There's never a good time to lose one of your top playmakers on offense. There's never a bad time to get one back.
It appears as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a good chance to get starting tailback LeGarrette Blount back from a three-week absence in time to play this Sunday in New Orleans. That would be good timing, given that last week running back Earnest Graham landed on injured reserve with an Achilles tendon tear suffered against Chicago in London.
On Wednesday, Blount practiced with the rest of the team for the first time since suffering a knee injury at San Francisco on October 9. He sat out Tampa Bay's win over the Saints at Raymond James Stadium on October 16 and its loss to the Bears the following Sunday. Graham helped ease that loss in the victory over New Orleans by rushing for 109 yards as the starting tailback. However, he was lost to his injury just a few plays into the London game and the Buccaneers' offense managed just 30 rushing yards on the day.
A much-needed bye week followed the Bucs' trip overseas, and that added rest plus the work Blount has been doing on the sidelines apparently has the second-year tailback back in gear. Head Coach Raheem Morris is expected to address the situation during his post-practice press conference, but Blount obviously believes he's on track to return on Sunday.
"I feel good," he said, shortly before practice began. "Everything is back in store, everything is where it needs to be. My recovery is a little bit faster than what we thought, so everything is going real well."
That's very welcome news given the looming game against Saints, in which a win would push Tampa Bay past their division rivals into first place in the NFC South. The Bucs hit the bye week with a 4-3 record while the Saints fell to 5-3 last Sunday with a loss at St. Louis. The Atlanta Falcons are also 4-3 and will come off their own bye this coming weekend with a trip to Indianapolis.
Blount had really hit his stride in the three games before the injury that knocked him out early against the 49ers. In wins over Minnesota, Atlanta and Indianapolis, he had averaged 93 rushing yards per game, picked up 4.5 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. The men who have opened holes for a 100-yard game by both Blount and Graham are happy to be getting their 250-pound hammer back in the backfield.
"That's going to be great, especially with Earnest Graham going down," said Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn. "Blount's a great running back and he's going to be fresh. His legs are going to be fresh and we're going to try to get him going. But the Saints, they've got a tough run defense so it's going to be a battle."
Though he certainly didn't want his sophomore season interrupted after a breakout rookie campaign, Blount might even discover some benefits to a layoff of nearly a month. The obvious hope is that he will have fresh legs as the Bucs head into the second half of their schedule. Penn also thinks that the time on the sideline gave Blount an opportunity to learn a few more things from Graham before the latter's unfortunate injury.
"I think this off time helped him," said Penn of the Bucs' young back. "He got in his playbook real hard, working hard doing extra stuff. I think it helped him to see the veteran, E.G., and some of his runs, see his patience. I think he's going to learn from that and it's going to make him a better player, and it's going to help us an offense run a lot smoother.
"He was meeting and doing his own stuff and catching up on the playbook. I think that's going to help us out tremendously. Having him on third down is going to be big."
Penn's allusion at the end of his comment is to the likelihood that Blount's role in the third-down offense will expand with Graham unavailable. The Bucs still have Kregg Lumpkin to help in that role, but they would like to get Blount more involved on third downs because they believe he can be a significant weapon in that situation. Blount feels ready to take advantage of that opportunity.
"I know I'm going to play third downs this game," he said, on the assumption that he'll be cleared to play. "I probably won't play all of them but I know I'm going to play quite a few of them. I've shown that I know the protections, and I know the routes and everything, and I can catch the ball. That's going to help us out tremendously. It's going to help me stay in the game a little bit longer, play a lot more snaps, so I'm excited."
The Buccaneers prevailed in a close game against the Saints in Week Six, and Graham's effective running between the tackles had a lot to do with it. That helped Tampa Bay limit Drew Brees' time on the field and also gave Josh Freeman's play-action more bite. With the added challenge of playing the rematch in the Saints' Superdome, it's likely they will need a performance at least that good from Blount on Sunday.
"[Freeman] feeds off me with my play-action fakes and I feed off him with him giving me the football and carrying out his fakes," said Blount. "There's big-play potential all around us. We're going to have big plays this game and we're going to continue our success as far as the offense goes. With me coming back and having Lumpkin and all those guys back with me, it will definitely be a big thing for our offense and our playmaking abilities."