The Bucs' offensive line has performed well in the absence of starting RG Davin Joseph, but that unit is still eager to get its leader back on the field
On a day when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were blindsided emotionally by the tragic passing of Tryson Bryant, the infant son of kicker Matt Bryant, there was also news regarding the team's physical status.
Head Coach Jon Gruden acknowledged that such concerns as Davin Joseph's injured foot or Derrick Brooks' strained hamstring paled almost to complete insignificance in the wake of the Bryant family's unfathomable loss. Still, there is a game to be played on Sunday — the Buccaneers take on the Green Bay Packers at Raymond James Stadium — and updating the injury report is part of the necessary lead-up to that contest.
And so, in the relative sense of "good news," there is this: Davin Joseph, the Bucs' rising star at right guard, may be able to return this weekend against the Packers.
Joseph has missed five games, including the preseason, since sustaining a foot injury in the second August game, a victory over the New England Patriots. He has gradually worked himself back into the mix, and on Wednesday he turned in a very encouraging practice. Gruden said that Joseph performed at full capacity, though he was technically still "limited" in the workout.
"We've got a number of people injured, still some guys sore, lingering soreness from the Chicago game," said Gruden. "B.J. Askew did not practice today; his status is questionable, I would say, at best at this point. Davin Joseph returned to practice; his role in this game will be decided late in the week. Derrick Brooks did not practice, Warrick Dunn did not practice. Brian Griese was on the practice field but limited. He's still a little bit sore from the game. We expect him to practice tomorrow. Joey Galloway did not practice; his status is still much in question."
Jeremy Zuttah, a third-round pick out of Rutgers this past April, has performed extremely well in Joseph's absence, stepping right in and starting each of the first three games. The Bucs have been thrilled with the work of their front-line blockers so far — an outstanding rushing game against Atlanta in Week Two was followed by a 67-pass, no-sack pass-blocking extravaganza in Chicago in Week Three.
Zuttah has helped the Bucs survive Joseph's absence, and he has announced himself as a significant asset for the team in the very near future. When Joseph is ready, however, the third-year guard will be back in his usual spot.
"We've been cautious with him," said Gruden. "He wouldn't be out there practicing, preparing to play this week if there was any potential that he would have a setback. We've been very cautious, we've done the right thing and the injury has healed. We'll see how he feels tomorrow after a pretty good practice today."
Joseph was one of four Bucs to be somewhat limited in practice on Wednesday. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has extended his career-long streak of consecutive games played to 211 despite a significant hamstring injury, was kept out of some of the action to start the week. In addition, RB Warrick Dunn and quarterback Brian Griese were given scheduled days of rest; the latter might still be sore and tired from his 67-pass outing in Chicago.
There were also five Buccaneers who didn't practice at all Wednesday, though of course Bryant and P Josh Bidwell were excused for non-football reasons. Bidwell spent the day with Bryant and his family in order to provide what support he could. Galloway, who missed last week's game with a foot ailment suffered in Week Two against Atlanta, and Sims, who sustained a groin injury in Chicago, were held out of Wednesday's action.
The Buccaneers' cornerback position could be back to full strength this week, if rookie Aqib Talib has recovered sufficiently from the hamstring injury he suffered against Atlanta in Week Two.
Fellow rookie Elbert Mack will be back for sure; after serving the one-game suspension handed down by the NFL for a pair of flagrant-foul hits, Mack was reinstated to the 53-man roster on Wednesday. As for Talib, he expressed confidence Wednesday that he would be able to limit his absence to just one game.
"I feel like I'm going to be able to go," he said after Wednesday's morning walk-through. "I should be able to go. I feel lot better than I felt last week."
In a surprise twist, the young player that helped the Buccaneers get through last Sunday's game at Chicago without Mack and Talib, first-year man Marcus Hamilton, is now on the Bears' roster. The Bucs had promoted Hamilton from their own practice squad to play in the Chicago game; after Mack's return, the team released Hamilton. He would have been eligible to return to Tampa Bay's practice squad had he cleared waivers, but the Bears put in a claim to help their own injury-plagued cornerback position.
The Bucs did add a new young cornerback to their practice squad, however, and he coincidentally has ties to the Bears. First-year player Greg Fassitt arrived in Tampa on Wednesday after spending the preseason with the New Orleans Saints. In 2007, he spent the entire season on Chicago's practice squad after the Bears made him an undrafted rookie signee following the 2007 draft.
Fassitt played his college football at Grambling State, where he appeared in 32 games and recorded 110 tackles and seven interceptions. He hails from New Orleans.
As one of the four featured replay games on the NFL Network this week, Tampa Bay's overtime victory over Chicago on Sunday was playing on some of the office televisions at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday.
It wasn't on the TV in the players' lounge, however, nor was it showing in the team dining room as the Buccaneers ate lunch. And there certainly was no Chicago footage queued up on the projection systems in the team meeting rooms. As satisfying — and entertaining — as that 27-24 win at Soldier Field was, it's in the rear view mirror now. The Bucs are fully focused on the Packers.
"The first thing Coach said in our meeting was, 'It was a great win and now let's forget about it and get ready for Green Bay,'" said tight end Alex Smith. "Any time you can come from behind to win like that it's good for your team, just to show you can win anywhere and anytime. But now we have to get back home and we've got a big game this week."
The Week Three win moved the Buccaneers into a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, but they won't stay there if they don't follow with a victory over Green Bay. Carolina and Atlanta face each other this Sunday, meaning one of those teams will finish the weekend 3-1 (barring a tie).
The Bucs would also fall a game behind Green Bay, 2-1 coming into the weekend, with a loss. Early indications are that the NFC playoff race will be crowded; 10 of the conference's 16 teams have won at least twice already as the NFC seems to be gaining ground in terms of supremacy between the two conferences.
The team wants to avoid an emotional let-down after such a draining game. Fortunately, the Packers appear to be a very formidable foe, and that should hold everyone's attention and keep the energy level high on the practice field.
"[The Packers are] the next test, and it will be the best test," said linebacker Cato June. "We'll see how we can come back off of an emotional victory, a long, hard-fought victory out there in Chicago, coming back at home in front of our fans. It will be a good test for us."