Cody Grimm, one of the surprise success stories of the NFL's 2010 rookie class, proved to be the perfect replacement when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced an early-season void at free safety. Now the Buccaneers will need to replace Grimm.
Jeremy Zuttah has proved time and again over three seasons that he is a valuable replacement for the Buccaneers at almost any spot on the offensive line. Now he'll be needed once more.
On Monday, Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris said that Grimm and starting right guard Davin Joseph will be placed on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the 2010 season. Both players were injured during Tampa Bay's 17-10 loss at Baltimore, Joseph suffering a broken foot on the opening drive and Grimm sustaining a fracture in his lower leg while blocking for Aqib Talib after a second-quarter interception.
The Buccaneers, at 7-4, will now enter the stretch run in the NFC playoff race without two men who had been performing at a very high level, but they are confident that other players on the roster will step up to keep the team on track.
"We lost those two players yesterday, lost Davin very early with the broken foot and lost Cody 24 snaps into it," said Morris. "Those were very unfortunate plays; we're going to miss those players a lot. But that's the nature of the beast in the NFL. The next person up will step up and fill that role."
At Joseph's spot, the answer is clearly Zuttah, who played the majority of Sunday's game against the Ravens and had been the team's primary reserve at all three interior-line spots. A third-round pick out of Rutgers in 2008, he has already started 25 games in his career, including four this season at center while Jeff Faine was out with an injury.
Zuttah started all 16 games at left guard in 2009 after opening five contests at two different positions as a rookie in 2008. He will actually be stepping back into his very first NFL role, as he started the first four games of '08 at right guard while Joseph recovered from a preseason foot injury. He had spent little time at that spot in 2010 but should be able to re-acclimate himself to the job quickly.
"He'd been mostly playing at left guard and center, so it was a new experience for him [in Baltimore]," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "He got better as the game went on and he'll get better again this week."
In 2008, Joseph became just the second guard in team history, and the first actually drafted by the Buccaneers, to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl. As the Buccaneers' offense showed steady improvement in 2010, particularly in the ground game, Joseph was praised by the coaching staff for his play, which appeared to once again be at a Pro Bowl level.
"He's a tough hard-nosed downhill player for us, so we'll definitely miss that," said Morris. "But we'll gain things from Zuttah. He'll go in there and give us a great body presence. He'll give us smart, sharp thinking ideas and faster movement. We're going to use Zuttah with what best suits him."
Fourth-year player Sabby Piscitelli finished the game at free safety for the Buccaneers after Grimm's injury, and he will certainly be one of the options the team will consider to fill that spot for the rest of the season. The Bucs will also look at third-year player Corey Lynch, who has been a special teams standout in his second season with the team, and may elect to promote first-year prospect Vince Anderson from the practice squad.
"We'll have a nice battle at safety with Sabby and Lynch and Vince Anderson," said Morris. "All those guys are working back there. We look forward to getting better. We look forward to the challenge of coaching those guys and getting them to go out there and prove everybody wrong again."
Those players will be looking to emulate Grimm's rise to the starting lineup. Grimm became the starter just three games into his rookie season after Tanard Jackson was given a season-long suspension. Since, the rookie from Virginia Tech has 61 tackles, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and two passes defensed. He has been particularly strong in run support in recent weeks as the Bucs have improved dramatically in that regard.
The solution will be considered over the next 48 hours as the Buccaneers coaching staff begins preparing for the incoming Atlanta Falcons and sets the table for Wednesday's week-opening practice. One other option the coaches may mull over – whether for certain packages or as a full-time role – would be to utilize veteran cornerback Ronde Barber at the back end of the secondary.
"Ronde's always in that thought to go back at safety," said Morris. "Really, you don't want to move either of those guys because of the way they're playing, Aqib [Talib] or Ronde. But both of those guys have the mental capacity, both of those guys play physical enough and both of those guys do a bunch of similar things to be able to go back there and give you some stuff at safety. We have some inverted stuff where we switch those guys and put them back there. That's part of the thought process we've got to go through in the next two days to figure out how we want to make that thing look."
Not part of that process: Pity. The Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in part because they have received valuable contributions from such former reserves as LeGarrette Blount, Ted Larsen, James Lee, Al Woods and, of course, Cody Grimm. Joseph and Grimm will be missed, but the season will go on…hopefully right into the playoffs.
"There's nothing in this building that lets me know that this team is ready to pack it up, that this team is going to have any sort of a letdown," said Morris. "We've got a bunch of mentally-tough coaches and mentally-tough guys around here that can't wait to play this week."