The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played on a short week last Sunday in San Francisco, after hosting the first Monday Night Football game in Tampa since 2003 six days earlier. This week, on the other hand, seemed quite long.
The Buccaneers have been eager to get back on the field ever since finishing their lopsided loss at Candlestick Park. They put the sting of that defeat behind them quickly and turned their focus to division-rival New Orleans, but the only thing that will completely wash it away is a better effort on Sunday against the Saints.
"You've got to have good practices, like we had this week, when you're coming off a loss like that, and the guys did," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "They came out and they practiced well, prepared well, and they were ready to get back on the field. The best cure to any of that type of stuff is getting back together, getting on the field with your team, and we were able to do that this week. We're looking forward to this game."
Quarterback Josh Freeman, who is still looking to slide completely back into the groove he was in to finish his outstanding 2010 season, voiced his opinion midweek that the Bucs had put in one of their best practices in a long time. The team hopes that translates into a complete effort on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, where a victory would move the Bucs back into a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Saints.
"Josh did a great job of running that practice," said Morris. "They did a nice job of executing their assignments, everyone was locked in, and generally that happens. We went out and did a nice job this week, had some great practices, and when you prepare for a great team you've got to do that."
A couple key Buccaneers won't be fortunate enough to get a psyche-cleansing game in because of issues more physical. Running back LeGarrette Blount (knee) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) left California with new injuries that will keep them out for at least one game. On offense, the Bucs will simply ask for more from running backs Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin.
"[Blount] won't go, but we'll have Earnest Graham and we'll have Lumpkin, ready to deal that way, and those guys have to go out there and be the next man up," said Morris. "Here we go men, gotta go out there and tote the ball with the rest of the guys.
Lumpkin, in particular, should see a significant uptick in playing time. He has logged only a handful of series this year, most of it in third-down situations. On the other hand, the team has had years to become familiar with what Graham can do, which is essentially anything that's asked of him.
"We call him Insurance Graham for a reason," said Morris. "He can do so many things for us, as far as the fullback, playing the halfback, moving around, doing all the different things he does for us on special teams. He's certainly a valuable asset for us and we love the fact that we have him.
"[This also] opens up the door for a guy like Kregg Lumpkin. He'll get a chance to go out there and play on third down, he'll get a chance to show a little bit of what he is on first down, running the rock, and we look forward to giving those guys opportunities."
On defense, the Bucs will fill the void at three-technique defensive tackle with a combination of Frank Okam and Da'Quan Bowers. Okam has already been a part of the Bucs' interior-line rotation this season and, at somewhere north of 350 pounds, is most valuable as a run-stuffer in the middle. Bowers, who is moving inside from his usual spot on the end, has the size and quick first step that should help him rush the passer from the middle of the line.
"We won't have Gerald this week," said Morris. "We'll insert big Frank the Tank. We'll get him out there and let him play fast and furious. You might see a little Michael Bennett, you might see some Da'Quan Bowers…all those guys will go in there and give us some pass-rush at times.
[Bowers] has done a lot of it in college. He moved all down the line of scrimmage in college. Things happen a little bit quicker in there. There are bigger bodies in there, tighter space. He's got to be ready to flip his hips, get off the ball and react. He'll be able to give us some of that speed element that we've missed."
The Bucs expect to get two starters back on defense, however, one of whom has been absent for more than a year. Strongside linebacker Quincy Black is returning from an ankle injury and free safety Tanard Jackson is coming off a lengthy suspension. Jackson only returned to the team on Monday and was just activated on Friday after three days of practice, but the team thinks he's ready to step right back in.
"He's looked great," said Morris. "He came back in shape. You can tell he missed his team, and his team missed him. We can't wait to get him out there because we're proud of the fact that he was able to come back off of those circumstances. We're happy to have him back. I remember him coming in here as a rookie, and he has the same bounce in his step and the same love for the game that he's always had."
Jackson will reassume the starting free safety job that Corey Lynch has held down since the season-ending injury to Cody Grimm in Week Three. Graham and Okam will also slide into the starting lineups. Tampa Bay's seven inactive players are Blount, McCoy, WR Sammie Stroughter, LB Zac Diles, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee and TE Luke Stocker. All but Hardman were out due to injury.
The Saints will be without two of their starters, as well. Right tackle Zack Strief and strongside linebacker Will Herring have been ruled out, which will push Charles Brown and Jo-Lunn Dunbar into the starting lineup at tackle and linebacker, respectively. Though it is not injury-related, the Saints made one other change to their starting lineup, elevating rookie Cameron Jordan to the top spot at left defensive end over Turk McBride.
New Orleans' seven inactives are Strief, Herring, CB Johnny Patrick, C/G Matt Tennant, TE David Thomas, WR Adrian Arrington and DE Jeff Charleston. Strief, Herring and Thomas were out due to injury.
The Bucs and Saints kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.