The Tampa Bay Buccaneers slowed their Wednesday practice down a notch, working without helmets and pads, but will rev up to full speed again on Thursday.
If Jeff Faine and Jeremy Trueblood can handle that transition, the Buccaneers' offensive line might also be back at full strength.
Tampa Bay secured its fifth win of the season on Sunday in Arizona despite fielding a front line that was 60% different than its opening-day lineup. Central to that issue was the quad injury that has kept Faine, the starting center, out for the last three games and the knee injury that has cost Trueblood, the starting right tackle, one outing so far. Opening-day left guard Keydrick Vincent initially missed the Bucs' Week Seven win over the Rams with a back injury but has since been released. All of which led to former reserves Jeremy Zuttah, James Lee and Ted Larsen playing in those three positions, respectively, against the Cardinals.
As happy as the Bucs were with the performance of their revamped line – 154 rushing yards and relatively little pressure on the quarterback will do that – they are obviously eager to have Faine and Trueblood back in action. If both players were to return they would resume their starting jobs and Zuttah would slide over to left guard, where he started 16 games in 2009.
So far, so good, though the slowed-down nature of the week's first practice meant Wednesday wasn't the perfect opportunity to judge how far Faine and Trueblood have come since sustaining their injuries.
"They were out there today in the walk-through part," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They were able to go out there for the practice part today and move around a little bit. We've just got to see, go throughout the process of the week, and we'll get to Friday and Saturday and have more detailed information."
Both Faine and Trueblood were officially listed as having limited participation in practice on Wednesday. Faine knew not to expect a definitive answer on his first day back but he still began the week with a sense of optimism.
"We're going to go out there and test it a little bit, but it's coming along well," he said. "We're ahead of schedule and it's definitely responded extremely well. Usually I heal a lot faster than the original prognosis, so it's good. The next test will be the following day, but just to be able to get out there with the guys and get into position and do the things that are necessary, just moving around [is nice]."
The Bucs have missed Faine's leadership up front but have managed to win two of the three games he's missed, as well as the Cincinnati game in which he was hurt midway through. Part of that is attributable to the fine work turned in by Zuttah, who lost his starting job at guard to Vincent earlier in the summer. Zuttah's play has improved significantly since, and the team is now excited about its eventual interior combination of Zuttah, Faine and right guard Davin Joseph, with talented rookie Larsen providing depth.
"I think he's done a fantastic job," said Faine of his fill-in at center. "There have been little things here and there but you've got to expect that with not only the change he's had to deal with but having to deal with a new left guard as well. That's challenging. To go into an environment like they went into this past week, where it was a little loud, was challenging. I think he's done a great job of stepping in and holding up the line while I wasn't in there."
Joseph has been impressed with the play of all the young reserves, though he doesn't put Zuttah into the same category as Larsen and Lee. Joseph already has plenty of confidence in Zuttah, who has 24 career starts in two-and-a-half seasons, and his even younger teammates are quickly growing on him.
"You've got guys in there who are young and fighting hard," said Joseph. "They're playing as hard as can be from snap count to whistle. That's half the battle, really, effort. From there you can correct mistakes but as long as you know that they're going 100%, that's all that really matters."
Faine, too, believes the Bucs' early-season injury troubles up front have uncovered some very valuable assets in the likes of Lee and Larsen. Even if Faine and Trueblood push those two back to reserve status soon, Tampa Bay is better off in the long run with front-line depth that inspires confidence in the face of any future injuries.
"On one hand you'd like to pat [Lee] on the back and on the other hand you tell him that's what we expect," said Faine. "I've seen James Lee's progression through his career since he's been here and he's just gotten better and better. He's a guy who I think could challenge for a starting spot in the NFL at some point in his career, a guy that's not just going to be a perennial backup. Ted Larsen's at a very young point in his career and he's doing a fantastic job. I think he'll just get better, too."
Faine and Trueblood hope to get better, in terms of health, by the end of the week. They are two of nine players on the Bucs' first official injury report of the week, including six starters. Four of those nine players did not participate at all on Wednesday: fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (neck), defensive tackle Ryan Sims (knee) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot). Graham has been working through his hamstring issue for several weeks while Sims and Stroughter got banged up in Arizona. McCoy is the newest addition to the list, having strained his neck while lifting weights on Wednesday morning.
The other three players on Tampa Bay's injury report – defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder), wide receiver Preston Parker (knee) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) – all participated fully in practice on Wednesday.