The Bucs' backfield is expected to once again feature both Mike Alstott (left) and Warrick Dunn on Monday night
When Mike Alstott began to feel his body move sideways while his left leg remained planted in the Soldier Field turf on November 19, he knew he was in trouble. Trapped in a huge pile of tacklers, Alstott had the unenviable experience of feeling a knee sprain occur in agonizingly slow motion.
If you had told Alstott on that late fall afternoon that he wouldn't be back on the Bucs' practice field until temperatures had reached the mid-80s again, he probably would have been disappointed but not surprised.
As it turned out, you would have been right, but only because an unusual mid-December heat wave has made the Tampa holiday season feel more like mid-June. To everyone's surprise, including his own, Alstott is back in practice less than four weeks after suffering his medial collateral ligament sprain, and now appears to be an almost sure bet to play against the Rams on Monday night. That will restore the Bucs' potent backfield of Alstott and RB Warrick Dunn, sometimes referred to in tandem as WD-40.
Alstott, who wore a brace on his left knee in practice and will do so against the Rams, took the first step towards returning to the lineup on Thursday by participating in his first practice in roughly a month. Still, the Buccaneers' medical staff had pinpointed Friday as the key day in his evaluation. If he woke up on this day without any undue pain or soreness, he would likely get the clearance to play.
"It feels like it's never been injured," said Alstott after not only reporting to One Buccaneer Place in great shape but also participating fully in Friday's two-hour workout. "It's kind of unbelievable, coming back so fast and healing so fast, then practicing today and feeling no pain. I'm excited."
Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy and his coaching staff should now be able to use the weekend to pencil Alstott into the game plan. With 456 rushing yards and five scores, Alstott is the team's second leading rusher behind Dunn (948) and is tied for the team lead in rushing TDs. On Thursday, he was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
"It looks like it right now," said Dungy of Alstott's likelihood to play on Monday. "I think he's going to be able to help us and do some things. He was as good today as yesterday, didn't seem to have a setback, so I think he'll be ready.
"He's doing well. He doesn't really like the brace very much but I think we're going to use that for precaution. But he did well and it looks like he'll be able to help us on Monday."
For sure, a chance to help his team on game day is Alstott's top motivation, but the fifth-year veteran is just as happy to be back on the practice field.
"Seriously, yeah," said Alstott of his eagerness to sweat it out with the rest of the Bucs' squad on midweek afternoons. "It's a different feeling when you're injured, and you're in the training room and your teammates are out here working their butts off trying to prepare for a game. You can't be a part of it, and you've been doing it all your life. This is really the first time in my life that I've been injured and not a part of it."
Alstott's enthusiasm was immediately obvious to Dungy. "He is fired up to play, no doubt," said the Bucs' coach.
However many carries Alstott eventually gets, it appears that he will have the team's normal starting offensive line in front of him as well. Like Alstott, tackle Pete Pierson has made a quicker-then-expected recovery from an injury, in this case a left calf pull suffered in Miami on Sunday. Pierson was originally considered a good bet to miss at least one game, but he is listed as probable on the team's injury report and was able to practice on Friday.
"Pete was back and, again, we'll take that day to day," said Dungy. "But it was good to see him back a day early."
Alstott wasn't the only Buccaneer fired up on Friday. While the last day of the normal work week usually features a slower-paced practice, this particular Friday was, in effect, a Buccaneer Thursday due to the Monday night schedule. Dungy allowed his team to stay out of full gear and wear only shoulder pads, but the practice was still one of the most intense of the season for the Bucs.
"We got some things done and worked on some situations that we wanted to work on," said Dungy, after watching both his starting offense and defense perform well in the two-minute drill to end the session. "We had a nice spirited practice; they had a lot left, I think, going with no pads.
"I thought we practiced well. We went with no pads just take a little bit of the hitting off them. I thought we had good energy and it's going to hopefully have us a little fresher for Monday night, which we're going to need."
Alstott can get a much better gauge on his team's state of mind when he joins his teammates on the practice field, and he saw a team on Friday that was geared up for the formidable task at hand.
"We've had two days of good preparation and today was a very energetic day," he said. "We got a lot of things accomplished and we were sharp in what we had to get done today. Tomorrow, we have to have another good practice, put it all together and rest up a little bit, then play Monday."
Dungy compares his team's focused mental attitude to the one they displayed in the days leading up to last year's season finale. The Bucs traveled to Chicago on January 2 needing a victory over the Bears to lock up its first NFC Central Crown in 20 years.
"Games like this, where it's a playoff type of game, a chance to get into the playoffs or a chance to clinch the division…we had one last year against Chicago," said Dungy. "You know there's a lot on the line and I think the concentration level is raised a little bit.
Spurred on as usual by the good-natured ranting of the scout-team defense, the Buccaneers were flying around the field on Friday as if there was a crowd of 65,000 cheering them on. The team seems particularly enthused by the fast-paced challenge the Rams will bring on Monday. It would seem like a good opportunity to show off the team speed that is considered one of the Bucs' strengths.
"We're going to have to be fast," said Dungy. "St. Louis' whole game – offense, defense and special teams – is based on their speed, and we're going to have to match that."
In terms of speed relative to position, one of the Bucs' biggest assets is four-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Brooks. Games that force the Tampa Bay defense to spread out – as opposed to the condensed attack run by Miami last Sunday – play into Brooks' strength. That was evident against Buffalo, when he roamed near and far to record 22 tackles in the Bucs' 31-17 win on November 26.
Having Brooks controlling the middle of Tampa Bay's defense inspires confidence for the men up front.
"I'm glad to have our state trooper back there," said DT Warren Sapp of Brooks. "He's a bad man…840 miles of highway, he covers all of them.
"When you've got speed like that and you can count on where everybody's going to be and you know where you're supposed to fit, it bodes well for you. We have this trust with each other. He knows that if he turns it back, we're coming inside out and we're going to help him. We just play well together, and if we all do what we're supposed to do, it's going to be a classic."
Though the Bucs have turned their attention completely to the Rams, one mildly hot topic during the team's media session on early Friday afternoon concerned the previous game in Miami, thanks to a provocative clip shown on HBO's Inside the NFL Thursday night.
In the clip, shot on the Bucs' sideline during Sunday's win in Miami, Tampa Bay QB Shaun King directs a short burst of frustration in the direction of Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen.
As unfamiliar as that type of sideline exchange might seem to Buccaneers fans, who rarely are privy to such conversations, Christensen struggled even to recall the exact situation. To him, it was a forgettable and not uncommon occurrence.
"Shaun was extremely frustrated," said Christensen when reminded of the exchange. "The headsets were down, the communication was down. Every quarterback in the league, probably three times a year, comes to the sideline and is hot. That was one of his three. Some do more than three.
"I wasn't mad (at King). Heck, no. Everyone was frustrated. He was just frustrated and mad. He didn't like the third-down call. It didn't work out, we kicked a field goal and it got tight."
Neither Christensen nor King reported any problem in their relationship whatsoever.