WR Ike Hilliard suffered a mild ankle injury Thursday but should be ready to play by the regular season opener
At his postgame press conference following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 38-14 win over Houston on Thursday night, Head Coach Jon Gruden finished his opening statement with a few comforting words: "I don't have any news with regards to injuries."
Avoiding injuries might be the number-one goal of every team in the league when it comes to the preseason finale, which is the main reason the starters play so briefly. Still, there were 15 hours between that statement and Gruden's state-of-the-team conference call on Friday, and it's during that span when significant injuries are often recognized for what they are.
Fortunately, when Gruden spoke to the press again at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, there was still almost nothing to report from the training room.
"There isn't really new news other than Ike Hilliard has a sprained ankle," said Gruden. "We think he'll be okay for the [Minnesota] game. He might be limited here in the next day or two. We came out of the game pretty unscathed."
The same can be said, for the most part, for the entire preseason, and the two weeks of training camp that predated the first game. To be sure, there were injuries of note; Rick Razzano, Larry Brackins, Dave Moore, Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott and just about everybody on the offensive line missed chunks of valuable work time during August. Still, only three players missed Thursday's preseason finale due to injury, and perhaps only two will still be unable to play when the regular season kicks off on September 11.
Jeff Gooch, who was slated to start at strongside linebacker, suffered a significant calf injury at Miami in the third preseason week and did not suit up for the Houston game. The team has not yet announced a specific prognosis for Gooch's recovery, but it seems likely that Ryan Nece will open the season in the starting lineup.
Derrick Deese has had the most confounding injury issue on the roster. Deese came to camp fine but was soon sidelined by foot soreness that has resisted treatment in the last month. Anthony Davis has taken over as the starting left tackle and has performed very well, but the team would still like to have the veteran lineman back in the mix.
"All I can see is from the information from our doctors and Derrick doesn't feel like he's ready to go, so we'll leave it at that," said Gruden. "We obviously have missed him and hope to get him back soon. It's been a frustrating matter. In the meantime, we just keep going on with our program and Anthony Davis and Todd Steussie play for us."
There may be some clue as to the expected recovery times of Gooch and Deese on Saturday, when the team trims its roster from 76 to 53 players. Putting injured players on various reserve lists is often part of that process, but teams won't do that if they expect the player back soon. The Bucs will not make any announcements regarding their roster moves, however, until after Saturday's 4:00 p.m. ET deadline for the roster cuts.
While Hilliard was the only new injury to report from Thursday's game, the Bucs did have several players return from ailments to play in the finale. Among those were guards Matt Stinchcomb, who missed the first three games with a lower back strain, and Jeb Terry, who suffered an MCL sprain in the preseason opener on August 12. The Bucs did play the Houston game without starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who has a slight knee sprain, but they expect to have him back for the Minnesota game. Rookie Chris Colmer started in Walker's place.
"Matt Stinchcomb did a good job," said Gruden of the veteran's first live work of the year. "Obviously, he hadn't played in the first three preseason games but he came back and played quite well. Jeb Terry struggled a little bit but that's understandable. He's only had one padded practice in the last three weeks. We've got to get him going. The next couple of weeks, we're going to need him.
"Chris Colmer took just about every snap at right tackle. It was a good experience for him. He had some good, physical downs. He had some plays to learn from. It presented a lot of problems for us last night, [Houston's] 3-4 defense and the number of blitzes that they gave us. Chris did some good things. He's still got to pull it all together, but we were pleased to give him 70 snaps last night."
Indeed, the Bucs were pleased with the way a lot of men played in Thursday's dominating conclusion to the preseason. They were even more pleased not to see those men in the training room the next morning.
Let the Young Men Play
There were three rookies on the field when the Bucs lined up for their first offensive snap on Thursday night. It's possible the same could be true when the offense takes the field in Minnesota.
First-round running back Cadillac Williams, of course, is firmly entrenched as the starter, so the Bucs will at least have one rookie in the backfield. Third-round tight end Alex Smith was in the starting lineup for three of the four preseason games because the team opened in two-tight end sets, pairing Smith with free agent acquisition Anthony Becht. And Colmer filled in for Walker against the Texans.
Walker is expected to step back in at right tackle, but Colmer's draft mate, fourth-round guard Dan Buenning, is still competing for the starting left guard spot with Stinchcomb.
Would Gruden, he of the supposedly eternal affinity for older veterans, really open a game with three rookies? You bet.
"If they are our best players, then I'm all for that," said the coach. "I'm looking forward to Carnell Williams going wire-to-wire and getting his career started. I think there's a chance, and I'm not saying it's final, that Alex Smith, depending on what formation we are in at the first play of the game, might be one of our starters. And we will make a decision on Dan Buenning certainly here in the next couple of days, in terms of who starts at left guard.
"It's an interesting and exciting time. We did that with the Raiders. We started John Ritchie, Mo Collins and Charles Woodson. Despite all of the people that think I don't like young players, I've done it before and I'll do it again if they are our best players."
Getting His Kicks
The Bucs have a difficult decision to make at kicker on Saturday, given the brilliant preseason performances by both Matt Bryant and Todd France. It's the classic "great problem to have," because the team feels certain it will come away with a great kicker either way.
If the Bucs are right, that means their painful kicking issues of the last two years will be a thing of the past. The accuracy of Bryant and France has already made a difference in Gruden's attitude on game day.
"Man, I feel like we can kick a field goal at any time right now," said Gruden. "I feel so good about it, I can't tell you what kind of progress we've made. We made a 52-yard field goal, we made a 49-yard field goal, we won a game in overtime with a field goal. I'm really excited with our ability to make field goals. Hopefully that's a winning edge for us this season."