Mason Foster was visibly antsy on Wednesday as he watched his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates christen the converted rugby pitch on the grounds of the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, England. Foster, a 22-year-old rookie, wasn't exactly jumping up and down – that's not usually a doctor's prescription when you're nursing a sprained ankle – but he was clearly eager to rejoin his teammates in action.
Foster got his wish on Thursday and got in his first U.K.-based practice when the Buccaneers conducted a two-hour morning workout. Foster is the Buccaneers' starter at middle linebacker and has quickly emerged as one of the defense's top playmakers. Defensive end Michael Bennett, another defensive starter, also returned to practice on Thursday after missing the previous day with a mild groin strain.
Obviously, the Buccaneers would love to have both players available for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium, and there's certainly reason for optimism. Foster was limited in practice on Thursday while Bennett participated fully. Even with that "limited" caveat, Foster appears to be ahead of the pace he set last week when he managed to come back from a sprained right ankle in time to help the Bucs beat the New Orleans Saints.
Foster suffered the first injury in San Francisco in Week Five then missed both Wednesday and Thursday during the following week of practice. He returned on Friday and was able to start against the Saints but was sidelined for much of the second half with another sprain. It was widely assumed that the rookie 'backer had aggravated his existing injury, but Head Coach Raheem Morris clarified on Thursday that the latest injury was to his left ankle. That's a tough bit of luck over a two-week span, but the fact that Foster returned a day earlier than last week appears to be a good sign.
A third defensive starter could return for the Buccaneers, and this too would be a quicker-than-expected comeback. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy missed the Saints game due to the ankle injury he sustained in San Francisco, but he has practiced each of the two days in Surrey so far, albeit on a limited basis. McCoy's injury was severe enough that he was in a walking boot at the beginning of last week, but he seemed to make significant progress every day and came to London with his mind set on keeping his absence to just one game.
"He was excited today to get out there," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He looked okay. He had limited participation, so we'll see where he is as we get closer to this football game. But I'm really excited that he's back that fast. That just tells you how much these guys care about their teammates and care about playing each and every game. For him to even be thinking about playing this week is awesome, and the speedy recover he's having. That's a credit also to Todd Toriscelli, our head trainer, and his staff and what they've been able to do."
On the other hand, Morris' comments seemed to point to the likelihood of running back LeGarrette Blount not making it back for the Bears game. McCoy and Blount, who sustained a knee injury in San Francisco, were thought to be the team's most significant concerns coming out of Week Five, but worries of long-term absences have eased for both. McCoy, again, is aiming at a return on Sunday, and Blount may not be far behind. However, Blount did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and Morris has spoken about running back Earnest Graham as if he'll be the primary ballcarrier for a second straight week.
"He's put himself in position this week again to be the lead-dog guy for us as far as the tailback position," said Morris of Graham. "He and [Kregg] Lumpkin are probably going to split the load. LeGarrette Blount was not at practice again today so we don't know where he's going to be for the game. We just have to go out and keep working, but he's preparing to be the lead-dog guy again, and take that on for us. We've seen him do it before, we've seen him do it for a season and we've seen him do it at different times of the year. He's the best guy to do it for you. We call him "Insurance Graham" for a reason."
Graham kept the Buccaneers' running game operating at peak efficiency with an outstanding performance in Blount's place against the Saints. The versatile veteran ran 17 times for 109 yards and added 22 yards on two catches as Tampa Bay rolled up 420 total yards of offense in a 26-20 win. Obviously, the team's play-callers and blockers were able to adapt to the change in their attack's lead back.
"We've been a little less, maybe, of a power-gap scheme with Earnest, but Earnest has proved that he can do some of the runs that LeGarrette has, as well," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "I don't see us changing a whole lot. I just think the style of Earnest is a change-up as compared to the way LeGarrette Blount runs. LeGarrette is more of a power, run-you-over [player], whereas Earnest will set the blocks up a little bit more than you would see with LeGarrette. LeGarrette has no problem dropping shoulder and running through a defender or jumping over the top of a defender, whereas Earnest is more of a make-you-miss type of guy."
Left tackle Donald Penn said both backs have ways of making their lead blockers happy, even if their styles are different.
"It's kind of the best of both worlds," said Penn of the Blount-Graham combination. "Blount helps us out because people bounce off of him when we miss blocks. Earnest helps us out because he makes us look good when we don't make the right blocks. He makes better reads and has a better feel for it. Whoever's back there, we're going to be good but the key is keeping it up. We can't have a good game and then come out here and have a bad game on the run."
The team's official injury report will not include game-status designations until Friday, so it's uncertain if Foster, Bennett and especially McCoy will be questionable or probable. Still, all three were on the field today – as were Graham and Lumpkin as they prepared to fill in for Blount – and that's encouraging for the Wembley-bound Buccaneers.