Donald Penn made it back just in time.
Penn, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting left tackle for the last five years, missed all of the team's training camp practices after suffering a strained calf in a home workout just before reporting day. That doesn't mean Penn wasn't working over those three weeks of camp, as his daily regimen revolved around rehabilitation and a serious amount of conditioning work. But he didn't log any practice time until this past Monday, and he had to watch both of the first two preseason games from the sideline.
His return from the active/non-football-injury list is well-timed, however. On Friday night, the Buccaneers will play the New England Patriots in the third week of the 2012 preseason, and most NFL fans know what that means. In Week One, presumptive starters generally get a minor cameo, ramping it up just a little bit more in Week Two. In the final week of the preseason, teams usually devote almost all of the snaps to players farther down the depth chart, seeking one last armload of information before the final roster cutdown to 53 players.
That leaves Week Three as the best opportunity for teams to stretch out their starters and get them a useful tune-up for the rapidly-approaching regular season. Like all of his fellow starters, Penn will play more on Friday against the Patriots than he would have in the other three games combined, anyway.
And Head Coach Greg Schiano didn't hesitate to put Penn right back in the mix and prepare him for this game when the veteran tackle came off the NFI list.
"Donald's going to play," said Schiano. "He needs to play. He only started practicing on Monday and he needs to get out there and play and shake the rust off. Donald's going to be a big part of our offense and we need to make sure he's ready."
That first-team offense will have a chance to build off what has been a reasonably good start to the preseason. Starting QB Josh Freeman played just one drive in the preseason opener and it led to a touchdown. He was in for just over one quarter last Friday against Tennessee in a less successful stint that nonetheless included a touchdown pass and several other promising moments. There's reason to anticipate a good showing by the Buccaneers' offense in the first half on Friday night.
"I think you're going to see a lot more than you have, that's for sure," said Schiano of the starters. "Josh is going to play a bunch and we're going to get our guys some good work. Now, you've got to be careful – it's been a tough camp and we've pushed them very hard. But I think they're ready to play and they know what's expected of them. So it will be a good test."
Schiano's nod to caution gets at the competing goals of the preseason – teams want to get their players prepared for the games that count, but they don't want to lose any of them in the ones that don't. Still, at some point the players have to be exposed to real live hitting, and that time is training camp and the four games of August.
"This is your time to fundamentally build that base, and part of this game is contact, a big part of the game," said Schiano. "When you get into the season, you really can't do that much hitting of each other. It doesn't work that way by the rules, nor would it work even if that wasn't the rule because you've got to stay healthy. You've got to get to game day. So this is our time, and this time is nearing an end. This is probably the last physical test we'll have in the preseason, talking about the ones. There's a fourth preseason game after this, but that will be very limited work for the ones, so this is really the big test for them."
Schiano also said that running back LeGarrette Blount would play against the Patriots after receiving an injury scare last Friday in the Tennessee game. Blount has practiced all week and should be available for whatever the offense needs from him. There are no official inactives during the preseason, but the Buccaneers should be at close to full strength for Friday's contest.
The Bucs will play their third preseason game Friday night against the Patriots, with kickoff at 7:30 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Visit Buccaneers.com again at halftime and after the game for further reports on the evening's action, including coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.