S Jermaine Phillips will return to the lineup today after missing the last three games with a forearm fracture
Tampa Bay's fourth-ranked defense, so strong in recent weeks, will have a little added thump this afternoon.
Safety Jermaine Phillips, who has missed a month since sustaining a forearm fracture in Dallas in late October, is back. He has been cleared to play and will move back into his starting spot at strong safety. Even as well as second-year fill-in Sabby Piscitelli played over the last three games – all Buccaneer wins – that's great news for Tampa Bay's defense. Phillips' combination of hard hitting and wide range had made him one of the team's top defenders before his injury.
In addition to that positive development, the Buccaneers will also get tight end Alex Smith back into the lineup. Smith has missed the last two games with an ankle injury and he won't start today against the New Orleans Saints, but he will be available and could be a factor in the passing game.
Those were the Buccaneers' two big question marks over the weekend. The Saints' main concern during the week was the status of RB Reggie Bush, who has missed the last four games with a knee ailment. As expected, Bush was cleared for his return today and will start. The Saints are without usual starting fullback Mike Karney, however; former Buccaneer Darian Barnes, a recent signee, will start in Karney's place.
The return of Bush gives Saints quarterback Drew Brees another dangerous weapon at his disposal, but Brees proved more than capable of producing big numbers even while Bush was out. Brees is on pace to break the NFL's single-season record for passing yards, and he had 343 against the Buccaneers in Week One, the most Tampa Bay has allowed this year by a wide margin.
"They've got a lot of great players, but that offense is all about Drew Brees," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "This guy is just phenomenal. He works the pocket as well as anyone I've ever seen. He makes all the throws, calls audibles, he's always looking to attack. He has tremendous football savvy and he's just a great competitor."
Tampa Bay's defense has recorded nine sacks over the past two weekends, easily its best stretch of the year. But the Bucs had only one sack of Brees in the season opener and the Saints have permitted only nine QB takedowns all year. The Bucs know they have to put pressure on Brees in order to slow down that aerial assault.
"You've got to get to him," said Gruden. "You don't necessarily have to sack him five times, but you've got to get in his face, disrupt his rhythm, knock down a few passes. That's easier said than done. He's very calm under pressure."
Brees – as well as Bucs QB Jeff Garcia – might be affected by barometric pressure, not to mention gusting wind and rain, this afternoon. A large storm is currently hitting land on the West Coast of Florida; the unanswered question is how much of it will strike the Bay area, and Raymond James Stadium.
Another way to limit the impact of Brees and the Saints' passing game would be to keep them off the field as much as possible. That would call for a ball-control offense for the Buccaneers, which in turn would ask for a strong performance from the team's running backs. In the absence of power back Earnest Graham, out for the year with an ankle injury, Warrick Dunn has racked up 245 yards of combined rushing and receiving offense over the last two weeks. That's where the ground attack starts for the Buccaneers right now, but things would be even more promising if fourth-year back Cadillac Williams could continue his impressive return from a knee injury.
The Bucs let Williams carry the ball 16 times last week in Detroit, all but a few of those runs going straight into the teeth of a Lions defense that knew he was coming during the game's closing minutes. Williams might get another significant piece of action today against the Saints.
"We liked what we saw," said Gruden of Williams' first live action in 14 months. "We wanted to get him a good number of carries, and we were able to do that at the end of the game. He ran hard, and the more he ran the better he got. He's looked great in his rehab, but this is really the next step for him – just playing the game. He could really be huge for us down the stretch."
With Williams active, the Buccaneers placed recently-signed running back Noah Herron on the game day inactive list. Tampa Bay's other seven inactive players for today's game are QB Brian Griese, WR Dexter Jackson, S Donte Nicholson, LB Matt McCoy, T James Lee, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson.
The Saints named the following eight players inactive: Karney, CB David Pittman, RB Mike Bell, LB Marvin Mitchell, G Jamar Nesbit, T Jermon Bushrod, WR David Patten and designated third quarterback Joey Harrington.
The Buccaneers and Saints will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. You'll find the NFL.com Game Center, complete with live play-by-play and statistical updates, at this location once the game has begun. On the Buccaneers.com home page, we'll post a review of all the action at halftime and an extensive game story, with links for stats, photos, scoring information and more, shortly after the final whistle.