The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 10 defensive linemen on their active roster, representing nearly a fifth of their 53-man squad. On Wednesday, all 10 of those players took part in practice, something the team hasn't enjoyed since the early days of September.
Defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, half of the team's opening-day defensive front, took part in the first practice of Oakland week, albeit in a limited fashion. McDonald got in field work for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in practice on October 6. On that same day, Ayers participated in practice on a limited basis, but that is the only field session he's been a part of since injuring an ankle 28 snaps into the Week Two contest at Arizona.
The practice work logged by the two veteran linemen on Wednesday is no guarantee they will be ready to suit up against the Raiders at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Still, it's a positive development for a position that has been hit especially hard by injuries in 2016, leading to far more playing time than originally planned for undrafted rookies DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward and October pickup John Hughes.
The injury problems began early in the Bucs' season-opening win in Atlanta, as Jacquies Smith, one of the team's best edge rushers, was lost for the season with a knee injury after playing just one defensive snap. Since then, Smith, Ayers, McDonald and McCoy have combined to miss 12 games due to injury (counting missed halves for Ayers and McCoy) and rookie edge rusher Noah Spence has been limited a bit by a shoulder injury. That doesn't count defensive end George Johnson, who suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason.
However, the situation has begun to improve since the Buccaneers returned from their Week Six bye. McCoy was back in the lineup for Sunday's game in San Francisco, showing no signs of rust and making a huge impact in the Bucs' win with a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed. Spence, who played in a shoulder harness during the team's Week Five win over the Panthers, was closer to full strength in San Francisco and was able to notch his second sack of the season.
The Bucs had hoped to thin out their injury list more quickly after the bye week, particularly on the D-Line, but only McCoy returned to action in Week Seven. Still, his presence alone made a significant difference. Tampa Bay's defense notched four sacks of Denver quarterbacks in the first half in Week Four, before McCoy left prior to hamstring with a calf injury. The Bucs recorded no sacks over the next six quarters without McCoy, but had another four against the 49ers with the four-time Pro Bowler back in the lineup.
Getting Ayers and McDonald back in the mix, whether it is this weekend or not long after, would multiply those gains, and perhaps get the D-Line back to the level of play that led to an NFL-high 16 sacks during the preseason. It would also lead to an impressive amount of depth in that crew, as Lambert and Ward have gained invaluable experience in recent weeks, William Gholston has taken his game to another level and Hughes has proved to be a helpful addition. At some point, the Bucs could be 10-deep on the D-Line, not just on the practice field but on game days.