For the first time since he took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback job in Week Nine last year, Josh Freeman will be taking a game-opening snap from someone other than Jeff Faine.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed on Monday afternoon that the right quad injury Faine suffered in the second quarter of Tampa Bay's 24-21 win at Cincinnati on Sunday will cause the team's starting center to miss some playing time.
"Jeff Faine, you can expect to miss a few weeks here," said Morris. "We have to get more information; it's the day after but you can expect him to be out a significant amount of time."
Faine, who missed four games early in 2009 due to a triceps injury, has started 32 games at center since joining the team as a highly-coveted free agent during the 2008 offseason. In his career, which also includes stints with Cleveland and New Orleans, the former first-round pick out of Notre Dame has played in 98 NFL games and started all of them.
Faine was injured four minutes into the second quarter on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, on a play that resulted in an interception by Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He was replaced for the remainder of the game by versatile third-year lineman Jeremy Zuttah.
Zuttah will step into the lineup in Faine's absence, marking the third different position he has started at for the Buccaneers since being drafted in the third round out of Rutgers in 2008. Zuttah started four games at right guard and one at left guard as a rookie, then held down the left guard job for all 16 games in 2009.
Zuttah was in line to start at left guard again in 2010 before the Buccaneers' summer signing of former Panthers guard Keydrick Vincent. Vincent won the job during training camp and has opened the Bucs' first four games, with Zuttah's versatility making him an ideal reserve. That quality depth will come in handy in the coming weeks, just as it did on Sunday at safety with Sabby Piscitelli's relief of Sean Jones.
"Zuttah came in and I was proud of him," said Morris. "It was a redemption game for a lot of people. It was a chance to get Sabby back; it was a chance to get Zuttah back. Zuttah was another guy – he lost his position at the beginning of the season and was able to go out there and fight through his demons. He jumped right in there at center and ran the offense and won the football game for us. We're really excited about his production and how he was able to go out there."
Zuttah's elevation to the starting lineup leaves rookie center/guard Ted Larsen as the primary backup to the three interior line positions while Faine is out. Larsen joined the Buccaneers on September 5 as a waiver claim from the New England Patriots, who released him on the final cutdown before the regular season. The Patriots drafted Larsen out of North Carolina State in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
The 6-2, 305-pound Larsen played in 43 games over four seasons for the Wolfpack, switching to the offensive line for his junior campaign after spending two seasons as a defensive. He started five of 23 games while on defense, then opened all 25 of the games at center that he played over his last two years at N.C. State. He was named the team's most outstanding lineman in 2008.
Larsen has been inactive for the first four games of the season but should see that change in the coming weeks.
"He'll have an opportunity to have a helmet on," said Morris. "He'll have an opportunity to compete and it will be a lot of fun to go out there and practice this week with these young guys. We just keep having these young guys ascending, and that's one more."
Faine's injury was likely the only one of lasting impact to come out of Sunday's game, though at various times Freeman, Jones and Brian Price were all sidelined. Freeman and Price returned to action after missing just a few plays but Jones sat out the rest of the afternoon playing just one snap.
Morris expects his starting strong safety to be back in action against the New Orleans Saints this coming Sunday.
"He should be fine," said the coach. "He had some back spasms, things of that nature yesterday, but he should be fine. He should be ready to go. And no one else has a significant injury."
LB Switch on the Practice Squad
Gerald McCoy will welcome a fellow Oklahoma Sooner to the Buccaneers' defense this week, at least on the practice field.
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers made a change with one of their eight practice-squad spots, signing linebacker Mike Balogun and releasing linebacker J.D. Folsom. Balogun originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers this past April.
Balogun (6-0, 240) helped McCoy lead the Sooners to the BCS title game against Florida in 2008, his only season of eligibility at OU. He had six tackles in the Sooners' loss to the Gators.
Balogun played in four preseason games with the 49ers, registering eight tackles and one interception, but did not make the team's 53-man roster. He was then signed by the Washington Redskins to their practice squad on September 6. Balogun spent a month on that unit before being released last Tuesday.
Folsom was signed by the Buccaneers during their bye week, on September 29. He played his college ball at Weber State and entered the NFL as a seventh-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2009.
More Good Work on Third Down
Late last week, as the Buccaneers were finishing their preparations for Cincinnati, Buccaneers.com noted the team's strong work on third downs through the first three games of the season. At the time, the Bucs were better than league average for third-down conversions on both offense and defense.
That good work continued on Sunday in Cincinnati, and Morris thinks that had a lot to do with the game's final outcome.
"We were able to go out yesterday and play well on third down on both sides of the ball," he said. "That was the difference."
Indeed, Tampa Bay converted five of its 11 third-down tries, for a success rate of 45.5%, while limiting the Bengals to four conversions in 13 attempts (30.8%). Those numbers were actually slightly better than the Bucs' overall third down averages for the season: 42.9% on offense and 35.3% on defense.
The Bucs have been not just good but consistent on third downs, particularly on offense. They have converted at least 41.2% of their tries in each game so far this season, marking the first time since late in the 2006 season that they have been better than 40% on offensive third downs in four consecutive games.
After finishing 27th in that department last year, the Bucs are currently tied for ninth. The man most responsible for that rise in efficiency appears to be quarterback Josh Freeman.
The Bucs' second-year passer has been simply one of the NFL's best quarterbacks on those critical third downs, when the opposing team is usually expecting a pass. Freeman's passer rating of 100.2 on third downs is the eighth-best mark in the league, and he has yet to throw an interception in that situation. His average of 8.11 yards per pass attempt on third down is fourth in the NFL, trailing only the numbers put up by Michael Vick, Tom Brady and Tony Romo.
Freeman also deserves extra credit for one aspect of his game not reflected in the above numbers: his purposeful and effective scrambling. In addition to passing the ball so efficiently on third downs, Freeman has already bought the Bucs a new set of downs five times this season by escaping the pocket and running past the sticks.
Freeman has rushed 15 times for 112 yards so far this year, and six of those 15 runs have come on third-down scrambles, all but two of them on third-and-nine or longer. In five of those six cases, he has gained enough yards for a first down.