Will it be Jeremy Zuttah (76) or Arron Sears at left guard on Sunday? The answer may not come until game day, but the Bucs are confident in both players
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked off the practice field at noon on Friday, having just completed their last full-speed gathering of the week, they still had more than 56 hours to burn before kickoff of their next game.
The Bucs play in prime time on Sunday, taking on the visiting Seattle Seahawks in front of a national NBC audience at 8:15 p.m. ET. That means some unfamiliar downtime on Sunday afternoon. It also means a slightly larger recovery window for those players trying to overcome an injury before kickoff.
The Bucs' Arron Sears, for instance, gets an extra seven hours or so to rest his aching knee. That could help him land on the right side of the inactive list come game time.
"He's getting better," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden of Sears, the team's starting left guard. "He practiced today and he'll have a chance to play. Hopefully between today, tomorrow and all day Sunday he can recover enough to where he can play. If he can't, we'll go with [Jeremy] Zuttah."
Sears sustained the injury in last Sunday's win over Carolina and was replaced for more than two quarters by Zuttah, the rookie third-rounder out of Rutgers. Zuttah handled the assignment well, which was no surprise to the Buccaneers after the surprisingly polished rookie started the first four games at right guard and helped the team survive the absence of Davin Joseph.
Whether or not Zuttah is called back into the starting lineup, he has already proved his worth to the Buccaneers. In addition to providing the necessary depth at both guard spots, Zuttah is also considered a capable tackle, a position he played just last year at Rutgers. Thus, for the last two games the Buccaneers have deactivated both of their reserve tackles – Anthony Davis and James Lee – and kept Zuttah and guard/center Sean Mahan on the 45-man game-day list.
But will Zuttah be needed at left guard on Sunday? Sears was designated as questionable on Friday's more detailed injury report, but he practiced in a limited fashion for the third straight day. The Bucs are hopeful that the second-year starter will be able to suit up against the Seahawks.
The same is true for two other Bucs listed as questionable: wide receiver Joey Galloway and quarterback Brian Griese. Galloway, who hasn't played since suffering a foot injury against Atlanta in Week Two, took a step in the right direction by practicing a bit more vigorously this week, but he remains a question mark for Sunday's game.
"He's getting better," said Gruden. "We'll make the decision on Sunday but he did do a little bit more today. He's had not many practices since last November. We'll look at the film, see how he feels. We're very optimistic, though. He does look like he's getting better."
Griese was limited throughout the slate of practices for the second straight week by an elbow injury suffered in Denver in Week Five. Last week, that sort of inactivity forced the Bucs to deactivate Griese, keep Luke McCown as the second active quarterback behind starter Jeff Garcia and push rookie Josh Johnson into the designated third quarterback role.
Wide receiver Antonio Bryant was added to the injury report on Friday due to a foot ailment but was able to practice without limits and is considered probable for Sunday's game. Three other Bucs are also on the list but probable: linebacker Derrick Brooks (hamstring), kicker Matt Bryant (right hamstring) and linebacker Barrett Ruud (knee).
Two Buccaneers have also been ruled out for the game, both suffering from hamstring injuries. Fullback B.J. Askew will miss his fourth consecutive game with that ailment while wide receiver Maurice Stovall will sit out after incurring the same injury last weekend.
Running to Success
The Buccaneers have run the ball well on offense in 2008, and they've been tough on opposing rushing attacks on defense, too. That's a combination that will make any coach happy.
"That's the key to winning, I think – running the ball and stopping the run are the key ingredients that grew up with philosophically," said Gruden. "We've got to clean up some penalties and the turnover matters and things of that nature but that's an area that we've really made a big deal of here, stopping the run and running the rock. That's something we'll continue to do. It's not easy to do, it's really hard."
Tampa Bay ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing offense with 136.0 yards per game and ninth in rushing defense at 89.7 yards allowed per game. That makes the Bucs one of five teams currently ranked in the top 10 in both categories. Moreover, when it comes to yards per carry, the Bucs are third on offense (4.9) and fifth on defense (3.4). The Bucs are the only team ranked in the top 10 of both of those categories.
Oh, and Tampa Bay is the only team in the NFL yet to allow a rushing touchdown.
"The guys are selling out, and being gap sound," said defensive tackle Jovan Haye. "We have 11 guys flying around to the ball every play and not allowing the big runs."
Indeed, the Bucs' defense has surrendered only 10 runs of 10 or more yards so far, less than two per game. They have allowed only three runs of 20 or more yards and have yet to let an opposing ballcarrier reach the 100-yard mark in a single game.
Eventually, an opponent is likely to score on the ground against Tampa Bay, and few teams make it through an entire season without allowing a 100-yard rusher at some point. But if the Bucs can maintain their current strong play in the running game on both sides of the ball, they might just keep up their winning ways, too.
Putting up zeroes in those categories is less important to the Bucs' defense than the bottom line.
"We don't really think about," said Haye. "We just have to make sure it doesn't happen; we don't want it to happen. We don't just sit around and dwell on it; we just get ready for the next week."
Thunder in the Background
Not long ago, running back Warrick Dunn – then an Atlanta Falcon – filmed a commercial to promote the fantasy football game on NFL.com.
The commercial's tongue-in-cheek storyline had Dunn presenting Mike Alstott for induction into the fantasy football Hall of Fame. Feigning a little bitterness, Dunn thanks Alstott for stealing all of his touchdown opportunities when the two were Buccaneer teammates and a backfield duo known as "Thunder & Lightning."
Alstott was indeed a touchdown-making machine during the backs' years together (1997-2001) but more importantly the two runners combined to give Tampa Bay a potent rushing attack most seasons. Dunn departed for Atlanta in 2002 and spent six years with the Falcons; his return this year came too late for Thunder & Lightning to be reunited, as Alstott retired this past January.
However, Dunn did come back in time to witness Sunday night's tribute to Alstott, arguably the most popular player in team history. Dunn is glad he will be on hand for what could be an emotional show.
"It was an honor [to play with Alstott] because I got to see him early in his career when he was still running with reckless abandon, just banging heads and making great runs, those two and three-yard runs, hitting 10 guys and still getting that yard or scoring that touchdown," he said. "To me, he was one of those guys when you needed that one or two yards at crunch time, he was the right number to call."