Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A-Train Back on Track

A sweltering Thursday practice is highlighted by the return of Pro Bowl FB Mike Alstott

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FB Mike Alstott felt a little awkward in his knee brace but otherwise had no difficulties in his first practice in nearly a month

What a day it was for Mike Alstott.

The same afternoon he learned he would be returning to Hawaii for his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, Alstott also made a dramatic return to practice after nearly four weeks of inactivity.

Alstott suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee at Chicago on November 19 and was originally thought to be a long shot to play again during the regular season. However, Head Coach Tony Dungy revealed on Monday that the team was leaning towards letting their Pro Bowl fullback return to practice on Thursday.

Sure enough, Alstott took the field, returned to his normal place in the starting unit and showed just a little rustiness from his long layoff. It was good news piled upon good news for Alstott.

"It was a real good day," he said. "I get to go to the Pro Bowl again, for the fourth straight time, and obviously be back on the field. A good day."

The Bucs' battering ram, once again barreling up the middle of the defense during team drills, was a welcome sight for Dungy. Though he wasn't ready to offer a long-range prognosis, the coach was pleased with what he saw.

"Mike did okay," said Dungy. "His big test, I think, will be tonight and tomorrow. He hasn't done a lot in terms of cutting and running If he doesn't have any swelling or any problems tomorrow, then we're probably home free and there will be a good chance he'll play.

"I think he could play on a limited basis."

Alstott said he expected to experience a little soreness on Friday but wasn't in any discomfort as he stood on the edge of the field conducting interviews. "I'm ready," he said with even less hesitation than Dungy had shown. "I'll be in and I'm ready. I'm too smart to endanger my career for one week. I want to play five, seven more years, and I want to walk after I'm done playing. I'm not going to do that for one game.

"I feel absolutely great. Tomorrow, I'll be a little bit sore. I'll go inside right now and get the icepacks on me and be ready to go tomorrow."

Warrick Dunn flourished as the full-time ballcarrier in Alstott's absence, but the running game had shown signs of renewed life even before Dunn's three-week explosion for 375 yards. In the four games before the Chicago contest, in which Alstott carried the ball just twice before going down, the Bucs averaged 124 rushing yards per game.

Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, for one, is looking forward to putting another valuable weapon back into his arsenal.

"(The Rams) are a little bit different defense, and some of the packages that we used to have for Mike we haven't used in some time now and they would fit just what we want to do against them. Having two running backs with different styles, that creates problems for the defense. To have two people like that, that would be great. You saw Sunday, we changed it up a little bit with Rabih (Abdullah) and I think that helped us."

Dungy doesn't believe the team's approach changed much while Alstott was out and won't be radically different now that he's back. How many carries Alstott will get if he plays against the Rams is still far from being determined, but he will be a factor in the offense.

"It's hard to say," said Dungy of Alstott's expected role. "It will be nice to have other options, and we'll have some plays, I'm sure, specifically for Mike if he's active. But it won't change what we do too, too much."

Dunn is also ready to welcome his backfield mate back into the fold. "I think we can use his leadership…a guy who was out coming back in and playing hard," said Dunn. "I think we've missed that. He's coming back at the right time, I think, to help us."

The lingering question is, how did he manage to come back at this time, after a quicker-than-expected healing process. Even Alstott can't fully answer that question.

"I don't know," he said. "We put me in a full-length cast for 12 days and kept it immobile. I pretty much sat on my butt on the couch for that length of time and didn't move it. That could be a good factor there, to let the ligament to heal right then and there.

"Then, with the rehab we've been doing and the exercises, I started to get my strength and motion back. Keeping the blood flowing through the knee is another healing factor. There are maybe a lot of key elements. I don't know…couldn't tell you.

"They told me four to six weeks, too. They said, 'You'll be lucky if you get Green Bay and the playoffs. But it went well and I busted to get back here and I felt great today. A little awkward with the legs, but I haven't been running like this in four weeks."

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Alstott did admit that even an absence of just three or four weeks can make a difference in your football conditioning. Getting his legs back might be the most difficult hurdle of the week.

And that may be compounded by the heat.

As contrasting as the Bucs and Rams' styles of play are, the practice conditions in their two hometowns are just as dissimilar, at least this week. While the Rams have struggled to get to their practice complex thanks to bitter cold and nearly 10 inches of snow on Wednesday, the Bucs have been battered by higher-than-normal temperatures. As mild as Florida is in the winter, 85-degree weather in the middle of December isn't usually in the forecast.

"I don't even think you can explain it," said CB Donnie Abraham. "It's December 14th and it's 80 degrees. Only in Florida!"

So there was a little more perspiration and a few more trips to the water caddy, but the heat wasn't a problem for the Bucs, any more than the Rams believe their cold snap has affected their preparations.

"It's a little new, and it was warm today," said Dungy. "But I think it will get us ready. It was nice to have this warm weather after a couple of days off."

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Mawuko Tugbenyoh has a name you can't forget, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't.

When Tugbenyoh, a rookie defensive end who had spent the past month on Chicago's practice squad, showed up on the waiver wire on Tuesday, the Bucs circled his name on the page. Tampa Bay had originally brought Tugbenyoh to training camp as an undrafted free agent this offseason and had been impressed with his potential, though the former Cal-Berkeley standout was released on August 22.

A few days after his release from Chicago, Tugbenyoh was signed to the Buccaneers' practice squad on Thursday. S Lemar Marshall had been released from that unit the day before to make room for Tugbenyoh.

Tugbenyoh donned the same red jersey, number 61, that he had worn during camp and joined the Bucs on the practice field on Thursday. His return gives the Bucs two young defensive tackles on the practice squad, as former NFL Europe League star Chartric Darby has toiled on that unit all season. Marshall had spent the previous three weeks on the practice squad, mostly as a response to John Lynch's shoulder injury at Chicago. Lynch has unexpectedly missed no games and almost no practice time.

Even before training camp started, Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli was impressed with the potential of the 6-foot-1 Tugbenyoh, who had mustered up 25.5 sacks during his college career.

"He's an undersized guy, shorter, but he was so productive in college," said Marinelli. "That's the thing we focus on now: production. Has your guy done it? This guy has done it as a rusher. He just has to learn some different things, some skill things, to be an accomplished rusher. But, boy, he's got quickness and he's smart."

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