RB Warrick Dunn's return to practice on Friday was a good omen that he would play on Sunday against the Steelers
Friday's Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice was somewhat like a game of backyard football with two guys showing up late.
'Okay, you can have number 55, but we get number 28.'
The Bucs' first-string defense and starting offense got equal boosts on Friday when linebacker Derrick Brooks and running back Warrick Dunn, a pair of Pro Bowlers on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, returned to practice.
That was what Tampa Bay's coaching staff had hoped would happen after the two key players missed Wednesday and Thursday practice sessions due to similar foot sprains (Dunn's right and Brooks' left). It's also the same pattern the two followed last week before playing against Tennessee on Sunday, though both are now an extra week removed the original occurrence of the injury.
"They did fine, actually did pretty well, better than last week," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We didn't practice them long. We didn't have them do everything they would normally do, but they did a good job at what they did."
Even before the return of Brooks and Dunn, Dungy has said all week that he believes he'll have 'access to' every player on the team except Jeff Gooch, who probably needs two to three weeks to recover from a shoulder sprain. He repeated that thought on Friday while admitting that the decisions on Brooks and starting free safety Dexter Jackson (thigh bruise) will probably come down to game day.
"At least, those are my feelings right now," said Dungy.
While Brooks and Dunn put on their helmets Friday, Jackson was unable to return. He, Gooch and QB Joe Hamilton (see below) were the only three players not to participate in the last full-scale practice before Sunday's game.
"Dexter is not quite ready to go, not 100 percent at this point," said Dungy. (Head Trainer) Todd (Toriscelli)'s optimistic though.
"At this point, if we had to play today, (Jackson) wouldn't play at all. But our sense is that he's going to be ready to go. If he is, we'll judge on Sunday how good he is, and then we'll see."
QB Joe Hamilton became the eighth player listed on the Bucs' injury report on Friday when he was added due to the effects of a viral infection.
Hamilton is dealing with a variety of typical symptoms of an infection, including a headache and a neck ache that made it too difficult for him to practice on Friday. While he may not be completely over the infection by Sunday, it is believed he will feel well enough to play.
It's not likely that Hamilton will take the field against the Steelers, of course. As the third quarterback, Hamilton would only enter if the Bucs were certain they did not want to use their first two passers, Brad Johnson and Shaun King, again during the game. Last year, filling the same role, Hamilton played in only one game (at Atlanta) and did not attempt a pass.
WR Keyshawn Johnson could be the NFC's leading receiver by the end of this weekend. If he maintains the pace he has set through the season's first month, it's a good bet he will be on the top of that chart.
At the moment, Johnson's 31 receptions rank him third in the conference, but the two players ahead of him on the chart have played one more game than Johnson and the Buccaneers. In fact, of the 14 players in the NFC who have more than 20 catches so far, only three play on teams that have already had their bye week. Johnson tops that list.
|Marshall Faulk (RB)||St. Louis||5||36||7.20|
|Terrell Owens||San Francisco||5||33||6.60|
|**Keyshawn Johnson**||**Tampa Bay**||**4**||**31**||**7.75**|
|Isaac Bruce||St. Louis||5||25||5.00|
|Ahman Green (RB)||Green Bay||5||24||4.80|
|Torry Holt||St. Louis||5||23||4.60|
|Joe Jurevicius||N.Y. Giants||5||21||4.20|
|Amani Toomer||N.Y. Giants||5||21||4.20|
So Johnson trails only Faulk and Owens, and has a better per-game catch average than anyone else on the list. This weekend, Faulk's Rams play the New York Jets, but the reigning league MVP is a question mark for the game with a knee injury. Owen's 49ers have the weekend off. If Johnson approaches his current per-game average this Sunday, he will likely move past Faulk and Owens and hold off Muhammad and Bruce.
Already, Johnson has more than double his receptions total from the first four games of 2000, his first season as a Buccaneer. After that first quarter of the season, Johnson's tally was 15 receptions, though he did have one touchdown compared to none so far this year. However, his statistical spike in 2001 is not the result of a more rigorous effort, according to the former New York Jet standout.
"I was doing the same thing last year, I just didn't get the football," said Johnson. "The same thing, no difference. I've been doing the same thing my whole career. Blocking, catching balls, big plays, running after the catch…now all I have to do is score. I'm going to get better each week. That's why we practice."
Dungy gets two games per year against his most recent employer before the Buccaneers, the Minnesota Vikings, so that novelty has probably worn off some. However, this weekend's game marks just the second Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay game since Dungy took over the Bucs' helm in 1996. Tampa Bay won a 1998 contest, 16-3.
Dungy began his professional career as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers in 1977, successfully converting from a quarterback at the University of Minnesota to a defensive back in the pros. He later went on to coach with the Steelers for eight years, and he still credits much of his football acumen to former Pittsburgh Head Coach Chuck Noll. As such, Sunday's Bucs-Steelers game is a special one to Dungy.
"It is," said the Bucs' coach. "I worked there for about 11 years and have some very, very close ties there. You can never erase that."
He even won a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers, who beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII during Dungy's two-year run in Pittsburgh. However, Dungy never took to the habit of wearing that impressive piece of jewelry. It now only sees the light of day as an ornament on one of wife Lauren Dungy's necklaces.
"There, once you got your ring, everybody said, 'Hey, we're working on next year…that's last year,'" said Dungy. "Not too many guys wore them and I just never got in the habit of wearing them. I'm still looking for that 'next year.'