This is definitely not what you would call "easing back into things."
Not only has safety Tanard Jackson been activated just four days and three practices after ending his 56-week suspension from the NFL, but he could see his first game action in over a year against a murderer's row of opponents.
Jackson returned to the Buccaneers on Monday but the team had up to two weeks to keep him on an exempt list in order to determine when and if he could help the team. They didn't need nearly that long, reporting serious satisfaction with Jackson's very first practice on Wednesday and making the expected decision to activate him from the exempt list on Friday. Now Jackson is available to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, and almost certainly will do so.
That means he'll get his NFL re-initiation from the likes of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. That's some welcoming committee.
Of course, the Buccaneers are happy to have a little more firepower to counter with. Before his suspension, Jackson was clearly one of the team's best defenders, and a frequent source of big plays, which have been somewhat lacking this season. The exact size and shape of his role in his first game back may not be obvious until Sunday, but the Buccaneers are confident he can have an impact rather quickly.
Most of that confidence comes from how sharp Jackson looked on the practice field and sounded in the meetings this week. By all accounts, he came back much more ready than the team could have reasonably hoped he would. But Head Coach Raheem Morris remembers Jackson's first integration into the defense as a rookie in 2007 as well as his return from a four-game suspension in 2009, and in both cases the improvement the young player made was swift and steady.
"He just grew and got better and better," said Morris. "Basically, what gives me the confidence is watching him come off the suspension [two years ago] and go through that same process. Watching him come back and be clearly the best safety on our team is what gives me the confidence to put him out there."
While Jackson's lengthy suspension was certainly unfortunate, it has been lost on no one that his return dovetails pretty nicely with a recently-created void at the safety position. Second-year safety Cody Grimm, the team's replacement at free safety for Jackson, started the season marvelously but was lost for the year to a knee injury in Week Three. Rookie Devin Holland, mostly a special teams ace but still part of the depth at the safety position, joined Grimm on injured reserve last week due to a back ailment. The Bucs' obvious need in the secondary probably also played a part in Jackson's rapid activation, and the coaching staff is willing to live with any initial miscues Jackson may experience as he fits back into the defense.
"Will he make some mistakes? Probably," said Morris. "But do I want him to make fast, hard mistakes? Yeah, that's what I'm interested in."
Morris lifted weights throughout his suspension but said he had very little opportunity to do agility work or football-type drills. He said his return from a suspension in 2009 was a different experience, as he had the benefit of an entire offseason and training camp with the team to prepare himself for the last three-quarters of the season. This time around, it may be the psychological lift he is getting from being back with his extended family that has carried him through.
"Just being put on the practice field in this environment, and being away from it for that long, I guess I would credit it to adrenaline, just being happy to be out there, doing whatever I can to get adjusted," said Jackson. "Luckily it happened this week. This was 56 weeks, man, and being back, first time putting on shoulder pads and a helmet after that long, it's amazing."
The Buccaneers did not have to clear a roster spot on Friday for Jackson's activation because they had done so on Thursday by waiving rookie running back Allen Bradford.
Foster Makes Strides
Rookie linebacker Mason Foster spent most of the week getting treatment on an ankle sprain he suffered in the third quarter of Sunday's game in San Francisco, but he had his eye on Friday all along.
Foster was held out of the week's first two practices. On Thursday, as most of his teammates practiced on the turf under the Tropicana Field roof, he had his ankle taped as he would for a game and spent a few minutes testing it out. On Friday, as he had hoped, he was able to give it a more thorough test, returning to full participation in the final up-tempo practice of the week.
Afterward, he seemed cautiously optimistic about his chances to suit up on Sunday against New Orleans.
"I practiced today, got to run around a little bit," said Foster. "It's all good. I got treatment throughout the week and we've got great trainers, so it's getting better every day. I feel like I'm good to go but you've just got to take it day-to-day. But it felt good today to run around."
Foster has been the team's starting middle linebacker since Week One, and after two games he also took over the 'Mike' LB spot in the nickel package and began calling the defensive plays. He is the team's leading tackler and has already pitched in with two sacks and another quarterback pressure. Foster is quickly emerging as one of the team's top playmakers, and the Bucs are obviously hopeful he can give it a go on Sunday.
That's especially true with the adjustments that are already being made in front of Foster. Starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has an ankle injury of his own, one a bit more severe, and on Friday he was ruled out for the Saints game. The Bucs will fill the void with a combination of Frank Okam and Da'Quan Bowers, the latter temporarily moving down into the interior line from his usual spot on the end.
McCoy is one of three Buccaneers who were designated as "out" on Friday's injury report, the first one of the week that includes game-status designations. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who injured his foot on a 78-yard kickoff return to start the season, will miss his fifth game in a row. Rookie tight end Luke Stocker will be out for a second week due to a knee injury.
In addition, starting tailback LeGarrette Blount, as expected, is unlikely to play against the Saints due to the knee injury he sustained against the 49ers. Blount did not practice this week and was listed as doubtful on Friday. Linebacker Zac Diles, who has a hamstring injury and was held out last weekend, is considered questionable. That may clear the way for newly-acquired linebacker Jacob Cutrera to be active on Sunday and make an impact on special teams.
Keeping It Steady
Good things have happened when Earnest Graham has had the football in his hands against the New Orleans Saints.
In 11 career games against the Bucs' division rival, Graham has ran the ball 42 times for 266 yards and a touchdown. He has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in those contests, and picked up a first down on more than a quarter of his total runs. In addition, Graham has caught 17 passes for 123 yards in his career against the Saints.
Of course, 32 of those 42 carries and 10 of those 17 receptions came in a pair of games spread over late 2007 and early 2008. During that time, Graham had his one extended run as a starting tailback in the NFL, and he performed marvelously, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns and catching 49 passes in just 10 starts in 2007. He started the first 10 games of 2008, as well, and turned in another 563 yards and 23 catches.
Since 2009, however, Graham has bounced from one role to another in the backfield – always without complaint and always successfully. In 2009 and 2010 he was primarily the starting fullback. To start the 2010 season, he was primarily the third-down back. With Blount likely to miss Sunday's game, however, Graham finds himself back on the front line at tailback. His reaction, to those who have witnessed Graham's reactions – or lack thereof – to any of his other role changes, comes as no surprise.
I've always approached the game a certain way, and it's no different this week," he said. "I'm not thinking that I'm an older guy so I have something to prove, or I haven't run the ball a lot so I've got something to prove. I just do what I do. I've always it approached it that way. When I was a starter and when I wasn't a starter, it was always the same to me. I always keep it steady."
In the Bucs' December win at New Orleans in 2007 – a game that essentially clinched the NFC South title that year – Graham had the third-most prolific rushing day of his career, turning 22 handoffs into 106 yards and a score. Graham's share of the offensive load is obviously increasing this week, but he may not have to be quite the workhorse he was back in '07. His head coach suggest that the job will be a time-share between Graham and Kregg Lumpkin, and that how the two are utilized may evolve during the course of the game.
"I'm always confident in Earnest," said Morris. "I don't know if Earnest will need to take the ball 20 times and try to go out there and be LeGarrette Blount. I need Lumpkin and Earnest to go out there and be a team together and figure out a way to get us what we need rushing, whatever that is. Whatever it is to control that game, they need to figure a way to go out there and get it for us. And they need to figure out a way to go out there and protect [Josh Freeman] together. And they need to figure out a way to go out there and be better than what Blount was when he was out there. I'm confident in both of those young men. They're both sharp, they're both smart, they're both detailed and they care about the game."
And, in Graham's case at least, he's certainly been there before.