, the doctor has told Brian that he can't damage the muscle any more than it already is, and that surgery can be performed any time on it," said Steve Caric, one of the officials of the agent firm that represents the Bucs cornerback. "It comes down to Brian being able to play with the pain. He'll go through the warmups on Sunday morning, see how it feels, and make up his mind."
The sixth-year veteran was injured in Monday night's overtime loss to Indianapolis, a game in which Colts quarterback Peyton Manning strafed the Tampa Bay secondary after Kelly departed, and he is still officially listed as "doubtful" for Sunday's contest.
But if Kelly can play, a possibility now that the swelling in his left pectoral muscle has dramatically subsided, it will be a huge boost for the Bucs pass defense.
Youngster Tim Wansley took over for Kelly on Monday night and became an easy mark for Manning and Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison. It seemed that, any time the Colts needed a big play, they went after Wansley.
Given that Kelly was expected to be sidelined this week, the Bucs on Wednesday named Wansley as the starter at left cornerback. But then Wansley was late for a team meeting, for at least the second time in two weeks, and there were reports he would be benched.
Indeed, the secondary alignment in late-week practices had Ronde Barber moving from right cornerback to the left side. Free safety Dwight Smith would then start at left corner and Jermaine Phillips would replace him at free safety.
All of that refurbishing would be moot, however, if Kelly can play.
The former Southern California star, a second-round draft choice in 1998, moved into the starting lineup in 2001 and has been a solid performer. He blossomed in 2002, with eight interceptions and 21 passes defensed, while also playing well against the run. Kelly has started four games this year and has one interception and five passes defensed.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.