It's a common rhetorical device for speakers trying to get their audiences to realize how personal the message is to their lives. "One in three people is [fill in the blank]," goes the old saw. "Look at the person to your left and the person to your right. If it's not either of them, it's you."
Well, that's the way members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense must feel after the wave of injuries that has struck the team in the last three or four weeks. No matter where they line up in the Bucs' scheme, it's a virtual certainty that somebody to their left or their right has missed time due to injury this past month…unless they are the injured players themselves.
On Sunday in New Orleans, those Buc defenders may be able to look around and see the opening lineup as it was intended on opening day. The one clear exception is at free safety, where Cody Grimm has been lost for the season, but that position got something of a mulligan when former incumbent Tanard Jackson returned from a year-long suspension to fill Grimm's void.
The defensive line has been making do without Gerald McCoy, who was probably its most consistently effective performer through the first month of the season. Michael Bennett and Brian Price have fought through minor injuries, too. The linebacking corps has had to go stretches without starting middle linebacker Mason Foster and starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black, and frequently-used reserve Dekoda Watson has missed time due to a hamstring issue. Jackson, godsend that he has been, hasn't played a full game yet due to leg ailments.
Of course, injuries are a given in the NFL and every team is dealing with some absent players at the season's midpoint, including Sunday's Buccaneer opponent, the New Orleans Saints. This week, rookie running back Mark Ingram and starting middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma have missed practice and are obviously question marks. But the Buccaneers are feeling the recuperative powers of the bye week, and they might actually head into Sunday's game in the Superdome close to full strength on defense.
Foster and McCoy have practiced without limits all week, and Jackson was on the field Tuesday and Wednesday before sitting out on Thursday. Price missed Wednesday's field session due to a bad headache, but he returned on Thursday and Head Coach Raheem Morris said that the second-year defensive tackle is now as healthy as he has been since he was drafted in April of 2010.
"You know, really, coming off this bye [helps]," said Morris. "I don't even want to jinx myself, but talk about health and you're talking about Brian Price being as healthy as he's been, really, all year. Gerald McCoy, coming off some health issues there - [we're] getting him back and getting him a little bit healthier. Adrian [Clayborn] having the week off because of how violent he plays. Da'Quan Bowers seems to be getting stronger and stronger every week. Michael Bennett, he's really been fighting through some things all year as well. He's just kind of a soldier, just like everybody else in this league, don't get me wrong. Really [we're] getting these guys to get healthier and get better and getting these guys back like Mason Foster. Quincy Black really struggled with the ankle early and he's getting healthy and he's getting better. Even Dakota Watson, he struggled with the hamstring early, had it early, kind of fought his way through it. It took him off some things on special teams. He played himself through it. I give a lot of credit to this team, a lot of credit to what they've been able to do."
The Buccaneers believe they have assembled a lot of talent in their defensive front seven and, much of it being recent entries into the NFL, it is expected to grow together into an elite unit. Those young players feel more confident when they have their expected cast of teammates around them.
Said starting weakside linebacker Geno Hayes of Foster, for instance: "We missed his fire. We missed his playmaking ability. He's a young guy but he's shown that he can do anything that you ask him to do. It's good to have him back."
And said Foster of McCoy: "Any time you get a guy like Gerald playing, getting him healthy, getting him going again, that's going to help us out a lot."
The defensive line might be getting the most valuable return because, as much as the Bucs believe in and adhere to their "next man up" philosophy in regards to injury, it's hard to replace what McCoy provides. A penetrating presence in the middle who draws blockers and opens up one-on-one opportunities for the rest of the linemen, McCoy was getting better by the week before his ankle injury in San Francisco.
"It would be great to have him back," said Clayborn. "It helps to have another pass-rusher there to get to the quarterback."
Foster's importance to the defense is hard to overstate, as well. Technically, the hard-charging rookie has started every game this season. However, he has missed a majority of the last three outings due to a pair of ankle injuries that have played a frustrating tug-of-war on his emotions. Foster worked hard before the New Orleans and Chicago games in Weeks Six and Seven in order to overcome his injuries and get on the field, but in both cases he was soon back on the sideline after aggravating the initial issue. Now, with the bye week giving him extra rest, he thinks he's past that up-and-down struggle.
"I think I'm over it," said Foster, who still has 42 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback pressures, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery despite all the missed time. "But definitely it's tough when you love to play football. I feel like I'm getting better each week, and then to be slowed down by a little ankle something is tough. When you hurt your ankle, they really can't do anything about it. [Rest] is the only way you can get through it.
"But I got some time off. I got to relax and get healthy. So everything feels good; I'm ready to go. Definitely the bye helped me out a lot. We've got great trainers so I was able to come in every day and get work on it. It's a lot better."
The Buccaneers' offensive line can relate to the one-in-three injury lottery, as well. Center Jeff Faine has missed the last two games with a biceps injury, and his replacement Jeremy Zuttah – who slid over from left guard – subsequently went down with a knee injury. The man they most enjoy blocking for, jumbo back LeGarrette Blount, hasn't played since hurting his knee in San Francisco on October 9.
However, Faine has participated fully in every practice this week and looks like a good bet to return to his starting spot against his former team on Sunday. Morris said Zuttah is progressing more quickly than expected from the knee injury he sustained in London, but he has not practiced this week and is obviously one of the bigger remaining question marks for this weekend's game. Second-year man Ted Larsen, who has played both left guard and center in recent weeks with the Faine and Zuttah mishaps, is ready to fill in at guard again. Behind him, Blount appears ready to go after practicing all week.
Despite all of these positive post-bye developments, the Buccaneers' official injury report is as long as it has been all year, though that's not as big of a concern as it could be. It grew by three players to 11 on Thursday when the team added quarterback Jackson, quarterback Josh Freeman and tight end Kellen Winslow, the latter of whom was simply rested on Thursday as he is most weeks.
Any time your quarterback is on the injury report, it's going to draw attention, but Morris made it clear on Thursday that there is no concern about Freeman's availability on Sunday. Freeman sustained a mild thumb sprain 11 days ago in London against the Bears, but it didn't keep him from taking the full complement of snaps and throws in practice on Thursday.
"He sprained it in the Chicago game," said Morris. "He came in and practiced during the bye week. [He] didn't miss anything this week and went to work. He's got tape on his thumb so we had to report it."
The Bucs did have one other player who missed practice on Thursday: defensive tackle Frank Okam. Okam was fine when the week began but he suffered a calf injury in practice on Wednesday and didn't finish the two-hour session. The 11th player on Tampa Bay's injury report is wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who hasn't practiced or played since opening day due to a foot injury that required surgery. Stroughter has been practicing since the London trip and has been able to participate without limits this week.
The full injury report with game-status designations – questionable, probable, etc. – won't be published until Friday afternoon. Still, it has been an encouraging week in terms of health and availability for all of those Buccaneers who have missed time in recent weeks, or have missed the presence of their teammates on game day. Look to your right and to your left, Geno Hayes…Brian Price…Sean Jones. This time you might like what you see.