TE Alex Smith looked progressively better in practice as the week went on
Last weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their decisions on the playing status of Jermaine Phillips and Alex Smith on Saturday, when the team plane took off for Detroit and the two veterans were left behind.
This weekend, the determination of whether or not Phillips and Smith will suit up against the New Orleans Saints won't be made until Sunday, and not just because the Buccaneers are staying in town. Both players have improved to the point where, even though they were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report, they have a legitimate chance of finally returning to the field.
Phillips has missed the last three games and four weeks after suffering a forearm fracture in Dallas on October 26. Smith has sat out the last two contests and spent three weeks, including the bye, healing an ankle sprain sustained in Kansas City. Though the Bucs have fared well without those two starters, winning three straight since losing to the Cowboys, they are eager to have them back in the lineup.
Head Coach Jon Gruden called it a game-day decision for both but seemed optimistic after Friday's workout. Both Phillips and Smith were involved in practice, though somewhat limited, for the third straight day.
"Alex Smith did more today than yesterday, which is a good sign," said Gruden. "Jermaine did well this week. We'll just have to make some decisions, obviously, on game day."
Both Phillips and Smith would likely return to their starting positions if they are cleared to play. While Phillips has been out, second-year man Sabby Piscitelli has recorded his first three starts at strong safety and performed well. Tampa Bay's pass defense allowed just 411 passing yards over those three games combined. John Gilmore, a strong blocker, has drawn the last two starts at tight end and Jerramy Stevens, an explosive player in the passing game, has caught eight passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in that span.
Piscitelli was already rotating in with the Bucs' two starting safeties before Phillips was hurt and would certainly continue to be a part of the team's defensive plans. Gilmore played extensively in two-TE sets before and after Smith's injury and would continue to do so whether or not Smith returns. And Stevens' good work both running routes and blocking could keep him in a prominent role in the passing game.
"He deserves to play more," said Gruden of Stevens. "That's what happens. When you get out there and get a chance to perform, if you perform well you get a chance to keep performing. We'll try to use all three of those tight ends because we consider them to be good players."
Gruden said that Phillips' arm has healed sufficiently to allow him to take and deliver hits, though he expects the safety to wear some kind of protective device.
"I don't think he'll wear a cast but we'll put something creatively on there to give him a little extra padding," said Gruden. "But he's been cleared to play and I think he's confident in the arm. The forearm area feels like it's healed well enough where he can go play."
There were three other players listed on the Bucs' more detailed Friday injury report. Quarterback Brian Griese (right elbow) is considered questionable after being limited all week. Wide receiver Ike Hilliard (shoulder) was not limited on the practice field and was listed as probable. And guard Arron Sears was added to the list on Friday due to illness; he is listed as questionable, though he did participate fully on Friday.
The Saints' injury report includes two players who are questionable and one ruled out, not including cornerback Aaron Glenn (knee), who was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.
Fullback Mike Karney will not play due to a knee injury of his own, marking the third consecutive game he'll miss. Defensive end Jeff Charleston (foot) and running back Reggie Bush (knee) are both questionable, though both were on the practice field in a limited fashion on Friday. Bush practiced throughout the week, Charleston was held out on Wednesday and Thursday.