There is a good chance that Albert Haynesworth will play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday against the Houston Texans, just seven days after he last played for the New England Patriots and just four days after he was claimed off waivers by his new team.
How much Haynesworth will play, and how quickly he'll be able to make an impact in the Buccaneers' defensive scheme has yet to be determined, according to Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris.
"We've got to go out and practice again Friday," said Morris. "Obviously we've got to practice on Saturday, get through our walk-through. He did a nice job of picking up the system for us. He's been in a couple different places so he knows a couple different systems. He's back in a system where he can get off the ball and cause disruption.
For now, Haynesworth has just one day of work in Tampa under his belt, including roughly three hours on the practice field. Still, it was a good start, and if the rest of the week pans out as well as his first day, Haynesworth could carve out a significant role.
"He did a nice job coming out to practice," said Morris. "He got to practice, made it through practice, picked up the system. He did a lot of good things for us today. We gave him a small part of [the scheme]. It's about what you can get him to get done and what you can accomplish during the week, then throwing him out there and seeing what he can do for us. He just wants to be here to help this team win and he did a nice job today of getting out there and practicing.
"I've had an evaluation of three hours out there. I've seen him in the classroom; he's very sharp. He loves football, a guy that's really into it. I know it's the first day and it's a new system for him. He did a nice job today in practice and we look forward to him helping his team get wins."
The belief at One Buccaneer Place is that Haynesworth can be more effective in his new home than he was in Washington or New England because Tampa Bay's scheme fits his strengths very well. Specifically, the Bucs want him to play the three-technique spot in their 4-3 front, which usually asks that position to line up across from a gap between offensive linemen and try to get quick penetration into the backfield.
There are certainly differences in what the Buccaneers are doing in 2011 and the scheme Haynesworth excelled in with the Tennessee Titans before he went to Washington, but it still felt somewhat familiar to him on Thursday. Haynesworth praised the Patriots, Head Coach Bill Belichick and that team's defensive scheme on Thursday but he clearly sees his new situation as a better opportunity to get snaps and play to his talents.
"It feels great [to play the three-technique]," he said. "It feels unbelievable, just to get off the ball and wreak havoc. That's awesome. Everybody can say, 'You're in a 4-3 defense,' but just because you're in a 4-3 defense doesn't mean it's what I did in Tennessee. I had to learn that, I guess, the hard way. I haven't done it in three years and I've got to get back to it. But today with the practice we had, it was a good start."
There is certainly an opportunity for Haynesworth if he can prove he can still play at a high level. The Buccaneers put in their waiver claim in large part due to the timing, as the Patriots released Haynesworth one day after the Buccaneers put their own starting three-technique tackle, Gerald McCoy, on injured reserve. McCoy had played extremely well during the Buccaneers' 3-1 first month before ankle and arm injuries cost him all but a few snaps in the next four games. With him out, the defense has found it much tougher to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. The team will still continue to look at such solutions as moving starting nose tackle Brian Price to the three-technique and pressing versatile ends such as Michael Bennett and Da'Quan Bowers into service inside, but it would be simpler and more effective if one player could give the Bucs a facsimile of what McCoy was providing.
"We were a pretty good defense when we had Gerald McCoy in there," said Morris. "When he's playing, he's getting off, he's being disruptive, we're pretty good, pretty active. We had a significant dropoff. We tried to fill people into that void and try to do things that Gerald gave us. They did a nice job of going in there. But then Frank [Okam] and Gerald both went down at the same time and we were able to fill the void, get a guy who can do some things to help us win. We'll have to go see, with the loss of McCoy and the addition of Albert, hopefully we can get some of that same stuff that we got from Gerald, some of that disruption, to help us become a better football team."
Haynesworth says he is still driven to take advantage of such opportunities and produce like he did in his peak seasons in Tennessee.
"I've always got something to prove," he said. "I've always had a chip on my shoulder. From a beginner in this league, college, high school, any time – I've always had a chip on my shoulder. I feel like I can still play and I just want to prove myself.
"I can't predict how much [I'll play]. But they want me to play so that's what I'm happy about."
Jackson, Williams Return
Even before McCoy went down about 13 defensive plays into last Sunday's game in New Orleans, the visiting team had already confronted the possible loss of one of their most valuable starters.
On the second play of the game, wide receiver Mike Williams ran a slant and was hit hard and low by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter to break up the pass. It was actually a much more frightening moment for the home team, as Porter suffered a neck injury and was taken off the field on a cart, later to be transported to a nearby hospital. Fortunately for both teams, Porter checked out okay and Williams was able to get back on the field despite a deep thigh bruise.
Williams played the rest of the game and caught a team-high six passes for 46 yards. Still, that's the sort of injury that can cause stiffness the next week, and Williams was held out of practice on Wednesday. He returned to action on Thursday for the team's one padded practice of the week, however, and looked loose enough to encourage Morris.
"I'll have to look at the tape and see how Mike looked," said the coach. "He's going through the contusion that he has on his thigh, but he made it through the football game last week. He was a little sore, obviously. He went out and practiced today and he looked pretty good running routes versus air."
Starting free safety Tanard Jackson also returned to action on Thursday after being held out on Wednesday due to a hamstring strain. Jackson went through a similar process last week and was able to play without interruption in New Orleans. Like Williams, he was listed as "full participation" on the Buccaneers' official injury report, as was guard Jeremy Zuttah.
Zuttah started Games Two through Six at left guard for the Buccaneers and Game Seven at center in Jeff Faine's absence but suffered a knee injury in London and wasn't able to suit up in New Orleans. He has progressed more quickly than originally expected, however, and has participated fully in both practices this week.
The only player who did not participate at all in Thursday's practice was Okam, who hasn't had any work since suffering a calf strain on the practice field last week. However, linebacker Dekoda Watson left practice early on Thursday after sustaining a groin injury and was added to the injury report.
The Texans' official injury report is a whopping 21 players long, but 13 of those men participated fully in practice on Thursday. The five who did not practice at all were wide receiver Andre Johnson, safety Danieal Manning, nose tackle Earl Mitchell, defensive end Antonio Smith and tackle Eric Winston. Johnson, who had 25 catches for 352 yards and two touchdowns over the first four games of the season has missed the Texans' last five games with a hamstring injury.
Ready to Run
Each week, Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson looks at cut-up tapes of explosive plays from around the NFL, but he also makes a specific point of watching the entire game tape for a handful of teams that he considers philosophical matches to the Bucs' offensive approach. The Texans are one of those teams, and it is certainly easy to admire how well they have run the football this season.
The Buccaneers continue to want to build their offense around a power rushing attack, but chronic slow starts have left them in catch-up mode too often and that has skewed the team's offensive balance on many afternoons. Top back LeGarrette Blount also missed two and a half games, but in the action he's had he's been effective, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. It's clear that Blount can be the centerpiece of the attack again as he was in the second half of the 2010 season if the Bucs can do a better job of avoiding early deficits.
However, getting the running game going on Sunday will be a tougher challenge than in some earlier weeks. The Texans bring the league's top-ranked defense to Raymond James Stadium, and they have been the fourth-hardest team to run against this season, allowing just 91.4 yards per game.
"Their front seven is probably the strength of them," said Blount. "I haven't seen too much of their DBs, but it looks like their front seven is more impressive than anything. But they're not going to show us anything that we can't handle, nothing that our offense hasn't prepared for or seen before. They've got the number-one defense in the league but statistically that's just a label."
Blount will also get more opportunities to run the ball if his third-down role expands in the wake of Earnest Graham's season-ending Achilles injury. That has been an ongoing storyline for Blount dating back to his rookie season, and he still isn't position to get the majority of the snaps in that game situation. His dislike of sitting out a significant portion of the game is driving him to work even harder to gain the coaches' trust.
"I feel like if I work a little bit harder in practice, they'll become more and more confident to keep me in the game when we're in situations where we're behind," he said. "It sucks that I have to come out of the game for the two-minute offense or for the passing offense. So I'm trying to work harder to be a part of that.
"[The opportunities] will come. I'm not going to rush them because I definitely don't want to be in there when I'm not prepared and 100 percent prepared for whatever they're going to show us. They're definitely going to come. We'll keep on working on it and sooner or later I'll be in there."