Jimmy Lake, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive backs coach, says second-year safety Cody Grimm is one of the toughest players he has ever tutored.
Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, Grimm will have to focus his considerable grit and tenacity on rehabilitation rather than tackling opposing ballcarriers…at least for the immediate future. On Monday, Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed that Grimm damaged the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee but said the young defender will not necessarily miss the remainder of the season, as was the immediate fear after the injury occurred.
Grimm is undergoing additional tests to determine if there is additional damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or any other part of the knee. An ACL tear would almost certainly end Grimm's season but the usual recovery time for an MCL injury is quite a bit shorter.
"We don't know the extent of that yet," said Morris. "He's definitely getting an MRI [examination]. I know his MCL is messed up, and he's got some other stuff that we're checking on right now. It may not be for the year. We're not sure of that yet."
Grimm was injured midway through the third quarter of the Buccaneers' 16-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons as he tackled running back Michael Turner from behind. Linebacker Geno Hayes, whose helmet accidentally made contact with Grimm's knee during the pileup, was also hurt on the play but could avoid any missed time.
Hayes was diagnosed with a concussion but if it is judged to be minor enough he could return for next Monday's game against Indianapolis. The NFL requires every player to take a baseline cognitive test before the season, and this allows a player who is feared to have suffered a concussion to take the same test and compare the results. If a player "passes" that second test, much as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick did last week, he can be cleared to play.
"Geno's going through the battery test mandated by the NFL for the concussion," said Morris. "Obviously, he bumped his head yesterday. So, we'll see where he is and all that type of stuff this week."
Grimm will clearly miss some time with his knee injury even if he avoids the injured reserve list. Though the Buccaneers will press forward with their "next man up" viewpoint, they will have to work hard to replace what Grimm had brought to the secondary.
"Cody came in and did a great job last year and he has kept going this year," said fellow starting safety Sean Jones. "It's unfortunate what happened this past Sunday and we're hoping he can bounce back as fast as he can. We'll see how it goes. He's been a tremendous help in the back end for us, saving us touchdowns with his tackling and being around the ball all the time. We don't know how long he'll be out, but we're definitely going to miss him."
A seventh-round draft choice out of Virginia Tech in 2010, Grimm took over as the Buccaneers' starting free safety just three games into his career after Tanard Jackson was suspended by the commissioner. Though his ascendance to the starting lineup was surprisingly fast, Grimm quickly became a key contributor on the Bucs' young defense. He recorded 61 tackles, two interceptions and one touchdown return in his 11 games and nine starts, but then suffered a season-ending knee injury in Baltimore.
Through the first three games of this season, Grimm had 15 tackles and a pass defensed. In the Bucs' 24-20 win at Minnesota in Week Two, he drew praise for his play on the back end of the defense against running back Adrian Peterson, who broke quite a few of his carries into the second level of the defense but never quite got free for a backbreaking run. Against the Falcons, Morris brought Grimm close to the line of scrimmage for much of the afternoon in order to slow down RB Michael Turner and the strategy worked perfectly. Turner gained just 20 yards on 11 carries.
Morris said the second-year defensive back was capable of helping his defense in a large variety of ways.
"I don't know what's more important about Cody," he said. "When you're talking about Cody you're talking about his practice habits, his effort, his willingness to do just about anything, to put his face on people. He's a nasty, viscous, hard player. He plays smart, he plays fast, he plays hard, plays consistent. He can execute just about any game plan and does a great job of disguises. The communicate between him and Sean J. has really grown unbelievable. His ability to fly out with Ronde [Barber] in some of those blitzes and some of those coverage deals that they do, all of those things are important, I think."
Whether Grimm ends up on injured reserve or misses some as-yet-determined portion of the season, the Bucs must decide on a new starter at free safety for the time being.
Fourth-year man Corey Lynch, who started the last five games of the 2010 season after Grimm's first knee injury, took over against the Falcons on Sunday after Grimm left the game. Lynch finished with two tackles and one of the key defensive plays of the game, a pass defensed on a fourth-down try from the Buccaneers' seven in the fourth quarter. Lynch batted away a pass intended for running back Jacquizz Rodgers that nearly gave Atlanta a touchdown during their frantic comeback attempt. During his time as a starter last year, Lynch contributed 24 tackles, one interception, two passes defensed and one quarterback pressure.
The Bucs currently have two other safeties on the depth chart: first-year player Larry Asante and undrafted rookie Devin Holland. Asante joined the team as a free agent for the final month of the 2010 season and got into two games, pitching in with one tackle and one interception. He had a strong 2011 preseason, with nine tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. Holland was one of only two undrafted free agents to make the 53-man roster this year, along with long-snapper Christian Yount, and to this point has primarily been seen a special teams ace.
Morris said that Lynch and Asante would both get an opportunity to prove they should be the starter during practice this week.
"We'll let those two guys, Larry and Corey, battle this week on who can play, who'll get the most amount of time," said Morris. "I can play either of them or both of them any kind of way. We'll get those guys out there competing this week at practice. Practice will determine that."
As for the open spot on the roster, the Bucs often promotes from their own practice squad. One of the eight players currently on that unit is rookie safety Ahmad Black, a fifth-round pick out of the University of Florida in April, but it is no certainty that the team will choose to use that spot on a safety. The depth chart remains relatively deep in defensive backs, with 10 others in addition to Grimm, and Asante has been inactive for each of the first three games.