It's official, or at least extremely close to official: Rookie Da'Quan Bowers will draw his first NFL start on Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed earlier in the week what seemed likely given the team's depth chart, that Bowers would step up to the starting left end spot if Michael Bennett was unable to play. On Friday, Tampa Bay released its final injury report of the week, completely with game-status designations, and Bennett was listed as doubtful. It is extremely rare to have a player with that designation on Friday play on Sunday.
"[It's a] great opportunity for Bowers," said Morris on Friday. "He's been coming on, he's been getting better. He's been a bright spot as far as what he's been able to do, picking up the system. For those D-Line, we talked about it before, those guys just keep getting better and better throughout the season. To see him and [Adrian] Clayborn continue to get better, as well as Price, is a good sign. We've just got to get all those guys together, playing at once, get [Gerald] McCoy back, some of those types of guys. I really feel good about where they're going and how they're developing."
The Bucs won't get McCoy back this season, as he's on injured reserve with a biceps tear, but Bowers' elevation means the other three defensive linemen the team selected in the opening rounds of the last two drafts will line up together. Clayborn and Bowers were the Bucs' first and second-round picks this past April, respectively, while the 2010 draft opened with McCoy and Price back to back.
It's not that Bowers hasn't played alongside the other three this season, but serving as a reserve means he's generally seen 15 to 20 snaps a game while the others have played at least twice that amount. That was largely by design; given the offseason knee surgery and subsequent rehab Bowers had to overcome, the coaching staff thought it was best to ramp up his playing time very gradually.
Lately, Bowers has seen a slight uptick in his snap count, and the Bucs have in turn seen him around the quarterback quite frequently. That's especially impressive given that the coaches have been more likely to put him on the field when they're expecting the run, as his big frame and powerful style of play makes him effective against ballcarriers. Now Bowers will get the full complement of game situations and will hopefully make the most of them.
"We've been using him primarily against the run," said Morris. "He's had some limited snaps on third down, but really his power shows up big-time when it comes to the pass-rush. He's got great power when it comes to the run when people come at him, when he wants to use it. But he really uses it when he uses his speed-to-power, some of these tackles and some of the pass-rush. You can definitely can see the big difference in power and speed and collective bulk. No doubt about it."
The fourth starter on the Bucs' defensive line is veteran Albert Haynesworth, who seems almost certain to suit up against his former team on Sunday. Haynesworth didn't practice on Friday due to a knee ailment but he is listed as probable on the injury report. Price was also on the report this week due to a forearm issue but Morris made it clear days ago that it was not a major concern. He, too, is listed as probable.
There are three question marks among the Buc defenders, however: starting free safety Tanard Jackson and reserve linebackers Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward. All are considered questionable for the game as the team heads into the weekend. There is reason for optimism on all three counts, however, as each of those defenders were able to log time on the practice field this week, though not on Friday.
Jackson practiced fully on Wednesday and Thursday after missing the Green Bay game with a hamstring strain. He has been battling the same injury since Week Seven but on most Sundays has found a way to play. Watson, who has missed the last two games with a groin injury, also practiced on the first two days of the week without issue before being held on Friday. Hayward was added to the injury report on Thursday with a foot issue and was kept on the sideline at week's end.
"Tanard, he's questionable as well but he practiced for us a little bit this week and we've seen him do some things before, so we feel pretty good about that," said Morris. ""We kind of held him back today. He went Wednesday and Thursday, so we kind of held him back to give that thing a chance. Dekoda is questionable, but he went for us yesterday. We got him out of there today a little bit."
Foster Impresses with Toughness
One player on the Titans' injury report has been of some added interest this week. Barrett Ruud, the Titans' starting middle linebacker, held down the same role for the Buccaneers for the previous four seasons and could see his first action against his former team on Sunday.
However, Ruud missed the Titans' Week 10 game with a groin strain, then re-aggravated that injury last Sunday against Atlanta. Ruud did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday of this week, putting his availability for this Sunday's game into some doubt.
Ruud has been a big part of the conversation this week because, of course, the Bucs did not re-sign him in free agency this year and chose to draft a potential replacement in the third round in April. Tampa Bay was looking at the possibility of both Ruud and starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black hitting free agency in 2011 and believed Foster could help them immediately at either position.
As it turned out, Black re-signed, Ruud left for Tennessee and Foster was slotted into the middle, a difficult position to take over as a rookie because of its play-calling duties. Buccaneer management spent a lot of time during the offseason contemplating the situation – and having the draft fall before free agency made it more complicated – but they're not looking back after choosing which path to follow.
"It was a huge discussion throughout the whole process," said Morris. "Both of our guys were free agents. It's the National Football League – you've got to go out there and get somebody. I knew it would be a tough play when the decision was made and we came to it, Mason going out there and being a full-time Mike. Hence, that's why we tried to ease him in there."
The Buccaneers began the season with Foster playing only in the base defense, with Black handling the 'Mike' linebacker duties in the nickel defense and also wearing the defensive radio helmet in order to call plays. However, an early-season injury to Black forced Foster to take over the full Mike job, and he's held it ever since. The Bucs have been pleased with his play as a rookie, while acknowledging that there is room for improvement.
"He's still got a ways to go," said Morris. "He's like a quarterback – he's picked up a little bit of the defense this year and hopefully every year that he's here he'll get more and more and he'll get better and better. He's played well up unto this point – he's had a few little dull games but other than that he's played primarily well when he's been out there. He had a couple injury issues this year as well, but I'm really loving where he's going, loving how he's development is going."
Morris said Foster's main struggles as a rookie have been with the two ankle injuries that hindered him at midseason. On the positive side, the former University of Washington linebacker has displayed the exact sort of hustling and hard-hitting play the team expected of him all along.
"His toughness, the pop," said Morris, singling out Foster's best qualities. "That's been well-documented. That's the stuff you love about him."
Of course, the Buccaneers also liked what Ruud did for them during his six seasons with the team, much of it as a starter. Ruud averaged 178 tackles a season from 2007-10 and led the team in that category each of those four years. If he had one quality that stood out above the rest, it was his intelligence, according to Morris.
"He was far beyond when it came to that stuff," said Morris. "You're talking about having the ability to call one defense and it turns into three different things by the time he was done. He didn't get enough credit for that. I talked about that a long time ago, talked about his ability to run the defense, talked about his ability to be that leader, be that guy that absolutely understood what was going to happen. That guy, he's that guy. That's what he always will be."
Still a Threat
The Titans rank 21st in the NFL in both yards and points per game on offense, but the surprising number is on the league's rushing chart. Despite starting a running back in Chris Johnson who racked up 4,600 yards in his first three seasons, the Titans are currently last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, with 77.3.
Obviously, Johnson's season hasn't gone as either the team or the player expected. He has 509 yards after 10 games, with just a pair of touchdowns, and is averaging 3.2 yards per pop. From 2008-10, Johnson averaged almost exactly five yards a carry and scored a total of 34 rushing touchdowns.
The Bucs are choosing to believe the latter numbers when it comes to facing Johnson this Sunday, which they expect to be a significant test.
"Those guys run the ball well," said Morris. "They get people up in the box and open up the passing game, which Hasselbeck has been able to do. They're able to go out there and execute their running game with [Javon] Ringer, Chris Johnson and all those guys. That's kind of the way they were made. They've got a bunch of tough guys up front and [Matt] Hasselbeck has done a nice job of going in and making everything complete."
Hasselbeck, the very experienced passer Tennessee got from the Seattle Seahawks in order to give first-rounder Jake Locker time to develop, is on the Titans' injury report this week but was able to practice fully on Thursday. Hasselbeck is completing over 61% of his passes this year and has 14 touchdown tosses against eight interceptions. If the Titans' running game struggles again on Sunday, the Bucs know that Hasselbeck can still move the offense through the air.
"He's a veteran, crafty winner," said Morris. "He can make all the throws. He's always been that way, been accurate. He's been great with the ball, where it's supposed to go, throughout his whole career. He makes plays. He's very confident and he's always been like that. Veteran, crafty, winner – he's created a nice career for himself."