The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have some new contributors on Sunday night out of necessity, but they may also have some key contributors back in the lineup.
The Buccaneers head to Foxborough this weekend to take on the New England Patriots, a game that is drawing massive intention because of Tom Brady's return to Gillette Stadium to take on Bill Belichick and his former team. Lesser storylines have been relegated to the back page – even, to some extent, the aggressive signing of cornerback Richard Sherman – but there is definitely some intrigue surrounding the Buccaneers' lineup for Sunday night.
Most significantly, the Bucs may not know until the evening of the game if they will have the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. Gronkowski, of course, is sharing Brady's homecoming to Foxborough and it would be particularly disappointing for all involved if he is unable to suit up. Unfortunately, he has been labeled as "doubtful" to play on Sunday due to the injury to his ribs suffered last weekend in Los Angeles. Gronkowski did not take part in any of the Buccaneers' practices this week.
Gronkowski's absence would mean more playing time for Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Howard's usage through the first three weeks has been somewhat limited, as he has played just 31 offensive snaps so far. The Buccaneers also have two tight ends on the practice squad in Codey McElroy and Deon Yelder and could choose to elevate one of them for the game. Yelder was elevated for last week's game against the Rams and got into the game on special teams.
Pierre-Paul's presence would be a big boost for Tampa Bay's 32nd-ranked pass rush and its efforts to turn up the heat on rookie quarterback Mac Jones. He suffered a shoulder injury in Week Two and didn't play against the Rams. On Monday, Head Coach Bruce Arians said he didn't "foresee" Pierre-Paul playing this week but that, given his history, anything was possible. As such, it wasn't a complete shock to see the veteran pass-rusher suit up and take on a limited role in practice on Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday.
Pierre-Paul got a "questionable" designation for the game, which is at least more hopeful than Gronkowski, but those two also happen to be among the toughest players on the team so some hope remains for both on Sunday.
"We have great doctors, great trainers and everybody knows what it takes to get somebody ready," said Arians. "A lot of it's just personal toughness, and some guys are a lot tougher than other guys. It's nothing bad against them, it's just some guys are just really tough."
The Bucs do know that they will have to face the Patriots without cornerback Jamel Dean and running back Giovani Bernard. Dean has been starting at outside cornerback since Sean Murphy-Bunting landed on injured reserve in Week Two but he suffered a knee injury early in last weekend's game against the Rams. On Friday, Arians said that Dean just isn't able to push off of that leg yet and so the third-year cornerback will be inactive on Sunday.
After Dean's injury in Los Angeles, Dee Delaney saw 53 snaps on defense, which was 48 more than he had seen in his four-year career up to that point. On Friday, Arians chose not to reveal how the Buccaneers would arrange their secondary against the Patriots, but he did confirm that Sherman would be active for the contest. Arians said the 11th-year veteran, who was just signed on Wednesday, would be up "just in case." The Buccaneers could also choose to elevate Rashard Robinson or Pierre Desir from the practice squad to help out; Robinson was elevated last weekend and saw action on special teams.
With Bernard out, second-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn will likely be active and could get his first work on offense this season. He was active for the first time against the Rams but was used solely on special teams. Bernard had been serving as a third-down and two-minute back for the Bucs and he saw his most extensive action last weekend as the Bucs were trying to mount a late comeback, catching nine passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. He actually suffered his injury taking a shot to the knee on his seven-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter.
The Buccaneers may need some new contributors to help them avoid a second straight loss on Sunday night, but they won't be lacking in motivation. Arians was very pleased with the focus and intensity level of his squad this week.
"[We had] a hell of a week of practice," he said. "You could really feel the difference in intensity this week. It doesn't have a damn thing to do with Brady, it has to do with losing. I like the way we bounced back on the practice field. [There was] a lot of intensity, more intensity than there has been."